The fall of berlin 1945, p.37
The Fall of Berlin 1945, p.37Antony Beevor
Eva Braun, practical within her unworldliness, then proceeded to concentrate on business matters. She wanted Gretl to destroy all her private correspondence. ‘On no account must Heise’s bills be found.’ Heise was her dressmaker and she did not want the public to know how extravagant she had been at the Führer’s expense. Once again, she was concerned with the disposal of her jewellery. ‘My diamond watch is unfortunately being repaired,’ she wrote. Gretl was to track down SS Unterscharfführer Stegemann, who had apparently arranged to have it repaired by a watchmaker, almost certainly Jewish, ‘evacuated’ from Oranienburg concentration camp in one of the last death marches.
Frightened Berliners could not resist believing Goebbels when he promised that Wenck’s army was coming to save them. They were also encouraged to believe in the rumour that the Americans were joining in the battle against the Russians. Many heard aircraft fly over the city during the night of 23 April without dropping bombs. These planes, they told each other, must have been American, and perhaps they were dropping paratroops. But the two US Airborne divisions had never emplaned.
Just about the only troops coming to Berlin at this time were neither American nor German, but French. At 4 a.m. on Tuesday 24 April, Brigadeführer Krukenberg was woken in the SS training camp near Neustrelitz, where remnants of the ‘Charlemagne’ Division had been based since the Pomeranian disaster. The telephone call was from Army Group Vistula headquarters. Evidently, General Weidling had informed Heinrici that he insisted on removing Brigadeführer Ziegler from command of the Nordland. Krukenberg was told that he was to move to Berlin immediately. No reason was given. He was simply told to report to Gruppenführer Fegelein in the Reich Chancellery. The staff officer also advised him to take an escort, as he might have trouble getting through to Berlin.
Henri Fenet, the surviving battalion commander, was woken immediately and he roused his men. Krukenberg was dressed in the long grey leather greatcoat of a Waffen SS general when he addressed the assembled officers and men. He asked for volunteers to accompany him to Berlin. Apparently, the vast majority wanted to go. Krukenberg and Fenet chose ninety, because that was all that the vehicles available could carry. Many were officers, including the divisional chaplain, Monsignor Count Mayol de Lupé. After the war, Krukenberg claimed that none of them were National Socialists. This may well have been true in the strict sense of the term, but French fascism was probably closer to Nazism than to the Italian or Spanish varieties. In any case, these volunteers ready to die in the ruins of the Third Reich were all fanatical anti-Bolsheviks, whether they believed in New Europe or ‘vieille France’.
The volunteers selected filled their pockets and haversacks with ammunition and took the battalion’s remaining panzerfausts. At 8.30 a.m., as they formed up by the road to climb into their vehicles, they suddenly saw the Reichsführer SS driving himself in an open Mercedes. Himmler passed right through them without even acknowledging his troops. He had no guards and no escort. Only several years later did Krukenberg realize that Himmler must have been returning to his retreat at Hohenlychen from Lübeck. He had met Count Bernadotte, the Swedish Red Cross representative, the night before.
The column of two armoured personnel carriers and three heavily laden trucks set off for Berlin. They had heard that Soviet tanks had already reached Oranienburg, so Krukenberg decided to take a more westerly route. It was not going to be easy to reach Berlin. Everyone was going in the other direction, whether formed detachments, stragglers, refugees or foreign workers. Many Wehrmacht soldiers jeered at the ‘Charlemagne’ volunteers, telling them that they were headed in the wrong direction. Some tapped their temples to indicate that they were crazy. Others shouted that the war was as good as over. They even encountered the signals detachment of the Nordland Division. Its commander claimed that he had received orders to move to Schleswig-Holstein. Krukenberg, having been out of touch, had no way of verifying this. Also he knew nothing of the row between Ziegler and Weidling.
After a strafing attack by a Soviet fighter, which killed one man, and on hearing artillery fire in the middle distance, Krukenberg directed the vehicles along small roads which he had known as an officer in Berlin before the war. Taking advantage of the pine forests, which hid them from enemy aviation, they came closer to the city. The route, however, became increasingly difficult with barricades and blown bridges, so Krukenberg ordered the trucks to return to Neustrelitz. He retained the two armoured personnel carriers, but the vast majority of the French volunteers had to continue on foot for another twenty kilometres.
They reached the area of the Reichssportfeld, next to the Olympic stadium, at 10 p.m. The exhausted men discovered a Luftwaffe supply store, but most of them drank a special pilot’s cocoa laced with benzedrine. Few managed to sleep. Krukenberg, accompanied by his adjutant, Captain Pachur, then set out across an apparently deserted Berlin to report to Fegelein in the Reich Chancellery. A rumour spread among the French volunteers that Hitler himself was coming out to review them there.
Their more direct chief, Himmler, who had driven past that morning, had finally crossed his Rubicon. The ‘faithful Heinrich’, as Himmler had been known with amusement at the Führer’s court, was doomed as a conspirator. He had little talent for plotting and lacked conviction for his cause. His only advantage was that Hitler never imagined that the Reichsführer, who had proudly invented the SS motto, ‘My honour is loyalty’, would turn out a traitor.
According to Speer, Himmler was still furious over Hitler’s order to strip the Waffen SS divisions in Hungary of their armband titles. Yet if Hitler had summoned him to his side or given some indication that he appreciated him above Martin Bormann, then his eyes would have filled with tears and he would have renewed his pledge of devotion to the Führer on the spot. As a result he was paralysed by indecision. Yet Himmler’s greatest miscalculation, in his attempt to open negotiations with the enemy, was his belief that he was vital to the Western Allies, ‘since he alone could maintain order’.
At the first two meetings with Count Bernadotte, Himmler had not dared take the conversation beyond the release of concentration camp prisoners. ‘The Reichsführer is no longer in touch with reality,’ Bernadotte had told Schellenberg after the meeting which followed Hitler’s birthday. Himmler refused to follow the advice of Schellenberg, who urged him to depose or even murder the man to whom he had been so faithful.
Schellenberg managed to persuade Himmler not to return to the bunker to see Hitler on 22 April after they had heard from Fegelein of the Führer’s frenzy that afternoon. Schellenberg was afraid that the moment his chief saw the Führer again, his resolve would weaken. Himmler offered his SS guard battalion for the defence of Berlin through an intermediary. Hitler accepted immediately and showed on the map where the battalion should be deployed, in the Tiergarten close to the Reich Chancellery. He also gave orders for the important prisoners – the Prominenten – to be moved so that they could be slaughtered at the moment of defeat.
On the night of 23 April, Himmler and Schellenberg met Bernadotte at Lübeck. Himmler, aware now of Hitler’s determination to kill himself in Berlin, was finally resolved to take his place and start negotiations in earnest. He now formally requested Bernadotte to approach the Western Allies on his behalf to arrange a cease-fire on the Western Front. He promised that all Scandinavian prisoners would be sent to Sweden. It was typical of Himmler’s strange relationship with reality that his immediate preoccupation was whether he should bow to General Eisenhower or shake hands when meeting him.
For the last Jews left in captivity in Berlin, the coming of the Red Army signified either the end to a dozen years of nightmare or execution at the last moment. Hans Oskar Löwenstein, who had been arrested in Potsdam, was taken to the Schulstrasse transit camp, based on Berlin’s Jewish hospital in the northern district of Wedding. Around 600 of them packed into two floors were fed on potato peelings and raw beetroot, with a little Wassersuppe or ‘water sou
The camp commander, SS Obersturmbannführer Doberke, had received the order to shoot all his prisoners, but he was clearly nervous. A spokesman from the prisoners approached him with a simple deal. ‘The war is over,’ he told Doberke. ‘If you save our lives, we will save yours.’ The prisoners then prepared a huge form, signed by them all, saying that Obersturmbannführer Doberke had saved their lives. Two hours after the form had been taken from them, they saw that the gates were open and the SS guards had disappeared. But liberation did not prove such a joyous occasion. Soviet soldiers raped the Jewish girls and women in the camp, not knowing that they had been persecuted by the Nazis.
While Soviet armies were advancing into Berlin they were cheered by ‘a real International’ of ‘Soviet, French, British, American and Norwegian prisoners of war’, together with women and girls who had been taken to Germany as slave labourers, all coming in the other direction. Marshal Konev, reaching Berlin from the south, was impressed to see that they walked in the ruts made by tank tracks, knowing that these at least would be clear of mines.
Grossman, arriving from the east, also saw ‘hundreds of bearded Russian peasants with women and children’. He noted ‘an expression of grim despair on these faces of bearded “uncles” and devout village elders. These are starosty[village leaders appointed by the Germans] and police villains who had run all the way to Berlin and now have no choice but to be “liberated” ’
‘An old woman is walking away from Berlin,’ Grossman jotted in his notebook. ‘She is wearing a little shawl over her head, looking exactly as if she were on a pilgrimage, a pilgrim in the vast spaces of Russia. She’s holding an umbrella on her shoulder, with a huge aluminium saucepan hanging from its handle.’
Although Hitler still could not fully accept the idea of transferring troops from the Western Front to face the Red Army, Keitel and Jodl acknowledged that there was now no alternative. The Wehrmacht operations staff issued orders accordingly. Stalin’s suspicions, combined with the Soviet policy of revenge, had become something of a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Stalin was also preoccupied with his bête noire of Poland. He had absolutely no intention of backing down over the composition of the provisional government. As far as he was concerned, the matter was self-evident, and the wishes of the Polish people counted for nothing. ‘The Soviet Union,’ he wrote to President Truman on 24 April, ‘has a right to make efforts that there should exist in Poland a government friendly towards the Soviet Union.’ This of course meant completely under Soviet control. ‘It is also necessary to take into account the fact that Poland borders with the Soviet Union, which cannot be said of Great Britain and the United States.’ With Berlin now virtually surrounded, and the Western Allies boxed out, Stalin saw no reason to be emollient. Despite all the earlier Soviet accusations against the US Air Force, there was no hint of apology when two American aircraft were attacked and one of them destroyed that afternoon by six Soviet fighters.
Stalin was still keeping the pressure on his two marshals by stimulating their rivalry. From dawn on 23 April, the boundary between Zhukov’s 1st Belorussian Front and Konev’s Ist Ukrainian Front was extended from Lübben, but now it turned northwards to the centre of Berlin. Konev’s right-hand boundary ran all the way up to the Anhalter Bahn-hof. Rybalko’s tank corps at Mariendorf, on the Teltow Canal, was exactly five kilometres south of it. Zhukov had no idea that Rybalko’s army had reached Berlin until late on 23 April, when a liaison officer from Katukov’s Ist Guards Tank Army, approaching from the east, made contact. Zhukov was appalled.
Since reaching the Teltow Canal on the evening of 22 April, Rybalko’s three corps had been given a day to prepare for an all-out assault across it. The concrete banks of the canal and the defended warehouses on the northern side appeared a formidable barrier. And although the Volkssturm detachments opposite were hardly worthy opponents for the 3rd Guards Tank Army, they had been ‘corset-stiffened’ with the 18th and 20th Panzergrenadier Divisions. The breakthrough artillery formations had been ordered forward two days before, but there was such a jam of vehicles on the Zossen road, including horse-drawn supply carts, that progress was slow. If the Luftwaffe had still had any serviceable aircraft, the route would have presented a perfect target. Luchinsky’s 48th Guards Rifle Division arrived in time to prepare to seize bridgeheads across the canal, and the artillery was hurried into place. This was no easy matter. Nearly 3,000 guns and heavy mortars needed to be positioned on the evening of 23 April. This was a concentration of 650 pieces per kilometre of front, including 152mm and 203mm howitzers.
At 6.20 a.m. on 24 April, the bombardment started on the Teltow Canal. It was an even more massive concentration of fire than on the Neisse or the Vistula crossings. Konev arrived at Rybalko’s command post when it had almost finished. From the flat roof of an eight-storey office block, a clutch of Ist Ukrainian Front commanders watched the heavy artillery demolishing the buildings across the canal and wave after wave of bombers from their supporting aviation army. The infantry began to cross in collapsible assault craft and wooden rowing boats. By 7 a.m. the first rifle battalions were across, establishing a bridgehead. Soon after midday the first pontoon bridges were in place and tanks began to go over.
The pressure on the south-eastern corner of Berlin’s defences was already great before the Teltow Canal crossing. By dawn on 23 April, some of Chuikov’s rifle units managed south of Köpenick to cross both the Spree and the Dahme to Falkenberg. They had discovered a variety of craft, from rowing sculls to pleasure launches. During the day and the following night, Chuikov’s guards rifle divisions and Katukov’s leading tank brigades advanced up towards Britz and Neukölln. The 28th Guards Rifle Corps claimed that civilians were so frightened and subservient ‘they were licking [our] boots’. And in the early hours of 24 April, a corps of the 5th Shock Army, assisted by gunboats of the Dneper flotilla, crossed the Spree further north to Treptow Park.
At first light on 24 April, almost all the rest of Weidling’s corps, which had refuelled the night before at Tempelhof aerodrome, put in counterattacks against this double threat. Even though the remaining King Tigers of the Nordland ‘Hermann von Salza’ Heavy Panzer Battalion knocked out several Stalin tanks, the enemy forces were overwhelming. ‘In the course of three hours,’ wrote the divisional commander of the 5th Shock Army, ‘the SS made six attacks but were forced to retreat each time, leaving the ground littered with corpses in black uniforms. Panthers and Ferdinands were burning. By midday, our division was able to advance again. They secured the whole of Treptow Park and in the dusk we reached the [S-Bahn] ring railroad.’ ‘It was,’ wrote a participant on the German side, ‘a bloody, bitter fight, without mercy.’ It was also a conflict without scruples. Soviet troops were told by political officers that ‘Vlasov and his men are taking part’ in the battle for Berlin. This was totally untrue. They were almost all down in the area of Prague by then.
While Konev’s tank armies were forcing the line of the Teltow Canal, his rear flanks came under threat. From the west, Wenck’s troops were advancing towards Treuenbrietzen and Beelitz, while on his right, the Ninth Army was trying to break out of its encirclement in the forests south-east of Berlin.
General Luchinsky had already started to turn part of his 28th Army eastwards to face the Ninth Army, roughly along the line of the Berlin – Cottbus autobahn. And the Stavka, having done little to deal with the isolated Ninth Army, now at last reacted quickly. Marshal Novikov, the head of Red Army aviation, was ordered to oversee the concentration of the 2nd, 16th and 18th Air Armies against thes
The worst fears of the nurses in the hospital complex at Beelitz-Heilstätten were realized on the morning of 24 April. Suddenly, the ground began to vibrate as the noise of tank engines and tracks grew. One of Lelyushenko’s tank columns, having apparently forced the Swiss Red Cross representatives aside, rolled right into the compound. Tank crews armed with sub-machine guns stormed the first block. For the moment, they were interested only in watches and shouted, ‘Uri! Uri!’ But then news arrived of rape, looting and random killing in Beelitz itself. The nurses and adult patients steeled themselves for the worst. The children from the Potsdam hospital had little idea of what was going on.
The nurses did not know that they were about to be rescued by Wenck’s young soldiers. Hitler, on the other hand, was now convinced that he and Berlin would be saved by Wenck’s army. Steiner’s so-called army detachment was hardly mentioned any more in the Führer bunker. The loyal Grand Admiral Dönitz signalled that in answer to Hitler’s appeal, he was sending all available sailors to help in the fight for Germany’s fate in Berlin. The plan to deliver them by crash-landing Junkers 52s in the centre of the city showed as little regard for reality as it did for the lives of his sailors.
Clearly few people in the bunker expected anyone to get through, to judge by the surprise caused by Brigadeführer Krukenberg’s arrival at midnight. When he was eventually taken to see General Krebs, whom he had known in 1943 with Army Group Centre, Krebs admitted his amazement openly. He told him that over the last forty-eight hours, large numbers of officers and units had been ordered to Berlin. ‘You’re the only one who has made it.’
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