The Fall of Berlin 1945, p.30Antony Beevor
The lead units dashed forward, carrying their assault boats, and launched themselves into the stream, paddling furiously. ‘The assault boats were launched,’ the 1st Ukrainian Front reported, ‘before the guns fell silent. Communist Party activists and Komsomol members tried to be the first into the boats, and shouted encouraging slogans to their comrades: “For the Motherland! For Stalin!” ’ When the first landings were made on the western bank, little red flags were set up to encourage the next wave. Some battalions started to cross simply by swimming, an action that the veterans among them had performed several times before in the advance across the Ukraine. Other troops were able to make use of previously reconnoitred fords and waded across, their weapons held above their heads. Sappers responsible for preparing the first ferries and pontoon bridges jumped into the water and struck out for the far shore. Some 85mm anti-tank guns soon followed the first rifle battalions, and small bridgeheads were established.
The massive bombardment meant that few Germans in the forward positions were capable of effective resistance. Many were seriously shell-shocked. ‘We had nowhere to hide,’ Obergefreiter Karl Pafflik told his captors. ‘The air was full of whistling and explosions. We suffered unimaginable losses. Those who survived were rushing around in trenches and bunkers like madmen trying to save themselves. We were speechless with terror.’ Many took advantage of the smoke and chaos to surrender. No fewer than twenty-five men from the 500th Straf Regiment, who had better reasons to desert than most, gave themselves up in one group. German soldiers on their own or in batches would put up their hands, shouting in pidgin-Russian, ‘Ivan, don’t shoot, we are prison.’ A deserter from the 500th Straf Regiment told his interrogators the well-known Berlin remark, ‘The only promise Hitler has kept is the one he made before coming to power. Give me ten years and you will not be able to recognize Germany.’ Other Landsers complained that they had been lied to by their officers, with promises of V-3 and V-4 rockets.
Once cables were secured over the river, ferries brought across the first T-34 tanks to support the infantry. The 1st Ukrainian Front engineer formations had planned no fewer than 133 crossing points in the main attack sectors. They were responsible for all the Neisse crossings. The engineers attached to the 3rd and 4th Guards Tank Armies had been ordered to keep all their equipment ready for the next river, the Spree. Soon after midday, with the first of the sixty-ton bridges in position in the area of the 5th Guards Army, the lead elements of Lelyushenko’s 4th Guards Tank Army began to cross. During the afternoon, the remaining bulk of the fighting forces crossed the river and continued the advance. The tank brigades, ordered to push ahead with all speed, were ready to take on the Fourth Panzer Army’s counterattack spearheaded by the 21st Panzer Division. On the southern part of the sector, the 2nd Polish Army and the 52nd Army had also crossed successfully and were pushing forward. Their orders were to make for Dresden.
Konev had good reason to be satisfied with the first day of the offensive. His lead units were halfway to the River Spree. The only fault established afterwards was that the evacuation of the wounded to hospitals was ‘unbearably slow’, but, like most other commanders, Konev did not seem unduly perturbed. At midnight, he reported to Stalin via radio-telephone that the 1st Ukrainian Front’s advance was developing successfully. ‘Zhukov is not getting on very well,’ said Stalin, who had just spoken to him. ‘Turn Rybalko [3rd Guards Tank Army] and Lelyushenko [4th Guards Tank Army] towards Zehlendorf [the most south-western suburb of Berlin]. You remember, like we arranged at the Stavka’. Konev remembered the meeting only too well, especially the moment when Stalin stopped the boundary between him and Zhukov at Lübben, thus leaving open the possibility that the 1st Ukrainian Front could attack Berlin from the south.
Stalin’s choice of Zehlendorf as reference point is most interesting. He evidently wanted to spur Konev on to the furthest south-western part of Berlin as quickly as possible, since that would be the obvious line of approach from the American bridgehead at Zerbst. It was also perhaps no coincidence that just inside Zehlendorf lay Dahlem, where the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute had its nuclear research facilities.
Three hours earlier, at a 9 p.m. meeting at the Stavka, General Antonov, no doubt on Stalin’s instructions, had yet again deliberately misled the Americans when they mentioned German reports of an all-out offensive against Berlin. ‘[Antonov] said,’ stated the signal to the State Department in Washington, DC, ‘that actually the Russians are undertaking a large-scale reconnaissance on the central sector of the front for the purpose of finding out details of the German defences.’
Seelow and the Spree
After Stalin’s two midnight telephone conversations on 16 April, the race between Zhukov and Konev began in earnest. Konev, incited by Stalin, rose enthusiastically to the challenge. Zhukov, although rattled by the setback on the Seelow Heights, believed that Berlin was his by right.
The overcast sky and drizzle gave way to better weather on Tuesday 17 April. The Shturmoviks were able to attack the remaining German positions on the Seelow Heights with much greater accuracy. Down on the Oderbruch and up on the escarpment, small towns, hamlets and individual farmhouses still burned. The Soviet artillery and aviation had targeted any building in case it housed a command post. This resulted in an overpowering smell of charred flesh, mostly human in the villages and livestock on the farms. The shelling of farm buildings as likely depots and headquarters led to a terrible slaughter of animals unable to escape from being burned alive.
Behind the indistinct German lines, dressing stations were filled with wounded far beyond the capacity of the doctors. A stomach wound was as good as a death sentence under the system of triage, since the surgery it required took too long. The first priority for treatment were those capable of further combat. Specially detailed officers trawled the field hospitals for walking wounded capable of firing a gun.
The Feldgendarmerie at their improvised roadblocks were always on the lookout for stragglers, whether fit or lightly wounded, who could be forced back into scratch companies. As soon as a reasonable number had been assembled, they were marched into the line. Soldiers called the Feldgendarmerie not only ‘chain-hounds’, but also ‘Heldenklauen’, or ‘hero-stealers’, a play on the Nazi term ‘Kohlenklau’ used to attack those who stole government coal for use at home.
In their brutal zeal, the Feldgendarmerie often grabbed men who were genuinely trying to rejoin their battalions. They then found themselves mixed in with stragglers and fifteen- or sixteen-year-old Hitler Youth, some of whom were still in shorts. A smaller size of steel helmet had been manufactured for boy soldiers, but not nearly enough were produced. Their tense, pale faces could barely be seen under helmets that dropped over their ears. A group of Soviet sappers from the 3rd Shock Army called forward to clear a minefield were taken by surprise when a dozen Germans emerged from a trench to surrender. Suddenly a boy appeared from a bunker. ‘He was wearing a long trench-coat and a cap,’ recorded Captain Sulkhanishvili. ‘He fired a burst with his sub-machine gun. But then, seeing that I didn’t fall over, he dropped his sub-machine gun and started to sob. He tried to shout, “Hitler kaputt, Stalin gut!” I laughed. I hit him only once in the face. Poor boys, I felt sorry for them.’
The most dangerous of the Hitler Youth were often those whose homes and families had been ripped apart in the east by the Red Army. The only course for them seemed to be death in battle, taking as many hated Bolsheviks with them as possible.
The fighting qualities of the German Army had not yet collapsed, as Zhukov and his troops found to their cost. Another artillery and aviation bombardment on the morning of 17 April, followed by a renewed advance by Katukov and Bogdanov’s tank armies, did not achieve the success which Zhukov had promised Stalin. The 88mm anti-aircraft guns and tank-hunting infantry with panzerfausts immobilized many of the tanks. At midday, almost as soon as Katukov’s tank brigades moved into Dolgelin and Friedersdorf, they faced a counter-attack by the remai
General Yushchuk’s 11th Tank Corps, on the other hand, managed to surround Seelow itself astride the Reichstrasse 1, the old Prussian highway which used to lead from Berlin all the way to the now destroyed East Prussian capital of Königsberg. But Yushchuk’s tanks soon found themselves under fire from the artillery of the neighbouring 5th Shock Army. This led to a ‘distinctly uncultured’ row with Berzarin’s headquarters. It was not just the tank troops which suffered. ‘In the opinion of the infantry,’ a report on the fighting stated tactfully, ‘the artillery is not firing at precise targets but at general area targets.’
In the confused fighting round Seelow, Yushchuk’s tanks were repeatedly attacked with panzerfausts fired at close range. His soldiers responded by grabbing wire-sprung mattresses from nearby houses and fastening them to their turrets and flanks. This improvised spaced armour made the hollow-charge of the panzerfaust detonate before hitting the hull or turret.
The T-34s and Stalin tanks of both Guards Tank Armies ‘ironed’ any trenches which they encountered, although most had by now been abandoned. In the more northerly part of the Oderbruch, the 3rd Shock Army, supported on its right by the 47th Army, pushed back the forward units of the CI Corps, many of whose regiments had been almost entirely composed of young trainees and officer candidates. The ‘Potsdam’ Regiment, which had reassembled near Neutrebbin, pulled back further behind the marshy banks of the Alte Oder, which was nearly ten metres wide at that point. There were only thirty-four boys left on their feet.
Again they heard the noise of tank engines. ‘We infantry were once again the idiots. We were expected to halt the Russian advance when all the other arms were pulling back westwards.’ Only a few self-propelled assault guns were left to take on Soviet tanks. The divisional artillery, having fired the last of their few rounds of ammunition, had blown up their guns and left. Not surprisingly, many of the infantry had slipped off with those withdrawing. Discipline was beginning to disintegrate, accelerated by feverish rumours that a cease-fire with the Western Allies had already begun.
In the centre, the 9th Parachute Division had completely collapsed. Its humiliated commander was General Bruno Bräuer, who had commanded the airborne assault on Heraklion in Crete. Bräuer, an elegant man who used a cigarette holder, had later become the garrison commander on Crete. Yet despite all of Göring’s preposterous boasts about his superhuman warriors, who had been kitted out to look the part with the paratrooper’s rimless helmet, Bräuer was in fact commanding Luftwaffe ground personnel. Most had never jumped from an aircraft in their life, let alone seen action. When the bombardment and assault began, the officers were unable to control their panic-stricken men, especially when subjected to a katyusha rocket attack.
Colonel Menke, the commander of the 27th Parachute Regiment, had been killed when T-34S broke through near his headquarters. Only during the late morning of 17 April did the division rally a little, when armoured support arrived in the form of Panthers, Panzer Mark IVs and half-tracks. But the collapse started again soon afterwards. Wöhlermann, the artillery commander of LVI Corps, came upon Bräuer and found him ‘completely shattered by the flight of his men’. The highly strung Bräuer suffered a nervous collapse and was relieved of his command. He was a truly unfortunate man. Shortly after the war he was tried and convicted in Athens for atrocities committed under another general on Crete and executed in 1947.
At 6.30 p.m., Ribbentrop arrived unannounced at Weidling’s headquarters, demanding to be briefed on the situation. Wöhlermann happened to arrive at that moment. ‘This is my artillery commander, who has just arrived from the front,’ said Weidling. Wöhlermann received a flabby handshake from the foreign minister. ‘He can report on the situation,’ Weidling added. Then, having indicated that his subordinate should hold nothing back, Weidling sat down next to Ribbentrop to listen. Wöhlermann’s ‘report had a devastating effect on the foreign minister’. Ribbentrop asked one or two questions in a hoarse, barely audible voice. All he could do was make evasive references to a possible ‘twelfth-hour’ change in the situation and hint at negotiations with the Americans and the British. It was perhaps this assertion that prompted General Busse to send the signal, ‘Hold on for two more days, then everything will be sorted out’. This suggestion of a deal with the Western Allies was the ultimate lie of the Nazi leadership.
Stragglers from the Oder flood plain pulled back into woods on the steep slope of the Seelow escarpment, often to find Soviet infantry and tank formations ahead of them. Groups of nervous soldiers often fired at their own side and both Soviet artillery and aviation continued to bombard their own men as much as the Germans. The Luftwaffe put up as many Focke-Wulf fighters that day as it could to oppose the onslaught and towards evening German aircraft attacked the pontoon bridges over the Oder, but in vain. A report from an unidentified source claimed that ‘German pilots frequently death-dive into Russian bombers, causing both [to] plunge flaming groundwards’. If true, this would have signified a notable reversal of roles from 1941, when desperately brave Soviet pilots rammed their Luftwaffe attackers on the first day of Operation Barbarossa.
What is even more striking is the reported use of a kamikaze squadron against the Soviet bridges across the Oder. The Luftwaffe appears to have invented its own term – Selbstopfereinsatz, or ‘self-sacrifice mission’. The pilots of the Leonidas squadron, based at Jüterbog and commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Heiner Lange, supposedly signed a declaration which ended with the words, ‘I am above all clear that the mission will end in my death.’ On the evening of 16 April, there was a farewell dance for the pilots on the base with young women from the Luftwaffe signals unit there. The dance ended with a final song. Major General Fuchs, the overall commander, was ‘fighting back his tears’.
The next morning, the first of the so-called ‘total missions’ were flown against the thirty-two ‘over-water and under-water bridges’ repaired or built by Soviet engineers. The Germans used a variety of aircraft – Focke-Wulf 190, Messerschmitt 109 and Junkers 88 – whatever was available. One of the ‘self-sacrifice pilots’ flying the next day was Ernst Beichl, in a Focke-Wulf with a 500-kilogram bomb. His target was the pontoon bridge near Zellin. Air reconnaissance later reported it destroyed, but claims that a total of seventeen bridges were destroyed in the course of three days seem wildly exaggerated. The only other one that genuinely appears to have been hit was the railway bridge at Küstrin. Thirty-five pilots and aircraft were a high price to pay for such a limited and temporary success. This did not stop Major General Fuchs from sending their names in a special birthday message ‘to the Führer on his imminent fifty-sixth birthday’. It was just the sort of present that he appreciated most.
The whole operation had to be abandoned suddenly because Marshal Konev’s tank armies, charging unexpectedly towards Berlin from the south-east, threatened their base at Jüterbog.
The fortunes of war still favoured Konev’s 1st Ukrainian Front after its attack across the Neisse. The 13th Army and the 5th Guards Army had broken open the second line of German defence. Even while heavy fighting continued on either side, Konev sent through his leading tank brigades to race for the River Spree between Cottbus and Spremberg. Large patches of pine forest burned fiercely from the renewed bombardments of both artillery and ground-attack Shturmoviks. These fires were dangerous for tanks which carried their fuel reserves in barrels strapped to the back. But speed was vital, because they had a chance of breaching the Spree barrier before the Fourth Panzer Army could reorganize a new line of defence. Konev’s troops scented victory. There was a feeling in the 4th Guards Tank Army that ‘if the Germans could not hold on to the Neisse, they can’t do anything now’. Commanders carried out a weapon inspection before the assault. A young Communist was found to have a rusty weapon. ‘How are you going to fire it?’ the officer yelled at him. ‘You should be an example to everyone, but your own weapon is dirty!’
An armoured breakthrough towar
That evening, when the leading brigades of the 3rd Guards Tank Army reached the Spree, General Rybalko, their army commander, who took pride in leading from the front, did not wait for bridging equipment to come up. He selected a point which looked as if it might not be too deep, then sent a tank straight into the river, which was about fifty metres wide at this point. The water rose above the tracks but no more. The tank brigade followed across in line, fording the river like cavalry. Unlike cavalry, however, they could ignore the German machine guns firing at them from the far bank. The bulk of both tank armies was able to follow on across the Spree during the night.
Konev knew that his tanks would find the lakes, marshes, watercourses and pine forests of the Lausitz region difficult going, but if they were quick, the roads to Berlin would be sparsely defended. The German Fourth Panzer Army had already committed its operational reserve in an attempt to hold the second line, while commanders in Berlin would be more preoccupied by the threat from Zhukov’s armies.
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