The fall of berlin 1945, p.38
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       The Fall of Berlin 1945, p.38

           Antony Beevor
 

  The Führer bunker, for all the efforts and expense that had gone into its construction, lacked proper signalling facilities. As a result, Major Freytag von Loringhoven and Captain Boldt had only one method of establishing the extent of the Red Army’s advance ready for the Führer’s situation conferences. They rang civilian apartments around the periphery of the city whose numbers they found in the Berlin directory. If the inhabitants answered, they asked if they had seen any sign of advancing troops. And if a Russian voice replied, usually with a string of exuberant swearwords, then the conclusion was self-evident. For the European situation, they secretly obtained the latest Reuters reports from Heinz Lorenz, Hitler’s chief press secretary. Freytag von Loringhoven suddenly found that everyone who had ignored them in the bunker on their arrival now became pleasant in order to have access to the only source of reasonably reliable information.

  Most of the occupants of the bunker did not have anything to do. They sat around drinking and loitered in the corridors discussing whether suicide was better by gun or by cyanide. It seemed generally assumed that hardly anybody was going to leave the bunker alive. Although cool and damp, conditions in the bunker were still infinitely better than in any other cellar or air-raid shelter in Berlin. The occupants had water and electric light from generators, and there was no shortage of food and drink. The kitchens up in the Reich Chancellery were still serviceable and constant meals of stew were served.

  Berliners now referred to their city as the ‘Reichsscheiterhaufen’ – the ‘Reich’s funeral pyre’. Civilians were already suffering casualties in the street-fighting and house-clearing. Captain Ratenko, an officer from Tula in Bogdanov’s 2nd Guards Tank Army, knocked at a cellar door in Reinickendorf, a district in the north-west. Nobody opened it, so he kicked it in. There was a burst of sub-machine-gun fire and he was killed. The soldiers from the 2nd Guards Tank Army who were with him started firing through the door and the windows. They killed the gunman, apparently a young Wehrmacht officer in civilian clothes, but also a woman and a child. ‘The building was then surrounded by our men and burned down,’ the report stated.

  SMERSH took an immediate interest in the question of concealed Wehrmacht officers. It set up a special hunting group, with a bloodhound who had been a Nazi Party member since 1927. He promised to find officers for them, no doubt in exchange for his own life. Altogether they took twenty, including a colonel. ‘Another officer killed his wife then committed suicide when SMERSH knocked at his door,’ the report stated.

  Red Army soldiers decided to use the telephone network, but for amusement rather than information. While searching apartments, they would often stop to ring numbers in Berlin at random. Whenever a German voice answered, they would announce their presence in unmistakable Russian tones. This ‘surprised the Berliners immensely’, a political officer wrote. It was also not long before the political department of the 5th Shock Army began to report on ‘abnormal phenomena’, which covered everything from looting to injuries from drunken driving, and ‘immoral phenomena’.

  Many of the true frontoviki behaved well. When a detachment of sappers from the 3rd Shock Army entered an apartment, a ‘small babushka’ told them that her daughter was ill in bed. She was almost certainly trying to protect her from rape, but the sappers did not seem to realize this. They just gave them some food and moved on. Other frontoviki, however, could be pitiless. This has been described as the effect of the ‘impersonal violence of war itself’ and a compulsion to treat women as ‘substitutes for the defeat of an enemy’. One historian noted that Soviet troops unleashed a wave of violence which then passed fairly rapidly, but the process often began again as soon as a new unit moved in.

  On 24 April, the 3rd Shock Army used its 5th Artillery Breakthrough Division on one narrow sector where the Germans had resisted bitterly. The heavy guns destroyed seventeen houses, killing 120 defenders. The Soviet attackers claimed that in four of these houses, Germans had put out white flags of surrender and then fired again later. This became a frequent event in the fighting. Some soldiers, especially the Volkssturm, wanted to surrender and surreptitiously waved a white handkerchief, but more fanatical elements still fought on.

  The Germans mounted a counter-attack with three assault guns, but this was apparently thwarted by the heroism of reconnaissance soldier Shulzhenok. Shulzhenok, having retrieved three panzerfausts, took up position in a ruined house. A German shell exploded close to him, deafening him and covering him with debris. This did not stop him from engaging the assault guns as they approached. He set the first one on fire and damaged the second. The third withdrew hurriedly. He was made a Hero of the Soviet Union for this action, but on the following day he ‘was killed by a terrorist in civilian clothes’. In the conditions of the time, this could mean an ill-equipped member of the Volkssturm, but the Soviet view of terrorists was little different from the Wehrmacht definition during Operation Barbarossa.

  Not far behind these events, the writer Vasily Grossman stopped his jeep in the Weissensee district of north-east Berlin on the axis of the 3rd Shock Army. In a moment the jeep was surrounded by boys asking for sweets and staring curiously at the map open on his knees. Grossman was surprised by their daring. He really wanted to look around. ‘What contradicts our idea of Berlin as a military barracks are the masses of gardens and allotments in blossom,’ he noted. ‘A great thunder of artillery in the sky. In the moments of silence one can hear birds.’

  The dawn of 25 April, as Krukenberg left the battered Reich Chancellery, was cold with a clear sky. West Berlin was still strangely quiet and empty. At Weidling’s headquarters on the Hohenzollerndamm, security was lax. Only pay-books were required as identity by the sentries. Weidling told him how his badly mauled panzer corps was split up to stiffen Hitler Youth detachments and badly armed Volkssturm units, none of which could be expected to fight fiercely. Krukenberg was to take over Defence Sector C in the south-east of Berlin, including the 11th SS Panzergrenadier Nordland Division. He received the impression that Ziegler, who was being relieved of command of the Nordland, was accused of not holding his men together.

  Accounts of Ziegler’s dismissal vary considerably. Weidling’s chief of staff, Colonel Refior, believed that ‘Ziegler had secret orders from Himmler ordering him to pull back to Schleswig-Holstein’, and this was why he was arrested. Ziegler certainly seemed to be one of the few SS commanders who saw the pointlessness of fighting on. Shortly before his removal, Ziegler had given Hauptsturmführer Pehrsson leave to go to the Swedish Embassy to find out whether its officials would refuse to offer help to the remaining Swedes to return home.

  One eyewitness claims that Ziegler was arrested late that morning at his headquarters on the Hasenheidestrasse just north of Tempelhof aerodrome by an unknown SS Brigadeführer. He was backed by an escort with machine pistols who sealed the approaches to divisional headquarters. Ziegler was escorted out to the vehicle. He saluted his astonished officers standing at the entrance and presented his compliments to them: ‘Meine Herren, alies Gute!’ He was driven away under arrest to the Reich Chancellery. ‘What the hell’s going on?’ one of the officers, Sturmbannführer Vollmer, exclaimed. ‘Are we now without a commander?’ Krukenberg, in his account, depicts an entirely normal handover of command, with Ziegler driving off on his own to the Reich Chancellery.

  In any case, the interregnum did not last long. Shortly after midday, Krukenberg arrived, followed a little later by Fenet’s men from the ‘Charlemagne’ battalion. Krukenberg was shaken to learn that the ‘Norge’ and ‘Danmark’ Panzergrenadier Regiments now amounted between them to little more than a battalion. The wounded, taken to the dressing station in a storage cellar on the Hermannplatz, were unlikely to feel in safe hands. They were ‘laid on a blood-smeared table as if it were a butcher’s block’.

  The last remaining German bridgehead south of the Teltow Canal at Britz was being abandoned in a panic just as Krukenberg reached his new command. The remnants of his ‘Norge’ and ‘Danmark
regiments were waiting impatiently by the canal for motor transport, which was having difficulty getting to them through the rubble-blocked streets. Just as the trucks finally arrived, a cry of alarm was heard: ‘Panzer durchgebrochen!’ This cry prompted a surge of ‘tank fright’ even among hardened veterans and a chaotic rush for the vehicles, which presented an easy target for the two T-34S that had broken through. The trucks that got away even had men clinging on to the outsides.

  As they escaped north up the Hermannstrasse, they saw scrawled on a house wall ‘SS traitors extending the war!’ There was no doubt in their minds as to the culprits: ‘German Communists at work. Were we going to have to fight against the enemy within as well?’

  Soon Soviet tanks were also attacking the remains of the Müncheberg Panzer Division on Tempelhof aerodrome amid the wrecked fuselages of Focke-Wulf fighters. The aircraft’s Red Army nickname of a ‘frame’ at last seemed entirely accurate. The boom and crack of artillery and tank fire, punctuated by screaming salvoes of katyushas, extended right up to the Nordland command post. Krukenberg was lightly wounded in the face by a shell splinter.

  With Neukölln heavily penetrated by Soviet combat groups, Krukenberg prepared a fall-back position round the Hermannplatz. The twin towers of the Karstadt department store provided excellent observation posts for watching the advance of four Soviet armies – the 5th Shock Army from Treptow Park, the 8th Guards Army and the Ist Guards Tank Army from Neukölln and Konev’s 3rd Guards Tank Army from Mariendorf.

  Krukenberg positioned half of the French under Fenet on the other side of the Hermannplatz with their panzerfausts to prepare for a Soviet tank attack. Fenet had over 100 Hitler Youth attached to his group. They were instructed to fire their panzerfausts only at close range and only at the turret. The Waffen SS believed that it was better to aim for the turret, as a direct hit there would disable the crew.

  During that evening and night, the French under Fenet accounted for fourteen Soviet tanks. A determined show of resistance could take the Soviets by surprise and hold them back. By the Halensee bridge at the western end of the Kurfürstendamm, three young men from a Reich Labour Service battalion armed with a single machine gun managed to beat back all attacks for forty-eight hours.

  The battle for Tempelhof aerodrome was to continue for another day, with Soviet artillery and katyusha rocket launchers blasting the administrative buildings. Inside, the corridors echoed with the screams of the wounded and were filled with smoke and the smell of burning chemicals. ‘The silence which followed the end of a bombardment was a prelude to the roar of engines and rattle of tracks which announced a new tank attack.’

  *

  As Weidling’s battered corps retreated towards the centre on that afternoon of 25 April, Hitler insisted to their commander, who had been summoned to the Führer bunker, that things would change for the better. ‘The situation must improve,’ he told Weidling. ‘From the south-west the Twelfth Army of General Wenck will come to Berlin and, together with the Ninth Army, will deliver a crushing blow to the enemy. The troops commanded by Schörner will come from the south. These blows should change the situation to our advantage.’ To underline the disaster along the whole Eastern Front, General von Manteuffel had just reported that Rokossovsky’s 2nd Belorussian Front had shattered his defence lines south of Stettin. Major General Dethleffsen of the OKW command staff also had to visit the Führer bunker that day and found ‘a self-deception bordering on hypnosis’.

  That evening, Krukenberg was warned by General Krebs that the Nordland would be pulled back the next day to defence sector ‘Z’ (for Zentrum). This was directed from the air ministry on the Wilhelm-strasse, a block north of Gestapo headquarters. Krukenberg, when he went back to make contact, found the cellars full of unsupervised Luftwaffe personnel doing nothing. He went up to the state opera house on the Unter den Linden, a few hundred metres down from the abandoned Soviet embassy. It was where Dekanozov had returned just after dawn on 22 June 1941 after hearing from Ribbentrop of the Wehrmacht’s invasion of the Soviet Union. Now, the Unter den Linden was empty as far as the eye could see. Krukenberg set up his own headquarters in the cellars of the opera house. A huge, throne-like armchair from the former royal box provided him with the opportunity to snatch a couple of hours’ sleep in comfort. They were left in comparative peace by the enemy. No U-2 biplanes dropping small bombs appeared over their sector that night.

  With the fall of Berlin imminent, SHAEF headquarters at Rheims forwarded a request to the Stavka in Moscow that day. ‘General Eisenhower desires to send a minimum of twenty-three Allied accredited war correspondents to Berlin following the capture of the city by the Red Army. He wishes to send more than that number if at all possible since, as he states, “the fall of Berlin will be one of the world’s greatest news events”.’ There was no reply from the Kremlin. Stalin clearly did not want any journalists in Berlin, particularly the uncontrollable western variety. He was, however, to be troubled by them from a totally unexpected direction.

  During that day the main Nazi broadcasting station, Deutsch-landsender, fell silent, but the date of 25 April became known for an event which was soon flashed around the world. At Torgau on the Elbe, leading elements of Major General Vladimir Rusakov’s 58th Guards Rifle Division met up with US soldiers from the 69th Division. Nazi Germany was cut in half. Signals flashed up both chains of command – to Bradley, then Eisenhower at SHAEF, and to Konev, then General Antonov at the Stavka. Heads of state were immediately informed and then Stalin and Truman exchanged telegrams agreeing on the announcement of the event. Eisenhower’s first reaction was to send in the journalists, a decision he soon had cause to regret.

  General Gleb Vladimirovich Baklanov, the commander of the 34th Corps, ordered the preparation of a typical Soviet banquet. The political department provided huge lengths of red material to decorate tables and podiums. Large portraits of Stalin were erected and rather smaller ones of Truman improvised, along with some interesting variations on the stars and stripes. Plenty of alcohol was laid on, and all the most attractive women soldiers in the 5th Guards Army were sent forward to Torgau in fresh uniforms.

  General Baklanov was prepared for the usual round of Soviet toasts to victory, to peace and friendship between nations and the eternal destruction of the fascist beast. He was unprepared, however, for a group of boisterous American journalists keen to put a real swing into the celebrations. Red Army soldiers also obtained a good ration of vodka, so security was not quite as effective as usual.

  Halfway through the proceedings, when Russian officers were dancing ‘with the pretty Russian women soldiers’, Andrew Tully of the Boston Traveller ‘remarked jokingly’ to Virginia Irwin of the St Louis Post Dispatch, ‘Let’s keep going to Berlin.’ ‘OK,’ she said. They slipped away from the party and drove their jeep to the Elbe, where they showed the Russian soldiers operating the ferry their SHAEF identification cards. They shouted ‘Jeep!’ and made swimming motions. Rather bewildered sentries, who had received no instructions on the subject, let them drive on to the ferry and sent it across the river.

  The two journalists had a map which reached as far as Luckenwalde. Fearing that they might be ‘summarily treated as spies’ on such a fluid front, they stole one of the improvised American flags which the Russians had erected at Torgau and tied it to the side of the jeep. Whenever they were flagged down by a suspicious sentry or a traffic controller, they yelled ‘Amerikansky!’ with an amiable grin. ‘Keep smiling,’ Tully told Virginia Irwin.

  They reached Berlin before nightfall and there they met Major Kovalesky, a young man with snow-white hair. They communicated through halting French. Kovalesky was at first suspicious, but was then convinced when they said, ‘Nous sommes correspondents de guerre. Nous voulons aller [à] Berlin.’ The unfortunate Kovalesky, having no idea that their trip was unauthorized and that he might be held accountable later, took them to his command post in a half-ruined house. With typical Russian hospitality, he told his orderly,
‘a fierce Mongolian with a great scar on his left cheek’, to provide hot water for their guests. A quarter-full bottle of eau-de-Cologne, a cracked mirror and some face powder were also brought for Virginia Irwin. He then gave orders for a banquet. The table was lit by candles on upturned milk bottles, spring flowers were placed in a jar and the celebration began, with smoked salmon, black Russian bread, mutton cooked over charcoal, ‘huge masses of mashed potato with meat fat poured over them’, cheese and platterfuls of Russian pastries. ‘At each toast, the Russian officers stood up, clicked their heels, bowed deeply and drained tumblers of vodka. Besides vodka, there was cognac and a drink of dynamite strength the major described simply as “spirits”.’ After each course there were toasts ‘to the late and great President Roosevelt, to Stalin, to President Truman, to Churchill, to the Red Army and to the American jeep’.

  The two journalists, exhilarated by their exploit, returned to Torgau the next day. Tully described it as ‘the craziest thing I have ever done’. Clearly, he had never imagined the wider consequences. The US military authorities were furious, but not as angry as the Soviet authorities. This was demonstrated by the signals which flashed between Rheims, Washington, DC, and Moscow. An exasperated Eisenhower decided that because they had entered Berlin illegally, their stories could not be published unless submitted to Moscow for censorship. When events were moving so fast, this, of course, meant that they would be well out of date by the time they could appear. Eisenhower was especially irritated because he believed that their jaunt to Berlin had wrecked the proposal to get other journalists there for the surrender. But the people who probably suffered the most were the trusting Russians who had helped and entertained Tully and Irwin. Apparently, even officers involved in the celebrations at Torgau became objects of suspicion to the NKVD in the post-war purges, because they had been in contact with capitalist foreigners.

 
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