The fall of berlin 1945, p.33
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       The Fall of Berlin 1945, p.33

           Antony Beevor

  Berzarin’s 5th Shock Army had reached the edge of Strausberg on the evening of 19 April. To make matters worse for the retreating German forces, all roads leading westwards were blocked with increasingly panic-stricken refugees. When the T-34S reached Werneuchen airfield, the anti-aircraft defence battery depressed their 88mm guns to take on ground targets. But in all such fighting east of Berlin, ‘It was clear to us soldiers,’ wrote one participant, ‘that this battle could not last long.’

  During the morning of 19 April, the Nordland Division was fighting in the area north-west of Müncheberg, from where General Weidling’s headquarters had just been forced to withdraw rapidly. The ‘Norge’ Regiment was pulling back from Pritzhagen, while the ‘Danmark’ to their south in the Buckow forest was mixed with Hitler Youth and remnants of the 18th Panzer grenadier Division.

  Weidling ordered them to counter-attack in the Buckow forest, but this failed. The reconnaissance battalion of Nordland was almost surrounded and badly mauled. The Hitler Youth detachment suffered an even worse fate, cut off from the rest in a part of the forest which had caught fire. The Soviet tanks cautiously stayed out of range of the panzerfausts. ‘Then the tanks began firing into the tree-tops,’ Sturmmann Becker reported, ‘and the splinters from above began hitting us in our positions below.’

  The survivors were forced to retreat towards Strausberg along small roads through the pinewoods. Russian infantry followed rapidly along the ditches, with their tanks coming up behind to give them covering fire. The Scandinavian Waffen SS had only infantry weapons and a couple of mortars. A lone German assault gun appeared and attempted to take on the T-34S. It was destroyed immediately. But then a solitary King Tiger appeared through the trees. It blasted the two T-34S and saved the situation.

  The remnants of the reconnaissance battalion reassembled in a wood near Strausberg. They bound their wounds, patched up their vehicles and cleaned their weapons. The desolate scene did not stop Sturmbannführer Saalbach from making a speech about the Führer’s birthday and the meaning of the battle against Bolshevism in which they were engaged.

  Obersturmbannführer Langendorf, who had been wounded, was taken back to the S S field hospital. He heard Goebbels’s speech for Hitler’s birthday while the surgeon was working on him. The SS surgeon muttered, ‘Now we’ll let them have it.’ The nurses were volunteers from Holland, Flanders, Denmark and especially from Norway. One of the young Norwegian nurses, Langendorf noticed, had discovered her Waffen SS lover among the badly wounded just brought in. ‘She embraced him and laid his head in her lap and stayed with him until he died from a serious head-wound.’ Like all the foreign fascists and National Socialists who had volunteered for the SS, they had lost their countries and now had lost their cause. This, combined with their visceral hatred of Bolshevism, made them formidable fighters in the battle for Berlin.

  During the best part of that day, the ‘Danmark’ and ‘Norge’ regiments hung on to Strausberg airfield, defending it against Katukov’s tanks. Obersturmbannführer Klotz, the regimental commander of the ‘Danmark’, was killed when his vehicle received a direct hit. He was laid out by his men in the small chapel of a nearby cemetery. There was no time to bury him. They soon had to withdraw further, south-westwards to the Berlin autobahn ring.

  The Nordland avoided the main roads in its withdrawal. Reichstrasse I was in chaos, especially the section near Rüdersdorf, with hundreds of vehicles heading westwards, often blocked by farm carts full of refugees machine-gunned by Shturmovik ground-attack aircraft. Soldiers who had received no rations for five days broke into houses abandoned by their owners. Some were so exhausted that after eating whatever they could find, they collapsed on to a bed, their uniforms still encrusted with mud from their trenches. They then slept so long that in some cases they awoke only with the arrival of the enemy. One Hitler Youth was so exhausted that, after a long and deep sleep, he woke with a start to find that a battle had been fought all around him.

  Officers tried to reimpose order at pistol point. A major halted a self-propelled flak gun transporting wounded to the rear. He ordered the driver to take it back towards the enemy. The crew told him that the barrels were shot out and useless. The major still insisted and ordered them to unload the wounded. Some Volkssturm men nearby shouted out, ‘Shoot him! Shoot him!’ The major backed off. An officer’s authority, unless supported by the sub-machine guns of the Feldgendarmerie, carried little weight on such a retreat.

  The chaos on the roads was further increased by rumour and panic. There were false cries of ‘Der Iwan Kommt!’, and other occasions when Soviet tanks really did appear, having overtaken them. German soldiers claimed that a ‘Seydlitz traitor’ drove through the retreating troops giving out orders to pull back as far as Potsdam on the far side of Berlin. This may well be true, since the Red Army 7th Department was pushing its ‘anti-fascist’ prisoners to take almost any risk.

  Red Army soldiers clearly felt at home fighting through the pine forest east of the capital, even if the warm weather made those still wearing a fur ushanka and padded jacket jealous of those already in summer uniforms. ‘The closer one gets to Berlin,’ one Russian noted, ‘the more the area looks like the country round Moscow.’ But some Red Army habits did not speed their advance. On 20 April, Müncheberg was heavily looted ‘mostly by officers and men of special [i.e. tank and artillery] regiments… More than fifty soldiers were arrested in a day. Some were sent to rifle companies. They were stealing clothes and shoes and other things right in full view of the local population. These men explained that they were looting because they wished to send things home.’

  While Weidling’s LVI Panzer Corps was pushed back to the eastern suburbs of Berlin, the remains of the CI Corps had withdrawn north of the city. Part of it pulled back to the area of Bernau during the night of 19 April. The wounded had been abandoned by the side of the road, because there were so few vehicles left with any fuel. Many of them were apparently killed where they lay by further shelling.

  Most of the troops in Bernau were trainee officers and technicians from scratch regiments. As soon as they were quartered in schools and houses, they simply collapsed and fell asleep. One group of apprentice signallers found an abandoned barracks. But in the early hours of 20 April, when the 125th Rifle Corps of the 47th Army attacked, a sergeant had to go round, kicking them awake, to force them out to defend the town. ‘It was all senseless,’ commented one of their commanders years later, but at the time the Wehrmacht fought on because nobody had told them that they could stop.

  The fighting for Bernau, the last real defensive action before the battle for Berlin began in earnest, was chaotic and short. German officers commanding the young trainees soon realized that they could no longer prevent total disintegration. Many escaped, slipping away alone or in small groups. When the 47th Army captured Bernau, a battery of the 30th Guards Artillery Brigade fired off a victory salute aimed at Berlin. In the meantime, Bogdanov’s 2nd Guards Tank Army pushed on past the north-eastern suburbs of the city, just outside the autobahn ring. Many Soviet soldiers had heard of it as a massive engineering feat, but those who had witnessed Stalinist showpieces professed disdain.

  The 7th Department used more and more prisoners as agents to encourage desertion. On the 3rd Shock Army’s front, five soldiers from a Volkssturm battalion were sent back to their comrades on 20 April. ‘They returned the following day with almost the whole battalion.’ But despite the promises of the political department, many Russian soldiers seemed to be obsessed with finding Waffen SS soldiers on whom to take revenge. ‘Du SS!’ they would shout accusingly. Soldiers who laughed in astonishment were in severe danger of being shot out of hand. Some of those captured by NKVD troops and accused by SMERSH of being members of Werwolf were forced into confessing that they had been ‘given chemical substances to poison wells and rivers’.

  General Busse, with the larger half of the Ninth Army – the XI S S Panzer Corps, the V SS Mountain Corps and the garrison of Frankfurt an de
r Oder – soon began to withdraw south-westwards towards the Spreewald, despite orders from the Führer bunker that the line of defence on the Oder must never be abandoned.

  The Führer’s compulsion to launch counter-attacks for their own sake returned on the evening of 20 April, just when Zhukov and Konev were forcing their own tank army commanders to advance more rapidly. Hitler told General Krebs to launch an attack from the west of Berlin against Konev’s armies to prevent encirclement. The force expected to ‘hurl back’ the 3rd and 4th Guards Tank Armies consisted of the Friedrich Ludwig Jahn Division, made up of boys in Reich Labour Service detachments, and the so-called ‘Wünsdorf Panzer formation’, a batch of half a dozen tanks from the training school there.

  A police battalion was sent to the Strausberg area that day ‘to catch deserters and execute them and shoot any soldiers found retreating without orders’. But even those detailed as executioners began to desert on their way forward. One of those who gave themselves up to the Russians told his Soviet interrogator that ‘about 40,000 deserters were hiding in Berlin even before the Russian advance. Now this number is rapidly increasing.’ He went on to say that the police and the Gestapo could not control the situation.


  The Flight of the Golden Pheasants

  On the morning of Saturday 21 April, just after the last Allied air raid had finished, General Reymann’s headquarters on the Hohenzollerndamm swarmed with brown uniforms. Senior Nazi Party officials had rushed there to obtain the necessary authorization to leave Berlin. For once the ‘Golden Pheasants’ had to request permission from the army. Goebbels, as Reich Commissioner for Berlin, had ordered that ‘no man capable of bearing arms may leave Berlin’. Only the headquarters for the Defence of Berlin could issue an exemption.

  ‘The rats are leaving the sinking ship’ was the inevitable reaction of Colonel von Refior, Reymann’s chief of staff. Reymann and his staff officers received a fleeting satisfaction from the sight. Over 2,000 passes were signed for the Party ‘armchair warriors’, who had always been so ready to condemn the army for retreating. Reymann said openly that he was happy to sign them since it was better for the defence of the city to be rid of such cowards.

  This idea was echoed strongly two days later by the Werwolfsender, Goebbels’s special transmitter at Königs Wusterhausen, when it broadcast appeals to the ‘Werwölfe of Berlin and Brandenburg’ to rise against the enemy. It claimed that all the cowards and traitors had left Berlin. ‘The Führer did not flee to southern Germany. He stands in Berlin and with him are all those whom he has found worthy to fight beside him in this historic hour… Now, soldiers and officers of the front, you are not only waging the final and greatest decisive battle of the Reich, but by your fight you are also completing the National Socialist revolution. Only the uncompromising revolutionary fighters have remained.’ This deliberately ignored the far larger numbers of reluctant Volkssturm and conscripts forced to fight on with the threat of a noose or a firing squad.

  An intensive artillery bombardment of Berlin began at 9.30 a.m., a couple of hours after the end of the last Allied air raid. Hitler’s SS adjutant, Otto Günsche, reported that the Führer, a few minutes after having been woken, emerged unshaven and angry in the bunker corridor which served as an anteroom. ‘What’s going on?’ he shouted at General Burgdorf, Colonel von Below and Günsche. ‘Where’s this firing coming from?’

  Burgdorf answered that central Berlin was under fire from Soviet heavy artillery. ‘Are the Russians already so near?’ asked Hitler, clearly shaken.

  General Kazakov had pushed forward his breakthrough artillery divisions and all the other heavy gun batteries with 152mm and 203mm howitzers. More messages had been daubed on the shells – ‘For the rat Goebbels’, ‘For Stalingrad’, ‘For the fat belly of Göring’ and ‘For orphans and widows!’ The gun crews were encouraged into a frenzied rate of fire by political officers. Senior artillery officers felt especially proud and made self-satisfied remarks about ‘the bloody god of war’, which had become an almost universal euphemism for Soviet gunnery. From that morning until 2 May, they were to fire 1.8 million shells in the assault on the city.

  The casualties among women especially were heavy as they still queued in the drizzling rain, hoping for their ‘crisis rations’. Mangled bodies were flung across the Hermannplatz in south-west Berlin as people queued outside the Karstadt department store. Many others were killed in the queues at the water pumps. Crossing a street turned into a dash from one insecure shelter to another. Most gave up and returned to their cellars. Some, however, took what seemed like the last opportunity to bury silver and other valuables in their garden or a nearby allotment. But the relentlessness of the bombardment and the random fall of shells soon forced the majority of the population back underground.

  In the cellars and air-raid shelters distinctive subcultures had grown up during two years of heavy air raids from ‘die Amis?’ by day and ‘die Tommys’ by night. The ‘cellar tribe’, as one diarist called these curious microcosms of society, produced a wide variety of characters, whether in markedly rich or poor districts. Each cellar always seemed to have at least one crashing bore, usually a Nazi trying to justify his belief in the Führer and final victory. A number of Berliners, for some reason, had suddenly started to refer to Hitler as ‘that one’, and it was not necessarily a term of abuse.

  People clung to lucky charms or talismans. One mother brought with her the spare artificial leg of a son still trapped in the siege of Breslau. Many cellar tribes developed a particular superstition or theory of survival. For example, some believed that they would survive an almost direct hit by wrapping a towel round their head. Others were convinced that if they bent forward at the first explosion, this would prevent their lungs from tearing. Every eccentricity of German hypochondria seems to have received full expression. When the all-clear sounded after a bombing raid, cellars and shelters echoed with nervous laughter and compulsive jokes. A favourite among older, more raucous women was, ‘Better a Russki on the belly than an Ami on the head.’

  During the course of the day, while shattered German units and stragglers fell back, Hitler still insisted that Busse hold a line which had been disintegrating for two days. The remnants of Busse’s left wing, the CI Corps, had been forced out of the Bernau area. Wolfram Kertz of the Grossdeutschland guard regiment was wounded near the Blumberg autobahn junction north-east of Berlin. Of the 1,000 or so men of the guard regiment, only forty reached Berlin. So much depended on ‘Soldatenglück’, or ‘soldier’s luck’. Kertz was propped up against a church wall when Russian soldiers found him. They saw the Knight’s Cross at his neck. ‘Du General?’ they asked. They called up a horse-drawn cart and took him to a headquarters for interrogation. A senior officer asked him whether Hitler was still alive and what he knew about any plans for a German counter-stroke with the Americans against the Red Army.

  This no doubt reflected the paranoia in the Kremlin. In fact, the Americans were still fighting the Germans everywhere, including on the Berlin axis. Their ground troops and US Air Force Mustangs were launching continual attacks against the Scharnhorst Division of the Twelfth Army north of Dessau. This was a response to the unexpected Luftwaffe attacks against the Elbe crossings and bridgeheads. Peter Rettich, commanding a battalion in the Scharnhorst, had only fifty men left on 21 April.

  In the Ninth Army’s centre, the remnants of Weidling’s LVI Panzer Corps were also pushed back against and across the eastern side of the Berlin autobahn ring. Corpses lay in the ditches on either side of the obvious highways. Most were the victims of Shturmovik low-level strafing attacks.

  Side roads and main routes alike were encumbered by civilians with handcarts, prams and teams of farm horses. Soldiers were surrounded by civilians desperate for news of the enemy’s advance, but often had no clear idea themselves. Pickets of Feldgendarmerie at each crossroads again grabbed stragglers to form scratch companies. There were also men hanged from roadside trees, with a card on their
chest stating, ‘I was a coward.’ Soldiers sent to defend houses either side of the road were the luckiest. The inhabitants gave them food and some hot water to shave and wash in, the first for many days.

  In Petershagen, a company of the Nordland under Sturmbannführer Lorenz, supported by a few reconnaissance vehicles, prepared to make a stand against the 8th Guards Army, but they were suddenly devastated by a massive katyusha strike. One account claims that the Soviet troops had filled the warheads with an improvised napalm. The reconnaissance vehicles apparently burst into flame and in some cases exploded. The panic-stricken survivors jumped into the vehicles left undamaged and drove off, leaving the injured, many with terrible burns, to their fate. Only Lorenz and his radio operator stayed to care for them. They loaded the ones most likely to survive on to the only remaining half-track and drove them back to the dressing station. It had been set up in a barn within a hollow next to a command post. Lorenz had ‘a very bad feeling’. A few moments later the Soviet Guards artillery landed another accurate katyusha strike. Hardly anybody survived unscathed. Lorenz himself received shrapnel in the right shoulder.

  Close by, Gerhard Tillery, one of the survivors of a trainee officer battalion, saw a colonel from their division outside a racing stable at Hoppegarten. ‘See that you all get home safe and sound,’ the colonel told the surprised soldier. ‘There’s no more point to any of this.’ But Tillery could not follow this advice straight away. Their new scratch company was commanded by a very determined young artillery officer with no infantry experience at all. He pulled them back to Mahlsdorf, where they took up defensive positions in a cemetery. In the lull before the fighting began again, Tillery and a couple of others were sent to collect food offered by local civilians. They brought it back in a couple of milk churns. Tillery saw that there were some Volkssturm and a police battalion on their right. They all knew that it would not be long before the Russians appeared, feeling their way forward and firing mortars at any likely defensive position.

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