The fall of berlin 1945, p.40
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       The Fall of Berlin 1945, p.40
 

           Antony Beevor

  Sebelev did not mention that tactics had not been clever to begin with and losses were heavy. Zhukov’s desperation for speed, which prompted him to send the two tank armies straight into the city, led to tanks driving in a line straight up the middle of a street. Even Chuikov’s 8th Guards Army, proud of their street-fighting inheritance at Stalingrad, made many mistakes at first. The roles of course were completely reversed this time, with the Red Army as the attacker enjoying a huge superiority in armour and air power, and the Wehrmacht as the defender and ambusher.

  The Waffen SS did not believe in standing behind the makeshift barricades erected close to street corners. They knew that these not very effective obstacles would be the first thing to be blasted by gunfire. It was all right to put riflemen at windows of the upper floors or on roofs, because tanks could not elevate their guns enough. But with the panzerfaust, they made their ambushes from basements and cellar windows. This was because the panzerfaust was very hard to fire accurately from above. The Hitler Youth copied the SS enthusiastically, and soon the Volkssturm – the ones who had seen service in the First World War and stayed at their posts – followed the same tactics. Red Army soldiers referred to the Hitler Youth and the Volkssturm as ‘totals’ because they were the product of ‘total mobilization’. Wehrmacht officers called them the ‘casserole’ because they were a mixture of old meat and green vegetables.

  Tank losses, especially in the 1st Guards Tank Army, prompted a rapid rethink of tactics. The first ‘new tactic’ was to cover each tank with sub-machine gunners who sprayed every window and aperture ahead as the vehicles advanced. But there were so many soldiers clinging to the tank that it could hardly traverse its turret. Then they went in again for festooning their vehicles with bedsprings and other metal to make the panzerfausts explode prematurely. But more and more they relied on heavy guns, especially 152mm and 203mm howitzers, to blast barricades and buildings over open sights. The 3rd Shock Army also used its anti-aircraft guns constantly against rooftops.

  Infantry tactics were based largely on Chuikov’s notes, evolved since Stalingrad and hurriedly updated after the storming of Poznan. He started from the precept that ‘Offensive operations carried out by major formations as if in normal battle conditions stand no chance of success.’ This was exactly how the two tank armies began. He rightly emphasized the need for careful reconnaissance, both the approach and the enemy’s likely escape routes. Smoke or darkness should be used to cover the approach of infantry until they were within thirty metres of their objective, otherwise losses would be prohibitively high.

  The assault groups of six to eight men should be backed by reinforcement groups and then by reserve groups, ready to deal with a counterattack. The assault groups, as in Stalingrad days, were to be armed with ‘grenades, sub-machine guns, daggers, and sharpened spades to be used as axes in hand-to-hand fighting’. The reinforcement groups needed to be ‘heavily armed’, with machine guns and anti-tank weapons. They had to have sappers equipped with explosives and pick-axes ready to blast through walls from house to house. The danger was that as soon as they opened a hole in the wall, a German soldier the other side would throw a grenade through first. But most Red Army men soon found that the panzerfausts abandoned by the Volkssturm offered the best means of ‘flank progress’. The blast was enough to flatten anyone in the room beyond.

  While some of the assault groups made their way from house to house on the ground, others progressed along the rooftops, and others made their way from cellar to cellar to take the panzerfaust ambushers in the side. Flame-throwers were used to terrible effect. Sappers also prepared sections of railway line with dynamite attached to it to act as shrapnel for the final attack.

  The presence of civilians made no difference. The Red Army troops simply forced them out of the cellars at gunpoint and into the street, whatever the crossfire or shelling. Many Soviet officers, frustrated by the confusion, wanted to evacuate all German civilians by force, which was just what the German Sixth Army had attempted when fighting in Stalingrad. ‘We didn’t have time to distinguish who was who,’ said one. ‘Sometimes we just threw grenades into the cellars and passed on.’ This was usually justified on the grounds that German officers were putting on civilian clothes and hiding with women and children. Yet civilian accounts show that any officer or soldier who wanted to hide in a cellar or shelter was forced to get rid of his weapon as well as his uniform. There were very few genuine cases of German troops hiding among civilians to strike the Red Army in the rear.

  Chuikov urged a ruthless panache when house-clearing. ‘Throw your grenade and follow up. You need speed, a sense of direction, great initiative and stamina because the unexpected will certainly happen. You will find yourself in a labyrinth of rooms and corridors all full of danger. Too bad. Chuck a grenade at every corner. Go forward. Fire bursts of machine-gun fire at any piece of ceiling which still remains. And when you get to the next room chuck in another grenade. Then clean it up with your sub-machine gun. Never waste a moment.’

  This was all very well for experienced troops. But so many of the young officers who had graduated after short courses had no idea of how to train or to control their men in unfamiliar surroundings. And after the Oder battle and the relentless ‘twenty-four-hour’ advance ordered by Zhukov, most of the Soviet frontline troops were exhausted. Tiredness slowed their reactions dangerously. Mortar fuses were sometimes set incorrectly and the bomb exploded in the tube, while soldiers who tried to use German grenades often ended up disabling themselves and their comrades.

  Self-inflicted casualties occurred on an even greater scale at army level. Despite the U-2 biplanes spotting for gun batteries, the artillery and katyusha batteries supporting one army often shelled another as they converged on approaching the centre. There were ‘frequent cases of mutual firing at our own troops,’ wrote General Luchinsky, the commander of the 28th Army supporting Rybalko’s 3rd Guards Tank Army. And with all the smoke over the urban battlefield, the three different aviation armies attached to Zhukov and Konev’s Fronts were frequently bombing other Red Army troops. The situation became particularly bad in the south of the city. The aviation regiments supporting the 1st Ukrainian Front frequently attacked the 8th Guards Army. Chuikov made representations to Zhukov, demanding the withdrawal of the ‘neighbours’.

  The battle for Tempelhof aerodrome against the 8th Guards Army and the 1st Guards Tank Army continued through most of 26 April. When the Müncheberg Panzer Division counter-attacked, so few tanks were left that they had to operate singly, supported by small groups of infantry and Hitler Youth armed with panzerfausts. The survivors extricated themselves towards evening. Sturmbannführer Saalbach pulled back the remaining vehicles of the Nordland reconnaissance battalion to the Anhalter Bahnhof. The division’s remaining armour, eight Tigers of the ‘Hermann von Salza’ battalion and several assault guns, was ordered to the Tiergarten.

  The morning began with an intensive bombardment. ‘Poor inner city,’ wrote a woman diarist in Prenzlauerberg as the artillery thundered away. The shelling of the Klein Tiergarten was particularly heavy. Churned up by explosions, the park was hard to imagine as a favourite playground for children.

  Chuikov and Katukov ordered their forces on towards the Belle-Allianceplatz – named after the battle of Waterloo and ironically defended by French SS – and the Anhalter Bahnhof, the marker separating the advance of the two Fronts. The rivalry with Konev’s troops had become intense, though masked by jokes. ‘Now we should be scared not of the enemy, but of our neighbours,’ one of Chuikov’s corps commanders said to Vasily Grossman. ‘I’ve ordered that the burnt-out tanks should be used to block our neighbours from getting to the Reichstag. There’s nothing more depressing in Berlin than learning about the successes of your neighbour.’

  Chuikov did not take the matter so lightly. Over the next two days, he pushed his left flank across the front of the 3rd Guards Tank Army to head it off the axis which led to the Reichstag. He did not even warn Ry
balko, so this almost certainly led to the slaughter of many of his own men under the artillery shells and rockets of the 1st Ukrainian Front.

  *

  Katyusha rockets – ‘thunderbolts from the sky’ – continued to be used as a psychological weapon as well as for area targets. Early on the morning of 26 April, Colonel Refior, the chief of staff of the defence of Berlin, was brusquely awoken from a snatched sleep in their headquarters on the Hohenzollerndamm by a rapid sequence of ranging shells. (The Russians called it ‘framing’.) ‘Old frontline hares’, Refior noted, knew this to be the ‘greeting’ before a salvo of katyushas. And if their headquarters were now in katyusha range, it was time to move. General Weidling had already chosen the ‘Bendlerblock’, the old army headquarters on the Bendlerstrasse, where Colonel Count von Stauffenberg had been executed after the failure of the July plot. It possessed well-equipped air-raid shelters and was close to the Reich Chancellery, where Weidling was constantly summoned.

  In the depths of the Bendlerblock, Weidling’s staff had no idea whether it was day or night. They kept awake on coffee and cigarettes. Thanks to the generators, they had lighting the whole time, but the air was clammy and heavy. There they continued to deal with increasingly urgent calls for help from sector commanders, but there were no reserves.

  That evening Weidling presented to Hitler his recommendations for a mass breakout from Berlin to avoid further destruction and loss of life. His plan was for the garrison, acting as Hitler’s escort, to break out westwards and join up with the remains of Army Group Vistula. There would be a spearhead consisting of the remaining battle-worthy tanks, nearly forty of them, and the bulk of the combat divisions. This would be followed by the ‘Führergruppe’, with Hitler and his Reich Chancellery staff, along with other ‘Prominente’. The rearguard would consist of a single reinforced division. The breakout should take place on the night of 28 April. When Weidling came to an end, Hitler shook his head. ‘Your proposal is perfectly all right. But what is the point of it all? I have no intention of wandering around in the woods. I am staying here and I will fall at the head of my troops. You, for your part, will carry on with the defence.’

  The futility of it all was summed up in the slogan painted on walls: ‘Berlin stays German.’ One of these had been crossed out and underneath was scrawled in Cyrillic, ‘But I’m already here in Berlin, signed Sidorov.’

  The Red Army was not merely in Berlin, it was already setting up a provisional administration to get essential services going again. Zhukov, still unaware of Beria’s plan to have the NKVD running civilian affairs, had just appointed Colonel General Berzarin, the commander of the 5th Shock Army, as commandant of Berlin. Marshal Suvorov in the eighteenth century had insisted that the commander of the first army to enter a city became its commandant and the Red Army maintained the tradition. Chuikov’s jealousy of his rival must have been intense.

  Grossman visited Berzarin in his headquarters on 26 April. ‘The commandant of Berlin,’ he wrote in his notebook, ‘is fat with sly, brown eyes and prematurely white hair. He is very clever, very balanced and crafty.’ It was the ‘creation of the world’ that day. Bürgermeisters, directors of Berlin electricity, Berlin water, sewers, the U-Bahn, trams, gas supply, factory owners and public figures had been summoned. ‘They all receive their appointments here in this office. Vice-directors become directors, chiefs of regional enterprises become magnates of national importance.’ Grossman was fascinated by signs other than words: the ‘shuffling of feet, greetings, whisperings’. Old German Communists from before the Nazis’ rise to power appeared, hoping for an appointment. ‘An old housepainter shows his [German Communist] Party card. He has been a Party member since 1920. Berzarin’s officers show little reaction. They tell him, “Take a seat.”’

  Like the other Russians present, Grossman was taken aback when a bürgermeister, on being told to provide working parties to clear streets, asked, ‘How much will the people be paid?’ After the way Soviet citizens had been treated as slave labourers in Germany, the answer was obvious. ‘Everyone here certainly seems to have a very strong idea of their rights,’ observed Grossman. But German civilians received a shock the next day, 27 April, when Soviet troops rounded up 2,000 German women in the southern suburbs and marched them to Tempelhof aerodrome to clear the runways of shot-up machines. Red Army aviation wanted to be able to use it as a base within twenty-four hours.

  During the withdrawal towards the centre, Sector Z, the battle intensified. Whenever Germans managed to knock out a Soviet tank with a panzerfaust, the local Soviet commander always tried to retaliate with a katyusha strike. But revenge with such an area weapon was akin to shooting hostages in response to a partisan attack.

  A small panzerfaust group of the French SS were captured by Soviet troops. The French ΝCO claimed that they were forced labourers who had been press-ganged into uniform by the Germans when the Red Army launched its attack on the Oder. They were lucky to be believed. At that stage, Soviet troops did not know about SS tattoos.

  That evening, one of the grotesque melodramas which so characterized the fall of the Third Reich took place. General Ritter von Greim, whom Hitler had summoned from Munich to take over command of the Luftwaffe from Göring, was carried into the bunker anteroom on a stretcher. He had been wounded in the leg by Soviet anti-aircraft fire. He was accompanied by his mistress, Hanna Reitsch, a test pilot and devotee of the Führer. Flying in a Fieseler Storch for the last leg of their extremely hazardous journey, they had been hit over the Grune-wald. Hanna Reitsch, reaching around the wounded Greim’s shoulders, had managed to land the small aircraft near the Brandenburg Gate. It was a feat requiring considerable bravery and skill. Yet that does not alter the fact that Hitler, by insisting on this symbolic handover, had nearly managed to kill the very man he wanted to promote to the supreme command of an organization which had effectively ceased to exist.

  On the following day, 27 April, General Krebs followed the Nazi leaders who were deceiving the troops under his command. Although evasive on the question of negotiations, he claimed that ‘the Americans could cross the ninety kilometres from the Elbe to Berlin in the shortest space of time and then everything would change for the better’.

  Everyone there was obsessed with reinforcements, whatever their number or effectiveness. Mohnke was ecstatic when he told Krukenberg that a company of sailors had been flown in and had taken up position in the gardens of the Foreign Office on the Wilhelmstrasse. Krukenberg was more encouraged to hear that eight assault guns from the 503rd SS Heavy Panzer Battalion had been assigned to support the Nordland. Other reinforcements included a group of Latvian SS. This prompted Krukenberg to claim that soon the whole of Europe would be represented in their sector. Considering the fact that by 1945 half of the Waffen SS was not German, this was not such a remarkable fact. And when you force an international civil war upon the world, as the Communists and fascists had done between them by the unscrupulous manipulation of alternatives, then the downfall of Berlin was an unsurprising pyre for the remnants of the European extreme right.

  Krukenberg’s divisional headquarters were reduced to a subway carriage in the U-Bahn station Stadtmitte without any electric light and without a telephone. His men kept going only because they had stripped the grocery shops in the nearby Gendarmenmarkt. Their fighting strength now rested on the large quantities of panzerfausts from the improvised arsenal in the Reich Chancellery cellars. Short of other weapons and ammunition, the French, like many other troops, were using them in close-quarter house combat as well as in their official anti-tank role. Hauptssturmführer Pehrsson arrived with four armoured personnel carriers taken from the Red Army and two of the original half-tracks belonging to the Nordland to guard the Reich Chancellery. The others had been blown up as they ran out of fuel or broke down in the withdrawal from Neukölln.

  In Sector Z, wounded soldiers were sent back to the dressing station set up in the cellars of the Adlon Hotel. SS soldiers were taken to another one in th
e Reich Chancellery cellars run by SS doctors and surgeons. There were nearly 500 wounded packed in there by the end of the battle. A bigger one, the Thomaskeller Lazarett, resembled a ‘slaughterhouse’. Like the civilian hospitals, the military field hospitals lacked food and water, as well as anaesthetic.

  The Soviet advance into Berlin was extremely uneven. In the north-west, the 47th Army, which had completed the encirclement of the city by meeting up with Konev’s 4th Guards Tank Army, was now approaching Spandau. Its officers had no idea that the huge citadel there housed German research into the nerve gases Tabun and Sarin. It was also involved in fierce fighting on Gatow airfield, where Volkssturm and Luftwaffe cadets used the 88mm anti-aircraft guns and shot back from behind wrecked aircraft.

 
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