The fall of berlin 1945, p.42
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       The Fall of Berlin 1945, p.42

           Antony Beevor

  As the battle continued in that last week of April, there were few front lines in the expanse of forest. Skirmishes were deadly, with a tank suddenly surprising an enemy in enfilade down a fire-break or ride. A Tiger and a Panther, followed by half-tracks, all covered with exhausted soldiers clinging on to the outside, were fired at by a Soviet tank. Everyone tried to fire back at once in the confusion. The infantrymen on the outsides of the tanks had to jump as the turret traversed. But the Soviet tank was faster. Its next shell hit one of the half-tracks, which happened to be loaded with cans of spare fuel. It exploded in a ball of flame, setting light to the forest around.

  Constant smoke from burning pine trees drifted through the forest. Although Soviet commanders denied it, their artillery and aviation regiments certainly seemed to be using phosphorous or other incendiary projectiles. Horses towing supply carts or limbers and guns were terrified and bolted easily. The smoke also greatly reduced visibility in the already gloomy light amid the tall, straight trunks like cathedral columns. There was a constant noise of men calling to each other, hoping to make contact with their group. Despite all the attempts to issue orders to recognizable formations, the different army corps had mingled into an incoherent mass, with Wehrmacht and SS trudging uneasily alongside each other. Mutual suspicion had greatly increased. The SS claimed that army officers refused to pick up their wounded, but there was little sign of SS officers doing anything for Wehrmacht soldiers, except crush them under their tracks if they were in the way. The army’s resentment of the SS as an alien organization rose very close to the surface. There were apparently also SS women, armed and in black uniforms, riding on the Tiger tanks.

  After the first breakout failed, groups tried to slip through in different directions. One detachment came across a Soviet artillery position which had been stormed by half-tracks the day before. They crossed the autobahn and found dead Soviet soldiers still in their foxholes. Like the other groups, they continued on through the forests towards the rendezvous round Kummersdorf, which the first breakthrough group had almost reached. After the autobahn, the most dangerous part was crossing the Baruth-Zossen road, defended by another line of Soviet rifle divisions and artillery.

  On the night of 28 April, another determined attempt at a mass breakout from the Halbe area was made. In desperate fighting, the Germans managed to smash the line held by the 50th Guards Rifle Division. ‘For this they paid in heavy losses,’ wrote General Luchinsky. Konev, determined that the rest should be crushed, reinforced the flanks. Trees were felled across tracks leading westwards. Each rifle division set up lines of anti-tank guns hidden behind fire-breaks or tracks, as if they were engaged in a gigantic boar shoot. Rifle regiments, supported by small tank detachments, attacked into the forest east of the autobahn.

  Busse’s men were spread over a wide area, with large groups around Halbe, and others stretching most of the way back to Storkow, where the rearguard still held out against Zhukov’s forces. The Soviet attacks were designed to break up Busse’s forces into different pockets. During almost all hours of daylight, Soviet U-2 biplanes flew low over the tree-tops, trying to spot fugitive groups for the artillery and aviation to attack. Altogether, the air divisions supporting the 1st Ukrainian Front flew ‘2,459 attack missions and 1,683 bombing sorties’.

  For the Germans in the forest, without maps or compasses, it was almost impossible to find their way. The smoke and the trees made it hard even to see the sun to estimate where west might lie. Most of the exhausted soldiers simply trudged along the sandy paths, leaderless and lost. There was great resentment against the ‘gentlemen of the staff’ in their clean uniforms, driven in their Kübelwagen vehicles, and apparently not picking up any of the wounded or those who had collapsed. All around crossing points of roads there was ‘a patchwork quilt of corpses, grey-green corpses’. Six soldiers from the 36th SS Grenadier Division commanded by Major General Oskar Dirlewanger, infamous for his role in the suppression of both risings in Warsaw, surrendered despite the risk of execution. ‘It’s already been five days since we’ve seen an officer,’ one of them said. ‘We feel that the war will end very soon, and the stronger this feeling becomes, the more we don’t want to die.’ It was rare for the SS to surrender. As far as most of them were concerned, capture meant a ‘shot in the back of the neck’ or a Siberian camp.

  A terrible, one-sided battle developed round the large village of Halbe during 28 and 29 April as Soviet forces attacked from the south with katyushas and artillery. Many of the young Wehrmacht soldiers were shaking with fear and ‘literally shitting themselves’, according to Hardi Buhl, a villager. The local inhabitants were sheltering in their cellars, and when these terrified boy soldiers sought safety there too, they gave them clothes. But SS soldiers, on realizing what was happening, tried to stop it with reprisals. Hardi Buhl was with his family in their cellar, which was packed with other families and soldiers – some forty people in all – when an SS man appeared with a panzerfaust, which he aimed at the cowering inmates. The explosion in such a confined space would have killed them all. But before he fired, a Wehrmacht soldier in the corner nearest the stairs, who had been hard to see in the gloom, shot him in the back of the neck. There were other reports of shooting between SS and Wehrmacht around Halbe, but they are hard to verify.

  Another attempt to break out westwards was made from Halbe by the central group. Siegfried Jürgs, a young officer cadet with Fahnenjunker Regiment 1239, described in his diary what he saw from his position on the leading tank. Wounded, whom nobody helped, were left screaming by the side of the track. ‘I never suspected that three hours later, I would be one of them.’ As they attacked a Soviet blocking detachment, he had jumped down from the tank with the other infantry to take up position in the ditch. But then a mortar bomb exploded and he was pierced through the back by a large fragment of shrapnel. Another explosion left him with shrapnel in his shoulder, chest and again in his back. Jürgs was luckier than the wounded he had seen earlier. He was picked up by a truck a number of hours later, but these vehicles were overloaded with wounded and there were screams of pain from the back as they lurched and bumped in and out of potholes on the forest tracks. Those too badly wounded to be moved were left to suffer where they lay. Few had any strength left to bury the dead. At best bodies were rolled into a ditch or shell crater and some sandy soil thrown over them.

  On forest tracks and roads, vehicles burned and horses lay dead in their traces, while others still twitched and thrashed in pain. The ground was littered with abandoned weapons and helmets, prams, handcarts and suitcases. Halbe itself was described by eyewitnesses as a vision of hell through war. ‘Tanks rolled down the Lindenstrasse,’ the seventeen-year-old Erika Menze recorded. ‘They were covered with wounded soldiers. One of the wounded soldiers fell off the back of one. The following tank crushed him completely and the next tank after that drove over the large pool of blood. Of the soldier himself, there remained no trace.’ Outside the bakery, the pavement was literally covered with corpses. There was no space between them. ‘The heads were a yellowish grey, squashed flat, the hands a grey-black. Only wedding rings glimmered gold and silver.’

  Fewer and fewer vehicles were left each day – several tanks, eight-wheeler armoured reconnaissance vehicles and some half-tracks. The vast majority of the soldiers were on their feet. On 29 April after dawn, the rain stopped and the sun came out a little. It was enough to get a rough idea of direction.

  Survivors remember moments which seemed so unreal that they wondered afterwards if they had dreamed them in their exhaustion. Near Mückendorf, an officer cadet threw himself to the ground like the other soldiers with him when a hidden sub-machine gunner to their flank opened fire on them. They began firing back into the underbrush, unable to distinguish a target. Suddenly, two young SS women in black uniforms and armed with pistols appeared. ‘Get up!’ they screamed at them. ‘Attack, you cowards!’ At the end of what proved a very confused skirmish, there was absolutely no sign of the
two ‘fanatics’.

  The writer Konstantin Simonov happened to be on his way to Berlin in a jeep coming up the autobahn just after the main battle. On the stretch south of Teupitz, he saw a sight that he said he would never forget. ‘In that place, there was rather thick forest on both sides of the autobahn, half coniferous, half deciduous, already becoming green. A cross-cutting, not wide, led through the forest on both sides of the motorway, and one wasn’t able to see its ends… [it was] packed with something incredible: a terrible jam of cars, trucks, tanks, armoured cars, vehicles, ambulances, all of them not only pushed closely against one another, but literally jammed over one another, overturned, standing on end, upset, breaking the surrounding trees. In this mess of metal, wood and something unidentifiable was a dreadful mash of tortured human bodies. And all this went on along the cutting, into infinity. In the surrounding forest – corpses, corpses, corpses, mixed with, I suddenly noted, ones who were still alive. There were wounded people lying on greatcoats and blankets, sitting leaning against trees, some in bandages, others still without any. There were so many of them that apparently nobody had yet managed to do anything about them.’ Some even lay on the edge of the autobahn, which was half-blocked by debris and covered in oil, petrol and blood. One of the officers with him explained that this group had been ‘caught by the massed fire of several regiments of heavy artillery and katyushas’.

  Soviet political departments were working hard all this time to persuade survivors to surrender. A quarter of a million leaflets were dropped over the forest. Loudspeakers boomed messages pre-recorded by ‘antifascist’ German prisoners. And Soviet soldiers shouted through the trees, ‘Woina kaputt. Domoi. Woina kaputt!’ – ‘The war’s over. Time to go home. The war’s over!’ Meanwhile, the political department of the 1st Ukrainian Front stiffened its men’s determination with the message, ‘The remains of the destroyed German hordes are wandering in the forests like wild beasts and will try to reach Berlin at any cost. But they won’t pass.’ Most of them did not. Close to 30,000 men lie buried in the cemetery at Halbe and every year scores more bodies are discovered out in the forest. In June 1999, the Ninth Army’s Enigma machine was also found in a shallow grave beside the autobahn. Nobody knows for sure how many refugees died with the soldiers, but it could have been as many as 10,000. At least 20,000 Red Army soldiers died too. Most are buried in a cemetery on the Baruth-Zossen road, but scores of their bodies too are still being found deep in the woods.

  The most astonishing part of the story is not the numbers who died or were forced to surrender, but the 25,000 soldiers and several thousand civilians who succeeded in getting through three lines of Soviet troops to reach Wenck’s army round Beelitz. (Marshal Konev refused to accept that ‘more than 3,000–4,000’ eluded his forces.) There, between the forest and the Elbe, where safety lay with the Americans on the far bank, they were to face many more swings between hope and despair in the last days of the war.

  At the time of the main battle round Halbe, Army Group Vistula headquarters decided that it must have lost all contact with General Busse. A Fieseler Storch light aircraft was sent with an officer to make contact, but this attempt failed utterly. The Ninth Army was on its own, thus confirming the collapse of Army Group Vistula as a coherent entity.

  General Hasso von Manteuffel’s Third Panzer Army was already doomed once Rokossovsky’s 2nd Belorussian Front broke through across the lower Oder. General Heinrici gave Manteuffel permission to withdraw westwards into Mecklenburg, but deliberately avoided informing Field Marshal Keitel or General Krebs in the Führer bunker, because this was in direct defiance of Hitler’s order.

  Rokossovsky’s advance westwards between Berlin and the Baltic forced Heinrici and his staff to abandon their headquarters at Hassleben, near Prenzlau. On their withdrawal, they passed close to Himmler’s retreat of Hohenlychen. There they saw a Hitler Youth battalion with an average age of fourteen. The boys, staggering under the weight of their weapons and packs, were trying to put a brave face on it. One staff officer spoke to their commander, saying it was a crime ‘to send these children against a battle-hardened enemy’, but this did no good. The Third Reich, in its death throes, revealed its frenzied rage against both common sense and common humanity.

  Heinrici, having given Manteuffel permission to withdraw, knew that it would not be long before he heard from the two chief ‘gravediggers of the German army’. Field Marshal Keitel, on discovering what had happened, telephoned Heinrici on 29 April, accusing him of ‘disobedience and unsoldierly weakness’. He told him that he was relieved of his command forthwith. Keitel tried to appoint General von Manteuffel as Heinrici’s successor, but he refused. General Jodl rang not long afterwards. In his coldest manner, he also accused Heinrici of cowardice and weak, incompetent leadership. Heinrici was ordered to report to OKW’s new headquarters. His aides, fearing that he would be executed or forced to commit suicide like Rommel, begged him to spin out his journey. He followed their advice and the end of the war saved him.


  The Betrayal of the Will

  During the withdrawal into the centre of Berlin, the SS execution squads went about their hangman’s work with an increased urgency and cold fanaticism. Around the Kurfürstendamm, SS squads entered houses where white flags had appeared and shot down any men they found. Goebbels, terrified of the momentum of collapse, described these signs of surrender as a ‘plague bacillus’. Yet General Mummert, the commander of the Müncheberg Panzer Division, ordered the SS and Feldgendarmerie squads out of his sector round the Anhalter Bahnhof and Potsdamerplatz. He threatened to shoot executioners on the spot.

  The conditions for those involved in the fighting became progressively worse. German troops could seldom get near a water pump. They had to quench their thirst, exacerbated by the smoke and dust, with water from canals. There were also more and more cases of nervous breakdowns from the combination of exhaustion and constant artillery fire. The number of wounded in the Anhalter bunker had grown so much that young women had made a Red Cross flag, using sheets and lipsticks. This was a wasted effort. Even if the Soviet artillery observers had seen the Red Cross symbol through the smoke and masonry dust, they would not have diverted their battery fire. A bunker was a bunker. The fact that it contained civilians was irrelevant. Numbers inside were diminishing rapidly, however, as women and children escaped along the U-Bahn and S-Bahn tunnels during the night of 27 April. Troops from the 5th Shock Army and the 8th Guards Army were literally at the door.

  The 5th Shock Army, advancing from the east on the north side of the Landwehr Canal, had fought back the remnants of the Nordland and the Müncheberg from Belle-Allianceplatz and carried on to the Anhalter Bahnhof. The 61st Rifle Division of the 28th Army also arrived there from a different direction. The 5th Shock Army then found the 8th Guards Army attacking from the south across the canal into their left rear flank. The commander of the 301st Rifle Division, Colonel Antonov, immediately called in his corps commander, General Rosly. They at once set off in a jeep. ‘Rosly, who is usually very calm, looked worried,’ wrote Antonov. ‘He thought the situation over and said, “How on earth can we get them back over the Landwehr Canal? Don’t let your order of battle get mixed up with the Guards. Continue advancing along the Wilhelmstrasse and the Saarlandstrasse. Storm Gestapo headquarters, the aviation ministry and the Reich Chancellery.”’ Antonov did not waste time, but it took Zhukov’s headquarters nearly thirty hours to sort out the muddle and establish new boundaries between the different armies. Soon the majority of Konev’s troops were pulled out of Berlin – ‘like a nail,’ they said, to emphasize their resentment at being denied the prize – and diverted towards Prague.

  Also by 28 April, troops of the 3rd Shock Army, advancing from the northern districts, were in sight of the Siegessäule column in the Tiergarten. Red Army soldiers nicknamed it the ‘tall woman’ because of the statue of winged victory on the top. The German defenders were now reduced to a strip less than five kilometres in wid
th and fifteen in length. It ran from Alexanderplatz in the east to Charlottenburg and the Reichssportsfeld in the west, from where Artur Axmann’s Hitler Youth detachments desperately defended the bridges over the Havel. Weid-ling’s artillery commander, Colonel Wöhlermann, gazed around in horror from the gun platform at the top of the vast concrete Zoo flak tower. ‘One had a panoramic view of the burning, smouldering and smoking great city, a scene which again and again shook one to the core.’ Yet General Krebs still pandered to Hitler’s belief that Wenck’s army was about to arrive from the south-west.

  To keep resistance alive Bormann, like Goebbels and Ribbentrop, spread the false rumour of a deal with the Western Allies. ‘Stand fast, fight fanatically,’ he had ordered Gauleiters early in the morning of 26 April. ‘We are not giving up. We are not surrendering. We sense some developments in policy abroad. Heil Hitler! Reichsleiter Bormann.’ The lie was soon underlined by the reaction of Hitler and Goebbels to Himmler’s attempts to seek a genuine cease-fire with the western powers.

  Truman and Churchill had immediately informed the Kremlin of the approach through Count Bernadotte. ‘I consider your proposed reply to Himmler… absolutely correct,’ Stalin replied to Truman on 26 April. Nobody in the bunker had any inkling of what was afoot, and yet a general suspicion of betrayal had certainly gripped Bormann. On the night of Friday 27 April, he wrote in his diary, ‘Himmler and Jodl stop the divisions that we are throwing in. We will fight and we will die with our Führer, to whom we will remain devoted until the grave. Many are going to act on the basis of “higher motives”. They are sacrificing their Führer. Phooee! What swine. They have lost any honour. Our Reich Chancellery is turning into ruins. “The world is now hanging by a thread.” The Allies are demanding unconditional surrender. This would mean a betrayal of the Fatherland. Fegelein has degraded himself. He tried to run away from Berlin in civilian clothes.’ Bormann rapidly distanced himself from his close companion.

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