The fall of berlin 1945, p.4
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       The Fall of Berlin 1945, p.4

           Antony Beevor
 

  ‘The Eastern Front,’ said Hitler, suddenly trying to charm him, ‘has never before possessed such a strong reserve as now. That is your doing. I thank you for it.’

  ‘The Eastern Front,’ Guderian retorted, ‘is like a house of cards. If the front is broken through at one point all the rest will collapse.’ Ironically, Goebbels had used exactly the same simile in 1941 about the Red Army.

  Guderian returned to Zossen in ‘a very grave mood’. He wondered whether Hitler and Jodl’s lack of imagination had something to do with the fact that they both came from parts of the Reich – Austria and Bavaria – which were not threatened. Guderian was a Prussian. His homeland was about to be ravaged, and probably lost for ever. Hitler, to reward his great panzer leader for his successes early in the war, had presented him with the expropriated estate of Deipenhof in the Warthegau, the region of western Poland which the Nazis had seized and incorporated into the Reich. But now the imminent offensive across the Vistula threatened that too. His wife was still there. Watched closely by the local Nazi Party chiefs, she would not be able to leave until the very last moment.

  Just over twenty-four hours later, Guderian’s staff at Zossen received confirmation that the attack was now hours rather than days away. Red Army sappers were clearing minefields at night and tank corps were being brought forward into the bridgeheads. Hitler ordered that the panzer reserves on the Vistula front should be moved forward, despite warnings that this would bring them within range of Soviet artillery. Some senior officers began to wonder whether Hitler subconsciously wanted to lose the war.

  The Red Army seemed to make a habit of attacking in atrocious weather conditions. German veterans, accustomed to this pattern, used to call it ‘weather for Russians’. Soviet troops were convinced that they had a distinct advantage in winter warfare, whether through frost or mud. Their comparatively low rates of frostbite and trench foot were attributed to the traditional Russian army use of rough linen foot bandages instead of socks. Weather forecasts had foretold a ‘strange winter’. After the hard cold of January, ‘heavy rain and wet snow’ were predicted. An order went out: ‘Leather boots must be mended.’

  The Red Army had improved in so many ways – its heavy weaponry, the professionalism of its planning, the camouflage and control of operations which had frequently caught the Germans off balance – yet some weaknesses remained. The worst was the chaotic lack of discipline, which seems astonishing in a totalitarian state. Part of the problem came from the terrible attrition among young officers.

  It was a hard school indeed for seventeen- and eighteen-year-old junior lieutenants in the infantry. ‘At that time,’ wrote the novelist and war correspondent Konstantin Simonov, ‘young people were becoming adult in a year, a month or even in the course of one battle.’ Many, of course, never survived that first battle. Determined to prove themselves worthy of commanding veterans, some of whom were old enough to be their fathers, they showed reckless courage and suffered for it.

  Indiscipline came also from the dehumanized way in which Red Army soldiers were treated by their own authorities. And, of course, the strengths and weaknesses of the complex national character played its part too. ‘The Russian infantryman,’ as one writer put it, ‘is hardy, undemanding, careless and a convinced fatalist… It is these characteristics which make him incomparable.’ An ordinary soldier in a rifle division provided a summary in his diary of the changing moods of his comrades. ‘First state: soldier with no chiefs around. He is a grumbler. He threatens and shows off. He is keen to pocket something or grab someone in a stupid argument. One can see from this irritability that the soldier’s life is hard for him. Second state: soldier in the presence of chiefs: submissive and inarticulate. Readily agrees with what he is told. Easily believes promises. Blossoms when praised and is eager to admire the strictness of officers whom he makes fun of behind their backs. Third state: working together or in battle: here he is a hero. He won’t leave his comrade in danger. He dies quietly, as if it is still part of his work.’

  Tank troops in the Red Army were in particularly good heart. Having been as demoralized as Soviet aviation in the early part of the war, they were starting to enjoy heroic status. Vasily Grossman, another novelist and war correspondent, now found ‘tankists’ almost as fascinating as he had found snipers at Stalingrad. He described them admiringly as ‘cavalrymen, artillerymen and mechanics all rolled in one’. But the greatest strength of the Red Army was the burning idea that they were finally within striking distance of the Reich. The violators of the Soviet Motherland were about to discover the true meaning of the proverb, ‘You will harvest what you have sown.’

  *

  The basic concept of the campaign had been decided in outline by the end of October 1944. The Stavka, the Soviet supreme headquarters, was headed by Marshal Stalin, as he had promoted himself after the battle of Stalingrad. Stalin intended to keep full control. He allowed commanders a latitude of action which their German counterparts envied, and, unlike Hitler, he would listen carefully to counterarguments. Nevertheless, he had no intention of allowing Red Army commanders to get above themselves as the moment of victory approached. He stopped the usual practice of appointing ‘representatives of the Stavka? to oversee operations. Instead, he took on this role himself, even though he still had no intention of going anywhere near the front.

  Stalin also decided to shake up the key commands. If this resulted in jealousies and ‘disconcertedness’, then he was far from displeased. The main change was to replace Marshal Konstantin Rokossovsky, the commander-in-chief of the 1st Belorussian Front, the main group of armies on the axis of advance to Berlin. Rokossovsky, a tall, elegant and good-looking cavalryman, presented a striking contrast to most Russian commanders, many of whom were squat, thick-necked and shaven-headed. He was also different in another way. Born Konstanty Rokosowski, he was half-Polish, the grandson and great-grandson of Polish cavalry officers. This made him dangerous in the eyes of Stalin. Stalin’s hatred of the country had started during the Soviet-Polish war of 1920, when he had been partly blamed for the disastrous defeat of the Red Army attacking Warsaw.

  Rokossovsky was outraged when he heard that he was to be transferred to command the 2nd Belorussian Front army group to attack East Prussia. Marshal Georgy Zhukov, the stocky and immensely tough commander who directed the defence of Moscow in December 1941, was to take his place. ‘Why this disgrace?’ Rokossovsky demanded. ‘Why am I being moved from the main axis to one of secondary importance?’ Rokossovsky suspected that Zhukov, whom he had considered a friend, had undermined him, but in fact Stalin did not want a Pole to enjoy the glory of taking Berlin. It was natural that Rokossovsky should be suspicious. He had been arrested during the purge of the Red Army in 1937. The beatings from Beria’s henchmen demanding confessions of treason were enough to make even the most balanced person slightly paranoid. And Rokossovsky knew that Lavrenty Beria, the head of the NKVD secret police, and Viktor Abakumov, the chief of SMERSH counter-intelligence, watched him closely. Stalin had left Rokossovsky in no doubt that the 1937 accusations still hung over him. He had simply been released conditionally. Any blunder as a commander would put him straight back into NKVD custody. ‘I know very well what Beria is capable of,’ Rokossovsky said to Zhukov during the changeover. ‘I have been in his prisons.’ It would take Soviet generals eight years to get their revenge on Beria.

  The forces of the 1st Belorussian Front and the 1st Ukrainian Front lining up against the German front line along the Vistula were not simply superior, they were overwhelming. To Zhukov’s south, Marshal Konev’s 1st Ukrainian Front would attack due west towards Breslau. Its main thrust would be launched from the Sandomierz bridgehead, the largest salient of all on the west bank of the Vistula. Unlike Zhukov, however, Konev intended to use his two tank armies to smash the enemy line on the very first day.

  Konev, according to Beria’s son, had ‘wicked little eyes, a shaven head that looked like a pumpkin, and an expression full of self-conc
eit’. He was probably Stalin’s favourite general and one of the very few senior commanders whom even Stalin admired for his ruthlessness. Stalin had promoted him to marshal of the Soviet Union after his crushing of the Korsun pocket, south of Kiev, just under a year before. It had been one of the most pitiless engagements in a very cruel war. Konev ordered his aircraft to drop incendiaries on the small town of Shanderovka to force the Germans sheltering there out into the blizzard. As they struggled to break out of the encirclement on 17 February 1944, Konev sprang his trap. His tank crews charged straight for the column, firing machine guns and running men down to crush them under their tracks. As the Germans scattered, trying to flee through the heavy snow, Konev’s three divisions of cavalry set off in pursuit. The Cossacks cut them down mercilessly with their sabres, apparently hacking even at arms raised in surrender. Some 20,000 Germans died that day.

  On 12 January, the Vistula offensive began at 5 a.m. Moscow time, when Konev’s 1st Ukrainian Front attacked out of the Sandomierz bridgehead. The snow was quite heavy and visibility almost nil. After shtraf companies of prisoners were forced through the minefields, rifle battalions secured the front line. The full artillery bombardment then began, using up to 300 guns per kilometre, which meant one every three to four metres. The German defenders were shattered. Most of them surrendered, grey-faced and trembling. A panzergrenadier officer watching from the rear described the spectacle on the horizon as a ‘fire-storm’ and added that it was ‘like the heavens falling down on earth’. Prisoners from the 16th Panzer Division captured late that day claimed that once the bombardment started, their commander, Major General Müller, drove off towards the town of Kielce, abandoning his men.

  Soviet tank crews had painted slogans on their turrets: ‘Forward into the fascist lair!’ and ‘Revenge and death to the German occupiers!’ They faced little resistance as their T-34 and heavy Stalin tanks moved forward at 2 p.m. Their hulls coated in frost were well camouflaged for the snowy landscape ahead, even if all was brown in the middle distance from shell-churned mud.

  Along with Breslau, the main objectives of General Rybalko’s 3rd Guards Tank Army and General Lelyushenko’s 4th Guards Tank Army were the industrial regions of Silesia. When Stalin had briefed Konev in Moscow, he had pointed at the map and circled the area with his finger. He mouthed a single word: ‘Gold’. No further comment was needed. Konev knew that Stalin wanted the factories and mines to be taken intact.

  On the morning after Konev’s attack from the Sandomierz bridgehead, the assault on East Prussia began with General Chernyakhovsky’s 3rd Belorussian Front. On the following day, 14 January, Rokossovsky’s forces attacked East Prussia from the River Narew bridgeheads. Zhukov’s 1st Belorussian Front went into action on its two bridgeheads on the Vistula at Magnuszew and Pulawy. A thin layer of snow covered the ground and dense mist lasted until noon. At 8.30 a.m., Zhukov’s 1st Belorussian Front opened up with twenty-five minutes of ‘rolling fire’. The advanced rifle battalions, supported by self-propelled assault guns, seized the front lines in the Magnuszew bridgehead. The 8th Guards Army and the 5th Shock Army, with heavy artillery support, then broke open the third line. The main barrier beyond was the River Pilica. Zhukov’s plan was for rifle divisions to seize crossing places for the guards tank brigades following on behind.

  The right-hand tank brigade of Bogdanov’s 2nd Guards Tank Army was one of the first to cross the Pilica. As a lead unit, the 47th Guards Tank Brigade had a variety of support attached, including sappers, self-propelled artillery, motorized anti-aircraft guns, and a battalion of sub-machine gunners mounted in trucks. Its objective was an airfield just south of the town of Sochaczew, an important junction due west of Warsaw. Over the next two days, the brigade charged northwards, destroying columns of fleeing Germans on the way and crushing staff cars ‘with their tracks’.

  It took much longer for the 1st Guards Tank Army on the left to break through. Colonel Gusakovsky, a Hero of the Soviet Union twice over, was so impatient after the long wait that when his 44th Guards Tank Brigade reached the Pilica, he refused to wait for the bridging equipment. It appeared to be a shallow stretch of the river, so to save ‘two or three hours’ he ordered his tank commanders first to smash the ice with gunfire, then to drive their vehicles across the river bed. The tanks, acting like icebreakers, pushed the broken ice aside ‘with a terrible thundering noise’. It must have been terrifying for the tank drivers, but Gusakovsky did not seem concerned by such problems. Zhukov too was interested only in getting the tank brigades across so that they could deal with the 25th and the 19th Panzer Divisions. After that, the country lay open ahead.

  Things had gone just as well for him at the Pulawy bridgehead on 14 January. The plan was not to bombard the whole line, but simply to blast corridors through it. By that evening they were well on the way to the city of Radom. Meanwhile on the 1st Belorussian Front’s extreme right, the 47th Army began to encircle Warsaw from the north and the 1st Polish Army fought into the suburbs.

  In the late afternoon of Monday 15 January, ‘because of the big advance in the east’, Hitler left the Adlerhorst at Ziegenberg to return to Berlin on his special train. Guderian had been forcefully requesting his return for the last three days. At first, Hitler had said that the Eastern Front must sort itself out, but finally he agreed to halt all activity in the west and return. Without consulting Guderian or the two army groups involved, he had just issued orders for the Grossdeutschland Corps to be moved from East Prussia to Kielce to shore up the Vistula front, even though this meant taking it out of the battle for at least a week.

  Hitler’s journey by rail to Berlin took nineteen hours. He did not entirely neglect domestic matters. He told Martin Bormann to stay at the Obersalzberg for the time being, where he and his wife kept Eva Braun and her sister Gretl Fegelein company.

  Stalin, meanwhile, was in excellent spirits. That same evening, he welcomed General Eisenhower’s chief of staff, Air Chief Marshal Tedder, who had finally arrived in Moscow after long delays in Cairo due to bad flying conditions. Tedder had come to discuss future developments, but Stalin observed smugly that the Ardennes offensive had been ‘very stupid’ of the Germans. He was also particularly pleased that the Germans had retained thirty divisions as ‘a prestige garrison’ in Courland – the remains of Army Group North, which Guderian wanted to bring back to Germany.

  The Soviet leader made an effort to charm Tedder. He clearly wanted to convince Eisenhower’s deputy that he had done everything possible by the timing of the Red Army’s great offensive to help them out over the Ardennes. It is impossible to tell whether or not he foresaw that this would help exacerbate the rift between the Americans and the much more sceptical Churchill.

  Soviet historians always tried to maintain that Stalin was planning to launch the attack on 20 January, but then, when he received a letter from Churchill on 6 January begging for help, he gave the order the next day to advance the attack to 12 January, even though the weather conditions were unfavourable. This was a gross misrepresentation of Churchill’s letter. It was not a begging letter to save the Allies in the Ardennes. He had already written to say that the Allies were now ‘masters of the situation’ and Stalin knew perfectly well from his liaison officers in the west that the German threat there had collapsed by Christmas. Churchill was simply asking for information on when the Red Army was going to launch its great winter offensive, because the Kremlin had resolutely refused to reply to such requests, even when Soviet liaison officers were kept abreast of Eisenhower’s plans.

  The Vistula offensive, planned since October, had been prepared well ahead: one Soviet source even says that it had been possible ‘to start the advance on 8–10 January’. Stalin was therefore more than happy to give the impression that he was saving his allies from a difficult situation, especially when he had reasons of his own for pushing forward the date. Churchill was becoming increasingly concerned at Stalin’s intention to impose on Poland its puppet ‘Lublin government’ made up of
exiled Polish Communists controlled by Beria’s NKVD. The Crimean conference at Yalta was imminent and Stalin wanted to make sure that his armies controlled the whole of Poland by the time he sat down with the American and British leaders. His law could be imposed ruthlessly on Polish territory purely because it constituted the immediate rear area to his operational troops. Anyone who objected could be classified as a saboteur or fascist agent. Finally, there was a much more down-to-earth reason for bringing the great offensive forward. Stalin was worried that the predicted change in the weather for the beginning of February would turn hard ground to mud and therefore slow up his tanks.

  One aspect of the meeting with Tedder is most revealing. ‘Stalin emphasized,’ the American report states, ‘that one of the difficulties [of the Vistula offensive] was the large number of trained German agents among the Poles, Latvians, Lithuanians, Ukrainians and German-speaking Russians. He said that they were all equipped with radios and, as a result, the element of surprise was practically eliminated. However the Russians have succeeded in eliminating this menace to a large measure. He said that he considers the clearance of the rear areas to be just as important as bringing up supplies.’ This gross exaggeration of German-trained stay-behind groups was Stalin’s pre-emptive justification of Soviet ruthlessness in Poland. Beria was also trying to brand the non-Communist resistance, the Armia Krajowa, as ‘fascist’ despite its suicidal bravery in the Warsaw uprising.

 
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