The fall of berlin 1945, p.31
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       The Fall of Berlin 1945, p.31

           Antony Beevor

  Konev had come to a similar conclusion to Zhukov, that it was easier to break the enemy early in the open than later in Berlin. But he did not mention this when he spoke to Stalin that evening on the radio-telephone from his forward command post, a castle perched on a small hill with views across the top of the surrounding pine forests.

  Konev had almost finished his report when Stalin suddenly interrupted him. ‘With Zhukov things are not going so well yet. He is still breaking through the enemy defences.’ A long pause followed, which Konev decided not to break. ‘Couldn’t we,’ Stalin continued, ‘redeploy Zhukov’s mobile troops and send them against Berlin through the gap formed in the sector of your Front?’ This was probably not a serious proposal, but a gambit to make Konev put forward his own plan.

  ‘Comrade Stalin,’ he replied, ‘this will take too much time and will add considerable confusion… The situation for our Front is developing favourably, we have enough forces and we can turn both tank armies against Berlin.’ Konev then said that he would advance via Zossen, which they both knew was the headquarters of OKH.

  ‘Very good,’ Stalin replied. ‘I agree. Turn the tank armies towards Berlin.’

  In the government quarter of Berlin during the course of 17 April, nobody really knew what to do except draft stirring declarations combined with further threats of execution. ‘No German town will be declared an open city’, read the order sent by Himmler to all military commanders. ‘Every village and every town will be defended with all possible means. Any German who offends against this self-evident duty to the nation will lose his life as well as his honour.’ He ignored the fact that the German artillery was virtually out of ammunition, tanks were already being abandoned for lack of fuel and the soldiers themselves were without food.

  Nazi bureaucracy, even at the lowest levels, did not change in the face of annihilation. The little town of Woltersdorf, just south of the Reichstrasse 1 to Berlin, found itself overrun with refugees on 17 April. Yet the local authorities still allowed just their ‘non-employed [inhabitants] and those not liable for Volkssturm service’ to leave, and then only if they had ‘written confirmation from their host location’ that shelter was available. In addition, each person had to seek permission of the Kreisabschnittsleiter, the Nazi district chief. The local spirit of resistance, however, was far from fanatical. The town’s Volkssturm emergency platoon asked permission to be excused further duty.


  Konev’s forces were now less than eighty kilometres to the south-east of the OKH and OKW command centres at Zossen. Yet neither the Fourth Panzer Army nor Field Marshal Schörner’s Army Group Centre had reported that the Soviet 3rd and 4th Guards Tank Armies were crossing the Spree in force and that there were no further reserves to stop them. The attention of staff officers at Zossen was fixed primarily on the struggle for the Seelow Heights.

  General Heinrici had already sent the major part of his army group reserve – Steiner’s 111 S S Germanische Panzer Corps – to support Busse’s beleaguered Ninth Army. The 11th SS Division Norland received orders at midday on 17 April to move south to Seelow. The Nordland consisted mainly of Danes and Norwegians but also Swedes, Finns and Estonians. Some have suggested that there was even a handful of British in its ranks, but this seems more than doubtful. Commanded by SS Brigadeführer Joachim Ziegler, it had around fifty armoured vehicles, mainly with its reconnaissance battalion and the Hermann von Salza Panzer Battalion. The bulk of the remaining manpower was with the ‘Danmark’ and the ‘Norge’ panzergrenadier regiments, and a sapper battalion. The Nordland, which had been evacuated from the Courland encirclement and then thrown into the heavy fighting for the Oder estuary east of Stettin, had suffered just under 15,000 casualties since the beginning of the year, with 4,500 killed or missing.

  Heinrici sent another formation of foreign Waff en SS, the Nederland Division, even further south. Its destination was south-west of Frankfurt an der Oder and Müllrose, where it would come under the command of the V SS Mountain Corps. Relations between SS and Wehrmacht were enflamed. Himmler was furious that Heinrici should strip Steiner’s SS Corps of his strongest divisions. And the Nordland itself, demonstrating great reluctance to serve under an army commander, did not exactly hurry to join its new formation.

  Dawn on Wednesday 18 April produced a red sky along the eastern horizon. Those still fighting to cling on to the Seelow Heights were filled with foreboding. It was not long before they heard the deep, harsh noise of tank engines and churning tracks. Air attacks began soon afterwards. Shturmoviks again dive-bombed the Nordland column while it was still some way from the front, and the SS panzergrenadiers in the open trucks were showered with earth. Ziegler had gone on ahead to Weidling’s headquarters to inform him that his vehicles had run out of fuel and that was why the division was taking so long to get to him. Weidling was furious.

  Zhukov, too, was in a dangerous mood that morning. He now knew that Konev’s tank armies had been allowed to swing north on Berlin. Stalin had also raised the possibility during their night-time conversation of turning Rokossovsky’s 2nd Belorussian Front down towards Berlin once it crossed the Oder to the north. The Verkhovny had goaded him even further by offering Stavka advice on how to run his Front. Zhukov’s orders to his army commanders that morning were uncompromising. They were to reconnoitre their front in person and report back on the exact situation. Artillery was to be moved forward to take on German strongpoints over open sights. The advance was to be accelerated and continued day and night. Once again, soldiers were to pay with their lives for the mistakes made by a proud commander under pressure from above.

  After another heavy barrage and bombing raids, Zhukov’s exhausted armies went back into the attack early that morning. On the right, the 47th Army attacked Wriezen. The 3rd Shock Army pushed up to the Wriezen-Seelow road, but met heavy resistance around Kunersdorf. The 5th Shock Army and 2nd Guards Tank Army managed to push across the road north of Neuhardenberg but were also halted. Chuikov’s 8th Guards Army and Katukov’s 1st Guards Tank Army, meanwhile, continued to hammer at the town of Seelow itself and the Friedersdorf–Dolgelin sector. Chuikov was furious that the neighbouring 69th Army on his left had hardly advanced at all. This exposed his flank dangerously. But fortunately for him, all of Busse’s forces were heavily engaged already.

  In fact, both of Zhukov’s extreme flanks had met with little success. South of Frankfurt, the 33rd Army was still grinding down the defences of the SS 30. Januar Division in the V SS Mountain Corps. And at the extreme northern end of the Oderbruch, the 61st Army and the 1st Polish Army had not been able to advance until Wriezen was taken.

  The breakthrough came suddenly just behind Seelow on the Reichstrasse 1. At 9.40 a.m. on 18 April, Colonel Eismann at Army Group Vistula headquarters received a message that ‘leading enemy armoured groups had broken through at Diedersdorf’. They were heading for Müncheberg along the Reichstrasse 1. The infantry was running away. Twenty minutes later, on Heinrici’s insistence, Eismann was ringing Colonel de Maizière at OKH to find out what had happened to the 7th Panzer Division, which he needed to secure the gap between the left of the Ninth Army and the right flank of the Third Panzer Army.

  At midday Busse rang Heinrici. ‘Today is the moment of crisis,’ he reported. The two main thrusts were coming from south-east of Wriezen and along the Reichstrasse 1. Busse saw that his army was being broken up. The 3rd Shock Army and the 5th Shock Army were splitting open the front between Wriezen and Seelow. Half a dozen kilometres west of Seelow, near the village of Alt Rosenthal, the Germans launched a counter-attack with infantry and tanks. Major Andreev of the 248th Rifle Division in the 5th Shock Army left two of his companies to hold the thrust, while he led another company round to attack the Germans from the rear. ‘His battalion liquidated 153 soldiers and officers and two tanks.’

  It was a pitiless battle. At Hermersdorf, south-west of Neuhardenberg, Soviet infantry advanced past a T-34 still burning from a panzerfaust. A German soldier in a
nearby foxhole screamed to them for help. A grenade dropped in the foxhole had blown off his feet and he lacked the strength to pull himself out. But the Red Army soldiers left him there, despite his cries, in revenge for the burned crew.

  At 4.20 p.m., Goring, furious at the collapse of the 9th Parachute Division, rang Army Group Vistula headquarters to order that General Bräuer should be stripped of his command immediately. At 6.45 p.m., General Busse rang Heinrici. The split in his army was unavoidable. ‘Which sector,’ he asked, ‘is more important from a command point of view, north or south?’

  At 7.50 p.m., the Luftwaffe liaison officer informed the operations staff at Army Group Vistula that their aircraft had destroyed fifty-three enemy planes, forty-three tanks and another nineteen ‘probables’. Somebody on the staff added two exclamation marks in pencil in the war diary to demonstrate their scepticism at these claims. The fighting was violent, but German claims of Red Army losses were highly inflated. The Nazi newspaper Der Angriff stated that ‘426 Soviet tanks’ had been destroyed on that day alone. Nevertheless, Soviet casualties had indeed been much heavier than German losses. Zhukov, in his desperation to capture the Seelow Heights, had lost just over 30,000 men killed, while the Germans lost 12,000 during the battle.

  German prisoners sent towards the rear were overawed by the endless columns of tanks, self-propelled guns and other tracked vehicles moving forward. ‘And this is the army,’ some of them thought, ‘which in 1941 was supposed to have been at its last gasp.’ Soviet infantrymen coming up the other side of the road would greet them with cries of ‘Gitler kapuuutt!’, accompanied by a throat-cutting gesture.

  One of the German prisoners was convinced that a number of the dead they passed were ‘Soviet soldiers who had been crushed by their own tanks’. He also saw Russian soldiers trying out some captured panzerfausts by firing them at the wall of a half-ruined house. Others were stripping greatcoats from their own dead, and in one village, he saw a couple of soldiers taking pot shots at nesting storks. Target practice seemed compulsive even after the battle. Some of the prisoners, taken to the magnificent schloss at Neuhardenberg, were alarmed when their escort, spotting a ‘superb chandelier’, raised his sub-machine gun and fired a burst at it. A senior officer reprimanded him, ‘but that seemed to make little impression’.

  ‘In the town of Gusow’, a detachment of the 5th Shock Army reported, ‘we freed sixteen Soviet women. Soldier Tsynbaluk recognized a girl he knew from home. Her name was Tatyana Shesteryakova. The women told the soldiers of their terrible suffering during their slavery. They also mentioned that before fleeing, their ex-owner, Frau Fischke said, “For us, the Russians are worse than death.”’ Political departments claimed that Red Army soldiers were outraged by the ‘fascist propaganda’ slogans daubed on walls about defending German womanhood from the Bolsheviks.

  South of Berlin, Konev had an uneasy moment on 18 April. Field Marshal Schörner, the commander-in-chief of Army Group Centre, alarmed by the breakthrough on the Spree, sent in a counter-attack near Görlitz against the flank of the 52nd Army heading for Dresden. But Schörner’s failure to concentrate his forces – in his haste he sent them into the attack piecemeal – made it comparatively easy for the 52nd Army to fight them off. The 2nd Polish Army at first did not have to halt its advance. But repeated attacks over the next few days slowed them down considerably.

  Konev carried on pushing the 13th Army across the Spree behind his two tank armies. All this time, Gordov’s 3rd Guards Army kept the pressure on the Germans round Cottbus and Zhadov’s 5th Guards Army continued to attack Spremberg, thus securing the breach. Konev also instructed his staff to assemble all the trucks they could. The leading formations of the 28th Army, arriving as reinforcements, were now across the Neisse, and he wanted to hurry them forward to support the tank forces advancing on Berlin. By the end of that day, Rybalko’s 3rd Guards Tank Army had advanced thirty-five kilometres beyond the Spree, while Lelyushenko, facing less resistance, had moved forward forty-five.

  In the afternoon, General Reymann, the commander of the Berlin Defence Area, had received an order to send all the Volkssturm units out of the city to the Ninth Army to strengthen a new line. Reymann was appalled that the city was to be stripped of its defences. When Goebbels, as Reich Defence Commissar for Berlin, confirmed the order, Reymann warned him that ‘a defence of the capital of the Reich is now unthinkable’. Reymann had not realized that this was just what Speer and Heinrici had wanted in order to save Berlin. In the event, less than ten battalions and a few anti-aircraft guns were sent eastward. They marched out of the city in the early hours of the following morning. News of this order, according to Speer, created a widespread assumption that ‘Berlin would in effect be an open city’.

  General Weidling, to his exasperation, found that he had another self-important visitor from Berlin. This time it was Artur Axmann, the head of the Hitler Youth. Weidling tried to persuade him that it was futile to throw fifteen- and sixteen-year-olds armed with panzerfausts into the battle. It was ‘the sacrifice of children for an already doomed cause’. Axmann was prepared only to admit ‘that his youngsters had not received enough training’. Despite an assurance to Weidling that he would not use them, he clearly did nothing to withdraw them from combat. An even more chilling measure of Nazi desperation that day was the beheading of thirty political prisoners in Plötzensee prison.

  On the Ninth Army’s northern flank, the CI Corps had retreated less on 18 April than its neighbours. But this meant that many of its regiments soon found that Soviet troops were already well to their rear. One detachment, the remains of an officer candidate regiment, sent a couple of their comrades back to headquarters that evening to find out what had happened to their rations. The two returned out of breath and shaken. ‘The Russians are eating our supper right now,’ they said. Nobody had any idea where the enemy had broken through and where the front line now lay. They grabbed their equipment and marched back through the darkness, bypassing a village ablaze. The billowing black clouds reflected a bright red glow from the flames.

  That night, a massive katyusha strike destroyed and set light to the village of Wulkow, behind Neuhardenberg. Almost all its houses were crammed with exhausted German soldiers who had fallen asleep. The state of the burned and panic-stricken survivors was terrible. The Nordland reconnaissance battalion also suffered a katyusha strike. They lost more men in a few moments than in all the bitter fighting round Stettin a few weeks earlier.

  On 19 April, the Ninth Army began to split up in three main directions, as General Busse had feared. The Red Army’s capture of Wriezen and the 3rd Shock Army’s advance further westward on to the plateau behind Neuhardenberg forced CI Corps back towards Eberswalde and the countryside north of Berlin. Weidling’s LVI Panzer Corps in the centre began to withdraw due west into Berlin. And on the right, the XI SS Panzer Corps began to withdraw south-westwards towards Fürstenwalde. The Kurmark Division had less than a dozen Panther tanks left.

  That day, the 1st Guards Tank Army and Chuikov’s 8th Guards Army pushed on from Seelow along Reichstrasse 1 towards the key town of Müncheberg. The remains of the 9th Parachute Division, which had rallied the day before, fled in panic again, shouting, ‘Der Iwan kommt.’ The reconnaissance battalion of the SS Nordland Division, which had finally reached the front, rounded up some of the paratroopers, gave them ammunition and brought them back into the battle in a temporarily successful counter-attack.

  The retreat along Reichstrasse 1 and for quite a distance on either side soon collapsed into chaos and misery. ‘Are you the last?’ everyone asked. And the reply always seemed to be, ‘The Russians are right behind us.’ Soldiers of all arms and services were mixed up together, Wehrmacht and Waffen SS alike. The most exhausted flopped down under a tree and stretched out their legs. The local population, hearing that the front had collapsed, swamped the roads to seek shelter in Berlin. Soldiers passed refugees with carts halted by a broken axle or wheel, often hindering military traffic
. Officers stood in their Kübelwagen vehicles to shout at the unfortunates to push their obstruction off the road or to order a group of resting soldiers to do it. In the retreat, officers found that they had to draw their pistol more and more often to have their orders obeyed.

  The Feldgendarmerie and SS groups continued to search for deserters. No records were kept of the roadside executions carried out, but anecdotal evidence suggests that on the XI SS Corps sector, many, including a number of Hitler Youth, were hanged from trees on the flimsiest of proof. This was nothing short of murder. Soviet sources claim that 25,000 German soldiers and officers were summarily executed for cowardice in 1945. This figure is almost certainly too high, but it was unlikely to have been lower than 10,000.

  Executions by the SS were even more unforgivable since word was being passed round SS formations that they were to pull back ‘with orders to reassemble in Schleswig-Holstein’ near the Danish border, which was not exactly the best place from which to fight the Russians. They did not appear to know that the British Second Army had reached the Elbe at Lauenburg that day, just south-east of Hamburg.

  The 19th of April was another beautiful spring day, providing Soviet aviation with perfect visibility. Every time Shturmoviks came over, strafing and bombing, the road emptied as people threw themselves in the ditches. Women and girls from nearby villages, terrified of the Red Army, begged groups of soldiers to take them with them: ‘Nehmt uns mit, nehmt uns bitte, bitte mit!’ Yet some people living quite close to the front seemed incapable of appreciating the scale of the impending disaster. A Herr Saalborn wrote to the bürgermeister of Woltersdorf on 19 April, demanding confirmation that, in accordance with Article 15 of the Reichsleitungsgesetz (the version of 1 September 1939), he would get back his bicycle, which had been commandeered by the Volkssturm.

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