The fall of berlin 1945, p.44
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       The Fall of Berlin 1945, p.44
 

           Antony Beevor

  The 150th Rifle Division stormed the Ministry of the Interior, on the southern side of the Moltkestrasse. This massive building immediately became known as ‘Himmler’s House’. With doors and windows blocked to provide embrasures for the defenders, it proved a hard fortress to storm. Unable to bring forward gun and rocket batteries, sappers improvised individual katyusha launchers on lengths of railway line. But the basic tools of this close-quarter fighting through the morning of 29 April were grenades and sub-machine guns.

  Soviet soldiers, even if afraid of dying in the last days of the battle, also wanted to impress everyone at home. As conquerors of Berlin, they saw themselves as an élite in the post-war Soviet Union. ‘Greetings from the front,’ wrote Vladimir Borisovich Pereverzev that day. ‘Hello, my nearest and dearest ones. So far I am alive and healthy, only I am slightly drunk the whole time. But this is necessary to keep up your courage. A reasonable ration of three-star cognac will do no harm. Naturally we ourselves punish those who don’t know their capacity [for drink]. Now we’re tightening the circle round the centre of the city. I am just 500 metres from the Reichstag. We have already crossed the Spree and within a few days the Fritzes and the Hanses will be kaputt. They are still writing on the walls that “Berlin bleibt deutsch”, but we say instead, “Alles deutsch kaputt.” And it will turn out the way we say it. I wanted to send you my photo, which was taken, but we have not had a chance to develop it. It’s a pity because the photo would be very interesting: a sub-machine gun on my shoulder, a Mauser stuck into my belt, grenades at my side. There’s a lot to hit Germans with. To cut a long story short we’ll be in the Reichstag tomorrow. I can’t send parcels [i.e. looted goods]. There’s no time for it. And we front units have other things to do. You write that part of the kitchen ceiling collapsed, but that’s nothing! A six-storey building collapsed on us and we had to dig our boys out. This is how we live and beat the Germans. This briefly is my news.’ Pereverzev was badly wounded shortly after finishing the letter. He died on the day that victory was announced.

  ‘Sunday 29 April,’ wrote Martin Bormann in his diary. ‘The second day which has started with a hurricane of fire. During the night of 28–29 April, the foreign press wrote about Himmler’s offer of capitulation. The wedding of Hitler and Eva Braun. Führer dictates his political and private wills. Traitors Jodl, Himmler and the generals abandon us to the Bolsheviks. Hurricane fire again. According to the information of the enemy, the Americans have broken into Munich.’

  Hitler, even though his optimism and pessimism had been surging back and forth, finally realized that all was lost. His secure radiotelephone communications had collapsed, literally, when the last balloon raising the aerial above the Führer bunker was shot down. As a result Red Army listening stations intercepted its ordinary signals traffic that day. Bormann and Krebs jointly signed a message to all commanders: ‘Führer expects an unshakeable loyalty from Schörner, Wenck and others. He also expects Schörner and Wenck to save him and Berlin.’ Field Marshal Schörner replied that ‘the rear areas are completely disorganized. The civilian population makes it difficult to operate.’ Finally, Wenck made it clear that no miracles should be expected from the Twelfth Army: ‘The troops of the Army suffered great losses and there is a severe shortage of weapons.’

  Those in the Führer bunker, even the loyalists, finally saw that the longer Hitler delayed his suicide the greater the number of people who would die. After the Himmler and Göring débâcles, nobody could consider a cease-fire until the Führer had killed himself. The problem was that if he waited until the Russians were at the Reich Chancellery door, then none of them would get out alive.

  Freytag von Loringhoven did not want to die in such surroundings, or in such company. After the three messengers left, bearing copies of Hitler’s last testament, the idea occurred to him that, with communications down, he and Boldt could ask for permission to join up with troops outside the city. ‘Herr General,’ he said to General Krebs. ‘I do not want to die like a rat here, I would like to return to the fighting troops.’ Krebs was at first reluctant. Then he spoke to General Burgdorf. Burgdorf said that any of the remaining military aides should be allowed to leave. His assistant, Lieutenant Colonel Weiss, should go with Freytag von Loringhoven and Captain Boldt.

  Hitler was approached for his approval after the midday situation conference. ‘How are you going to get out of Berlin?’ he asked. Freytag von Loringhoven explained their route, out of the Reich Chancellery cellars and across Berlin to the Havel, where they would find a boat. Hitler became enthused. ‘You must get an electric motor boat, because that doesn’t make any noise and you can get through the Russian lines.’ Freytag von Loringhoven, fearing his obsession with this one detail, agreed that it was the best method but said that, if necessary, they might have to use another craft. Hitler, suddenly exhausted, shook hands limply with each one and dismissed them.

  The Russians, as the Nordland Division knew only too well, were already very close to the Reich Chancellery. Three T-34S had charged up the Wilhelmstrasse the day before, as far as the U-Bahn station, where they were ambushed by French SS panzerfausters.

  Colonel Antonov’s 301st Rifle Division began its assault in earnest at dawn on 29 April, not long after the newly married couple in the Führer bunker had retired. Two of his rifle regiments attacked Gestapo headquarters on the Prinz-Albrechtstrasse, a building which had been heavily damaged in the 3 February air raid. In the now standard tactic, 203mm heavy howitzers were brought forward to blast open a breach at close range. Two battalions stormed in and hoisted a red banner, but the Soviet accounts fail to reveal the fact that after fierce fighting and heavy casualties they were forced to withdraw that evening by a ferocious Waffen SS counter-attack. The Russians had no idea whether any prisoners of the Gestapo remained alive inside. In fact, there were seven left who had been specially spared from the horrendous massacre which had taken place on the night of 23 April.

  *

  The Nordland, now under Mohnke’s command from the Reich Chancellery, was ‘fed from above’ with further encouraging messages about the progress of Wenck’s army and negotiations with the Allies. The only reinforcements Krukenberg had received were 100 elderly police officials. His men were too exhausted to care about messages from the Reich Chancellery. They were too tired even to speak. Their faces were empty. No man would wake up unless shaken vigorously. Tank hunting, one of them wrote later, had become a ‘descent into hell’.

  The French ‘tank destroyer squads’ had played a particularly effective role in the defence. They accounted for about half of the 108 tanks knocked out on the whole sector. Henri Fenet, their battalion commander, described a seventeen-year-old from Saint Nazaire, called Roger, who fought alone with his panzerfausts ‘like a single soldier with a rifle’. Unterscharfführer Eugène Vanlot, a twenty-year-old plumber nicknamed ‘Gégène’, was the highest scorer, with eight tanks. He had knocked out two T-34S in Neukölln and then destroyed another six in less than twenty-four hours. On the afternoon of 29 April, Krukenberg summoned him to the subway car in the wrecked U-Bahn station, and there, ‘by the light of spluttering candle stubs’, he decorated him with one of the two last Knight’s Crosses to be awarded. The other recipient was Major Herzig, the commander of the 503rd SS Heavy Panzer Battalion. Mohnke presented him with his at about the same time. Fenet himself and Officer Cadet Apollot also received awards for destroying five tanks each. A Scandinavian Obersturmführer from the Nordland brought three bottles of looted French wine to toast the heroes.

  Fenet, who had been wounded in the foot, explained that they fought on because they had only one idea in their heads: ‘The Communists must be stopped.’ There was no time ‘for philosophizing’. Protopopov, a White Guard officer who had fought in the Russian civil war and accompanied his French comrades to Berlin, also believed that the gesture was more important than the fact. Later, the few foreign SS volunteers who survived tried to rationalize their doomed battle as the need to provide
an anti-Bolshevik example for the future. Even the sacrifice of boys was justified in those circumstances.

  Just to the west of the battle around the Wilhelmstrasse, Chuikov’s 8th Guards Army attacked northwards across the Landwehr Canal into the Tiergarten. Some troops swam the canal, others used improvised craft under the cover of an artillery barrage and smoke screens. One group used sewer entrances to get behind the defenders.

  At the Potsdamer bridge a clever ruse was adopted. Oil-soaked rags and smoke canisters were attached to the outside of a T-34 tank. As the tank approached the bridge, these were ignited. The anti-tank guns and a dug-in Tiger tank ceased fire, because their crews thought they had scored a direct hit. But by the time they had realized what was happening, the tank was across, firing at close range. Other T-34S raced across in its wake.

  Another trick was used in the early afternoon. Three German civilians emerged with a white flag from a complex of tunnels and an underground air-raid bunker on three levels. They asked if civilians would be allowed out. A political officer, Guards Major Kukharev, accompanied by a soldier interpreter and ten sub-machine gunners, went forward to negotiate with them. The three civilians led Major Kukharev to the tunnel entrance. Three German officers appeared. They offered him a blindfold and said that they should discuss things inside, but Kukharev insisted on negotiating outside. It was eventually agreed that the 1,500 civilians sheltering inside would be allowed out. After they had left, the German captain announced that the remaining members of the Wehrmacht must now fulfil the Führer’s order to resist to the end. They turned to go back into the tunnel. ‘But Comrade Kukharev was not so simple,’ the report continued. ‘This enterprising political officer took out a small pistol which he had hidden in his sleeve and killed the captain and the other two officers.’ The sub-machine gunners from the 170th Guards Rifle Regiment then charged down into the bunker, and the Germans inside raised their hands in surrender. Many of them were young cadets.

  The right flank of Chuikov’s 8th Guards Army on the Landwehr Canal was almost opposite General Weidling’s headquarters in the Bendlerblock, but the Soviet divisional commander had no idea of its importance. Weidling, knowing that the end was close, summoned his divisional commanders. He told them that the last radio communication with General Reymann in Potsdam had taken place the day before. A part of General Wenck’s Twelfth Army had broken through to Ferch, just south of Potsdam, but nobody knew whether an escape route was still open. He had summoned them to discuss a breakout westwards straight down the Heerstrasse. Η-Hour was to be at 10 the next night.

  24

  Führerdämmerung

  The assault on the Reichstag was planned for dawn on 30 April. Soviet commanders were desperate to capture it in time for the May Day parade in Moscow. Yet the pressure for results came from those in the chain of command who assumed that nothing had changed, not from Stalin. It is noticeable that once the city had been completely surrounded, preventing any American access, Stalin had relaxed and made no attempt to interfere in decisions on the ground. The Reichstag, nevertheless, remained the chosen symbol for victory over the ‘fascist beast’, and so it was naturally the main focal point for Soviet propaganda.

  A war correspondent, summoned to the headquarters of the 150th Rifle Division just a few hours before, was told to hand over his pistol. He did so, horrified that he was being sent home for some misdemeanour. But the captain who had taken it from him put his mind at rest when he came back into the room with a fresh weapon. ‘The order has come through,’ he said, ‘that everyone going to the Reichstag must be armed with a sub-machine gun.’

  Amid sporadic fire, the journalist was taken on a zigzag route to ‘Himmler’s House’ – the Ministry of the Interior. Fighting still continued on the upper floors, as the explosions of grenades and the rattle of sub-machine guns made clear. In the basement, however, battalion cooks, with almost as much noise, were preparing breakfast for the assault groups. On the first floor, Captain Neustroev, a battalion commander about to lead the assault on the Reichstag, was trying to orientate himself. He kept glancing down at his map and then up at the grey building ahead. His regimental commander, impatient at the delay, appeared.

  ‘There’s a grey building in the way,’ explained Neustroev. The regimental commander grabbed the map from him and studied their position again. ‘Neustroev!’ he replied in exasperation. ‘That is the Reichstag!’ The young battalion commander had not been able to imagine that their final objective could be so close.

  The journalist also peered from a window. The Königsplatz outside was ‘covered with flashes and fire and exploding shells and the interrupted lines of tracer bursts’. The Reichstag lay less than 400 metres beyond. ‘If there had been no fighting,’ he wrote, ‘this distance could be crossed in a few minutes, but now it seemed impassable, covered with shell holes, railway sleepers, pieces of wire and trenches.’

  The German defenders had dug a network of defences all round the Reichstag. Most daunting of all, a water obstacle ran right across the middle of the Königsplatz. This was a tunnel which had collapsed from bombing and filled with water seeping in from the Spree. It had been dug as part of exploratory work for Albert Speer’s vast Volkshalle, the centrepiece of the new Nazi capital of Germania. In this devastated, ‘Hieronymus Bosch landscape’, practical jokers had propped up on stones the heads of caryatids blasted by Allied bombs off the Reichstag’s façade.

  Once breakfast was dished up, ‘everyone started checking their weapons and spare magazines’. Then at 6 a.m., the first company charged out. They had ‘hardly gone fifty metres when the hurricane of fire from the enemy made them lie down’. Two rather reduced battalions made a dash forward soon afterwards, but many were killed. Heavy fire was also coming from the Kroll Opera House, on the west side of the Königsplatz, as well as from the Reichstag itself. With the assault force trapped in the crossfire, another division was rapidly deployed to deal with the Kroll Opera House, but first it had to clear the buildings behind on the embankment. More self-propelled guns and tanks were also brought over the Moltke bridge during the course of the morning to support the infantry on the Königsplatz. The smoke and dust from the bombardment were so thick that the soldiers never saw the sky.

  With heavy artillery and tank fire supporting them, the 150th Rifle Division battalions reached the water-filled tunnel soon after 11 a.m. But when another huge effort was made two hours later, heavy fire came from their right rear. The German anti-aircraft guns on the top of the Zoo bunker, two kilometres away, had opened up on them. They were forced to take cover again and wait until nightfall. During the afternoon, the 171st Rifle Division continued clearing buildings of the diplomatic quarter on the north side of the Königsplatz and more self-propelled guns and tanks moved up. Some ninety guns, including 152mm and 203mm howitzers, as well as katyusha rocket launchers, fired continuously at the Reichstag. It says much for the solidity of its construction fifty years before, during the Second Reich, that it withstood such a pounding.

  Another prominent building heavily bombarded that morning was Göring’s air ministry on the Wilhelmstrasse. Its ferro-concrete construction also resisted well. Because of its solidity and proximity to the Reich Chancellery, it had become an assembly point for uniformed Nazi Party members pretending that they were part of the great battle. The mixture of uniforms was striking. Along with Luftwaffe and Waffen SS, there was an elderly Volkssturm officer in his Wilhelmine uniform from the First World War who appeared ‘to have escaped from a waxworks museum’.

  The government district was now heavily garrisoned with all the troops which had retreated into it – in all, nearly 10,000 men, including a large proportion of foreign SS. But the escape route to the west was effectively cut off. The 8th Guards Army in the southern part of the Tiergarten and the 3rd Shock Army in the north were held back only by fire from the huge Zoo flak tower. Beyond them the one remaining corps of Konev’s tank troops coming from the south and Zhukov’s 2nd Guards Tank Army co
ming from the north had occupied most of Charlottenburg. Yet even further to the west, Hitler Youth detachments still held parts of the Heerstrasse and the Pichelsdorf bridge over the Havel. They also held on at the bridge to Spandau, just over two kilometres to the north.

  The French SS on the Wilhelmstrasse were so hungry on that cold and rainy morning that when somebody brought in a frightened enemy soldier, they immediately grabbed his little canvas ration bag. Their prisoner kept telling them that he was not Russian but Ukrainian and that there would be a big attack on the next day. By then the ‘Charlemagne’ battalion was down to less than thirty men and they had used up a large proportion of the panzerfaust reserves from the Reich Chancellery. The last few Tigers of the SS ‘Hermann von Salza’ battalion had, meanwhile, been withdrawn to the Tiergarten to take on the tanks supporting the 3rd Shock Army and the 8th Guards Army.

  In the Führer bunker, the morning of Hitler’s death was ‘like any other, with officers coming and going’. Yet the atmosphere was tense and emotional. Hitler, terrified that the poison would not work, had insisted the day before that one of Dr Stumpfegger’s cyanide capsules should be tested. Blondi, Hitler’s adored German shepherd bitch, was the obvious candidate. His passion for the breed dated back to 1921, when he had been given one in the depths of his poverty. He did not have enough space to keep it where he was living and had to lodge the dog elsewhere, but the animal escaped to return to him. This incident appears to have contributed greatly to Hitler’s obsession with unconditional loyalty. But Blondi’s absolute devotion was not enough to save her, nor her four puppies, which were taken up to the Reich Chancellery garden to be killed. The Goebbels children had been playing with the large-pawed puppies only a short time before.

 
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