The fall of berlin 1945, p.41
The Fall of Berlin 1945, p.41Antony Beevor
In the north, the and Guards Tank Army had hardly advanced out of Siemensscadt, while the 3rd Shock Army had reached the northern barrier to the Tiergarten and Prenzlauerberg. The 3rd Shock Army had bypassed the immensely powerful Humboldthain flak bunker, which was left as a target for their heavy artillery and the bombers. Continuing in a clockwise direction, the 5th Shock Army, driving into the eastern districts, similarly bypassed the Friedrichshain bunker. The bulk of its strength was between the Frankfurterallee and the south bank of the Spree after its 9th Corps crossed into Treptow.
From the south, the 8th Guards Army and the 1st Guards Tank Army had reached and breached the Landwehr Canal on 27 April. This was the last major obstacle to the government district and less than two kilometres from the Reich Chancellery, even though all of Zhukov’s armies were obsessed with Stalin’s target of the Reichstag. In the south-west, the 3rd Guards Tank Army had just entered Char-lottenburg, with a left-flanking hook through the Grunewald against the remains of the 18th Panzergrenadier Division.
Red Army troops reached Dahlem on 24 April, and the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physics the next day. The fighting, with katyushas firing and tanks advancing amid the spacious villas and neat tree-lined streets, produced strange contrasts. The frontline troops were followed by the ubiquitous panje-wagons pulled by shaggy little ponies and even pack camels.
There is nothing to show that any commanders in Rybalko’s army, or even Rybalko himself, had been warned of the Institute’s significance, yet they must have been aware of the large force of NKVD troops and specialists who secured the complex off the Boltzmannstrasse within two days.
Since the one thing holding up Soviet attempts to replicate the Manhattan Project’s research was the shortage of uranium, the importance which Stalin and Beria attached to securing research laboratories and their supplies was considerable. They also wanted German scientists capable of processing uranium. Beria’s preparations for the Berlin operation had clearly been enormous. Colonel General Makhnev was in charge of the special commission. The large numbers of NKVD troops to secure the laboratories and uranium stores were directly supervised by no less a personage than General Khrulev, the chief of rear area operations for the whole of the Red Army. The chief NKVD metallurgist, General Avraami Zavenyagin, had set up a base on the edge of Berlin and scientists from the main team of researchers oversaw the movement of materials and the dismantling of laboratories.
The NKVD commission made its report. As well as all the equipment at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute, they found ‘250kgs of metallic uranium; three tons of uranium oxide; twenty litres of heavy water’. The three tons of uranium oxide misdirected to Dahlem was a real windfall. There was a particular reason for speed, Beria and Malenkov reminded Stalin rather unnecessarily in a retrospective confirmation of action already carried out: the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute was ‘situated in the territory of the future Allied zone’. ‘Taking into account the extreme importance for the Soviet Union of all the above-mentioned equipment and materials,’ they wrote, ‘we request your decision on disassembling and evacuating equipment and other items from these enterprises and institutes back to the USSR.’
The State Committee for Defence accordingly authorized the ‘NKVD Commission headed by Comrade Makhnev’ to ‘evacuate to the Soviet Union to Laboratory No. 2 of the Academy of Sciences and Special Metal Department of the NKVD all the equipment and materials and archive of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin’.
Makhnev’s men also rounded up Professor Peter Thiessen and Dr Ludwig Bewilogua, who were flown to Moscow. But the major figures of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute – Werner Heisenberg, Max von Laue, Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker and Otto Hahn, who had won the Nobel Prize for chemistry only a few months before – were beyond their grasp. They were earmarked by the British and taken back to be lodged at Farm Hall, their debriefing centre for German scientists in East Anglia.
Other less important laboratories and institutes were also stripped out and many more scientists were arrested and sent to a special holding pen in the concentration camp of Sachsenhausen. Professor Baron von Ardenne volunteered. He was persuaded by General Zavenyagin to write ‘an application addressed to the Council of People’s Commissars of the USSR that he wished to work with Russian physicists and place the Institute and himself at the disposal of the Soviet government’.
Beria and Kurchatov’s scientists at last had some uranium to start work in earnest, and experts to process it, but the need for further supplies was desperate in their eyes. General Serov, the NKVD chief in Berlin, was ordered to concentrate on securing the uranium deposits in Czechoslovakia and, above all, in Saxony, south of Dresden. The presence of the uncompromising General George Patton’s Third Army in the region must have caused the Soviet authorities considerable concern. It may also explain why they were so nervous about whether US forces would withdraw to the previously agreed occupation zones.
In Dahlem, some of Rybalko’s officers visited Sister Kunigunde, the mother superior of Haus Dahlem, a maternity clinic and orphanage. She informed them that they had not hidden any German soldiers. The officers and their men behaved impeccably. In fact, the officers even warned Sister Kunigunde about the second-line troops following on behind. Their prediction proved entirely accurate, but there was no chance of escape. Nuns, young girls, old women, pregnant women and mothers who had just given birth were all raped without pity. One woman compared events in Dahlem to ‘the horrors of the Middle Ages’. Others thought of the Thirty Years War.
The pattern, with soldiers flashing torches in the faces of women huddled in the bunkers to select their victims, appears to have been common to all the Soviet armies involved in the Berlin operation. This process of selection, as opposed to the immediate violence shown in East Prussia, indicates a definite change. By this stage Soviet soldiers treated German women much more as sexual spoils of war than as substitutes for the Wehrmacht on which to vent their rage.
Rape has often been defined by writers on the subject as an act of violence which has little to do with sex. But that is a definition from the victim’s perspective. To understand the crime, however, one needs to see things from the perpetrator’s point of view, especially in this second stage when unaggravated rape had succeeded the extreme onslaught of January and February. The soldiers concerned appear to have felt that they were satisfying a sexual need after all their time at the front. In this most soldier rapists did not demonstrate gratuitous violence, provided the woman did not resist. A third stage in the process, and even a fourth, developed in the weeks to come, as will be seen. But the basic point is that, in war, undisciplined soldiers without fear of retribution can rapidly revert to a primitive male sexuality. The difference between the incoherent violence in East Prussia and the notion of carnal booty in Berlin underlines the fact that there can be no all-embracing definition of the crime. On the other hand, it tends to suggest that there is a dark area of male sexuality which can emerge all too easily, especially in war, when there are no social and disciplinary restraints. Much also depends on the military culture of a particular national army. As the Red Army example shows, the practice of collective rape can even become a form of bonding process.
Soviet political officers still talked of ‘violence under the pretext of revenge’. ‘When we broke into Berlin,’ the political department of the 1st Belorussian Front reported, ‘some of the troops indulged in looting and violence towards civilians. Political officers tried to control this. They organized meetings devoted to such topics as “the honour and dignity of the Red Army warrior”, “a looter is the worst enemy of the Red Army” and “how to understand correctly the problem of taking revenge”.’ But the idea of controlling their troops through political exhortation, particularly when the Party line had suddenly changed, was doomed to failure.
Germans were deeply shocked by the lack of discipline within the Red Army and the inability of officers to control their men, except in extreme cases by shooting them on the
Fighting in the Forest
‘Who would ever have thought,’ noted a battalion commander of the Scharnhorst Division as they advanced to Beelitz, ‘that it would be just a day’s march from the Western Front to the Eastern Front! It says everything about our situation.’
General Wenck’s XX Corps had started its attack eastwards on 24 April to break through to meet the Ninth Army encircled in the forests beyond Konev’s supply lines. That evening, the Theodor KörnerDivision of Reich Labour Service youths attacked General Yermakov’s 5th Guards Mechanized Corps near Treuenbrietzen. On the next day, the Scharnhorst Division approached Beelitz. They had no idea of what lay ahead as they moved through a mixture of thick young plantations and mature, well-spaced pine forest. The operation, observed the battalion commander, ‘had the character of an armed reconnaissance’. A few kilometres before Beelitz, they came upon the hospital complex at Heilstätten.
The nurses and patients, who had been looted very thoroughly the day before by Soviet troops and liberated slave labourers, heard artillery. Nobody knew where this battle was coming from. A shell hit one of the blocks. The children were taken down into the cellars. The nurses asked each other whether this could be the Americans arriving. Later, they suddenly saw German troops arriving from the west in skirmishing formation, dashing forwards from tree to tree. Two of the nurses ran outside towards them, screaming, ‘Blast the Russians away!’ As the battle intensified, the director of the hospital, Dr Potschka, decided to make contact with the Americans on the Elbe. The Swiss clearly could not help them.
The battle for Beelitz continued for several days. In the course of the fighting and the earlier outrages, seventy-six civilians were killed, including fifteen children. ‘It was fought with great bitterness,’ the battalion commander of the Scharnhorst wrote, ‘and no prisoners were taken.’ He and his men were appalled when the Soviets captured a house in which all their wounded comrades were lying in the cellar. The young soldiers – some of them were so young that civilians in Beelitz referred to them as ‘Kindersoldaten’ – suffered ‘tank fright’ on first encountering T-34 and Stalin tanks. But within a couple of days confidence returned when four Stalin tanks were knocked out with panzerfausts. Peter Rettich, the battalion commander, hailed his young soldiers’ ‘fantastic acts of bravery’ and their ‘dedication’ and then added that it was ‘a crying shame and a crime to throw such boys into this all-destructive hell’.
On 28 April, the 3,000 wounded and sick children were loaded by men of the Ulrich von Hutten Division on to a shuttle of goods trains which took them slowly off towards Barby. There the Kinderklinik was re-established and the Americans accepted the wounded as prisoners of war. Wenck, however, had set the Twelfth Army more important missions. One was the drive up towards Potsdam with the bulk of the Hutten Division to open up an escape corridor. The other was to help the Ninth Army save itself.
The German troops in the huge Spree forest south-east of Berlin represented an unwieldy mixture of mangled divisions and terrified civilians fleeing the Red Army. The 80,000 men had come together from different directions and different armies. The bulk were from General Busse’s Ninth Army – XI SS Panzer Corps on the Oderbruch and V SS Mountain Corps south of Frankfurt. The Frankfurt garrison, as Busse had been hoping, also managed to escape to join them. They were joined from the south by V Corps, which had formed the northern flank of the Fourth Panzer Army until cut off and forced back by Konev’s drive on Berlin.*
Busse, having consulted with General Wenck, was determined to break out due westwards through the tall pine forests south of Berlin. He would join up with the Twelfth Army, and both would withdraw to the Elbe. Busse’s main problem was that his rearguard was tied down in constant battles with Zhukov’s forces, and he warned Wenck that his army was ‘pushing to the west like a caterpillar’. Neither he nor Wenck intended to waste any more lives by following Hitler’s increasingly hysterical orders to attack up towards Berlin. Busse, shortly after midnight on 25 April, had been given authority ‘to decide for himself on the best direction of attack’. From then on, he adopted a Nelsonian tactic of refusing to acknowledge most signals, although in many cases radio communications genuinely broke down.
His men and the civilians who had sought refuge with them had virtually no food left. Vehicles were kept moving until they ran out of fuel or broke down and then they were destroyed or cannibalized for spare parts. He did, however, have thirty-one tanks left – half a dozen Panthers from the Kurmark, the remains of General Hans von Luck’s 21st Panzer Division, and around ten King Tigers from the 502nd SS Heavy Panzer Battalion. These he hoped to use as his spearhead to break through the rear of Konev’s armies attacking Berlin. Their fuel tanks were topped up by siphoning from trucks abandoned by the side of the road. His remaining artillery would fire an opening barrage with their last shells, then blow up their guns.
Busse’s men were encircled in the pattern of lakes and forest southwest of Fürstenwalde by troops from both the 1st Belorussian Front and Konev’s 1st Ukrainian Front. On the afternoon of 25 April, Zhukov sent his forces into the attack from the north and east. They included the 3rd Army, the 2nd Guards Cavalry Corps, which was well adapted to forest fighting, the 33rd Army and the 69th Army.
Konev had realized, after studying the map, that the Germans had little choice for their breakout. They would have to cross the Berlin-Dresden autobahn south of the series of lakes starting at Teupitz. Konev reacted rapidly, albeit rather late in the day. On 25 April, Gordov’s 3rd Guards Army was rushed into positions close to the Berlin-Dresden autobahn ‘to block all the forest roads leading from east to west’. They chopped down tall pine trees to form tank barriers. But Gordov did not manage to occupy the southern part of his sector. And although the 28th Army reinforced the area east of Baruth as ordered, a slight gap remained between the two armies.
On the morning of 26 April, Busse’s vanguard, advancing through Halbe, happened to find the weak point between the two armies. They crossed the autobahn and reached the Baruth-Zossen road, which was the supply line to Rybalko in Berlin. General Luchinsky, to avert the danger, even had to send the 50th and 96th Guards Rifle Divisions into a counter-attack ‘without information about the situation’. The fighting was chaotic, but heavy bombing and strafing from the 2nd Air Army and relentless counter-attacks on the ground forced many of the Germans back across the autobahn into the Halbe forest. The panzer crews had found that their tracks did not grip on the sandy soil of the pine forest and they were forced to avoid the forest roads because of the constant air attacks.
The group that managed to cross both the autobahn and the Baruth-Zossen road was spotted by a Luftwaffe aircraft. This was reported to Army Group Vistula and to General Jodl. Hitler was furious when he heard that they were heading westwards, but he still could not believe that Busse would dare to disobey him. A signal was sent that night via Jodl. ‘The Führer has ordered that concentric attacks of Ninth and Twelfth Armies must not only serve to save the Ninth Army but principally to save Berlin.’ Further signals were more explicit: ‘The Führer in Berlin expects that the armies will do their duty. History and the German people will despise every man who in these circumstances does not give his utmost to save the situation and the Führer.’ Hitler’s one-way concept of loyalty was perfectly revealed. The signal was repeated several times that night and the following day. There was no reply from the forest.
During that night and the next day, 27 April, the Germans renewed their attack along two axes: in the south from Halbe through towards Baruth, and in the north from Teupitz
This is the tidy version of events – the staff officer’s summary, trying to produce order out of chaos. But within the forest, in and around Halbe especially, the reality of the battle was appalling, mainly due to Soviet artillery and air bombardment.
‘If the first attempts to break out through the encirclement succeeded, they were immediately destroyed by Russian aircraft and artillery,’ Major Diehl, the commander of the 90th Regiment in the 35th SS Police Grenadier Division, told his interrogators when captured. ‘The losses were huge. One literally could not raise one’s head and I was absolutely unable to conduct the battle. All I could do was lie under a tank with my adjutant and look at the map.’
Men with chest and stomach wounds lay bleeding to death. Most of the injuries came from wood splinters, as in an eighteenth-century battle at sea. The Soviet tank crews and artillery deliberately aimed to explode their shells high in the trees. For those below there was little protection. Digging trenches in the sandy soil filled with tree roots was an impossible task, even for those who still had spades. Some men in their desperation for shelter tried to dig frantically with their helmets or rifle butts, but they could achieve little more than a shallow shell-scrape, which was no protection from the splinters.
Air and artillery bombardments in such conditions produced a panic even among experienced soldiers. When Soviet reconnaissance or ground attack aircraft appeared overhead, those German soldiers riding on the vehicle began firing at them wildly with sub-machine guns and rifles. Any wounded or exhausted men on foot who collapsed in the path of armoured vehicles or trucks were simply run over by wheels or crushed by tank tracks.
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