The fall of berlin 1945, p.24
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       The Fall of Berlin 1945, p.24

           Antony Beevor

  Neither Reymann nor Refior realized fully at the time that General Heinrici and his staff at Army Group Vistula had a very different plan from the Nazi leadership. They were hoping to prevent a last-ditch defence of the capital for the sake of the civil population. Albert Speer had suggested to Heinrici that the Ninth Army should withdraw from the Oder, bypassing Berlin entirely. Heinrici agreed in principle. In his view, the best way to avoid fighting in the city would be to order Reymann to send all his troops forward to the Oder at the last moment to strip Berlin of its defenders.

  Another strong reason for avoiding a battle in the city was the Nazis’ resort to boys as young as fourteen as cannon fodder. So many houses had a framed photograph on the wall of a son killed in Russia that a silent prayer arose that the regime would collapse before these children were sent into battle. Some did not shrink from openly calling it infanticide, whether it was exploiting the fanaticism of deluded Hitler Youth or forcing frightened boys into uniform through threat of execution. Older teachers in schools risked denunciation by advising their pupils on how to avoid being called up. The sense of bitterness was even greater after Goebbels’s speech a few weeks before. ‘The Führer once coined the phrase,’ he reminded them, ‘ “Each mother who has given birth to a child has struck a blow for the future of our people.” ’ But it was now clear that Hitler and Goebbels were about to throw those children’s lives away for a cause which had no possible future.

  The fourteen-year-old Erich Schmidtke in Prenzlauerberg had been called up as a ‘flak helper’ to man anti-aircraft guns and ordered to report to the Hermann Göring barracks in Reinickendorf. His mother, whose husband was trapped with the army in Courland, was understandably upset and accompanied him to the barracks with his little suitcase. He felt more awed than afraid. After three days in the barracks, they were ordered to join the division being assembled at the Reichssportsfeld in the west of the city, next to the Olympic stadium. But on his way there, he thought of his father’s words when on leave from the Eastern Front, telling him that he was now responsible for the family. He decided to desert and went into hiding until the war was over. Most of his contemporaries who joined the division were killed.

  The so-called Hitler Youth Division raised by the Reich Youth Leader, Artur Axmann, was also being trained at the Reichssportsfeld on the use of the panzerfaust. Axmann lectured them on the heroism of Sparta and tried to inspire an unwavering hatred of the enemy and an unwavering loyalty to Adolf Hitler. ‘There is only victory or defeat,’ he told them. Some of the young found their suicidal task ahead deeply stirring. Reinhard Appel thought of Rilke’s Cornet charging out against the Turks, just as the lost generation of 1914 had when they volunteered. The fact that a detachment of ‘Blitzmädel’ girls was also billeted on the Reichssportsfeld no doubt heightened the romantic appeal.

  The Nazi leadership was also preparing at this time a Wehrmachthelferinnenkorps of female military auxiliaries. Young women had to swear an oath of allegiance which began, ‘I swear that I will be true and obedient to Adolf Hitler, the Führer and commander in chief of the Wehrmacht.’ The words made it sound like a mass marriage. For somebody who had perhaps diverted his sexual drive into the pursuit of power, this may have provided its own form of ersatz fantasy.

  In the Wilhelmstrasse district of ministries, government officials were trying to convince any diplomats who remained in the city that they were ‘deciphering telegrams between Roosevelt and Churchill within two hours of their dispatch’. Meanwhile, rumours circulated of Communist shock troops being formed in the eastern ‘Red’ part of the city to liquidate Nazi Party members. ‘There is an atmosphere of desperation at the top,’ the Swedish military attaché reported to Stockholm. ‘A determination to sell their lives dearly.’ In fact, the only sabotage groups came from the other side of the lines, when members of the Soviet-controlled Freies Deutschland in Wehrmacht uniform slipped through German positions and moved towards Berlin. They cut cables, but little more. Freies Deutschland later claimed that its resistance group Osthafen had blown up a munitions dump in Berlin, but this is far from certain.

  On 9 April, a number of well-known opponents of the regime were butchered by the SS in a variety of concentration camps. The order was given to ensure their deaths before the enemy could release them. In Dachau, Johann Georg Elser, the Communist who had tried to assassinate Hitler in the Bürgerbräukeller on 8 November 1939, was killed. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Admiral Canaris and General Oster were executed in Flossenbürg and Hans von Dohnanyi in Sachsenhausen.


  ‘Revenge is coming!’ – ‘Die Vergeltung kommt!’ – had been the Nazi propaganda slogan for the V-weapons. But this now had a hollow echo for officers on the Oder front as they awaited the onslaught. It was Soviet revenge which was coming and they knew that there were no more miracle weapons to save them. Many of them, under heavy pressure from above, lied to their men even more than before other similar defeats, with promises of miracle weapons, of rifts in the enemy coalition and of reinforcements. This was to contribute to the breakdown in discipline at the end of the battle.

  Even the Waffen SS began to suffer from an unprecedented resentment between soldiers and officers. Eberhard Baumgart, the clerk with the SS Division 30. Januar, went back to headquarters to deal with a report, but found that the sentries would not let him in. A look through the windows soon explained why. ‘I thought I was dreaming,’ he wrote later. ‘Glittering dress uniforms swirled around with tarted-up women, music, noise, laughter, shrieking, cigarette smoke and clinking glasses.’ Baumgart’s mood next day was not helped when Georg, the Volga German interpreter, showed him a cartoon from Pravda of Hitler, Göring and Goebbels in an orgy in the Reich Chancellery. The caption read, ‘Every day the German soldier holds on lengthens our lives.’

  Instead of miracle weapons, many of the Volkssturm and other improvised units received weapons that were useless, such as the Volkshandgranate 45. This ‘people’s hand grenade’ was simply a lump of concrete around a small explosive charge and a No. 8 detonator. It was more dangerous to the thrower than to the target. One detachment of officer cadets facing a Guards tank army received rifles captured from the French army in 1940 and just five rounds each. It was typical of Nazi corporate bluster that they continued to create impressive-sounding units – whether the Sturmzug, which lacked the weapons to storm anything, or the Panzerjadgkompanie, which was supposed to stalk tanks on foot.

  Another formation, which had better reason than most to fear the consequences of capture, was the 1st Division of General Vlasov’s Russian Army of Liberation. It had been Himmler’s idea to bring the Vlasov division to the Oder front. He had trouble persuading Hitler, who still disliked the idea of using Slav troops. The German general staff had supported the idea earlier in the war of raising a Ukrainian army of a million men, but Hitler vetoed the plan, determined to maintain the separation of‘Herrenmensch und das Sklavenvolk’. And then the terrible treatment of the Ukrainian people under Rosenberg and Gauleiter Koch in the Ukraine had put an end to Wehrmacht hopes.

  Early in April, General Vlasov, accompanied by a liaison officer and an interpreter, came to Army Group Vistula headquarters to discuss matters with General Heinrici. Vlasov was a tall, rather gaunt man, with ‘clever eyes’ set in a colourless face, with one of those chins which looked grey even when freshly shaved. After a few optimistic expressions by Vlasov, Heinrici asked bluntly how such a recently formed division would perform in combat. German officers were concerned that these Russian volunteers would refuse to fight their fellow countrymen at the last moment. Now that the Third Reich was doomed to destruction, there was little incentive, save desperation, for the Vlasov volunteers.

  Vlasov did not try to fool Heinrici. He explained that his plan had been to raise at least six divisions, hopefully ten, from prisoners of war in the camps. The problem was that the Nazi authorities had not come round to the idea until it was too late. He was aware of the risk of Soviet propaganda aimed at
his men. Yet he felt that they should be allowed to prove themselves in an attack on one of the Oder bridgeheads.

  General Busse chose for them an unimportant sector at Erlenhof, south of Frankfurt an der Oder. Soviet reconnaissance groups from the 33rd Army identified their presence almost immediately and a barrage of loudspeaker activity began. The advance of the Vlasovtsy started on 13 April. During two and a half hours’ fighting, the 1st Division created a wedge 500 metres deep, but the Soviet artillery fire was so strong that they had to lie down. General Bunyachenko, their commander, seeing no sign of either air or artillery support which he thought that the Germans had promised, withdrew his men, disregarding Busse’s order. The Vlasov division lost 370 men, including four officers. Busse was furious, and, on his recommendation, General Krebs ordered the division to be withdrawn from the front and stripped of its weapons, which would be used for ‘better purposes’. The Vlasovtsy were deeply embittered. They blamed their reverse on the lack of artillery support, but perhaps nobody had warned them that German batteries were holding back their last rounds for the major attack.


  During the first two weeks of April, sporadic fighting continued in the bridgeheads. Soviet attacks were aimed to deepen them. Behind the Oder, the activity was even more intense. Altogether, twenty-eight Soviet armies were involved in regrouping and redeploying in fifteen days. The commander of the 70th Army, Colonel General Popov, had to issue orders to corps commanders even before he received final instructions from above.

  Several armies had large distances to cover and very little time. According to Soviet field regulations, a mechanized column was supposed to move 150 kilometres a day, but the 200th Rifle Division of the 49th Army managed to cover 358 kilometres in just twenty-five hours. In the 3rd Shock Army, which had been diverted for the Pomeranian operation, soldiers feared that they would never make it back in time and ‘would only get to Berlin when everybody else would be picking up their hats [to go home]’. No true frontovik wanted to miss the climax of the war. He knew the jealousy which formations of the 1st Belorussian Front inspired in the rest of the Red Army.

  Although the real frontoviki were determined to see victory in Berlin, desertions increased as the offensive came closer. Most of those who disappeared were conscripts from the recent drafts, especially Poles, Ukrainians and Romanians. An increase in desertions also meant a growing level of banditry, looting and violence towards the civilian population: ‘Some deserters seize carts from local citizens, load them with different sorts of property and, pretending that they are carts belonging to the army, move from the front zone to the rear areas.’

  NKVD rifle regiments behind the 1st Ukrainian Front arrested 355 deserters in the first part of April. The 1st Belorussian Front was even more concerned about discipline, as a report of 8 April reveals. ‘Many soldiers are still hanging around in rear areas and describing themselves as separated from their units. They are in fact deserters. They carry out looting, robbery and violence. Recently up to 600 people were arrested in the sector of the 61st Army. All the roads are jammed with vehicles and carts used by military personnel on both legitimate missions and looting missions. They leave their vehicles and carts in the streets and in yards and wander around depots and apartments looking for things. Many officers, soldiers and NCOs are no longer looking like members of the Red Army. Some very serious deviations from standard uniform are being overlooked. It becomes difficult to distinguish between a soldier and an officer and between soldiers and civilians. Dangerous cases of disobedience to senior officers have taken place.’

  NKVD rifle regiments and SMERSH were also continuing their work of rounding up suspects. They were, in Beria’s view, both insufficiently selective and over-zealous. They had dispatched 148,540 prisoners to NKVD camps in the Soviet Union, yet ‘barely one half were in a condition to perform physical labour’. They had simply packed off ‘the people who were arrested as a result of clearing the rear areas of the Red Army’. Some priorities, however, did not change. Polish patriots were still considered as dangerous as Nazis. And NKVD regiments continued to encounter small groups of German stragglers trying to slip through Red Army lines after the fighting in Pomerania and Silesia. These small groups often ambushed the odd vehicle for food on the way, and the Soviet military authorities would respond, just as the Germans themselves had in the Soviet Union, by destroying the nearest village and shooting civilians.

  The mood of Red Army officers and soldiers was tense but confident. Pyotr Mitrofanovich Sebelev, the second-in-command of an engineer brigade, had just been promoted to lieutenant colonel at the age of twenty-two. ‘Hello Papa, Mama, Shura and Taya,’ he wrote home on 10 April. ‘At the moment, there is an unusual and therefore scaring quietness here. I was at a concert yesterday. Yes, don’t be surprised, at a concert! given by artistes from Moscow. It cheered us up. We can’t help thinking if only the war would finish as soon as possible, but I think it depends on us mainly. Two cases occurred yesterday which I must tell you about. I went to the front line with a man from the rear areas. We walked out of the forest and up a sandy mound, and lay down. The Oder was in front of us with a long spit of sand sticking out. The spit was occupied by Germans. Behind the Oder, the town of Küstrin, an ordinary town. Suddenly wet sand flew all around me and immediately I heard a shot: the Germans had spotted us and had begun shooting from this spit.

  ‘Two hours ago, our recce men brought a captured German corporal to me who clicked his heels and immediately asked me through the interpreter, “Where am I, Mr Officer? Among Zhukov’s troops, or in Rokossovsky’s band?” I laughed and said to the German, “You are with the troops of the 1st Belorussian Front, which is commanded by Marshal Zhukov. But why do you call Marshal Rokossovsky’s troops a band?” The corporal answered, “They don’t follow the rules when fighting. This is why German soldiers call them a band.”

  ‘Another piece of news. My adjutant, Kolya Kovalenko, was wounded in the arm but he escaped from hospital. I reprimanded him for this and he cursed and said, “You are depriving me of the honour of being one of the first to enter Berlin with our boys.”… Goodbye, kisses to all of you. Your Pyotr.’

  For the truly committed majority, the greatest concern was the rapid advance of the Western Allies. In the 69th Army, the political department reported the soldiers as saying, ‘Our advance is too slow and the Germans will surrender their capital to the English and Americans.’

  Komsomol members in the 4th Guards Tank Army prepared for the offensive by getting experienced soldiers to talk to the newcomers about the reality of battle. Komsomol members also helped the barely literate ones write letters home. They were particularly proud of having bought a T-34 tank with their own money. Their tank ‘Komsomolets’ had already ‘destroyed a few enemy tanks and other armoured vehicles and crushed many Fritzes under its tracks’. At Party meetings members were reminded that ‘all Communists have a duty to speak out against looting and drinking’.

  Artillery regiments, meanwhile, paid ‘special attention to the replacement of casualties’. They foresaw that losses would increase sharply once they reached Berlin, because gun crews would be firing over open sights. Crew members therefore had to train hard in each other’s tasks. And each regiment prepared a reserve of trained gun layers, ready to replace casualties.

  To preserve secrecy, ‘the local population was sent twenty kilometres back from the front line’. Radio silence was imposed and signs were placed by every field telephone: ‘Don’t speak about things you should not speak about.’

  German preparations, on the other hand, emphasized the reprisals that would be carried out against all those who failed in their duty and against their families, whatever their rank. An announcement was made that General Lasch, the commander of Königsberg, had been condemned to death by hanging in absentia and his whole family arrested under the Sippenhaft law to persecute the closest relatives of traitors to the Nazi cause.

  The final agony of East Prussia affected morale
in Berlin almost as much as the threat from the Oder. On 2 April, Soviet artillery began its softening-up barrage on the centre of Königsberg. The Soviet artillery officer Senior Lieutenant Inozemstev recorded in his diary on 4 April that sixty shells from his battery had reduced one fortified building into ‘a pile of stones’. The NKVD was concerned that nobody escaped. ‘Encircled soldiers in Königsberg are putting on civilian clothes to get away. Documents must be checked more carefully in East Prussia.’

  ‘The aviation is very effective,’ Inozemstev wrote on 7 April. ‘We are using flame-throwers on a massive scale. If there is only one German in a building he is chased out by the fire. There is no fighting for a storey or a staircase. It is already clear to everyone now that the storming of Königsberg will go down as a classic example of storming a big city.’ The next day, when his comrade Safonov was killed, the regiment fired a salute of salvoes at the citadel.

  The destruction was terrible. Thousands of soldiers and civilians were buried by the bombardments. There was a ‘smell of death in the air’, Inozemstev wrote, ‘literally – because thousands of corpses are decomposing under the ruins’. As the wounded filled every usable cellar, General Lasch knew that there was no hope. The 11th Guards Army and the 43rd Army had fought their way right into the city. Even Koch’s deputy Gauleiter urged the abandonment of the city, but all links with the Samland Peninsula had been severed. A counter-attack was mounted to force a way through, but it collapsed in chaos on the night of 8 April. The bombardment had blocked many of the routes leading to the start-line. The local Party leadership, without telling Lasch, had passed the word to civilians to assemble ready for the breakout, but their concentration attracted the attention of Soviet artillery observation officers and they were massacred.

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