The fall of berlin 1945, p.34
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       The Fall of Berlin 1945, p.34

           Antony Beevor

  There, on the eastern side of Berlin, the German remnants of the Ninth Army faced the 5th Shock Army and Chuikov’s 8th Guards Army. But then Zhukov pushed the 8th Guards Army further south towards the Spree. He wanted Chuikov and Katukov’s 1st Guards Tank Army, still working closely together, to enter Berlin from the south-west. This, he hoped, would pre-empt Konev’s attempt to attack Berlin from that direction. On 21 April, some of Katukov’s tank brigades advanced with the infantry of 8th Guards Army and captured Erkner, just south of Rüdersdorf.

  To encircle the northern flank of Berlin, Zhukov had sent the 47th Army round towards Spandau and the 2nd Guards Tank Army to Oranienburg. Pressure from Stalin prompted the signal: ‘Due to the slowness of our advance, the Allies are approaching Berlin and will soon take it.’ The leading tank brigades, which were supposed to have reached the city the night before, were only at the outskirts by the evening of 21 April. Zhukov refused to acknowledge that a headlong advance with tanks in such surroundings involved heavy losses. Every house by the side of the road, every allotment or garden, almost every bush could contain a Hitler Youth or Volkssturmer armed with a panzerfaust. Rifle regiments from the 3rd Shock Army and the 5th Shock Army also reached the north-eastern suburbs of Malchow and Hohenschönhausen that night.

  Twenty kilometres south of Berlin in the huge underground headquarters at Zossen there was a mood of profound anxiety. The day before, when the threat of Soviet tanks coming up from the south had arisen, General Krebs had sent off the OKH’s small defence detachment in reconnaissance vehicles to investigate. At 6 a.m. on 21 April, Krebs’s second aide, Captain Boldt, was woken by a telephone call. Senior Lieutenant Kränkel, commanding the defence detachment, had just seen forty Soviet tanks coming up the Baruth road towards Zossen. He was about to engage them. Boldt knew that Kränkel’s light armoured vehicles stood no chance against T-34S. He informed Krebs, who rang the Reich Chancellery to ask permission to relocate the headquarters. Hitler refused. Shortly before the 11 a.m. situation conference, tank guns could be heard clearly in the distance. One staff officer observed that the Russians could reach Zossen in half an hour. Another message arrived from Kränkel. His attack had failed with heavy losses. There was nothing left to stop the enemy tanks.

  General Krebs appeared from his office. ‘If you’re ready, gentlemen,’ he said, and thus began the very last conference of German general staff officers. It was hard to keep their minds off their imminent capture by Soviet armoured forces and the prison camps which awaited them in Russia. But there was no more shooting. The tanks had halted north of Baruth because they were out of diesel. And finally, at 1 p.m., General Burgdorf rang from the Reich Chancellery. The OKH was to move its headquarters to a Luftwaffe base at Eiche near Potsdam. Their companions in the adjoining OKW bunker system were to move to the nearby tank base at Krampnitz. The decision was taken only just in time.

  A larger convoy of vehicles and non-essential personnel left Zossen on a hazardous journey to the south-west and then on down to Bavaria. They knew nothing of Lelyushenko’s tank brigades crossing their path ahead, but instead they were hit by one of the last Luftwaffe sorties. The German pilots misidentified their vehicles. The smaller party, meanwhile, headed for Potsdam, on a parallel route to Lelyushenko’s tanks.

  Late that afternoon, Soviet soldiers entered the concealed camp at Zossen with caution and amazement. The two complexes, known as Maybach I and Maybach II, lay side by side, hidden under trees and camouflage nets. It was not the mass of papers blowing about inside the low, zigzag-painted concrete buildings which surprised them, but the resident caretaker’s guided tour. He led them down into a maze of galleried underground bunkers, with generators, plotting maps, banks of telephones and teleprinters. Its chief wonder was the telephone exchange, which had linked the two supreme headquarters with Wehrmacht units in the days when the Third Reich had stretched from the Volga to the Pyrenees and from the North Cape to the Sahara. Apart from the caretaker, the only defenders left were four soldiers. Three of them had surrendered immediately. The fourth could not because he was dead drunk.

  A telephone suddenly rang. One of the Russian soldiers answered it. The caller was evidently a senior German officer asking what was happening. ‘Ivan is here,’ the soldier replied in Russian, and told him to go to hell.

  Just as Krebs’s staff officers were transferring with unseemly haste to the western side of Berlin, a rumour started that General Weidling had also moved his headquarters to Döberitz, just north of Potsdam. This was to lead to a black comedy two days later, when Hitler first wanted to execute Weidling for treason and cowardice, but then appointed him commander of the defence of Berlin.

  Hitler took the Soviet bombardment of Berlin as a personal affront, which, considering the slogans daubed on the Soviet shells, it was intended to be. His instinctive reaction was to blame the Luftwaffe for allowing this to happen. He threatened General Koller with execution, not for the first time. The fact that the Luftwaffe had few serviceable aircraft left and even less aviation fuel did not concern him. Anger, he was convinced, lent him inspiration. The Soviet attempt to encircle the city from the north exposed their right flank. He would order a counter-attack and cut them to ribbons. He remembered from the situation map the III SS Germanische Corps, commanded by Obergrup-penführer Felix Steiner, north-west of Eberswalde. Hitler refused to accept that Heinrici had already allocated most of its divisions to help the Ninth Army. Steiner’s corps, according to Army Group Vistula headquarters, consisted of no more than ‘three battalions and a few tanks’.

  Hitler, oblivious of reality, began to talk about ‘Army Detachment Steiner’, an inflation which was grandiose even by his own standards. He argued that it could in any case be reinforced with all the units from CI Corps which had retreated north of Berlin. He even thought of Göring’s Luftwaffe bodyguard at Karinhall, but they had already departed. Every soldier, sailor and airman who could be scraped together would be thrown into battle and any commander who held back his men faced execution within five hours. Hitler had always taken as gospel the remark of Frederick the Great, ‘Whoever throws his last battalion into the struggle will be the winner.’ It bolstered his fantasy that reckless gambling with the lives of others was the mark of greatness.

  Steiner, when he received the telephone call from the Führer bunker, was dumbfounded by Hitler’s order to attack. After collecting his thoughts, he rang Krebs back to remind him of the true situation, but Krebs was standing almost next to Hitler. By then it was too late. Steiner received an official order to launch a counter-attack against the right flank of the 1st Belorussian Front. He and his officers were also threatened with execution if they failed to obey. When Heinrici was informed a little later, he rang the Reich Chancellery to protest at this lunacy. Krebs told him that the decision had been made and that he could not speak to the Führer, who was too busy to talk to him.

  Hitler, during the course of that night of madness, also sacked General Reymann as commander for the defence of Berlin. General Burgdorf had convinced Hitler that he was no good. And Goebbels had taken against him ever since he refused to move his headquarters into the Zoo bunker alongside his own, as Reich Commissioner for the Defence of Berlin. Reymann was made commandant of a weak division in Potsdam instead, which received the title Army Group Spree. Two replacements were considered and rejected. Hitler then chose a Colonel Käther, whose main qualification for the task was that he happened to be the chief National Socialist Führungsoffizier, the Nazi copy of the Soviet military commissar. Käther was promoted to major general and then lieutenant general, but the appointment was cancelled the following day. Berlin was without a commander just as the Red Army was entering the suburbs.

  For Zhukov the pace of advance was still far too slow. Sunday 22 April had been the target date for capturing Berlin, yet his leading divisions were still on the periphery. On that morning he signalled to his army commanders: ‘The defence of Berlin is weakly organized, but the operation of our troop
s is progressing very slowly.’ He ordered a ‘twenty-four-hour-a-day advance’. But the fact of its being Lenin’s birthday still encouraged political departments to distribute more symbolic red banners to be raised over prominent buildings.

  The Russians were unimpressed by the Spree. One officer described it as ‘a dirty, swampy little river’. But just as Zhukov had underestimated the defensive strength of the Seelow Heights, he had also overlooked the networks of rivers, canals and lakes in this forested area of Brandenburg. It was thanks only to the great experience of reconnaissance companies in swimming attacks across rivers during the two-year advance and the bridging skills and bravery of Soviet sappers that the advance did not take longer. The 1st Guards Tank Army prepared to build a pontoon bridge across the Spree near Köpenick, even though still some way off.

  The 8th Guards Army, working with the tanks, was forcing Weidling’s LVI Corps back into the city without realizing it. On their right, the 5th Shock Army pushed into the eastern suburbs, and further round, the 3rd Shock Army was ordered to advance into the central northern suburbs and then down towards the centre. On its right, the 2nd Guards Tank Army was to enter the city via Siemensstadt and head for Charlottenburg. Finally, the 47th Army, after astonishing French prisoners of war in Oranienburg with their carts and bowsers towed by camels, moved further westwards to finish the encirclement of the northern half of the city.

  Early that Sunday morning, General Weidling summoned his divisional commanders to discuss the situation with them. They all, with one exception, wanted to fight their way through southwards to join up with General Busse and the other two corps of the Ninth Army. The exception was Brigadeführer Ziegler of the SS Nordland Division, who, to Weidling’s fury, made no secret of wanting to rejoin Steiner. Nobody knows whether this was prompted entirely by SS tribalism, or was also a way of pulling his Scandinavian volunteers back into an SS stronghold near the Danish border.

  The Nordland continued to defend Mahlsdorf and the entrance to Berlin along Reichstrasse 1. In Friedrichsfelde, one of its detachments rounded up French prisoners of war and forced them to dig trenches at gunpoint. After heavy attacks in the middle of the day, the division pulled back into Karlshorst. One of its detachments dug in beside the track for trotting races, setting up mortar positions. But it was not long before they themselves came under heavy fire, with ‘Soviet shells exploding in the stands and stable-blocks’.

  It was by now almost a week since soldiers had seen the last of their iron rations, which often consisted of no more than a tin of processed cheese, a Dauerbrot, or long-life bread, and a waterbottle full of coffee or tea. Now the best they could hope for was a tin of pork left on the shelf of an abandoned house which they stabbed open with their bayonet. They were filthy, bearded and had bloodshot eyes.

  Conditions for the bulk of the Ninth Army to their south-east were even worse. Hitler’s orders to hold on to the line of the Oder were senseless. The remnants of the XISS Panzer Corps, the VSS Mountain Corps and the Frankfurt garrison began to pull back into the Spreewald from different directions. Men moved singly or in groups. There were few formed units left and hardly any capable of taking orders from Busse’s headquarters. Vehicles were abandoned as they ran out of fuel along the way.

  Odd detachments were left behind as a covering force, but their resistance did not last long. Reinhard Appel, one of the Hitler Youth trained at the Olympic Stadium, formed part of a group detailed to replace SS troops from the 30. fanuar Division not far from Müllrose. His life was saved by an old sergeant, highly decorated from the Eastern Front. As the Soviet soldiers advanced, Appel, in a desperate attempt to sell his life dearly, raised himself ready to throw a grenade. The sergeant grabbed his arm and prised the grenade from his grasp. He yelled at the boy that it was mad to try to be brave in a hopeless position. The Russians would just wipe out everyone in the bunker. He had a white handkerchief attached to a stick and raised his arms in surrender as the Soviet soldiers appeared with their sub-machine guns. With cries of ‘Voina kaputt!’ (‘the war’s had it’) and ‘Gitler kaputt!’, the Russians rushed forward to strip the young soldiers of weapons, which they threw to one side, then grabbed their watches. The boys and the old sergeant were ordered to march eastwards towards the Oder.

  Eighty kilometres to their rear, reconnaissance detachments of the 3rd Guards Tank Army had reached Königs Wusterhausen the evening before. It represented an advance from the Neisse of 174 kilometres in less than six days. They were separated from Chuikov’s 8th Guards Army on the north bank of the Müggelsee by a network of lakes and waterways in between. The two Soviet armies and this barrier effectively meant that Busse’s remaining portion of the Ninth Army was now encircled.

  Marshal Konev, warned by air reconnaissance of the mass of enemy troops in the Spreewald on his right, speeded up the 28th Army’s move forward in trucks. These divisions were intended to seal the gap between Gordov’s 3rd Guards Army, finishing off the German forces round Cottbus, and the 3rd Guards Tank Army, pushing on to Berlin. Konev decided to reinforce Rybalko’s tank army with an artillery breakthrough corps – ‘a powerful hammer’ – and an anti-aircraft division.

  By the evening of 22 April all three of Rybalko’s corps had reached the Teltow Canal, the southern rim of Berlin’s perimeter defence line. The German defenders were ‘completely surprised to find themselves face to face with Russian tanks’. A 3rd Guards Tank Army report, in an unusually poetic phrase, described their arrival as unexpected ‘as snow in the middle of summer’.

  German communications were so bad that even Army Group Vistula headquarters knew nothing of this advance. And ‘no steps were taken to remove the supplies’ from a large Wehrmacht ration store on the south side of the canal. ‘On the contrary, even when the first Russian tank was only a few hundred metres away, the administrator refused to let rations be distributed to the Volkssturm troops on the north bank of the canal because a regulation issue certificate had not been filled out.’ He set fire to the provisions instead.

  The 9th Mechanized Corps had charged through Lichtenrade, the 6th Guards Tank Corps had captured Teltow and, just to its left, the 7th Guards Tank Corps had taken Stahnsdorf. Further to the west, part of Lelyushenko’s 4th Guards Tank Army was ten kilometres short of Potsdam. Further out, two more of his corps were snaking round the western end of Berlin and were less than forty kilometres away from Zhukov’s 47th Army coming from the north.

  French prisoners in Stalag III, close to the Teltow Canal, were enjoying a moment of spring warmth when there was a rush to the barbed-wire perimeter. ‘At about five in the afternoon,’ one of them recorded, ‘the first Russian soldier appeared. He was walking jauntily, quite erect, sub-machine gun at his waist, ready to fire. He was walking along the ditch beside the road. He did not even bother to look at our camp.’ A little later, however, Soviet officers entered the camp. The Russian prisoners there were ordered to fall in. They were handed a rifle or sub-machine gun and expected to go straight into action.

  Another French prisoner of war on the south-eastern side of the city happened to see ‘a Hitler Youth aged thirteen or fourteen with the face of a child in spite of his helmet, in a foxhole, awkwardly gripping a panzerfaust’. The boy seemed to have no doubt that the hole in the ground would become his grave the next day.

  In their rapid progress north, Konev’s tank brigades had overtaken carts loaded with civilians, some of whom, on closer inspection, turned out to be German soldiers who had concealed their uniforms. Those soldiers who managed to slip westwards through the rear of Lelyushenko’s 4th Guards Tank Army spread word of its advance. In addition to the three corps encircling Berlin from the west, the 5th Guards Mechanized Corps was moving towards the Elbe, ready to block any attempt by Wenck’s Twelfth Army to join up with Busse’s Ninth Army.

  At the improvised hospital complex in the barracks near Beelitz-Heilstätten, Sister Ruth Schwarz, who had helped evacuate the sick children from Potsdam, was horrified to hear on 21 April
that the Russians were already at Jüterbog. That was less than forty kilometres away. Emergency rations of chocolate, dry sausage and crispbread were distributed to the different wards. Nurses slept at least four to a room, hoping that that might protect them when the Russian soldiers came. Their ‘hearts raced in fear’ on news of the Soviet advance.

  On 22 April, they heard that the Red Army had reached Schönefeld, just ten kilometres away. Mother Superior Elisabeth von Cleve, who had arrived with part of the staff and adult patients from Potsdam, set up an altar with candles and had hundreds of patients wheeled in for an impromptu service to provide consolation. When they sang ‘Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott’, tears ran down faces. Their only hope seemed to lie in rumours that Beelitz-Heilstätten had been declared an international zone under Swiss supervision. But this evaporated the next morning when they heard that Soviet troops had reached Beelitz and were ‘plundering, torching and raping’. ‘I immediately took out my small nail scissors for the direst emergency,’ recorded Sister Ruth Schwarz, and the nurses carried on with their work.

  Soviet military authorities had their own problems in the rear areas. Groups of German officers and soldiers bypassed on the Seelow Heights were trying to slip back westwards. Desperate for food, they were ambushing the horse-drawn supply carts and even individual Red Army soldiers to get their bread bags.

  Now approaching the climax of the war, NKVD rifle regiments continued to react with their usual suspicion and lack of proportion. ‘On 22 April,’ one regiment reported, ‘a Red Army cook, Maria Mazurkevich, met officers of a division in which she had worked previously and went with them by car. This means that she deserted. We are taking every step to find her.’ This was at a time when virtually no steps were taken to stop rape or looting, or even murder.

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