The fall of berlin 1945, p.25
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       The Fall of Berlin 1945, p.25

           Antony Beevor

  The city was so enveloped in smoke the next day that only the fire-streaks of katyusha rockets were visible. Any civilians left alive hung sheets from windows in a signal of surrender and even tried to take rifles from German soldiers. Lasch knew that the end had come. He could expect no help from the Reich and did not want to impose any more useless suffering on the refugees and townsfolk. Only the SS wanted to fight on, but their attempts were useless. On the morning of 10 April, Lasch and other German officers acting as parliamentaries reached Marshal Vasilevsky’s headquarters. The surviving garrison of just over 30,000 troops marched out to imprisonment. Their watches and any useful items were promptly grabbed by Red Army soldiers, who had managed to find stores of alcohol. The rape of women and girls went unchecked in the ruined city.

  Inozemstev toured the smoking capital of East Prussia. ‘A bronze Bismarck is gazing with one eye – part of his head had been knocked off by a shell – at the Soviet girl conducting the traffic, at the passing Red Army vehicles and at the mounted patrols. It looked as if he were asking, “Why are there Russians here? Who allowed that?” ’

  The end of East Prussia and Pomerania was underlined in a terrible fashion. On the night of 16 April, the hospital ship Goya, packed with nearly 7,000 refugees, was sunk by a Soviet submarine. Only 165 people were saved.

  The attack on Berlin was expected at any moment. On 6 April, Army Group Vistula headquarters noted in its war diary: ‘On Ninth Army front, lively enemy activity – sounds of engines and tank tracks both on the Reitwein sector south-west of Küstrin and to the north-east near Kienitz.’ They estimated that the attack would come in two days’ time.

  Five days later, however, they were still waiting. General Krebs at Zossen signalled to Heinrici on 11 April, ‘Führer expects the Russian offensive against Army Group Vistula on 12 or 13 April.’ Next day, Hitler told Krebs to telephone Heinrici to insist ‘the Führer is instinctively convinced that the attack would really come in one to two days, that is to say on the 13 or 14 April’. Hitler had tried to predict the exact date of the Normandy invasion the year before, but failed. Now he again wanted to amaze his admirers with a show of uncanny foresight. It seemed to be one of the few ways left to him in which he could attempt to demonstrate some sort of control over events.

  On the evening of 12 April, the Berlin Philharmonic gave its last performance. Albert Speer, who organized it, had invited Grand Admiral Dönitz and also Hitler’s adjutant, Colonel von Below. The hall was properly lit for the occasion, despite the electricity cuts. ‘The concert took us back to another world,’ wrote Below. The programme included Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, Bruckner’s 8th Symphony – (Speer later claimed that this was his warning signal to the orchestra to escape Berlin immediately after the performance to avoid being drafted into the Volkssturm) – and the finale to Wagner’s Götterdämmerung. Even if Wagner did not bring the audience back to present reality, the moment of escapism did not last long. It is said that, after the performance, the Nazi Party had organized Hitler Youth members to stand in uniform with baskets of cyanide capsules and offer them to members of the audience as they left.

  On 14 April, when the attack had still not materialized, Hitler issued an ‘Order of the Day’ to Army Group Vistula. Predictably, it emphasized that ‘whoever does not fulfil his duty will be treated as a traitor to our people’. It continued with a rambling distortion of history, and a reference to the repulse of the Turks before Vienna: ‘The Bolshevik will this time experience the ancient fate of Asiatics.’ Vienna had in fact just fallen to the eastern hordes and there was no hope of retaking it.

  The following day, a sixteen-year-old Berliner called Dieter Borkovsky described what he witnessed in a crowded S-Bahn train from the Anhalter Bahnhof. ‘There was terror on the faces of people. They were full of anger and despair. I had never heard such cursing before. Suddenly someone shouted above the noise, “Silence!” We saw a small dirty soldier with two Iron Crosses and the German Cross in Gold. On his sleeve he had a badge with four metal tanks, which meant that he had destroyed four tanks at close quarters. “I’ve got something to tell you,” he shouted, and the carriage fell silent. “Even if you don’t want to listen to me, stop whingeing. We have to win this war. We must not lose our courage. If others win the war, and if they do to us only a fraction of what we have done in the occupied territories, there won’t be a single German left in a few weeks.” It became so quiet in that carriage that one could have heard a pin drop.’


  Americans on the Elbe

  As the allied armies approached the heart of Germany from both directions, Berliners claimed that optimists were ‘learning English and pessimists learning Russian’. The Nazi foreign minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop, who had no sense of humour, announced at a diplomatic dinner that ‘Germany had lost the war but still had it in her power to decide to whom she lost’. It was this idea that disturbed Stalin so profoundly at the beginning of April.

  Once Model’s Army Group B with over 300,000 men was encircled in the Ruhr on 2 April, the divisions in Simpson’s US Ninth Army began racing for the Elbe opposite Berlin. They and their army commander were convinced that their objective was the Nazis’ capital. After the row with the British, Eisenhower had left open the capture of Berlin as a distinct possibility. In the second part of the orders to Simpson, the Ninth Army was told to ‘exploit any opportunity for seizing a bridgehead over the Elbe and be prepared to continue the advance on Berlin or to the north-east’.

  Its 2nd Armored Division – dubbed ‘Hell on Wheels’ – was the strongest in the US Army. It contained a large number of tough southerners who had joined during the Depression. Its commander, Major General Isaac D. White, had planned his route to Berlin well in advance. His idea was to cross the Elbe near Magdeburg. The US Ninth Army would use the autobahn to the capital as its centre-line. His closest rival in the race was the 83rd Infantry Division, known as the ‘Rag-Tag Circus’ because of its extraordinary assortment of captured vehicles and equipment sprayed olive green and given a white star. Both divisions reached the River Weser on 5 April.

  To their north the 5th Armored Division headed for Tangermünde, and on the extreme left of Simpson’s front, the 84th and 102nd Infantry Divisions pushed towards the Elbe on either side of its confluence with the Havel. The momentum of the advance was slowed momentarily by pockets of resistance, usually SS detachments, but most German troops surrendered in relief. The American crews stopped only to replenish or repair their vehicles. They remained dirty and unshaven. The adrenalin of the advance had almost replaced their need for sleep. The 84th Division was held up when ordered to take Hanover, but forty-eight hours later, it was ready to move on again. Eisenhower visited its commander, Major General Alexander Boiling, in Hanover on Sunday 8 April.

  ‘Alex, where are you going next?’ Eisenhower said to him.

  ‘General, we’re going to push on ahead. We have a clear go to Berlin and nothing can stop us.’

  ‘Keep going,’ the supreme commander told him, putting a hand on his shoulder. ‘I wish you all the luck in the world and don’t let anybody stop you.’ Boiling took this as clear confirmation that their objective was Berlin.

  On the US Ninth Army’s left, the British Second Army of General Dempsey had reached Celle and was close to liberating Belsen concentration camp. Meanwhile, on Simpson’s right, General Hodges’s First Army headed for Dessau and Leipzig. General George Patton’s Third Army forced its way ahead the furthest, into the Harz mountains, bypassing Leipzig to the south. On Thursday 5 April, Martin Bormann jotted in his diary, ‘Bolsheviks near Vienna. Americans in the Thüringer Wald.’ No further comment was needed on the disintegration of Greater Germany.

  The speed of Patton’s advance had an unintended side-effect. The SS, in many cases aided by the local Volkssturm, carried out a number of massacres of concentration camp prisoners and forced labourers. At the Thekla factory, which manufactured aircraft wings three kilometres north-east of Leip
zig, 300 prisoners were forced into an isolated building by the SS and Volkssturm auxiliaries. All windows were fastened, then the SS threw in incendiary bombs. Those who managed to break out of the building were machine-gunned. Three Frenchmen survived. Over 100 allied prisoners – mainly French political prisoners – were executed in the courtyard of Leipzig prison. And a column of 6,500 women of many nationalities from the HASAG group of factories two kilometres north-east of Leipzig were marched towards Dresden. Allied air reconnaissance sighted them along their route. Prisoners too weak to march had been shot by SS guards and rolled into the ditch beside the road. Striped blue and white concentration camp garments ‘marked the route and the Calvary of these unfortunate women’.

  In southern Germany, meanwhile, General Devers’s Sixth Army Group – consisting of General Patch’s Seventh Army and the French First Army under General de Lattre de Tassigny – was pushing across the Black Forest. Its left flank advanced into Swabia. After the capture of Karlsruhe, they moved towards Stuttgart. Eisenhower, still concerned about an Alpine Fortress, wanted the two armies to head south-eastwards for the area of Salzburg and meet up with Soviet forces in the Danube valley.

  German civilians used to gaze in amazement at American troops. GIs sprawled in jeeps, smoking or chewing gum, bore no resemblance to the German image of a soldier. Their olive-painted vehicles, even their tanks, were labelled with girls’ names. But some soldierly habits proved universal. Wehrmacht troops when retreating had looted shamelessly, and now the liberators had arrived.

  Looting by Allied forces appears to have begun even before the German frontier was crossed. ‘On the basis of findings made,’ an American report on the Ardennes stated, ‘it may unequivocally be stated that pillage of Belgian civilian property by US troops did in fact take place on a considerable scale.’ There had apparently been a good deal of safe-blowing with explosives. As US forces advanced into central and southern Germany, American military police erected signs at the entry to villages, ‘No speeding, no looting, no fraternizing’, but they had little effect on all counts.

  Further north, an officer with the Scots Guards, and later a judge, wrote that the codename for the crossing of the Rhine, Operation Plunder, was most appropriate. He described how the smashed windows of shops provided ‘a looter’s paradise’. ‘There was not very much one could do beyond restricting loot to small articles. The tanks came off best as they could carry everything from typewriters to wireless sets… I was cursing my platoon for looting rather than house clearing when I discovered that I was wearing two pairs of captured binoculars myself!’

  Those acting independently, such as SAS teams, were able to be far more ambitious. One officer commented that ‘Monty was very stuffy about looting’. Field Marshal Alexander had apparently been ‘much more relaxed’. In one or two cases, some very fine jewellery was taken from German country houses at gunpoint in escapades which might even have shocked the legendary Raffles. One SAS troop later discovered a hoard of paintings accumulated by Göring’s wife. The squadron commander insisted on having first pick himself, then let his officers make their choice. The canvases were removed from their stretchers, rolled up and slid into the mortar tubes.

  Attitudes to the war varied between armies. Idealistic Americans and Canadians felt that they had a duty to rescue the old world, then return home as soon as possible. Their more cynical comrades took a close business interest in the black market. French regular officers in particular were focused on revenge for the humiliations of 1940 and on restoring national pride. In the British Army, however, a newly arrived officer might believe that he had come to take part in ‘a life and death struggle for democracy and the freedom of the world’, but found instead that the war was ‘treated more as an incident in regimental history against a reasonably sporting opponent’. Nothing, needless to say, could have been further from the Russian view.

  The sudden American advance in the centre aroused a mixture of suspicion and moral outrage in the Kremlin. The Soviet leadership, having complained so frequently of the Western Allies’ slowness in starting a second front, was now appalled by the idea that they might reach Berlin first. The reality of Allied air power, with German troops fearing Typhoons and Mustangs far more than Shturmoviks, was completely overlooked in Moscow, perhaps deliberately. Stalin, never one to seek natural explanations, found it hard to swallow the fact that the Germans were bound to prefer to surrender to the Western Allies rather than to the Soviet Union, which promised and practised revenge on a huge scale.

  ‘American tankists are enjoying excursions in the picturesque Harz mountains,’ Ilya Ehrenburg wrote in Krasnaya Zvezda. The Germans were surrendering, he joked bitterly, ‘with fanatical persistence’. They were behaving towards Americans, he claimed, as if they belonged to ‘some neutral state’. The phrase which incensed Averell Harriman the most was his comment that the Americans were ‘conquering with cameras’.

  Stalin, perhaps judging others by himself, suspected that the Western Allies, hoping to reach Berlin first, would be tempted into a deal with Nazi factions. He seized on the contacts between Allen Dulles in Berne and SS-Obergruppenführer Wlff about a surrender in Italy as evidence of their double-dealing. Dulles had in fact also been contacted by a representative of Kaltenbrunner, who said that the SS wanted to launch a coup against the Nazi Party and the SS diehards who wished to continue the war. When this was done, the SS could ‘arrange for an orderly transfer of administrative functions to the western powers’. Kaltenbrunner’s man also talked of opening the Western Front to the Americans and British, while German troops there were switched to the east – the exact scenario that Stalin feared. Stalin fortunately did not learn of this until later, but he had heard that American and British airborne forces were ready to drop on Berlin if Nazi power suddenly collapsed. Indeed, the 101st Airborne Division had been allocated Tempelhof aerodrome as their dropping zone, the 82nd Airborne would drop on Gatow airfield and the British on Oranienburg, but ever since the decision to halt on the Elbe the whole operation was in abeyance. In any case, such contingency plans had nothing to do with any peace-feelers from the Germans. Since their declaration at the Casablanca conference insisting on Germany’s unconditional surrender, neither Roosevelt nor even Churchill had seriously considered any backstairs deal with Nazi leaders.

  All of Roosevelt and Eisenhower’s optimism in February and March that they could win Stalin’s trust was proved to be misplaced during the first week of April. As already mentioned, Eisenhower, in his controversial message to Stalin of 28 March, had given a detailed and accurate outline of his plans yet received nothing in return. In fact, on 1 April, Stalin had deliberately duped him when he said that Berlin had lost its former strategic importance. At that time, Stalin claimed that the Soviet offensive would probably come in the second half of May (instead of the middle of April), that the Red Army would concentrate its attack further south to meet up with him, and that only ‘secondary forces’ would be sent against Berlin.

  Eisenhower, unaware that he had been tricked, curtly informed Montgomery that Berlin had become ‘nothing but a geographical location’. He also continued, with General Marshall’s strong support, to reject Churchill’s arguments that the Americans and British ‘should shake hands with the Russians as far to the east as possible’. He simply could not accept Churchill’s point that Berlin, while it remained under the German flag, was bound to be ‘the most decisive point in Germany’. Eisenhower obstinately believed that the Leipzig—Dresden axis, splitting Germany in two, was more important, and he was convinced that Stalin thought so too.

  Eisenhower also refused to be influenced by Stalin’s trickery over Poland. Churchill’s worst fears were proved correct when sixteen leaders of Polish democratic parties who had been invited to confer with Zhukov under cover of a safe-conduct were arrested at the end of March by the NKVD and bundled off to Moscow. Yet even though Eisenhower had fallen for his lies, Stalin was far from relaxed. Perhaps he believed, with true S
talinian paranoia, that Eisenhower might be playing a double bluff. In any case, he was clearly determined to make the Americans feel guilty. In an aggressive signal to Roosevelt on 7 April, Stalin again made much of the German overtures through Dulles in Switzerland. He also emphasized that the Red Army was facing far more German divisions than the Western Allies. ‘[The Germans] continue to fight savagely against the Russians for some unknown junction in Czechoslovakia which they need as much as a dead man needs poultices,’ Stalin wrote to the President, ‘but [they] surrender without any resistance such important towns in central Germany as Osnabruck, Mannheim and Kassel. Don’t you agree that such behaviour is more than strange and incomprehensible?’

  Ironically, Hitler’s ill-judged decision to keep the Sixth SS Panzer Army down near Vienna when Berlin was being threatened seemed to support the theory of the Alpine Fortress. SHAEF’s joint intelligence committee acknowledged on 10 April that ‘there is no evidence to show that the strategy of the German high command is being conducted with a view to occupying eventually the so-called National Redoubt’. But they then went on to say that the objective of the Redoubt was to drag the war into the next winter, in the hope that the Western Allies and the Soviet Union would fall out among themselves. Yet the same day, another report should have put paid to this extraordinarily deep-rooted idea. ‘The interrogation of various German generals and senior officers recently captured reveals that none of them had heard of the National Redoubt. All of them consider such a plan to be “ridiculous and inapplicable”.’

  Neither Stalin nor Churchill realized that the American President was in no condition to read their telegrams, let alone answer them himself. On Good Friday, 30 March, Roosevelt had been taken down by train to Warm Springs, Georgia. It was his last journey alive. He had been carried to the waiting limousine barely conscious. Those who saw him were deeply shocked by his state. In less than two weeks Roosevelt would be dead and Harry Truman, his Vice-President, would become the next President of the United States.

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