The fall of berlin 1945, p.29
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       The Fall of Berlin 1945, p.29
 

           Antony Beevor

  On the right, Bogdanov’s tanks suffered badly from both the 88mm guns dug in below Neuhardenberg and fierce counter-attacks from small groups with panzerfausts. A platoon of assault guns led by Wachtmeister Gernert of the 111th Training Brigade suddenly appeared out of the smoke on the Oderbruch near Neutrebbin and engaged a mass of Soviet tanks. Gernert alone accounted for seven of them: his personal tally rose to forty-four enemy tanks the following day. ‘His outstanding bravery and tactically clever leadership saved the flank of the brigade,’ General Heinrici wrote, confirming the award of a Knight’s Cross. But by the time he signed it on 28 April, the brigade, and indeed the Ninth Army as a recognizable formation, would have ceased to exist.

  Eventually the leading brigades of the tank armies reached the bottom of the Seelow Heights and started the ascent. Engines began screaming with the effort. In many places the gradient was so steep that tank commanders had to find alternative routes. This often made them blunder into a German strongpoint.

  Katukov’s leading brigades on the left received their nastiest shock when advancing to the Dolgelin-Friedersdorf road south-east of Seelow. A murderous armoured engagement began there when they found Tiger tanks of SS Heavy Panzer Battalion 502 holding the line. The Soviet tank brigades were hampered by deep ditches and suffered heavy casualties.

  In the centre, meanwhile, between Seelow and Neuhardenberg, Göring’s vaunted 9th Parachute Division had buckled under the hammering. When the bombardment had begun that morning, the 27th Parachute Regiment had moved its headquarters from Schloss Gusow on the ridge back to a bunker in the woods behind. Hauptmann Finkler remained in the manor house connected by field telephone. He could see little through the smoke to report back, but the stream of young Luftwaffe personnel running from the front, having abandoned their weapons, indicated the collapse that was taking place. Eventually, a lieutenant arrived with the warning that the Soviet troops were already advancing towards the edge of the village. Colonel Menke, the regimental commander, ordered an immediate counter-attack. Finkler scraped together some ten men from the forward headquarters, charged out and ran almost straight into the enemy. Nearly all the paratroopers were shot down. Finkler and the lieutenant found an abandoned Hetzer tank-destroyer and sheltered in that.

  *

  In the headquarters for the defence of Berlin on the Hohenzollerndamm, Colonel Refior, General Reymann’s chief of staff, was ‘not surprised’ when they were awoken that morning by ‘a dull, continuous rolling thunder from the east’. The intensity of the bombardment was so great that in Berlin’s eastern suburbs, sixty kilometres from the target area, the effect was like a small earthquake. Houses trembled, pictures fell off walls and telephone bells rang of their own accord. ‘It’s started,’ people murmured anxiously to each other in the streets. Nobody had any illusions about what this signified. In the grey light of that overcast morning, ‘women and girls stood around in huddled groups, listening in dread to the distant sounds of the front’. The most frequently asked question was whether the Americans would get to Berlin in time to save them.

  The authorities’ loudly stated confidence in the defence line on the Oder was rather undermined by the flurry of activity back in the capital, sealing barricades and manning defence points. Goebbels made a passionate but unconvincing speech about this new storm of Mongols breaking itself against their walls. The immediate preoccupation of Berliners, however, was to fill their larders before the siege of the city began. The queues outside bakeries and food shops were longer than ever.

  Amid the frenzied denial of reality at the top, somebody that morning fortunately had the sense to order the children’s clinic of the Potsdam hospital to move further away from the capital. The Potsdam hospital had been almost entirely destroyed in the Allied air raid on the night of 14 April. The devastation had been increased by an unlucky hit on an ammunition train standing in the station. The sick children in the infants’ clinic were moved in a German Red Cross ambulance, towed very slowly by two emaciated horses through the rubble-filled streets to the Cecilienhof palace. The rather elderly crown prince had abandoned it only a few weeks before, but several ancient officers from the old Prussian army and their wives continued to shelter in the cellars. They had no idea that Potsdam was destined to be part of the Soviet zone of occupation.

  On the morning of 16 April the nurses heard that they were to move the children south-westwards to Heilstätten near Beelitz. Almost all the Berlin hospitals, including the Charité, the Auguste-Viktoria and the Robert-Koch clinic, were allocated accommodation there in a camouflaged stone-built barracks. This complex had also served as a hospital during the First World War. Hitler had spent two months there at the end of 1916, after being wounded. But the sick children were not yet out of danger. As they were being unloaded from buses, there was a cry of ‘Take cover! Aircraft!’ A Soviet biplane – the antiquated P0–2 crop-sprayer which the Germans called a ‘coffee-grinder’ – appeared at tree height and opened fire.

  In the underground headquarters in Zossen, telephones were ringing continually. An exhausted General Krebs kept going on glasses of vermouth from a bottle kept in his office safe. As the Soviet artillery and aviation destroyed command posts and cut telephone cables, there were soon many fewer headquarters to report in, but the calls from ministers and General Burgdorf in the Reich Chancellery bunker increased. Everyone in Berlin’s government quarter was demanding news. The thoughts of staff officers, however, were with those at the front, imagining what they were going through.

  At the 11 a.m. conference, officers wanted to know what the evacuation plans were. They all knew that Zossen, in its position south of Berlin, was extremely vulnerable the moment that the 1st Ukrainian Front broke through on the Neisse. One or two acid remarks were made about Hitler’s prediction that the attack on Berlin was a feint and that the Red Army’s real objective was Prague. To Heinrici’s horror, Hitler had even transferred three panzer divisions to the recently promoted Field Marshal Schörner’s command.

  General Busse, the commander of the Ninth Army, needed them desperately as a reserve for counter-attacks. His three corps – the CI Army Corps on the left, General Helmuth Weidling’s LVI Panzer Corps in the centre and the XI SS Panzer Corps on the right – were conspicuously short of tanks. They were doomed to a static defence until they broke. The V SS Mountain Corps south of Frankfurt an der Oder, although between the two main Soviet thrusts, faced the attack of the 69th Army, which it managed to hold back.

  On the Oderbruch and the Seelow Heights, the battle continued in chaotic fashion. Because of the lack of visibility, much of the killing was done at close range. One member of the Grossdeutschland guard regiment wrote later that the marshland was ‘not a killing field but a slaughterhouse’.

  ‘We moved across terrain cratered from shellfire,’ the Soviet sapper officer Pyotr Sebelev wrote in his letter home that night. ‘Everywhere lay smashed German guns, vehicles, burning tanks and many corpses, which our men dragged to a place to be buried. The weather is overcast. It is drizzling and our ground-attack aircraft are flying all over the German front line from time to time. Many of the Germans surrender. They don’t want to fight and give their life for Hitler.’

  Other Red Army officers were more exultant. Captain Klochkov in the 3rd Shock Army described the ground as ‘covered with the corpses of Hitler’s warriors who used to boast so much’. He then added, ‘To the astonishment of our soldiers, some corpses would rise unsteadily to their feet from the bottom of trenches and raise their hands.’ But this account overlooked their own casualties. The 1st Belorussian Front lost nearly three times as many men as the German defenders.

  Subsequent inquests about that day of fighting established numerous shortcomings on the Soviet side. The 5th Shock Army apparently suffered from ‘bad organization’. Radio discipline was lacking and communications were so bad that ‘commanders did not know what was going on and gave false information’. To make matters worse, the excess of coded signals traff
ic meant that army headquarters could not cope with the deciphering. Many urgent signals were therefore delayed. Commanders were also claiming to have taken objectives they had not yet reached. It is hard to tell whether this was confusion or the terrible pressure for results from higher headquarters. This came from Zhukov bellowing into a field telephone at an army commander who, following standard Soviet alpha-male behaviour, would then stand up to bellow even more terrifyingly into his field telephone at the corps or divisional commander. The general commanding the 26th Guards Rifle Corps was badly caught out. He informed General Berzarin that his troops had taken one village and advanced two kilometres beyond it ‘when this was not true’.

  In the 248th Rifle Division, one commander lost his regiment. In another division, a battalion was sent in the wrong direction and as a result the whole regiment was late for the attack. And once the advance began, regiments lost touch with each other in the mist and smoke. They also failed to spot German gun emplacements, which ‘continued to operate while the infantry moved forward and this led to heavy losses’. Commanders were also blamed for their mentality. They wanted only to move forward, when they should have been concentrating on the best way to destroy the enemy. This problem was attributed to a lack of motivated Party members rather than relentless pressure from higher command.

  There were also, not for the first time, casualties from their own supporting artillery. On one occasion the problem was ascribed to the fact that ‘quite often commanders are incapable of handling different technical devices’, a description which perhaps included a prismatic compass and a radio set. On the first day, 16 April, the 266th Rifle Division was hit heavily by its own artillery as it reached the tree-line. On the next, both the 248th and the 301st Rifle Divisions suffered the same fate. The 5th Shock Army nevertheless claimed 33,000 prisoners, but did not state its own casualties.

  The 8th Guards Army, meanwhile, suffered ‘serious disadvantages’, a standard euphemism for incompetence leading to near disaster. But the fault here was Zhukov’s, not Chuikov’s. ‘The preparatory fire worked well on the enemy’s front line, allowing the infantry to go through the first line, but our artillery could not destroy enemy fire positions, especially on the Seelow Heights, and even the use of aviation did not make up for this.’ There were also cases of Soviet aircraft bombing and strafing their own men. This was partly due to the fact that the leading rifle battalions did not ‘know the right signal flares to use to show our front line’. Since the signal was a white and a yellow flare and very few yellow flares had been issued, such mistakes were hardly surprising.

  The report also mentions that the artillery failed to move forward to support the front line of infantry, but this was because the planners had failed to foresee that their massive bombardment would make the waterlogged ground almost impassable. The medical services were clearly overwhelmed and ‘in some regiments the evacuation of the wounded from the battlefield was very badly organized’. One machine gunner lay for twenty hours without help. The wounded of the 27th Guards Rifle Division were left ‘without any medical aid for four to five hours’, and the casualty clearing station had only four operating tables.

  South of Frankfurt an der Oder, the 33rd Army did not have an easy advance against the V SS Mountain Corps. They too seem to have been short of medical assistants to deal with their wounded. Officers were reduced to forcing German prisoners at gunpoint to carry the Soviet wounded to the rear and bring back ammunition. This appalled the army political department, which later criticized its own political officers for not having taken the German prisoners themselves, indoctrinated them ‘and then sent them back to their comrades to demoralize them’. The priority awarded to their own wounded by Red Army authorities was indeed low. And whatever the pressure of work in a field hospital, SMERSH never shrank from pulling a doctor off an operation to examine suspected cases of self-inflicted wounds, because once the fighting began, they ‘became much more frequent’.*

  The battle for the Seelow Heights was certainly not Marshal Zhukov’s finest hour, but even if the planning and command of the operation were faulty, the courage, stamina and self-sacrifice of most Red Army soldiers and junior officers cannot be doubted for a moment. This genuine heroism – as distinct from the lifeless propaganda version to be served up as a moral lesson for future generations – sadly did nothing to lessen the essential callousness of senior commanders and the Soviet political leadership. References to soldiers in veiled speech during telephone conversations were revealing. Commanders used to say, ‘How many matches were burnt?’ or ‘How many pencils were broken?’ when asking for casualty estimates.

  On the German side, General Heinrici, the commander-in-chief of Army Group Vistula, and General Busse could not be expected to have done much better in the circumstances. German survivors of the battle still bless them for having saved countless lives by withdrawing the majority of troops from the forward positions just before the bombardment. But some senior officers still believed in Adolf Hitler. After nightfall on 16 April, Colonel Hans-Oscar Wohlermann, the artillery commander in the LVI Panzer Corps, went to see his commander, General Weidling, at Waldsieversdorf, north-west of Müncheberg. Corps headquarters were established in the weekend house of a Berlin family. A single candle lit the room on the first floor. Weidling, who had no illusions about Hitler’s conduct of the war, spoke his mind. The monocled Wöhlermann was shaken.’I was deeply dismayed,’ he wrote later, ‘to find that even this dedicated soldier and daredevil, our old “Hard as Bones”, as he had been known in the regiment, had lost faith in our highest leadership.’

  Their conversation was brought to an abrupt halt by a bombing attack. Then reports came in indicating that a hole had opened up between them and the XI SS Panzer Corps on their right, and that another gap on their left was developing which threatened to break their link with General Berlin’s CI Corps. Goebbels’s notion of a wall against the Mongol hordes was disintegrating rapidly.

  That night must have been one of the worst of Zhukov’s life. The eyes of the army and, more crucially, the eyes of the Kremlin were fixed on the Seelow Heights, which he had failed to secure. His armies could not now perform their task of taking ‘Berlin on the sixth day of the operation’. One of Chuikov’s rifle regiments had reached the edge of the town of Seelow, and some of Katukov’s tanks were nearly at the crest at one point, but this would certainly not satisfy Stalin.

  The Soviet leader, who had sounded fairly relaxed during the afternoon, was clearly angry when Zhukov reported on the radio-telephone shortly before midnight that the heights were not occupied. Stalin blamed him for having changed the Stavka plan. ‘Are you sure that you’ll capture the Seelow line tomorrow?’ he demanded.

  ‘By the end of the day, tomorrow, 17 April,’ Zhukov answered, trying to sound calm, ‘the defence of Seelow Heights will be broken. I am convinced that the more troops the enemy sends against us here, the easier it will be to capture Berlin. It is much easier to destroy troops in open countryside than in a fortified city.’

  Stalin did not sound convinced. Perhaps he was thinking of the Americans, who might come up from the south-west, rather than the German forces to the east of the capital. ‘We are thinking,’ Stalin said, ‘of ordering Konev to send the tank armies of Rybalko and Lelyushenko towards Berlin from the south, and telling Rokossovsky to speed up the crossing and also attack from the north.’ Stalin hung up with a curt ‘do svidaniya’. It was not long before Zhukov’s chief of staff, General Malinin, discovered that Stalin had indeed told Konev to send his tank armies up against Berlin’s southern flank.

  Russian soldiers – in 1945 as in 1814 – despised the rivers of western Europe. They seemed miserable in comparison with the great rivers of the Motherland. Yet every river which they had crossed held a special significance, because it marked the advance in their relentless fight back against the invader. ‘Even when I was wounded on the Volga near Stalingrad,’ said Junior Lieutenant Maslov,’I was convinced that I would re
turn to the front and finally see the accursed Spree.’

  The Neisse between Forst and Muskau was only about half the width of the Oder, but a river crossing against enemy troops in prepared positions was not a simple task. Marshal Konev decided that the best tactic for his 1st Ukrainian Front was to keep the enemy occupied and blind them while his point units crossed the river.

  The artillery bombardment began at 6 a.m. Moscow time, 4 a.m. Berlin time. It boasted 249 guns per kilometre, their greatest concentration of the war, and was intensified by heavy carpet-bombing from the 2nd Air Army. ‘The drone of aircraft and the thunder of guns and exploding bombs were so loud that one could not hear one’s comrade shouting even a metre away,’ one officer recorded. It was also a much longer barrage than Zhukov’s, extending altogether to 145 minutes. ‘The god of war is thundering very nicely today,’ remarked a battery commander during a pause. The gun crews threw themselves into their work with the joy of vengeance, egged on by their commanders’ orders: ‘At the fascist lair – fire!’, ‘At the possessed Hitler – fire!’, ‘For the blood and suffering of our people – fire!’

  Konev, to watch the battle open, had come from his Front headquarters near Breslau, where the bitter siege of the Silesian capital still continued. He went forward to the observation post of General Pukhov’s 13th Army. This consisted of a dugout and trenches at the edge of a pine forest on a cliff which overlooked the river. Being within small-arms range of enemy positions on the west bank of the Neisse, they watched through trench telescopes. But their grand-circle view of events came to an end with the second phase of the bombardment when General Krasovsky’s pilots in the 2nd Air Army flew fast at low level up the west bank of the river, dropping smoke bombs. This screen was laid along a frontage of 390 kilometres, which prevented the Fourth Panzer Army defenders from rapidly identifying the point of the main attack. Konev was fortunate. A breath of wind spread the screen without dispersing it too quickly.

 
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