The fall of berlin 1945, p.47
The Fall of Berlin 1945, p.47Antony Beevor
The SS officers stared at him with total hatred. The tension was so great that he feared ‘the smallest spark’ would cause an explosion. On Grishin’s instruction, he told them that they had until 3 p.m. to make up their minds. In deadly silence, the two officers turned and then walked back towards the light of the window. As they climbed down the rope ladder, their bodies quivering from the tension, Gall could not help fearing that an SS officer would cut the rope.
On reaching the ground, they longed to run across the open space in front of the fortress to the safety of the trees, where their comrades awaited them, but they restricted themselves to a purposeful stride. In the trees, their colleagues ran up to embrace them, but they had to explain that no answer had been given. They could only wait. The presence of SS officers and Hitler’s order about shooting officers who surrendered did not encourage them.
At 47th Army headquarters, General Perkhorovich asked the same question: ‘Will they surrender?’
‘We don’t know. We gave them until 15.00 hours, as instructed. If they agree, they have to send a representative to our front trenches.’
‘Well, Comrade Gall, just in case they do surrender, make sure that you are ready in that trench.’
The tension returned as 3 p.m. approached. Nervous jokes were made about German punctuality.
‘Comrade Captain!’ a soldier suddenly cried. ‘Look! They’re coming, they’re coming.’
They made out two figures on the balcony, preparing to climb down the ladder. The garrison was going to surrender. Gall told himself to act as if he were used to receiving the surrender of a fortress as a normal part of the day’s work.
When the two German emissaries, Lieutenants Ebbinghaus and Brettschneider, appeared, Russian officers and soldiers rushed up to slap them on the back in congratulation. They explained to Gall that the terms of surrender were agreed, but they must be written and signed first. They were led off in triumph to 47th Army headquarters, where they saw empty bottles everywhere from May Day celebrations. A senior officer was still asleep on a mattress on the floor. On being woken, he caught sight of the two German officers and told orderlies to prepare some food for them. Major Grishin then turned up. He was told that the garrison insisted on first having the surrender details in writing. ‘Typically German!’ he muttered.
When the details were written and signed, the Soviet officers brought out a bottle of cognac and filled glasses for a toast. The Russians swallowed the whole lot, and when Lieutenant Brettschneider, who had eaten very little over the past week, cautiously drank only two fingers, they laughed uproariously and refilled the glasses. ‘Woina kaputt!’ they cried. ‘The war’s packed up.’
The celebration was interrupted by the arrival of a staff colonel from 1st Belorussian Front headquarters. The situation was explained to him. He turned to Lieutenant Ebbinghaus, the older of the two German officers, and asked how long he thought the citadel could have held out if the Red Army had bombed and shelled it heavily. ‘At least a week,’ Ebbinghaus said stiffly. The Russian colonel looked at him in disbelief.
‘The war is over,’ Major Grishin said. ‘Your duty as an officer is at an end.’ There was a box of Ritmeester cigars on the table and Lieutenant Ebbinghaus helped himself.
Two hours later, Grishin and Gall entered the fortress, not via the balcony but through the main gate. Russian soldiers were piling the arms of the surrendered garrison and waving the men into columns outside.
As the two officers stood watching the scene, Jung and Koch came up to them. ‘We are about to say goodbye to you,’ Koch said in perfect Russian. Seeing their surprised expressions, he smiled. ‘Yes, I speak a little Russian. I lived in St Petersburg as a child.’
Gall suddenly thought with a rush of horror that during the negotiations Koch must have understood every word that had passed between them. Then, to his relief, he remembered that Grishin had not said anything like, ‘Promise them whatever they want and we’ll deal with them later.’
In the courtyard, Gall and Grishin saw pale and trembling civilians emerging from the cellars of the fortress. General Perkhorovich told Gall to tell them that they could all go home. Afterwards, a young woman wearing a turban, as many did at that time of unwashed hair, came up to him holding a baby. She thanked him for having persuaded the officers to surrender, thus avoiding a bloodbath. She then burst into tears and turned away.
This heart-warming tale of the surrender of Spandau is, however, rather spoiled by subsequent revelations. Colonel Jung and Lieutenant Colonel Koch were in fact Professor Dr Gerhard Jung and Dr Edgar Koch, the leading scientists in the development of Sarin and Tabun nerve agents. Rather than being concerned solely with defence against chemical weapons, as its name implied, the Heeresgasschutzlaboritorium’s first task was ‘general testing of war gases for suitability as field agents’.
A Russian lieutenant colonel with the 47th Army immediately recognized the importance of their find at Spandau and informed the general in charge of a commission of Red Army experts – they wore a cogwheel and spanner badge on their shoulder boards. The general looked forward to interviewing the two men next day, but the NKVD got to hear of the discovery and, on that evening of 1 May, NKVD officers arrived to seize Jung and Koch. The general was furious. It took the Red Army until mid-June to find where the NKVD was holding Jung and Koch and extract them. They finally flew them to Moscow in August.
Two other leading scientists, Dr Stuhldreer and Dr Schulte-Overberg, were kept under guard at Spandau and ordered to ‘continue work’. Stuhldreer, who specialized in nerve gas attacks against tanks, had used the old artillery testing ground at Kummersdorf, which had been the rendezvous in the forest for the Ninth Army. They all denied any knowledge of Tabun and Sarin, and since all the batches had been destroyed as soon as the Red Army threatened Berlin, the Soviet experts could prove nothing and they did not know what questions to ask.
In the summer, Stuhldreer and Schulte-Overberg were flown to the Soviet Union. They were reunited with Jung and Koch in a special camp at Krasnogorsk. Under Professor Jung’s leadership, the group refused to cooperate with the Soviet authorities. They insisted that they were prisoners of war. Other German scientists collaborating with the Soviet Union were brought in to persuade them to change their minds, but this did little good. They were not maltreated for their stand, however, and were eventually returned to Germany with one of the last batches of prisoners of war in January 1954.
South of Berlin, the remnants of the Ninth Army made a final effort to break through Konev’s last barrier. The Twelfth Army had managed to hold on just long enough in the area of Beelitz to keep open an escape route to the Elbe, as well as opening a route for nearly 20,000 men from General Reymann’s so-called Army Group Spree in the Potsdam area. But pressure was building up. Beelitz was shelled heavily that morning by Soviet self-propelled guns diverted down from Potsdam. Shturmovik squadrons increased their dive-bombing and strafing attacks in the area.
A Soviet rifle regiment had occupied the village of Elsholz, six kilometres south of Beelitz. It was a crucial crossing point for the exhausted German troops. Fortunately for the Germans, the sudden appearance of the last four Panthers of the Kurmark Division forced the Red Army soldiers to retreat. In fact the Panthers, with virtually empty fuel tanks, had to be abandoned there, but the way ahead was clear. Many stragglers were so exhausted and malnourished that they collapsed in Elsholz. Civilians shared their food with the soldiers and cared for the wounded, carrying them to the schoolhouse, where a doctor from Berlin and a district nurse worked together as best they could. Only one SS unit had the strength to march through the village without pausing for a rest.
Fighting still flared behind them in the forests, where Konev’s troops continued to hunt down both small and large groups of stragglers. That May Day morning, a brigade of the 4th Guards Tank Army was sent back into the forest ‘to liquidate a large group of Germans wandering around’. The report claims that the T-34S ran into German tanks a
Soviet troops were also attacking Beelitz itself. A group of 200 Germans, with the last Tiger tank and an assault gun, came under automatic fire south of Beelitz as they crossed asparagus fields. All they needed to do was to carry on to the woods and wade the River Nieplitz. Just beyond was the road which led to Brück and safety.
General Wenck’s Twelfth Army staff had assembled every truck and vehicle in the area to transport the exhausted mass. They had set up field kitchen units, which began to feed the 25,000 men, as well as several thousand civilian refugees. ‘When the soldiers reached us, they just collapsed,’ said Colonel Reichhelm, Wenck’s chief of staff. ‘Sometimes we even had to beat them, otherwise they would not have climbed up into the trucks and would have died where they lay. It was terrible.’ The formerly plump General Busse was unrecognizably thin. ‘He was totally at the end of his physical strength.’
Many of those who had experienced the horror of the Halbe Kessel developed an anger which did not fade with the years. They blamed senior officers for continuing the battle when all was lost. ‘Was it really unquestioning obedience,’ wrote one survivor, ‘or was it cowardice in the face of their responsibility? The officer corps with its support for Hitler left behind a bitter aftertaste. During those last days they all tried only to save their own skin and they abandoned soldiers, civilians and children.’
This diatribe, while containing a large measure of truth, was far too sweeping, especially when one considers the efforts of the Twelfth Army to save soldiers and civilians. Even within the Ninth Army, not all was black. Another soldier recorded how, on that same day, Major Otto Christer Graf von Albedyll, who had seen the defeat of his army and the destruction of his family’s estate near the Reitwein Spur, was killed trying to help a badly wounded man. ‘A much loved leader’, he was buried at the side of the road to Elsholz by his soldiers.
Colonel Reichhelm himself was scathing about the most flagrant case of a senior officer abandoning his own men. General Holste, the commander of the XLI Panzer Corps, had appeared at Twelfth Army headquarters between Genthin and Tangermünde at 2 a.m. ‘What are you doing here, Herr General?’ Reichhelm asked him in astonishment. ‘Why aren’t you with your troops?’
‘I do not have any any more,’ Holste retorted.
In fact he had abandoned them. He had departed with his wife, two cars and two of his best horses. Reichhelm said that he must speak to General Wenck immediately. He went in to wake the army commander and told him that Holste had to be arrested. But Wenck was too exhausted. Reichhelm returned. ‘You can leave Hitler, because he’s a criminal,’ he told Holste, ‘but you can’t leave your soldiers.’ Holste ignored him and left to continue on his way across the Elbe.
In Berlin during the afternoon an order came through from the Reich Chancellery that the last Tiger tank supporting Nordland was to pull back ‘to be at the immediate disposal of General Mohnke’. No explanation was given. Presumably without telling Goebbels, who categorically refused any suggestion of surrender, Bormann and Mohnke had started planning their escape from Berlin. These two, who had ordered immediate execution for anybody who failed to fight to the end, had already brought civilian clothes into the bunker ready for their escape.
The renewed bombardment had made communications with Krukenberg’s detachments even more difficult. The wounded Fenet and his Frenchmen were still defending Gestapo headquarters in the Prinz-Albrechtstrasse. The ‘Danmark’ was a few hundred metres east, round the Kochstrasse U-Bahn station on the Friedrichstrasse, while the ‘Norge’ defended their left rear round the Leipzigerstrasse and the Spittelmarkt.
Goebbels, realizing that the end was now very close, summoned Kunz, the SS doctor who had agreed to help kill his six children. Goebbels was in his study in the Führer bunker talking with Naumann, the state secretary of the Propaganda Ministry. Kunz was made to wait for ten minutes, then Goebbels and Naumann got up and left him with Magda Goebbels. She told him that the Führer’s death had made the decision for them. Troops would try to break out of the encirclement that night, so the whole family was to die. Kunz claimed afterwards that he tried to persuade her to send the children to the hospital and put them under the protection of the Red Cross, but she refused. ‘After we had been talking for about twenty minutes,’ he recounted, ‘Goebbels returned to the study and said to me, “Doctor, I would be very grateful if you help my wife kill the children.” ’ Kunz again repeated his suggestion about saving them.
‘It’s impossible,’ the Reichsminister for Propaganda answered. ‘They are the children of Goebbels.’ He left the room. Kunz stayed with Magda Goebbels, who played patience for about an hour.
A little later, Goebbels returned. ‘The Russians might arrive at any moment and interfere with our plan,’ his wife said. ‘That’s why we should hurry up doing what we have to do.’
Magda Goebbels led Kunz to their bedroom and took a syringe filled with morphine from a shelf. They then went to the children’s room. The five girls and one boy were already in bed in their nightgowns, but not yet asleep. ‘Children, don’t be alarmed,’ she told them. ‘The doctor will give you a vaccination which children and soldiers now need to have.’ Then she left the room. Kunz stayed and started giving them morphine injections. ‘After that,’ he told his SMERSH interrogators, ‘I went out again to the front room and told Frau Goebbels that we had to wait about ten minutes for the children to fall asleep. I looked at my watch and saw that it was twenty minutes to nine.’
Kunz said that he could not face giving poison to the sleeping children. Madga Goebbels told him to find Stumpfegger, Hitler’s personal doctor. Together with Stumpfegger, she opened the mouths of the sleeping children, put an ampoule of poison between their teeth and forced their jaws together. The oldest daughter, Helga, was found later with heavy bruising to the face. This suggests that the morphine may not have worked very well in her case and that she may have struggled with the two adults trying to force her mouth open. After the deed was done, Stumpfegger went away and Kunz went down to Goebbels’s study with Magda Goebbels. Goebbels was walking about in a very nervous state.
‘It’s all over with the children,’ she told him. ‘Now we have to think about ourselves.’
‘Let’s be quick,’ said Goebbels. ‘We’re short of time.’
Magda Goebbels took both the gold party badge which Hitler had given her on 27 April in token of his admiration and also her gold cigarette case inscribed ‘Adolf Hitler, 29 May 1934’. Goebbels and his wife then went upstairs to the garden, accompanied by his adjutant, Günther Schwaegermann. They took two Walther pistols. Joseph and Magda Goebbels stood next to each other, a few metres from where the bodies of Hitler and his wife had been burned and then buried in a shell crater. They crunched on glass cyanide ampoules* and either they shot themselves with the pistols at the same moment, or else Schwaegermann shot both of them immediately afterwards as a precautionary coup de grâce. The two pistols were left with the bodies, which Schwaegermann doused in petrol from jerry cans, as he had promised. He then ignited the last funeral pyre of the Third Reich.
At 9.30 p.m., Hamburg radio station warned the German people that a grave and important announcement was about to be made. Suitably funereal music from Wagner and Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony was played to prepare listeners for Grand Admiral Dönitz’s address to the nation. He stated that Hitler had fallen, fighting ‘at the head of his troops’, and announced his succession. Very few people in Berlin heard the news because of the lack of electric current.
Bormann, meanwhile, was evidently impatient at having to wait for the Goebbels family drama to finish. Weidling’s surrender was to take place at midnight and the breakout northwards over the Spree was due to sta
Krukenberg, who had been summoned earlier by Mohnke, encountered Artur Axmann and Ziegler, the previous commander of the Nordland. Mohnke asked Krukenberg whether, as the senior officer, he wished to continue the defence of the city centre. He added that General Weidling had given an order to break out of Berlin north-westwards through the Soviet encirclement, but that a cease-fire would come into effect around midnight. Krukenberg agreed to join the breakout. He and Ziegler left to rally the Nordland and other units in the area. Krukenberg sent one of his aides on ahead, with messages to outlying detachments to fall back. The group led by Captain Fenet, defending Gestapo headquarters on Prinz-Albrechtstrasse, heard nothing. Krukenberg’s aide, who was never seen again, probably met his death before he reached them.
The scenes in the bunker were chaotic as Bormann and Mohnke tried to organize everybody into groups. In the end, they did not leave until nearly 11 p.m., two hours later than planned. The first group, led by Mohnke, set out through the cellars of the Reich Chancellery, and then followed a complicated route to the Friedrichstrasse Bahnhof. The others followed at set intervals. The most difficult part was just north of the station, where they had to cross the Spree. This could not be done under cover of darkness because the flames from bombarded buildings lit up the whole area. The first group from the Reich Chancellery, which included Mohnke and the secretaries, wisely avoided the main Weidendammer bridge. They used a metal footbridge 300 metres downstream and headed for the Charité hospital.
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