The fall of berlin 1945, p.46
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       The Fall of Berlin 1945, p.46

           Antony Beevor
 

  The riflemen, finding that the windows and doors had been blocked or bricked up, needed the heavy guns to blast a way in for them. They eventually forced their way through to the main hall, only to discover German defenders firing down at them with panzerfausts or throwing grenades from the stone balconies above. One of the attackers, Senior Lieutenant Belyaev, vividly remembers the splattering of blood on the huge stone columns.

  The casualties were terrible, but the Red Army soldiers, using the usual combination of grenade and sub-machine gun, began to fight their way up the broad staircases, firing from behind balustrades. Part of the German garrison – a mixture of sailors, SS and Hitler Youth – withdrew into the basement. The rest conducted a fighting retreat upwards and back along corridors. Fires, ignited by panzerfausts and hand grenades, started in many rooms and soon the great halls began to fill with smoke.

  It was like a deadly rugby match. While the loose scrum fought in chaos, two men of the banner group tried to slip past to race for the roof with their red flag. They managed to reach the second floor before they were pinned down by machine-gun fire. The regiment claimed that a second attempt at 10.50 p.m. succeeded and the red flag flew from the cupola of the Reichstag. This version must be treated with extreme caution, since Soviet propaganda was fixated with the idea of the Reichstag being captured by 1 May.

  Whatever the exact time, the ‘hoisting of the Red Flag of Victory’ was a superficial gesture at that stage, since even the official accounts acknowledge the ferocity of the fighting, which continued all night. As the Soviet troops fought their way upstairs, the Germans from the cellars attacked them from behind. At one point Lieutenant Klochkov saw a group of his soldiers crouched in a circle as if examining something on the floor. They all suddenly leaped back together and he saw that it was a hole. The group had just dropped grenades in unison on to the heads of unsuspecting Germans on the floor below.

  In the centre of Berlin that night the flames in bombarded buildings cast strange shadows and a red glow on the otherwise dark streets. The soot and dust in the air made it almost unbreathable. From time to time there was the thunder of masonry collapsing. And to add to the terrifying effect, searchlight beams moved around above, searching a night sky in which the Luftwaffe had ceased to exist.

  An exhausted group of foreign Waffen SS soldiers sought shelter in the cellars of the Hotel Continental. The place was already full of women and children who eyed the battle-worn soldiers uneasily. The manager approached them and asked if they would go instead to the air-raid shelter in the Jakobstrasse. The SS volunteers felt a bitter resentment that they who had been sacrificing their lives were now cold-shouldered. They turned and left. Fighting soldiers found themselves treated as pariahs. They were no longer brave defenders, but a danger. In hospitals, including one of the military Lazarette, nurses immediately confiscated weapons so that when the Russians arrived, they had no excuse to shoot the wounded.

  The former commander of the Nordland, Brigadeführer Ziegler, who had been with Mohnke in the Reich Chancellery, suddenly turned up in the Air Ministry on the Wilhelmstrasse. He did not need to be told how desperate the situation was. But then, to everyone’s astonishment, a platoon of just over twenty Waffen SS commanded by a Belgian arrived. They were laughing, wrote another soldier present, ‘as if we had just won the war’. This group had come from a tank-hunting sortie round the Anhalter Bahnhof and claimed that it had now become ‘a tank graveyard’. An extraordinary comradeship of the damned had grown up among the foreign volunteers defending the last bastion of German nationalism. A Nordland section in the Air Ministry contained not just Scandinavians, but also three Latvians and ‘Our two Ivans’, who were no doubt Hiwis absorbed into the fighting ranks.

  Colonel Refior in the Bendlerblock received a call from the Reich Chancellery. He was to start sending messages to the Red Army command in Berlin informing them that General Krebs wanted to arrange a time and place for negotiations.

  The whole process of arranging a cease-fire on the 8th Guards Army’s sector took from 10 p.m. until the early hours of the next morning, which was already 1 May. General Chuikov gave orders for Krebs’s safe conduct to his headquarters, a semi-suburban house at Schulenburgring, on the west side of Tempelhof aerodrome. Chuikov had been celebrating with the writer Vsevolod Vishnevsky, the poet Dolmatovsky and the composer Blanter, who had been sent to Berlin to compose a victory hymn.

  General Krebs, accompanied by Colonel von Dufving and Ober-sturmführer Neilandis, a Latvian acting as Dufving’s interpreter, went to the front line at around 10 p.m. Krebs himself, while remaining an apostle of total resistance, had been brushing up his Russian each day in the privacy of his shaving mirror.

  The German plenipotentiaries were brought into Chuikov’s headquarters just before 4 a.m. Blanter, the only member of the merrymakers not in uniform, was pushed into a cupboard. Vishnevsky and Dolmatovsky, who were in uniform as war correspondents, pretended to be staff officers.

  ‘What I am about to say,’ Krebs began, ‘is absolutely secret. You are the first foreigner to know that on 30 April, Adolf Hitler committed suicide.’

  ‘We know that,’ Chuikov replied in a straight lie to disconcert his opponent.

  Krebs then read Hitler’s political testament and a statement from Goebbels calling for ‘a satisfactory way out for the nations who have suffered most from the war’. Vishnevsky, who was sitting on Chuikov’s right, took down the whole conversation in his notebook.

  Chuikov then rang Marshal Zhukov at his headquarters in Strausberg and brought him up to date on developments. Zhukov immediately sent his deputy, General Sokolovsky, to Chuikov’s headquarters. He did not want Chuikov, his main critic, to be able to claim that he had taken the German surrender. Zhukov then rang Stalin, who was at his dacha. General Vlasik, the chief of his security guard, answered. ‘Comrade Stalin has just gone to bed,’ he told Zhukov.

  ‘Please wake him up. The matter is urgent and it cannot wait until the morning.’

  When Stalin picked up the telephone a few minutes later, Zhukov told him the news of Hitler’s suicide.

  ‘Now he’s had it,’ Stalin commented. ‘Pity we couldn’t take him alive. Where’s Hitler’s corpse?’

  ‘According to General Krebs, his body was burned.’

  ‘Tell Sokolovsky no negotiations except for unconditional capitulation, with either Krebs or any others of Hitler’s lot. And don’t ring me until the morning if there is nothing urgent. I want to have some rest before the parade.’

  Zhukov had completely forgotten that later that morning, the May Day parade would take place in Red Square. Beria had even lifted the curfew on Moscow specially for the event. Zhukov thought of the capital’s garrison moving to take up position for the parade, of the Soviet leaders assembling on the Lenin mausoleum and then the march past.

  Every time that Chuikov, who knew nothing of what had really happened on the German side, brought the subject to surrender, Krebs played the role of a diplomat, not a soldier. He tried to argue that the Dönitz government must first of all be recognized by the Soviet Union. Only then could Germany surrender to the Red Army and thus prevent ‘the traitor’ Himmler from achieving a separate agreement with the Americans and British. But Chuikov, with his strong streak of peasant cunning, recognized this tactic for what it was.

  General Sokolovsky, who had joined the group facing Krebs, eventually rang Zhukov. ‘They are being very tricky,’ he told him. ‘Krebs declares that he is not empowered to take decisions concerning unconditional surrender. According to him, only the new government headed by Dönitz can. Krebs is trying to make a truce with us. I think we should send them to the devil’s grandmother if they don’t agree to unconditional surrender immediately.’

  ‘You’re right, Vasily Danilovich,’ Zhukov replied. ‘Tell him that if Goebbels and Bormann do not agree to unconditional surrender, we’ll blast Berlin into ruins.’ After consultation with the Stavka, Zhukov set a limit of 10.15 on that morning of
1 May.

  No answer was received. At twenty-five minutes past the deadline, the 1st Belorussian Front unleashed ‘a hurricane of fire’ on the remains of the city centre.

  25

  Reich Chancellery and Reichstag

  The dawn of May Day in the centre of Berlin revealed exhausted Soviet soldiers sleeping on pavements up against the walls of buildings. Rzhevskaya, the interpreter awaiting the capture of the Reich Chancellery, saw one soldier sleeping in the foetus position, with a piece of broken door as a pillow. Those who had awoken were retying their foot bandages. They had no idea of Hitler’s suicide the afternoon before. Some of them still called ‘Gitler durak!’ – ‘Hitler’s a blockhead’ – at any German prisoners.

  The Führer’s death was kept a closely guarded secret on the German side throughout the night and into the next morning, when just a few senior officers were informed. SS Brigadeführer Mohnke, taking Krukenberg into his confidence, could not forgo the crass pomposity of Nazi rhetoric. ‘A blazing comet is extinguished,’ he told him.

  Officers awaited word of the negotiations, but the suddenly renewed storm of fire in the middle of the morning spoke for itself. General Krebs had failed to achieve a cease-fire. The Soviet commanders insisted on unconditional surrender and Goebbels had refused. The massed artillery and katyusha launchers of the 3rd Shock Army, the 8th Guards Army and the 5th Shock Army blasted away again at semi-ruined buildings.

  Mohnke also told Krukenberg that morning of his fears that Soviet troops would enter the U-Bahn tunnels and come up behind the Reich Chancellery. ‘As a first priority,’ wrote Krukenberg, ‘I sent a group of Nordland sappers through the U-Bahn towards Potsdamerplatz.’ He gives no further details nor an exact time, but this was probably the order which led to one of the most contentious incidents of the whole battle: the blowing up of the S-Bahn tunnel under the Landwehr Canal near Trebbinerstrasse.

  The demolition method used by the SS engineers was almost certainly a ‘hollow charge’, which meant fastening their explosives to the ceiling in a large circle to blast out a chunk. This would have been the only way to penetrate such a depth of reinforced concrete with relatively small amounts of explosive. Estimates of the time – and even the date – of the explosion vary enormously, but this is probably due to the looting of watches and clocks and the confusing, perma-night existence of all those sheltering in bunkers and tunnels. The most reliable accounts point to the explosion taking place in the early morning of 2 May. This suggests either a surprisingly long-delayed charge or that the Nordland sapper detachment experienced considerable difficulties carrying out their task.

  In any case, the explosion led to the flooding of twenty-five kilometres of S-Bahn and also U-Bahn tunnels, once the water penetrated through a connecting shaft. Estimates of casualties ranged ‘between around fifty and 15,000’. A number of Berliners are convinced that the new Soviet authorities had the victims carted to a small canal harbour near the Anhalter Bahnhof and then buried under rubble. More conservative estimates, usually around the 100 mark, are based on the fact that, although there were many thousands of civilians in the tunnels, as well as several ‘hospital trains’, which were subway carriages packed with wounded, the water did not rise quickly since it was spreading in many different directions. Women and children running through the dark tunnels as the floodwater rose were naturally terrified. Some recount seeing exhausted and wounded soldiers slip beneath the water, as well as many who had been seeking oblivion in the bottle. This may well have been true in a few cases, yet the high casualty estimates are hard to believe. The water in most places was less than a metre and a half deep and there was plenty of time to evacuate the so-called ‘hospital trains’ near the Stadtmitte U-Bahn station. It is also more than likely that many of the bodies recovered were those of soldiers and civilians who had already died of their injuries in one of the underground dressing stations and been laid aside in adjoining tunnels. The floodwater would have swept bodies along and nobody would have had the time afterwards to distinguish the real cause of death. A few of the dead were almost certainly SS men. They may have ended up among the fifty or so buried in the Jewish cemetery in the Grosse Hamburgerstrasse.

  At the Reichstag, the fighting inside was still savage, which made rather a mockery of raising the red banner of victory before midnight on May Day. One Soviet soldier who tried to throw back a German grenade misjudged his aim. It bounced off the door lintel and exploded at his feet, blowing them off. Soldiers on both sides fought on, exhausted and thirsty, their throats and noses raw from dust and smoke. It made a Soviet officer keep thinking of the Reichstag fire in 1933, which Hitler had used to crush the German Communist Party.

  The firing did not die down until the late afternoon. Germans in the cellars shouted that they wanted to negotiate with a senior officer. The young Captain Neustroev told Lieutenant Berest to pretend to be a colonel. He gave him a sheepskin coat to hide his shoulder boards and sent him forth to negotiate. Shortly afterwards, Germans began to appear from the basement, dirty and unshaven in their ragged uniforms, with their eyes flickering nervously around and ‘smiling like obedient dogs’. Some 300 enemy soldiers and officers laid down their weapons. Nearly 200 had been killed. In the improvised dressing station in the basement lay another 500, although many of them had been wounded before the Reichstag was stormed.

  An even more massive fortress to be reduced was the vast Zoo flak tower in the south-west corner of the Tiergarten. Although it was powerful enough to resist direct hits from 203mm howitzers, the conditions inside, with several thousand terrorized civilians, were unspeakable. There were also over a thousand wounded and sick in the field hospital section, which was well equipped.

  Katukov’s 1st Guards Tank Army and Chuikov’s 8th Guards Army had attacked into the Tiergarten from the south across the Landwehr Canal. But the task of tackling the Zoo flak tower was left to two regiments from the 79th Guards Rifle Division. Storming it was out of the question, so on 30 April they sent German prisoners as envoys bearing an ultimatum written in pencil to the commander: ‘We propose that you surrender the fortress without further fighting. We guarantee that no troops, including SS and SA men, will be executed.’

  On 1 May one of the prisoners eventually returned with a reply: ‘Your note was received at 11 p.m. We will capitulate [tonight] at midnight. Haller, garrison commander.’ Haller was not in fact the garrison commander and the reason for the long delay was to allow them to prepare a breakout that evening.

  Another fortress besieged that day was the Citadel of Spandau at the extreme north-western corner of Berlin. Architecturally, it was a good deal more distinguished than the concrete horror at the Zoo. Spandau was built in brick in 1630 on an island at the confluence of the Havel and the Spree. During the war it served as the Army Gas Defence Laboratories, but this appears to have been a camouflage for its true work.

  On 30 April, the Soviet 47th Army finally came to grips with this formidable obstacle whose guns could cover both of the nearby bridges over the Havel. Hoping to avoid a full-scale assault, the army commander, General Perkhorovich, sent forward the 7th Department under Major Grishin to soften up the enemy with propaganda. Loudspeaker trucks broadcast on the hour every hour and the Germans replied with artillery fire.

  The next day, 1 May, Perkhorovich ordered Major Grishin to send surrender proposals to the garrison commander. Grishin summoned his officers. ‘Because this mission is so dangerous,’ he told them, ‘I cannot order anyone on it. I need a volunteer to accompany me.’ All seven officers volunteered. Grishin told Konrad Wolf, the future East German film-maker and brother of Markus Wolf, that he could not go. There were SS officers in the fortress, and if they suspected for a moment that he was a German in Russian uniform, they would shoot him on the spot. Wolf’s best friend, Vladimir Gall, was selected instead. He and Grishin emerged from the edge of the trees waving a white flag. They slowly approached a barricade built around a burnt-out Tiger tank in front of the brick bridge o
ver the moat.

  The Germans, seeing them coming, threw down a rope ladder from a balustraded stone balcony some dozen metres above the main entrance. Grishin and Gall climbed the rope ladder, which swung around wildly. They reached the balcony and, with considerable apprehension, entered the unlit room beyond. They made out a group of officers of the Wehrmacht and the SS. The apparent commandant of the citadel was Colonel Jung and his deputy was Lieutenant Colonel Koch. Jung, with metal-rimmed spectacles, an old lined face, grey hair clipped short and the collar of his uniform loose around his neck, did not look like a professional soldier. But neither Grishin nor Gall had any idea of his true position.

  Negotiations began, conducted on the Russian side almost entirely by Gall, the Jewish philologist, since Grishin spoke very little German. Koch explained that Hitler had issued an order that any officer who attempted to surrender a fortress must be shot on the spot. Unfortunately, the 47th Army had not yet heard that Hitler was now dead. Gall sensed that the SS officers especially were in a state of nervous exhaustion and were quite capable of shooting anyone down, whatever the consequences. He told them that Berlin was now almost entirely occupied, the Red Army had joined up with the Americans at Torgau on the Elbe, and further resistance would mean only a futile loss of life. If they surrendered, there would be no executions, food would be given to everyone and medical assistance provided for their wounded and sick. He made it clear that if they refused to surrender and if the Red Army had to take the fortress by storm, none of these guarantees would apply. ‘We are all soldiers and we all know that a great deal of blood would be shed. And if many of our soldiers die in the process, I cannot answer for the consequences. Also, if you refuse to surrender, you will be responsible for the deaths of all your civilians here. Germany has lost so much blood that each life must surely be important for its future.’

 

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