The fall of berlin 1945, p.27
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       The Fall of Berlin 1945, p.27

           Antony Beevor

  These orders to stand fast on the Elbe, coming on top of the unexpected death of President Roosevelt, constituted a great blow to American morale. Roosevelt had died on 12 April, but the news was not released until the following day. Goebbels was ecstatic when told on his return from a visit to the front near Küstrin. He telephoned Hitler in the Reich Chancellery bunker immediately. ‘My Führer, I congratulate you!’ he said. ‘Roosevelt is dead. It is written in the stars that the second half of April will be the turning point for us. This Friday, 13 April. It is the turning point!’

  Just a few days before, Goebbels had been reading Carlyle’s History of Friedrich II of Prussia aloud to Hitler to lift him from his depression. The passage had been the one where Frederick the Great, faced with disaster in the Seven Years War, thought of taking poison. But suddenly news of the death of the Tsarina Elizabeth arrived. ‘The Miracle of the House of Brandenburg had come to pass.’ Hitler’s eyes had filled with tears at these words. Goebbels did not believe in astrological charts, but he was prepared to use anything to boost the Führer’s flagging spirits and he worked Hitler up into a frenzy of optimism. The recluse in the bunker now gazed lovingly at the portrait of Frederick the Great, which had been brought down for him. On the next day, 14 April, in his order of the day to the army, Hitler became utterly carried away. ‘At the moment when Fate has removed the greatest war criminal of all time from this earth, the turn of events in this war will be decisive.’

  Another symbolic event involving Frederick the Great took place, but Hitler never mentioned it. In a massive air raid that night, Allied bombers attacked Potsdam. A Hitler Youth sheltering in a basement that night found the walls around him ‘rocking like a ship’. The bombs destroyed much of the old town, including the Garnisonkirche, the spiritual home of the Prussian military caste and aristocracy. Ursula von Kardorff burst into tears in the street after hearing the news. ‘A whole world was destroyed with it,’ she wrote in her diary. But many officers still refused to acknowledge the responsibility of the German military leadership for supporting Hitler. Talk of the honour of a German officer when the liberation of concentration camps showed the nature of the regime they had fought for was unlikely to arouse sympathy, even among their most sporting opponents.


  Eve of Battle

  The Red Army, despite all its efforts and talent for camouflage, could not hope to conceal the huge attack about to be unleashed on the Oder and Neisse fronts. Zhukov’s 1st Belorussian Front and Konev’s 1st Ukrainian Front were to attack on 16 April. To the north, Rokossovsky’s 2nd Belorussian Front would follow on soon afterwards across the lower Oder. Soviet forces amounted to 2.5 million men. They were backed by 41,600 guns and heavy mortars as well as 6,250 tanks and self-propelled guns and four air armies. It was the greatest concentration of firepower ever amassed.

  On 14 April, a fighting reconnaissance from the Küstrin bridgehead proved most successful. Chuikov’s 8th Guards Army managed to push the 20th Panzergrenadier Division back between two and five kilometres in places. Hitler is said to have been so angry that he gave orders to strip medals from all members of the division until they had been won back.

  This extension of the bridgehead also helped the build-up of forces. That night the 1st Guards Tank Army began moving its brigades across the Oder under the cover of darkness. ‘During the night there was a constant flow of tanks, guns, Studebakers loaded with ammunition, and columns of soldiers.’ Young women traffic controllers waved their discs desperately, urging the tanks into the line marked by white tapes. Loud music and propaganda exhortations reverberated from 7th Department loudspeakers in an attempt to cover the noise of tank engines, but the Germans knew what was happening.

  For the whole of 15 April, Red Army soldiers watched the German positions ‘until our eyes ached’, in case last-minute reinforcements were brought up or changes made. In the Oderbruch, April flowers had appeared on hillocks, but large chunks of ice still floated down the river, as well as branches and weed which caught on a wrecked railway bridge. In pine forests on the east bank, ‘mysteriously quiet’ by day, chopped branches camouflaged thousands of armoured vehicles and guns.

  On the Neisse front, to the south, the 1st Ukrainian Front organized relentless political activity up to the last moment. ‘Active Komsomol members were teaching young soldiers to love their tanks and to try to use the whole potential of this powerful weapon.’ The Aleksandrov message had evidently not been digested, even by political departments. The message of revenge was clear in the latest slogan: ‘There will be no pity. They have sown the wind and now they are harvesting the whirlwind.’

  The 1st Ukrainian Front was more preoccupied by bad radio discipline. Even NKVD regiments had recently been ‘transmitting in clear, using out-of-date codes and not answering signals’. No sub-units were allowed to use the radio: their sets had to be on receive and never on send. Concern about lapses of security was even greater on the night of 15 April, because the new wavelengths and codes up to the end of May 1945 were issued to headquarters.

  Even though officers were told not to give out orders more than three hours before the attack, SMERSH was determined that there should be no last-minute desertions by Red Army soldiers who might warn the enemy. The SMERSH representative with the 1st Belorussian Front ordered all political officers to check every man in the front line and identify any who seemed suspicious or ‘morally and politically unstable’. In an earlier round-up, SMERSH had arrested those denounced for making negative comments about collective farms. A special cordon was put in place ‘so that our men will not manage to flee to the Germans’ and to prevent the Germans from seizing ‘tongues’. But all their efforts were in vain. On 15 April, a Red Army soldier south of Küstrin told his German captors that the great offensive was starting early the next morning.

  Considering the proximity of defeat, the Germans had even stronger reasons to fear that their soldiers would desert or surrender at the first opportunity. Army Group Vistula issued orders signed by Heinrici that men from the same region should be split up, because they seldom did anything to prevent a comrade from home deserting. An officer of the Grossdeutschland guard regiment commanding a scratch battalion observed that his young soldiers had little intention of fighting for National Socialism. ‘Many wanted to be wounded so that they could be sent back to the field hospital.’ They stayed at their posts only out of a ‘corpse-like obedience’ inspired by fear of summary execution. After a Soviet loudspeaker broadcast across the lines, officers were appalled when soldiers began shouting back asking for details. Would they be sent to Siberia? How were civilians treated in the occupied areas of Germany?

  Several German commanders in the Fourth Panzer Army facing Konev’s 1st Ukrainian Front confiscated white handkerchiefs to prevent their men using them as a sign of surrender. Soldiers caught trying to desert were, in some cases, forced to dig trenches in the open in no man’s land. Many longed to slip away into thick woodland to surrender out of sight to save their families from punishment decreed in Hitler’s order.

  German company commanders tried almost any means to persuade their soldiers to hold fast. Some informed them of Roosevelt’s death on the evening of 14 April. This meant, they told them, that American tanks would no longer attack. In fact, they claimed, relations between the Western Allies and the Soviet Union had become so bad that the Americans and British would now join Germany in throwing back the Russians. Reservists in the 391st Security Division near Guben found SS troops from the 30. Januar Division coming over to lecture them on the connection between the death of Roosevelt and the miracle that saved Frederick the Great as though this were holy scripture. They were not convinced at all, but many German soldiers still held on because they expected a massive counter-attack on the Führer’s birthday, 20 April, with new secret ‘wonder weapons’.

  Some angry and embittered officers managed to remind veterans of the horrors of the Eastern Front and what it would mean if the Russians broke through
to Berlin. ‘You can’t imagine,’ a senior lieutenant wrote to his wife, ‘what a terrible hatred is aroused here. I can promise you that we’ll sort them out one day. The rapists of women and children will discover another experience. It is hard to believe what these beasts have done. We have sworn an oath that each man must kill ten Bolsheviks. God will help us achieve this.’

  The bulk of the ill-trained young conscripts recently marched out to the front were far less likely to be persuaded. They just wanted to survive. In the 303rd Döberitz Infantry Division, a regimental commander gave one of his battalion commanders some advice. ‘We have to hold the front at any cost. You’re responsible. If a few soldiers start to run away, then you must shoot them. If you see many soldiers taking off, and you can’t stop them and the situation is hopeless, then you’d better shoot yourself.’

  On the Seelow Heights, apart from some strafing attacks, it was ‘almost peaceful just before the storm’. German soldiers sent back from the front line checked and cleaned weapons, ate and washed. Some sat down to write home, just in case the Feldpost began to work again. For many, their homes were already occupied by the enemy, and others did not know where their families were.

  Senior Lieutenant Wust sent his Luftwaffe trainee technicians back in batches to the field kitchen – or ‘Gulaschkanone’ – in a village just behind their second line of trenches. He remained in a fire trench with his company sergeant major, gazing down over the trees to the Oderbruch and the Soviet positions from which the attack would come. Wust suddenly shivered. ‘Tell me,’ he said, turning to his Kompanie-truppführer. ‘Are you also cold?’

  ‘We’re not cold, Herr Oberleutnant,’ the man replied. ‘We’re afraid.’

  Back in Berlin, safely behind the lines, Martin Bormann sent an eve of battle message to the Gauleiters. He ordered them to sort out the ‘rabbit-hearted’. In the centre of the city, trams were manhandled across the street, then filled with brick and rubble as instant barricades. The Volkssturm was called out. Some of them had to wear blue-grey French helmets and even uniforms. It was the last of the booty from the great German victories in 1940 and 1941.

  Hitler was not alone in looking back to the Seven Years War. Pravda had already published an article trumpeting the Russian entry into Berlin on 9 October 1760 with five Cossack regiments in the vanguard. ‘The keys of the city were taken to St Petersburg for permanent keeping in the Kazansky Cathedral. We should remember this historic example and fulfil the order of the Motherland and Comrade Stalin.’ General Chuikov’s 8th Guards Army were given large key shapes cut out of cardboard to remind the troops of this moment as they prepared to go into the attack.

  More modern symbols were also distributed in the form of red banners. These were issued to the attacking divisions. They were to be raised on significant buildings in Berlin and indicated on a large model of the city built by Front engineers. ‘Socialist competition’ was expected to push men forward to even greater sacrifice, and the greatest glory would go to those who stormed the Reichstag, the objective which Stalin had selected to represent the total conquest of the ‘lair of the fascist beast’. That evening, in what amounted to a mass secular baptism, over 2,000 Red Army soldiers of the 1st Belorussian Front were received into the Communist Party.

  Even though Soviet commanders did not doubt that they would break through, they were extremely nervous that the American and British armies might make it to Berlin first. Such an eventuality was seen as worse than a humiliation. Berlin belonged to the Soviet Union by right of suffering as well as by right of conquest. Each army commander had been left in no doubt of the feelings of the Verkhovny, their commander-in-chief, waiting impatiently in the Kremlin. They did not, however, know quite how disturbed Stalin was. Inaccurate newspaper reports in the western press claimed that American point units had reached Berlin on the evening of 13 April, but these detachments had then been withdrawn after protests from Moscow.

  Only Zhukov and Konev and a few of their closest colleagues knew that the strategy of the whole Berlin operation was designed to surround the city first in order to warn off the Americans and British. But even the two Front commanders were unaware of the importance Stalin and Beria evidently attached to seizing the institutes of nuclear research, particularly the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physics in Dahlem.

  On the eve of battle, Stalin in Moscow maintained his shield of lies. General Deane reported on another session in the Kremlin in an ‘Eyes only for Eisenhower’ signal. At the end of a long meeting about the ‘other matter’ (the future deployment of Soviet forces in the Far East against the Japanese), ‘Harriman mentioned that the Germans had announced that the Russians were planning an immediate renewal of their attack directed against Berlin. The Marshal [Stalin] stated that they were in fact going to begin an offensive; that he did not know how successful it would be, but the main blow would be in the direction of Dresden, as he had already told Eisenhower.’

  Stalin and his entourage must have concealed their nervousness well. Neither Deane nor Harriman sensed that they were being lied to. The evening before, at a meeting with the Stavka, General Antonov seized upon a line in Eisenhower’s latest message about the avoidance of confusion between western forces and the Red Army. He immediately wanted to know ‘if this indicated any change in the zone of occupation previously agreed upon’. When he was assured that the reference was to tactical areas and that no change was implied in the zones of occupation, ‘Antonov requested that confirmation be obtained from Eisenhower on this point.’ The Soviet chief of staff then wanted to verify that ‘upon completion of tactical operations the Anglo-American forces would withdraw from the previously agreed Soviet zone of occupation’. This was reconfirmed to him in a signal from Eisenhower on 16 April.

  For Red Army soldiers, their first priority was a shave to make themselves presentable conquerors. While there was still enough daylight, those not on duty scraped away with cutthroat razors while squinting into a broken fragment of mirror. Few could sleep. ‘Some of them shaded torches with their coats as they wrote letters home,’ wrote an officer in the 3rd Shock Army. Their letters tended to be brief and uninformative. ‘Greetings from the front,’ ran a typical one. ‘I am alive and healthy. We are not far from Berlin. Severe battles are going on, but soon the order will come, and we will advance to Berlin. We will have to storm it and I will see if I am still alive by then.’

  Many wrote not to parents or to fiancées but to pen-pals. Thousands of lonely young women drafted to work in armaments factories out in the Urals or Siberia had been writing to soldiers at the front. Snapshots were exchanged at a certain stage in the relationship, but sex was not the driving force. For soldiers, a woman somewhere at home was the only thing left to remind them that a normal life could still exist. Sergeant Vlasienko in the 1st Ukrainian Front wrote a pen-pal song in epistolary form. It was set to the haunting melody of ‘Zemlyanka, the great wartime song set in a frozen bunker ‘just four steps from death’.

  The hurricane lamp is driving away darkness,

  Making a way for my pen.

  You and I are close through this letter.

  We are like a brother and a sister.

  I long for you from the front

  And I will find you when these days of fighting are over

  Deep in the homeland

  If only I survive.

  And if the worst happens

  If the days of my life are counted

  Remember me sometimes

  Remember me with a kind word.

  Well, goodbye for now.

  It is time for me to go to attack the Germans

  And I want to carry your name forward

  If only in my battle-cry ‘Ura!’

  ‘Wait for Me’, one of the most popular songs of the war, was based on the poem which made Konstantin Simonov famous in 1942. It evoked the Red Army’s quasi-religious superstition that if a girlfriend remained faithful, the soldier would stay alive. It was permitted by the authorities only becaus
e it strengthened military patriotism. Many soldiers kept ‘Wait for Me’ written on a piece of paper in their left breast pocket, and read it silently to themselves like a prayer in the moments before they went into the attack.

  The song ‘Blue Shawl’, about a faithful girl’s farewell to her soldier lover, also produced such intense loyalty that many soldiers added it to the official battle-cry, making it ‘Za Rodinu, za Stalina, za Siny Platochek!’ – ‘For the Motherland, for Stalin, for the Blue Shawl!’ A great number of Komsomol members still carried newspaper cuttings with a photograph of Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya, the young Komsomol partisan ‘tortured to death by Germans’. Many wrote ‘for Zoya’ on their tanks and aircraft.

  Another poem of Simonov’s, on the other hand, was condemned as ‘indecent’, ‘vulgar’ and ‘bad for morale’. It was ironically entitled ‘Liricheskoe’, or ‘Lyrical’.

  They remember names for an hour.

  Memories here do not last for long.

  Man says ‘War…’, and embraces a woman carelessly.

  He is grateful to those who had so easily,

  Without wanting to be called ‘darling’,

  Replaced for him another one who is far away.

  Here she was as compassionate as she could be to other women’s loved ones,

  And warmed them in bad times with the generosity of her uncommitted body.

  And for those waiting to go into the attack,

  Those who may never live to see love,

  They find it easier when they remember that yesterday

  At least someone’s arms were around them.

  However much the authorities disapproved of songs or poems about unfaithful girlfriends, iconoclasts still thought up ribald versions of officially approved songs. The tear-jerker ‘Dark Night’, about a soldier’s wife standing beside their child’s cot ‘secretly wiping her tears’, was turned into ‘secretly taking her streptocide’, the Soviet wartime medicine for venereal disease.

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