The fall of berlin 1945, p.28
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       The Fall of Berlin 1945, p.28

           Antony Beevor

  Official patriotic songs never really took on. The only exception was the ‘Song of the Artillerists’, which came from the film At Six o ’clock in the Evening after the End of the War. The film was screened for soldiers at the front just before the battle of Berlin. It showed an artillery officer who has survived to meet his true love in Moscow during the victory celebrations, but although this may have been good for morale in one way, it certainly did not help soldiers with the very natural fear of risking death when the fighting was almost over.

  Other songs also looked beyond the end of the war. Soldiers of the 4th Guards Tank Army composed a sequel to the hit of spring 1943, Davai Zakunim:

  Soon we will return home.

  The girls will meet us,

  And the stars of the Urals will shine for us.

  Some day we will remember these days.

  Kamenets-Podolsk and the blue Carpathians.

  The fighting thunder of the tanks.

  Lvov and the steppe behind the Vistula.

  You won’t forget this year.

  You’ll tell your children of it.

  Some day, we will remember these days.

  Red Army soldiers experienced an irresistible urge to finish the war, but the closer they were to victory, the more they hoped to survive. And yet men desperately wanted a medal to take home. It would make a great difference to their standing in the community and especially within their own family. But there was one thing that they feared even more than being killed in the last days of the war after having survived so far against all odds. That was to lose legs and arms. A limbless veteran, known as a samovar, was treated like an outcast.

  After sunset on the evening of 15 April, Colonel Kalashnik, the chief of the 47th Army’s political department, sent Captain Vladimir Gall and the young Lieutenant Konrad Wolf to the front line, ready to interview the first prisoners brought back. Koni Wolf, a German, was the son of the Communist playwright Friedrich Wolf, who had become part of the ‘Moscow emigration’ in 1933 when the Nazis came to power. Koni’s elder brother, Misha, became notorious in the Cold War as Markus Wolf, the chief of East German espionage.

  It was virtually dark as the two friends, armed only with pistols, made their way forward through woods to the bank of the Oder. Tanks and men were camouflaged all around them. As the two young officers walked forward between the trees, they could sense that ‘huge forces were concentrated there’ all around them, even though they could hardly see anything because of the dark. ‘It felt like a huge spring about to be released,’ remarked Gall.

  Others were engaged on much more dangerous work. Sappers had slipped out at nightfall into no man’s land to clear mines. ‘We warned all infantry people of what we were doing,’ said Captain Shota Sulkhanishvili of the 3rd Shock Army, ‘but when one of my sappers was returning, an infantry man threw a grenade at him. He was asleep and panicked when he heard steps. I was furious and beat him almost to death. For me, all my men were worth gold, especially the mine-clearers.’

  Those who had already acquired watches longed to look at the time – to know how many more minutes remained before the attack. But no lights were allowed. It was hard to think of anything else.


  Zhukov on the Reitwein Spur

  General Chuikov, the commander of the 8th Guards Army, had the best view of the Oderbruch and the Seelow Escarpment from his forward command post on the Reitwein Spur. He was not pleased when Marshal Zhukov decided to join him there to watch the opening bombardment and the attack. Chuikov ordered Captain Merezhko, a staff officer who had been with him since Stalingrad, to go back across the Oder and lead the Front commander and his retinue to the position.

  To Chuikov’s fury, Zhukov’s convoy of vehicles with their headlights on could be seen approaching from a great distance. Chuikov had almost certainly been prejudiced against Zhukov since the winter of 1942. He seems to have felt that the heroic role of his 62nd Army in Stalingrad was overlooked, and too much attention paid to Zhukov. Much more recently, he resented the remarks made about the length of time he had taken to capture the fortress of Poznan. And his own comments about the failure to have pushed straight on to Berlin at the beginning of February had clearly angered Zhukov.

  Below them on the Oderbruch, an officer remembered, the trenches were alive with rattling pots. They could all smell the soup being ladled out by cooks to feed the men before the attack. In the forward trenches dug into the cold, sodden earth, troops took sips from their vodka ration. In command posts field telephones rang constantly and runners came and went.

  Zhukov arrived, accompanied by a retinue including General Kazakov, his artillery commander, and General Telegin, the head of the Front political department. They were led up a path round the side of the spur and reached the bunker dug by Chuikov’s engineers in the side of the small cliff below the observation post.’The hands of the clock had never gone round so slowly,’ Zhukov recorded later. ‘To fill the remaining minutes somehow, we decided to drink some hot, strong tea, which had been prepared in the same bunker by a girl soldier. I can remember for some reason that she had a non-Russian name, Margo. We drank the tea in silence, everyone occupied with his own thoughts.’

  General Kazakov had 8,983 artillery pieces, with up to 270 guns per kilometre on the breakthrough sectors, which meant a field gun every four metres, including 152mm and 203mm howitzers, heavy mortars and regiments of katyusha rocket launchers. The 1st Belorussian Front had a stockpile of over 7 million shells, of which 1,236,000 rounds were fired on the first day. This artillery overkill and the overwhelming superiority of his forces had tempted Zhukov into underestimating the scale of the obstacle facing them.

  Zhukov usually insisted on visiting the front line in person to study the terrain before a major offensive, but this time – mainly due to constant pressure from Stalin – he had relied largely on photo-reconnaissance. This vertical picture failed to reveal that the Seelow Heights, dominating his bridgehead on the Oderbruch, was a far more formidable feature than he had realized. Zhukov was also enamoured of a new idea. One hundred and forty-three searchlights had been brought forward, ready to blind the German defenders at the moment of attack.

  Three minutes before the artillery preparation was due to start, the marshal and his generals filed out of the bunker. They went up the steep little path to the observation post, concealed by camouflage nets, on the top of the cliff. The Oderbruch below them was obscured by a pre-dawn mist. Zhukov looked at his watch. It was exactly 5 a.m. Moscow time, which was 3 a.m. Berlin time.

  ‘Immediately the whole area was lit by many thousands of guns, mortars and our legendary katyushas.’ No bombardment in the war had been so intense. General Kazakov’s artillerymen worked in a frenzy. ‘A terrible thunder shook everything around,’ wrote a battery commander with the 3rd Shock Army. ‘You would have thought that even us artillerists could not be scared by such a symphony, but this time, I too wanted to plug my ears. I had the feeling that my eardrums would burst.’ Gunners had to remember to keep their mouths open to equalize the pressure on their ears.

  At the first rumble, some German conscripts in their trenches awoke thinking that it was just another ‘Morgenkonzert,’ as the early-morning harassing fire was called. But soldiers with real experience of the Eastern Front had acquired a ‘Landserinstinkt’ which told them that this was the great attack. NCOs screamed orders to take position immediately: ‘Alarm! sofort Stellung beZiehen!’ Survivors remember the feeling in their guts and their mouths going dry. ‘Now we’re in for it,’ they muttered to themselves.

  Those few trapped in trenches in the target area who somehow survived the terrifying bombardment could describe the experience afterwards only in terms of’hell’ or ‘inferno’, or an ‘earthquake’. Many lost all sense of hearing. ‘In a matter of a few seconds,’ Gerd Wagner in the 27th Parachute Regiment recorded, ‘all my ten comrades were dead.’ When Wagner recovered consciousness, he found himself lying wounded in a smoking shell crater. H
e was only just able to struggle back to the second line. Few escaped alive from the artillery barrage which smashed trenches and buried their occupants, both alive and dead. Bodies are still being discovered well over half a century later.

  Those to the rear who could feel the earth trembling grabbed their binoculars or trench periscopes. The commander of SS Heavy Panzer Battalion 502 gazed out through the periscope of his Tiger tank. ‘In the field of view the eastern sky was in flames.’ Another observer noted ‘burning farmhouses, villages, banks of smoke as far as the eye could see’. A headquarters clerk could only mutter, ‘Christ, the poor bastards up front.’

  The days of the hearty German warrior – ‘Krieg ist Krieg und Schnaps ist Schnaps’ – were well and truly past. Survivors were often not just completely disorientated, but shattered emotionally and psychologically. After the bombardment, a war correspondent with an SS propaganda company found a dazed soldier wandering in a wood, having thrown away his weapon. Apparently this was his first experience of the Eastern Front, having spent the best part of the war ‘shaving officers in Paris’.

  Yet even though almost every square metre of the German positions in front of the Seelow was churned up by shellfire, casualties were not nearly as high as they might have been. General Heinrici, helped by the interrogation of the Red Army soldier south of Küstrin, had pulled the bulk of Ninth Army’s troops back to the second line of trenches. On the sector south of Frankfurt an der Oder, facing the Soviet 33rd Army, some were less fortunate. Volkssturm and Hungarian detachments were sent to occupy the forward positions of the SS Division 30. Januar. ‘These men were sacrificed by headquarters as cannon fodder,’ Ober-sturmführer Helmuth Schwarz wrote later, to preserve the regular units. Most of the Volkssturm were veterans of the First World War. Many of them had no uniforms and no weapons.

  Zhukov was so encouraged by the lack of resistance shown that he assumed the Germans were crushed. ‘It seemed that not a living soul was left on the enemy side after thirty minutes of bombardment,’ he wrote later. He gave the order to start the general attack. ‘Thousands of flares of many colours shot up into the air.’ This was the signal to the young women soldiers operating the 143 searchlights – one every 200 metres.

  ‘Along the whole length of the horizon it was as bright as daylight,’ a Russian sapper colonel wrote home that night. ‘On the German side, everything was covered with smoke and thick fountains of earth in clumps flying up. There were huge flocks of scared birds flying around in the sky, a constant humming, thunder, explosions. We had to cover our ears to prevent our eardrums breaking. Then tanks began roaring, searchlights were lit along all of the front line in order to blind the Germans. Then people started shouting everywhere, “Na Berlin!” ’

  Some German soldiers, no doubt over-influenced by Wunderwaffen propaganda, thought that the searchlights were a new weapon to blind them. On the Soviet side, attacking detachments may even have suspected for a moment that the lights were a new form of blocking detachment to prevent retreat. Captain Sulkhanishvili in the 3rd Shock Army found that ‘the light was so blinding one couldn’t turn around, one could only move forward’. Yet this invention, of which Zhukov was so proud, did more to disorientate the attackers than dazzle the defenders, because the light reflected back off the smoke and dust from the bombardment. Commanders with the forward troops passed back orders to turn off the lights, then a counter-order switched them back on, causing even more night blindness among the troops. Yet Zhukov had made a far greater mistake. His intensive bombardment against the first line had been pummelling mostly abandoned trenches. He does not admit this in his memoirs, nor that he was unpleasantly surprised by the intensity of German fire once the advance began in earnest. It must have been doubly galling for him, since during the main briefing conference several of his senior officers had recommended concentrating the fire on the second line.

  The advance from the main Küstrin bridgehead began with Chuikov’s 8th Guards Army on the left and Berzarin’s 5th Shock Army on the right. Four days before, Zhukov had changed the Stavka plan, with Stalin’s permission, to keep Katukov’s 1st Guards Tank Army in support of Chuikov. They were then to force their way through to the southern suburbs of Berlin. On Berzarin’s right was the 2nd Guards Tank Army, the 3rd Shock Army and the 47th Army.

  On Zhukov’s far right flank, the 1st Polish Army and the 61st Army had little in the way of bridgeheads. They had to cross the Oder under fire. Their leading battalions used amphibious vehicles – American DUKWs driven by young women soldiers, but most of the troops crossed in ordinary boats. Casualties were heavy in the crossing. Assault boats leaked and a number sank, ‘producing losses’. The German resistance was also strong. When one battalion of the 12th Guards Rifle Division made the crossing, ‘only eight men reached the west bank of the Oder’. One can deduce that there must have been a good deal of panic by the comment that ‘some political officers showed indecisiveness when crossing the river’. The coded phrase implies that they should have used their pistols more.

  On the extreme left flank, the 33rd Army, in its bridgehead south of Frankfurt an der Oder, and the 69th Army, north of it, were to advance to cut off the town with its fortress garrison.

  Once the coloured signal flares streaked up into the overcast sky, the Soviet riflemen rose from the ground to move forward. Zhukov, the least sentimental of generals, sent the infantry through minefields which had to be cleared before he unleashed his tank armies. ‘Oh, what a terrible sight it is to see a person blown up by an anti-tank mine,’ a captain remembered. But the advance of the 8th Guards Army progressed well at first. The troops were encouraged by the lack of resistance. The ground-attack Shturmoviks of the 16th Air Army screamed in low over their heads to attack positions on the escarpment and heavier bomber regiments of the 18th Air Army flew to raid other targets and communications centres further back. There were 6,500 sorties that day on the 1st Belorussian Front sector, but the bad visibility, with river mist, thick smoke and dirt from explosions, concealed their targets. As a result, comparatively little damage to defensive positions was achieved by bombing and strafing. Unfortunately for the Ninth Army, whose ammunition situation was already disastrous, a main stockpile of shells at Alt Zeschdorf, west of Lebus, was hit and blown up.

  Troops caught in the open were naturally the most vulnerable. The Volkssturm company of Erich Schröder, a forty-year-old called up only ten days before, was rushed to the front in trucks at 7 a.m. when they received the order ‘Maximum Alert’. There was no time to dig in before the air attacks started. He remembered two almost simultaneous bomb explosions. One splinter took off a big toe, another penetrated his left calf and a third impaled him in the small of the back. He tried to limp to cover. Most of the vehicles in which they had just arrived were ablaze and the panzerfausts still on them began to explode. Eventually, he was taken in a surviving vehicle to a dressing station in Fürstenwalde, but that night a heavy Soviet bombing raid destroyed the whole building save the cellar in which they had been sheltered.

  The young German conscripts and trainees had been panic-stricken by the bombardment and the searchlights. Only the seasoned soldiers prepared to open fire, but the problem was to identify a target in the virtually impenetrable mixture of river mist, smoke and dirt drifting in the air from the shellbursts. The defenders could hear the Russians calling to each other as they advanced, but it was impossible to see them. They could also hear in the distance the engines of Russian tanks straining. Even the broad tracks of the T-34 had trouble coping with the mud of the waterlogged flood plain. Survivors from forward positions who had abandoned their weapons fled back through the second line, yelling, ‘Der Iwan kommt!’ One young soldier running back saw someone ahead and shouted the warning to him, but the figure who turned round proved to be a Red Army soldier. They both leaped for cover and began to fire at each other. The German boy, to his astonishment, killed the Russian.


  The ground had been so broken up by th
e massive bombardment that Soviet anti-tank guns and divisional artillery found it very hard to follow the infantry. This was particularly true of the katyusha batteries mounted on the backs of trucks. Nevertheless, the Guards mortar regiments who fired the katyushas watched with satisfaction as the first German prisoners sent to the rear cringed on seeing the weapon which had struck more fear into the Wehrmacht than any other.

  What the prisoners might also have seen were the huge traffic jams of vehicles in heavy mud, waiting for Chuikov’s 8th Guards Army and Berzarin’s 5th Shock Army to make a breakthrough. But progress that morning had been very slow. Zhukov, in the observation post on the Reitwein Spur, was losing his temper, swearing and threatening commanders with demotion and a shtraf company. He had a furious row with General Chuikov in front of staff officers, because the 8th Guards Army was bogged down on the Oderbruch below the escarpment.

  By the middle of the day, an increasingly desperate Zhukov, no doubt dreading the next radio-telephone conversation with Stalin, decided to change his operational plan. The tank armies were not supposed to move forward until the infantry had broken open the German defence line and reached the Seelow Heights. But he could not wait. Chuikov was horrified, foreseeing the chaos this would cause, but Zhukov was adamant. At 3 p.m. he called the Stavka to speak to Stalin. Stalin listened to his report. ‘So you’ve underestimated the enemy on the Berlin axis,’ he said. ‘I was thinking that you were already on the approaches to Berlin, but you’re still on the Seelow Heights. Things have started more successfully for Konev.’ He seemed to take Zhukov’s change of plan in his stride, but Zhukov knew only too well that everything depended on results.

  Katukov received orders in the afternoon to attack with the 1st Guards Tank Army in the direction of Seelow, while Bogdanov’s 2nd Guards Tank Army was ordered to attack the Neuhardenberg sector. This premature movement of the tanks meant that the close-support artillery, which the rifle divisions had been demanding to deal with strongpoints, could not get forward, because of the state of the ground. There was indeed chaos, as Chuikov had predicted, with so many thousands of armoured vehicles packed into the bridgehead. Sorting out the different formations and units was a nightmare for the traffic controllers.

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