The fall of berlin 1945, p.36
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       The Fall of Berlin 1945, p.36

           Antony Beevor

  The other instinct of the moment was to hoard like a squirrel. Gerda Petersohn, a nineteen-year-old secretary with Lufthansa, was at home in Neukölln, not far from an S-Bahn station, when word spread in the neighbourhood that a Luftwaffe rations wagon was stranded on the track. Women rushed down to loot it. They plunged into boxes and crates to grab at anything. Gerda saw a woman nearby with her arms full of lavatory paper just as Russian planes attacked, strafing with machine-gun fire and dropping small bombs. Gerda rolled under a wagon. The woman with lavatory paper in her arms was killed. ‘What a thing to die for,’ Gerda thought. The last thing she grabbed before running back to their apartment building was a packet of pilot’s emergency rations, containing Schoka-Cola and small malt tablets. These tablets were to prove very useful in an unexpected way.

  There has been a dramatic account of the looting of the Karstadt department store in the Hermannplatz, where queuing shoppers had been blown to pieces during the first artillery bombardment on 21 April. According to this story, SS troops allowed civilians to take what they wanted before they blew the place up. The explosion was said to have killed many over-eager looters. But in fact when the SS Nordland Division took over the store several days later, they did not want to blow it up. They needed Karstadt’s twin towers as observation posts to watch the Soviet advance on Neukölln and the Tempelhof aerodrome.

  Once the electricity supply failed and wirelesses ceased working, the rumour mill became the only news available. More false stories than true ran around Berlin. One claimed that Field Marshal Model had not committed suicide, he had been secretly arrested by the Gestapo. The regime’s own smokescreen of lies made almost anything believable, however inaccurate.

  The 7th Department of the 1st Belorussian Front launched a propaganda blitz on Berlin with air-dropped leaflets telling German soldiers that it was ‘hopeless to fight on’. A Soviet prison was the only way to save their lives, which were not worth losing for the fascist government. Others were ‘safe-conduct passes’ to be shown to Red Army soldiers when surrendering. The department claimed success because ‘almost 50 per cent of Germans who surrendered in Berlin’ had one of the leaflets and showed it to their Soviet captors. Altogether ninety-five different leaflets, almost 50 million copies in all, were dropped. Others – around 1.66 million – were distributed by German civilians and soldiers who were sent back across the lines. During the Berlin operation 2,365 civilians were sent back to infiltrate the city. Also 2,130 German prisoners of war were sent back, of whom 1,845 returned bringing a further 8,340 prisoners. This tactic was deemed to be such a success that the commander of the 3rd Shock Army ordered the mass release of German prisoners of war under the supervision of political officers.

  Indoctrinated former prisoners of war – ‘Seydlitz-truppen’ as the German authorities termed them – were sent through the lines to Berlin with letters written to families by recently captured prisoners. Corporal Max S., for example, wrote to his parents, ‘My beloved relatives. Yesterday I became a prisoner of the Russians. We had been told that Russians shoot their prisoners, but this isn’t true. The Russians are treating their prisoners very well. They fed me, and warmed me up. I am feeling well. The war will end soon and I’ll see you again soon, my dear ones. Don’t worry about me. I am alive and healthy.’ The phrasing and formulae in the letter suggest that it was dictated by a Russian officer, but even so the word-of-mouth effect of such missives was worth far more than tens of thousands of leaflets.

  One leaflet dropped over the capital itself was addressed to the women of Berlin. ‘Because the fascist clique is afraid of punishment, it is hoping to prolong the war. But you women have nothing to be afraid of. No one will touch you.’ It then urged them to persuade German officers and soldiers to capitulate. Since the political officers must have known the trail of mass violation in the wake of the advance through German territory, this was a breathtaking reassurance, even by most standards of wartime propaganda. Soviet propagandists also organized radio broad-casts by ‘women, actors, priests and professors’ to reassure their listeners that they would not be harmed in any way.

  A more effective message came in a ‘letter from the inhabitants of Friedrichshafen to the Berlin Garrison’. ‘The day after the arrival of the Red Army life returned to normal,’ it read. ‘Food supplies recommenced. The inhabitants of Friedrichshafen tell you not to believe the false propaganda of Goebbels about the Red Army.’ The fear of starvation, above all the starvation of children, seems to have represented a greater fear for many women than the danger of rape.

  Field Marshal Keitel, who had left the Führer bunker the evening before with the sandwiches, chocolate and cognac provided by a solicitous Hitler, had driven south-westwards from the capital. He was fortunate not to encounter any of Lelyushenko’s tanks. Keitel headed first to the headquarters of XX Corps at Wiesenburg, only thirty kilometres short of the American bridgehead at Zerbst. General Köhler’s corps consisted mainly of so-called ‘Young’ divisions, largely those called up for pre-military training in the Reich Labour Service. They were far from fully trained, but they certainly did not lack spirit, as General Wenck had soon found.

  In the early hours of 23 April, Keitel moved to the nearby headquarters of the Twelfth Army in a forestry station. He was met by General Wenck and his chief of staff, Colonel Reichhelm. There could not have been a greater contrast between the field marshal and the general. Keitel was pompous, vain, stupid, brutal and obsequious to his Führer. Wenck, who looked young, despite his silver hair, was extremely intelligent and greatly liked by both colleagues and his soldiers. Colonel Reichhelm, his chief of staff, said of their visitor that he was ‘an outstanding sergeant, but no field marshal’. This was a mild criticism. Keitel, of all the generals who sided unconditionally with Hitler, was hated as the chief ‘gravedigger of the army’.

  Keitel began lecturing Wenck and Reichhelm on the need for the Twelfth Army to save the Führer in Berlin. He ranted as if addressing a Nazi Party rally and waved his field marshal’s baton. ‘We let him talk and we let him leave,’ Reichhelm said later. But Wenck already had another idea. He would indeed attack towards Berlin, as ordered, but not to save Hitler. He wanted to force open a corridor from the Elbe, to allow soldiers and civilians to escape both the senseless fighting and the Red Army. It was to be a Rettungsaktion – a rescue operation.

  Hitler, not trusting any general, insisted that his Führer order to the Twelfth Army should be broadcast over the radio addressed to the ‘Soldaten der Armee Wenck!’ It was probably the only time in history that military orders were deliberately made public in the middle of a battle. This was immediately followed by the Werwolfsender radio station, which announced that ‘the Führer has issued orders from Berlin that units fighting [the] Americans rapidly be transferred east to defend Berlin. Sixteen divisions [are] already moving and can be expected [to] arrive [in] Berlin [at] any hour’. The whole purpose was to deceive the population of Berlin into believing that the Americans were now supporting the Germans against the Red Army. By chance, that day American air activity over the central Elbe suddenly halted. It was a huge relief for Twelfth Army soldiers.

  Wenck and his staff knew that Keitel was as much of a fantasist as Hitler. Any suggestion of tackling two Soviet tank armies when they lacked battle-worthy tanks was grotesque. ‘So we made up our own orders,’ said Colonel Humboldt, the chief operations officer. Wenck planned to drive on Potsdam with one force while the bulk of the army would advance eastwards, south of Berlin, to join up with Busse and help his Ninth Army escape. ‘We were in radio contact with Busse and knew where he was.’ Only a light screen of troops would be left facing the Americans.

  Detailed orders were issued rapidly, and later that day, General Wenck drove in a Kübelwagen to address the young soldiers, both those who were to attack north-eastwards towards Potsdam and those who were to attack towards Treuenbrietzen and Beelitz, where the hospital complex was threatened. ‘Boys, you’ve got to go in once more,’ Wen
ck told them. ‘It’s not about Berlin any more, it’s not about the Reich any more.’ Their task was to save people from the fighting and the Russians. Hans-Dietrich Genscher, a young sapper with the Twelfth Army, described their emotions as ‘a feeling of loyalty, a sense of responsibility and comradeship’.

  Wenck’s leadership struck a powerful chord, even if reactions varied between those who believed in a humanitarian operation and those keener to take on the Russians instead of the Western Allies. ‘So about turn!’ wrote Peter Rettich, the battalion commander of the Scharnhorst Division, which had taken such a hammering from the Americans. ‘And now it’s quick march to the east against the Ivans.’

  The other key German general in the battle for Berlin to emerge at this time was General Helmuth Weidling, the commander of the LVI Panzer Corps. Weidling looked rather like a professorial version of Erich von Stroheim, only with hair.

  On the morning of 23 April, Weidling rang the Führer bunker to report. General Krebs replied ‘with conspicuous coldness’ and informed him that he had been condemned to death. Demonstrating a remarkable moral and physical courage, he turned up at the Führer bunker that afternoon. Hitler was clearly impressed, so much so that he decided that the man he had wanted to execute for cowardice was the man to command the defence of the Reich capital. It was, as Colonel Refior observed, a ‘tragi-comedy’ typical of the regime.

  Weidling’s LVI Panzer Corps was considerably reduced. Only fragments remained of the 9th Parachute Division. The Müncheberg Panzer Division was reduced to remnants, and although the 20th Panzergrena-dier Division was in better shape, its commander, Major General Scholz, had committed suicide shortly after entering Berlin. Only the Nordland and the 18th Panzergrenadier Division remained in a relatively battle-worthy condition. Weidling decided to hold back the 18th Panzer-grenadier Division in reserve for counter-attack. The other formations were distributed around the different defence sectors to act as ‘Korsett-stangen’ – ‘corset-stiffeners’.

  The defence of the city had been organized into eight sectors, designated by the letters A to H. Each was commanded by a general or colonel, but few of them had any front experience. Inside the perimeter defence line, an inner defence ring followed the circular track of the S-Bahn city railway. The innermost area was bound by the Landwehr Canal on the south and the River Spree on the north side. The only real strongpoints were the three concrete flak towers – the Zoobunker, the Humboldthain and the Friedrichshain. They had plenty of ammunition for their 128mm and 20mm guns, as well as good communications with underground telephone cables. Their greatest problem was to be overfilled with wounded and civilians in their thousands.

  Weidling found that he was supposed to defend Berlin from 1.5 million Soviet troops with around 45,000 Wehrmacht and SS troops, including his own corps, and just over 40,000 Volkssturm. Almost all the sixty tanks in the city came from his own formations. There was also supposed to be a Panzerjagd battalion equipped with Volkswagens, each of which was fitted with a rack for six anti-tank rockets, but nobody could find any trace of it. In the central government district, Brigadeführer Mohnke commanded over 2,000 men from his base in the Reich Chancellery.*

  The most immediate threat which Weidling faced on the afternoon of 23 April was the assault on the east and south-east of the city from the 5th Shock Army, the 8th Guards Army and the 1st Guards Tank Army. That night, armoured vehicles which were still battle-worthy were ordered back to Tempelhof aerodrome to refuel. There, amid an expanse of wrecked Luftwaffe fighter planes, mainly Focke-Wulfs, the armoured vehicles filled up at a depot by the huge administration building. They received an order to prepare to counter-attack south-eastwards towards Britz. They were reinforced with a few King Tiger tanks and some Nebelwerfer rocket launchers, but the main anti-tank weapon of this force was the ‘Stuka on foot’, a joke name for the panzerfaust.


  After his visit to the Twelfth Army, Keitel returned to the Reich Chancellery at 3 p.m. He and Jodl went to see Hitler for the last time. On their return to the temporary OKW headquarters at Krampnitz, they heard that Russian forces were approaching from the north – this was the 47th Army – and the camp was abandoned in the early hours of the morning.

  It continued to be a busy afternoon in the Führer bunker after Weidling’s departure. Hitler, seizing on Keitel’s report on his visit to the Twelfth Army, gave himself another injection of optimistic fantasy. A hopeless addict, he felt a renewed conviction that the Red Army could be defeated. Then Albert Speer, to everyone’s surprise – and to a certain degree his own – returned to Berlin to see Hitler for the very last time. The leave-taking on Hitler’s birthday had been unsatisfactory for him when surrounded by so many others. Despite changing feelings about his Führer and patron, he evidently still experienced an egotistical charge from this extraordinary friendship, which some have termed homoerotic.

  Speer had driven from Hamburg, trying to avoid roads clogged with refugees, then found that his way was blocked. The Red Army had reached Nauen. He went back to a Luftwaffe airfield, where he commandeered a two-seater Focke-Wulf trainer, and then flew to Gatow airfield on the western edge of Berlin. From there, a Fieseler Storch spotter plane had brought him into the centre, landing at dusk short of the Brandenburg Gate on the east-west axis. Eva Braun, who had always adored Speer, was overjoyed to see him, partly because she had predicted that he would return. Even Bormann, who loathed Speer out of jealousy, seemed pleased to see him, and greeted him at the bottom of the stairs. Speer was probably the only person capable of persuading Hitler at this late hour to leave Berlin. For Bormann, who did not share the fascination with suicide of those around him, especially Goebbels, this was the only hope of saving his own neck.

  Hitler, Speer found, was calm, like an old man resigned to death. He asked questions about Grand Admiral Dönitz and Speer sensed immediately that Hitler intended to nominate him as his successor. Hitler also asked his opinion about flying to Berchtesgaden or staying in Berlin. Speer said that he thought it would be better to end it all in Berlin rather than at his country retreat, where ‘the legends would be hard to create’. Hitler seemed reassured that Speer agreed with his decision. He then discussed suicide and Eva Braun’s determination to die with him.

  Speer was still in the bunker on that evening of 23 April when Bormann rushed in with a signal from Goring in Bavaria. Göring had received from General Koller a third-hand account of Hitler’s breakdown the day before and his pronouncement that he would stay in Berlin and shoot himself. Göring was still the legal successor, and he must have feared that Bormann, Goebbels or Himmler would stake a rival claim. He clearly did not know that Dönitz had been chosen as the unanointed heir. Göring spent over half a day discussing the situation with advisers and with General Koller, who had flown down from Berlin that morning with the inaccurate version of what had been said in the Führer bunker. He then drafted the text which was transmitted to Berlin that night. ‘My Führer! – In view of your decision to remain at your post in the fortress of Berlin, do you agree that I take over, at once, the total leadership of the Reich, with full freedom of action at home and abroad, as your deputy, in accordance with your decree of 29 June 1941? If no reply is received by ten o’clock tonight, I shall take it for granted that you have lost your freedom of action, and shall consider the conditions of your decree as fulfilled, and shall act for the best interests of our country and our people. You know what I feel for you in this gravest hour of my life. Words fail me to express myself. May God protect you, and speed you quickly here in spite of all. Your loyal Hermann Göring.’

  It cannot have been hard for Bormann to have roused Hitler’s suspicions. A second telegram from Göring to Ribbentrop, summoning him for discussions, helped convince Hitler that this was outright treason. Bormann immediately offered to draft a reply. A stinging rebuke stripped Göring of all his responsibilities, titles and powers of command. He was, however, offered the option of retirement from all his posts on health g
rounds. This would save him from far graver charges. Göring had little option but to agree. Even so, on Bormann’s orders, an SS guard surrounded the Berghof and Göring effectively became a prisoner. As a further humiliation, the kitchens were locked, supposedly to prevent the disgraced Reichsmarschall from poisoning himself.

  After this drama, Speer visited Magda Goebbels. He found her pale from an angina attack, lying on a bed in a tiny concrete room. Goebbels would not leave them alone together for a moment. Later, when Hitler had retired about midnight, an orderly arrived with a message from Eva Braun asking Speer to visit her. She ordered champagne and cakes for the two of them and they chatted about the past: Munich, skiing holidays together and life at the Berghof. Speer had always liked Eva Braun – ‘a simple Munich girl, a nobody’ – whom he now admired for her ‘dignity, and almost a kind of gay serenity’. The orderly returned at 3 a.m., to say that Hitler had risen again. Speer left her to make his final farewell to the man who had made him famous. It lasted only a few moments. Hitler was both brusque and distant. Speer, his former favourite, had ceased to exist in his mind.

  At some time during the course of that evening, Eva Braun wrote her last letter to Gretl Fegelein, her sister. ‘Hermann is not with us,’ she wrote of Gretl’s husband. ‘He left for Nauen to gather a battalion or something of the sort.’ She did not know that Fegelein’s journey to reach Nauen was in fact an aborted secret meeting with Himmler which was part of the plot to make peace with the Western Allies. ‘He wants to fight his way out in order to continue the resistance in Bavaria, anyway for a time.’ She was clearly mistaken. Her brother-in-law had risen too far to want to be reduced to a mere partisan.

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