The fall of berlin 1945, p.48
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       The Fall of Berlin 1945, p.48

           Antony Beevor

  The Nordland Tiger tank and a self-propelled assault gun were to spearhead the main charge across the Weidendammer bridge. Word had spread of the breakout and many hundreds of SS, Wehrmacht soldiers and civilians had assembled. It was a gathering which Soviet troops could not fail to miss. The first mass rush, led by the Tiger tank, took place just after midnight, but although the armoured monster managed to smash through the barrier on the north side of the bridge, they soon ran into very heavy fire in the Ziegelstrasse beyond. An anti-tank round struck the Tiger and many of the civilians and soldiers in its wake were mown down. Axmann was wounded, but managed to stagger on his way. Bormann and Dr Stumpfegger were knocked over by the blast when the tank was hit, but they recovered and went on. Bormann carried the last copy of Hitler’s testament, and he evidently hoped to use it to justify his claim to a position in Dönitz’s government when he reached Schleswig-Holstein.

  Another attack over the bridge was made soon afterwards, using a self-propelled 20mm quadruple flak gun and a half-track. This too was largely a failure. A third attempt was made at around 1 a.m., and a fourth an hour later. Bormann, Stumpfegger, Schwaegermann and Axmann kept together for a time. They followed the railway line to the Lehrterstrasse Bahnhof. There they split up. Bormann and Stumpfegger turned north-eastwards towards the Stettiner Bahnhof. Axmann went the other way, but ran into a Soviet patrol. He turned back and followed Bormann’s route. Not long afterwards he came across two bodies. He identified them as Bormann and Stumpfegger, but he did not have time to discover how they had died. Martin Bormann, although not of his own volition, was the only major Nazi Party leader to have faced the bullets of the Bolshevik enemy. All the others – Hitler, Goebbels, Himmler and Göring – took their own lives.

  Krukenberg had meanwhile assembled most of his French SS escort. They joined up with Ziegler and a much larger group from the Nordland. Krukenberg estimated that there were four or five holders of the Knight’s Cross among them. They managed to cross the Spree shortly before dawn. But they came under heavy fire just a few hundred metres short of the Gesundbrunnen U-Bahn station. Ziegler was hit by a ricochet and mortally wounded. Several others in their group also fell, among them Eugène Vanlot, the young French recipient of the Knight’s Cross. He died in a nearby cellar three days later.

  The Soviet forces in the area had been reinforced so strongly that Krukenberg and his remaining companions had no choice but to retreat the way they had come. At the top end of the Ziegelstrasse they saw the Tiger tank which Mohnke had taken from them. There was no sign of any of its crew. One of Krukenberg’s officers had spotted a joinery workshop nearby and there they discovered some overalls to disguise themselves. Krukenberg managed to make his way to Dahlem, where he hid for over a week in the apartment of friends. Eventually he had no choice but to surrender.

  Zhukov, on hearing of the breakout attempts from General Kuznetsov of the 3rd Shock Army, ordered a maximum alert. He was understandably perturbed by the ‘unpleasant suggestion’ that senior Nazis, especially Hitler, Goebbels and Bormann, might be trying to escape. It was not hard to imagine Stalin’s anger if this should happen. Soviet officers hastily rounded up men who were celebrating May Day with alcohol and women-hunts. Brigades from the 2nd Guards Tank Army were sent in pursuit and cordons hurriedly put into place. This thwarted a second attempt to break through northwards up the Schönhauserallee by Major General Bärenfänger’s troops from the eastern side of the Zitadelle defence area. Bärenfänger, a devoted Nazi, committed suicide with his young wife in a side street.

  Shortly before midnight, the time when Colonel Haller had promised to surrender the Zoo flak tower, the remaining tanks and half-tracks of the Müncheberg Panzer Division and the 18th Panzergrenadier Division set out from the Tiergarten westwards. They then pushed northwestwards towards the Olympic stadium and Spandau. Word had also spread rapidly in this case. The rumour was that Wenck’s army was at Nauen, to the north-west of the city, and hospital trains were waiting there to take soldiers to Hamburg. Thousands of stragglers and civilians made their way on foot and in a variety of vehicles in the same direction. One group of around fifty came in three trucks from the Grossdeutscher Rundfunk. They included Himmler’s very different younger brother, Ernst, a leading studio technician.

  The Charlottenbrücke, the bridge over the Havel to the old town of Spandau, was still standing and held by Hitler Youth detachments. In heavy rain and under artillery fire from the 47th Army, the armoured vehicles charged across, followed by a ragged crowd of soldiers and civilians. The slaughter was appalling. ‘There was blood everywhere and trucks were exploding,’ one of the escapers recounted. A tactic was instinctively worked out. Self-propelled army flak vehicles with quadruple 20mm guns gave covering fire from the eastern bank to keep Soviet heads down, and during this frantic firing for up to a minute, another wave of civilians and soldiers surged across to hide in the ruined houses opposite. The slow and the lame were caught in the open by Soviet guns. As well as wave after wave of people on foot, trucks, cars and motorcycles also crossed, running over bodies already crushed by the tracks of armoured vehicles. Ernst Himmler was one of the many who died on the Charlottenbrücke, either shot or trampled in the desperate rush.

  Although the massacre at the bridge was horrific, the sheer weight of German numbers forced the Soviet troops back from the river bank. But Soviet machine guns in the tower of the Spandau town hall continued to cause heavy losses. Two of the Tiger tanks then shelled the Rathaus itself, and a small group from the 9th Parachute Division stormed the tower. The main force of armoured vehicles pushed on westwards towards Staaken, but most of the troops were encircled or rounded up over the next two days. Only a handful reached the Elbe and safety.

  Soviet officers searched the burnt-out remains of tanks carefully on orders from Front headquarters. ‘Among the crews killed,’ wrote Zhukov, ‘none of Hitler’s entourage were found, but it was impossible to recognize what was left in the burnt-out tanks.’ Nobody knows how many died in these attempts to escape Soviet captivity.

  At 1.55 a.m. on 2 May, the eighteen-year-old announcer Richard Beier made the very last broadcast of the Grossdeutscher Rundfunk from its studio in the bunker on the Masurenallee. The transmitter at Tegel had been overlooked by the Russians. ‘The Führer is dead,’ he announced, according to his script. ‘Long live the Reich!’


  The End of the Battle

  Soon after 1 a.m. on 2 May, General Chuikov had been woken yet again. Red Army signals units had picked up repeated transmissions from the German LVI Panzer Corps requesting a cease-fire. Emissaries would come under a white flag to the Potsdamer bridge. Colonel von Dufving, accompanied by two majors, appeared. He held discussions with one of Chuikov’s commanders, then returned to General Weidling. Weidling surrendered with his staff at 6 a.m. and was taken to Chuikov’s headquarters, where he prepared an order to the garrison to capitulate.

  On that chilly dawn, the last prisoners of the Gestapo left in its Prinz-Albrechtstrasse headquarters still did not know whether they were about to be liberated by the Red Army or murdered by their captors. Pastor Reinecke was the only priest to be spared from the massacre of a week before. ‘What I experienced as sadism during those last one and a half weeks,’ he wrote in a letter, ‘cannot be described here.’

  The survivors were a mixed group. One of his cell companions was the Communist Franz Lange, who said afterwards that, despite having had nothing to do with the Church since the age of sixteen, he would never forget Reinecke’s ability to find the strength to survive through silent prayer. Another was Joseph Wagner, a former Gauleiter of Silesia, who had fallen out with the regime because of his Catholicism. The Gestapo had arrested him after the July plot.

  On 1 May, their cell door had been thrown open to shouts of ‘Raus! Raus!’ They had been chased downstairs by the SS guards, who had killed one of their number, a Wehrmacht ΝCO, on the way. The remaining six were then locked in another cell, provided with food a
nd water, next to the SS guards’ own quarters. Lange heard the Sturmbannführer in charge explain to one of his men with the unique logic of the SS, ‘We’re sparing these ones as proof that we shot no prisoners.’ During the afternoon the six survivors heard the guards preparing to pull out. By nightfall, they were left in the darkness of the building Berliners had dubbed the ‘House of Horror’ when it became known that prisoners were strapped in manacles diagonally across the walls of its cellars like a medieval torture chamber.

  Not long after dawn on 2 May they heard voices. The flap on their cell window opened. A voice asked them in Russian for the key to open the door. ‘No key,’ replied Lange, the Communist, who knew a little of the language. ‘We are prisoners.’ The soldier went away and a few minutes later they heard the sound of axes crashing into the door. Soon it swung open. They found themselves looking into the face of a smiling young Red Army soldier.

  He and his comrades took them into the SS guards’ canteen to offer them food. One of their guns went off by accident, a tragically common occurrence in the Red Army. Joseph Wagner, the former Gauleiter, fell dead at Pastor Reinecke’s side.

  Other Red Army soldiers wasted little time upstairs. The silk panels lining the walls of Himmler’s grand reception room were slashed from their battens and bundled into packs, ready for the next five-kilo parcels to be sent home.

  In the Führer bunker, General Krebs and General Burgdorf had sat down side by side at some time in the early hours of that morning, drawn their Luger pistols and blown their brains out. Rochus Misch, probably the last member of the SS Leibstandarte to leave the building, saw them slumped together. After all the brandy they had consumed, they were fortunate not to have botched their suicide most painfully. Captain Schedle, the commander of the Leibstandarte guard in the Reich Chancellery, had also shot himself. A foot wound had prevented him from getting away with the Bormann party. Apart from the doctors, nurses and wounded in the cellars, the Reich Chancellery was virtually deserted when Misch crept out.

  The dramatic Soviet account of storming the Reich Chancellery that morning has to be taken with a good deal of caution, especially since the vast majority of Mohnke and Krukenberg’s men had taken part in the breakout the night before. Descriptions of rolling up a howitzer to the Wilhelmplatz to blast in the front doors and ‘severe battles’ in corridors and on the stairs were made to sound like a companion piece to the capture of the Reichstag. The red banner was taken to the roof by Major Anna Nikulina from the political department of the 9th Rifle Corps in Berzarin’s 5th Shock Army. And, for good measure, ‘Sergeant Gorbachov and Private Bondarev fastened a red banner over the main entrance of the Reich Chancellery.’

  Of the previous night’s fugitives from the Führer bunker, only the first group to leave had stayed together. Led by Brigadeführer Mohnke, it included Hitler’s personal pilot, Hans Baur, the chief of his bodyguard, Hans Rattenhuber, the secretaries and Hitler’s dietician, Constanze Manzialy. In the early hours of 2 May, they had been forced to hide in a cellar off the Schönhauserallee when the area was swamped with Soviet troops. They remained concealed there until that afternoon, when finally discovered by Soviet troops. Resistance was pointless. The men were arrested immediately, but the women were allowed to go.

  Traudl Junge and Gerda Christian disguised themselves as men. But the striking Tyrolean Constanze Manzialy became separated from them almost immediately. One account claims that she was seized by a huge Russian infantryman and assaulted by him and his comrades. Nobody knows whether she resorted to the cyanide ampoule which Hitler had presented in a brass container to each of his staff as going-away presents. In any case, she was never seen again. Both Traudl Junge and Gerda Christian, despite alarming adventures, managed to reach the other side of the Elbe.

  Many German soldiers and officers had contrived to spend their last night of freedom in breweries. Captain Finckler met his regimental commander from the 9th Parachute Division in a brewery in Prenzlauer-berg, not far from where Mohnke and his group were cornered. As a farewell, the two men shared a bottle of wine with alternate swigs as there were no glasses.

  In the Schultheiss brewery that morning, a young Luftwaffe flak helper asked what was going on when he heard shots. ‘Come around to the back,’ a comrade said to him. ‘The SS are shooting themselves… You have to watch.’ Many were foreigners in the Waffen SS. Hitler’s SS adjutant, Otto Günsche, was taken prisoner there by the Red Army later in the morning. He, like Mohnke, Rattenhuber and the others, was immediately handed over to SMERSH for interrogation. Stalin wanted to discover for certain what had happened to Hitler and whether he was still alive.

  The decision on 29 April to send the SMERSH department of the 3rd Shock Army to the Reich Chancellery, an objective clearly in the 5th Shock Army’s sector, could only have been taken at the very highest level. Beria and Abakumov, the chief of SMERSH, appear not only to have kept Zhukov and the military authorities in the dark, but also to have side-lined Abakumov’s rival, General Serov, the NKVD chief of the 1st Belorussian Front.

  The SMERSH team, which had its own signals detachment, had probably been listening in to 5th Shock Army wavelengths. They arrived within minutes of the report that the objective had been attacked. General Berzarin had promised the gold star of Hero of the Soviet Union to the soldier who discovered Hitler’s body, so the troops who had taken the Reich Chancellery were less than happy when SMERSH officers turned up and ordered them out. Only Berzarin’s outer cordon round the complex was left in place. As an added insult to the 5th Shock Army, the counter-intelligence group had brought in a sapper detachment from the 3rd Shock Army to check the Reich Chancellery for explosives and booby traps.

  Captain Shota Sulkhanishvili, who commanded these sappers, was uneasy to find that they were working with SMERSH. ‘My comrades and I tried to keep as far as possible from them,’ he said. ‘We were afraid of them.’ But SMERSH were afraid of being blown up, and they did exactly what the sappers told them until the place was thoroughly checked. In fact, the only explosives found were reserve stores of panzerfausts, ready primed in packages of three. The sappers were also amazed at the storerooms full of champagne and ‘orange briquettes of bread in cellophane packs’. Sulkhanishvili, who had fought at Stalingrad, immediately thought of the frozen bread there which they had not even been able to chop with an axe. In the garden they came across two badly charred corpses which appeared to have ‘shrunk in size and looked like puppets’. The sappers, having completed their task, were rapidly sent away. The SMERSH officers recognized the outsize head from caricatures in the Soviet press, and the orthopaedic boot confirmed whose body it was. Alongside, lay the body of Magda Goebbels, with the gold cigarette case and Hitler’s party badge.

  The SMERSH detachment, closely supervised by Lieutenant General Aleksandr Anatolievich Vadis, the chief of the SMERSH directorate with the 1st Belorussian Front, was naturally more preoccupied with finding Hitler’s body. The pressure from Moscow was intense. That morning Pravda had declared that the announcement of Hitler’s death was just a fascist trick. One can reasonably assume that such a statement was made at Stalin’s instigation, or at least with his approval. The whole question of Hitler’s fate had begun to assume immense political significance before the facts were clear. Marshal Zhukov, well aware of Stalin’s intense interest in the matter, went to visit the Reich Chancellery that very day, even before the firing in the city had stopped. ‘They did not let me go down,’ Zhukov said twenty years later, when he finally learned the truth. ‘It wasn’t safe down there,’ they had told him. He was also informed on that first visit that ‘the Germans had buried all the corpses, but who buried them and where, nobody knew’. Yet Goebbels’s body had not been buried. It had been found immediately on the surface. Zhukov was apparently again refused access two days later. The headquarters of the 1st Belorussian Front was informed of the discovery of Goebbels’s corpse, but no more. General Telegin, the chief of the political department, urgently requested the
Stavka in Moscow to send forensic experts.

  The closest the SMERSH officers seemed to get to Hitler was going through his tunics in his room and looking at the portrait of Frederick the Great at which he used to stare. Rzhevskaya, meanwhile, had started work on Reich Chancellery documents. She discovered ten thick notebooks containing Goebbels’s diaries up to July 1941. (Vadis claimed the discovery as his own.) She also found Raya, their signaller, trying on a white evening dress of Eva Braun’s, but rejecting it as indecent because of the décolletage. The young woman soldier selected no more than a pair of her blue shoes.

  In the cellars, Professor Haase and Dr Kunz continued to look after the wounded lying in the corridor. They had only a couple of nurses left. Many of the young female BdM helpers, who had come from assisting their Hitler Youth counterparts at the Reichssportsfeld, had rushed up the Wilhelmstrasse to evacuate the wounded from the cellars of the blazing Hotel Adlon. SMERSH did not disturb the hospital section at all. One of the nurses described the officers’ behaviour as ‘exemplary’. A senior officer even advised the women to lock their doors that night because he ‘could not vouch for his soldiers’.

  SMERSH officers soon began filtering their prisoners. Those selected for interrogation were escorted to the Reich Institute for the Blind, on the Oranienstrasse. But the counter-intelligence investigators refused to believe what they were told about Hitler’s suicide. Vadis brought in more and more men to complete a minute search, but it was not easy underground. The electricity generator had broken down, so there was no light, except from torches, and the air in the bunker became heavy and damp without the ventilation system.

  The lack of success prompted Stalin to order Beria to send another NKVD general, in theory representing the Stavka, to oversee the search and report back constantly. Even the officers in the SMERSH operational group were not allowed to know his name. Major Bystrov and his colleagues found themselves having to repeat every single interrogation in front of this new general. As soon as each interview was over, the general immediately went to telephone Beria on a secure line to report. The obsession with secrecy was so great that Rzhevskaya was made to sign each interview transcript with the acknowledgement that she would be guilty of betraying state security if she repeated a word of what had been said.

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