The fall of berlin 1945, p.49
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       The Fall of Berlin 1945, p.49

           Antony Beevor

  When the 350-strong garrison of the Zoo flak tower finally emerged, Colonel Haller apparently tipped off one of the Soviet officers that there were two generals hidden inside who hoped to slip out of Berlin. One of them had already committed suicide by the time Soviet soldiers found him on the fourth floor. They directed the writer Konstantin Simonov to him.

  Simonov had just reached Berlin early on that morning of 2 May, and he found sporadic firing, mainly Soviet guns firing at buildings where the SS still refused to surrender. He described these as ‘postmortal convulsions’. In the flak tower there was no more light, so they made their way by torchlight. A lieutenant showed him the small concrete room. ‘On the bunk, with his eyes open, lay the dead general, a tall man of about forty-five, with short hair and a handsome, calm face. His right hand lay alongside his body, clutching a pistol. With his left hand he held, by the shoulders, the body of a young woman lying next to him. The woman lay with her eyes closed, young and beautiful, wearing, I remember it very well, a white English blouse with short sleeves and a grey uniform skirt. The general was wearing an ironed shirt, high boots, his high-collared jacket was not buttoned. Between the general’s legs stood a bottle of champagne, one-third full.’ It was part of the tawdry end to what Simonov called ‘the bandit glory of the former fascist empire’. He also found it fitting that the man who took the surrender of the capital of the Reich was General Chuikov, who had commanded the defence at Stalingrad. ‘It seemed as if history itself had tried its best to bring this army to Berlin and make the surrender of Berlin look particularly symbolic.’

  German civilians, however, were in no mood for symbolism. They covered the faces of dead soldiers with newspapers or a piece of uniform and queued at Red Army field kitchens, which began to feed them on Berzarin’s orders. The fact that there was a famine in Soviet Central Asia at that time, with families reduced to cannibalism, did not influence the new policy of attempting to win over the German people. But the change in the Party line had still not filtered down.

  Soviet soldiers entered the improvised field hospitals armed with sub-machine guns and prodded each man in the chest threateningly: ‘Du SS?’ they asked. When one of them came to a Swedish Waffen SS volunteer with the Nordland, he prodded him hard in the pit of the stomach and asked the same question. The Swede claimed that he was just an ordinary Wehrmacht soldier. ‘Da, da. Du SS!’ the Red Army soldier insisted. The Swede, who had destroyed his papers, including his passport, which showed that he had fought for the Finns against the Soviet Union, somehow managed a smile as if to say how ridiculous. The soldier gave up, not noticing that he was in a cold sweat. It took another six months before the NKVD discovered that members of the SS had ‘their blood group tattooed on the inside of their left arm’.

  In both the Alexanderplatz and the Pariserplatz, the wounded were laid in the street wrapped in blankets. German Red Cross nurses and BdM girls continued to treat them. Just to the north, Soviet guns blasted into submission a group of doomed SS still holding out in a building on the Spree. In all directions, smoke from ruins continued to deform the sky. Red Army soldiers flushed out Wehrmacht, SS, Hitler Youth and Volkssturm. They emerged from houses, cellars and subway tunnels, their faces almost black with grime and stubble. Soviet soldiers shouted, ‘Hände hoch!’ and their prisoners dumped their weapons and held their hands as high as possible. A number of German civilians sidled up to Soviet officers to denounce soldiers who continued to hide.

  Vasily Grossman accompanied General Berzarin to the centre of the city. He was staggered by the scale of destruction all around, wondering how much had been wrought by American and British bombers. A Jewish woman and her elderly husband approached him. They asked about the fate of Jews who had been deported. When he confirmed their worst fears, the old man burst into tears. Grossman was apparently accosted a little later by a smart German lady wearing an astrakhan coat. They conversed pleasantly. ‘But surely you aren’t a Jewish commissar?’ she suddenly said to him.

  The German officers who had signed demobilization papers for all their men so that they could avoid prison camp had wasted their time. Anybody in any sort of uniform, even firemen and railwaymen, were rounded up for the first columns to be marched eastwards.

  ‘I had a terrible mass of impressions,’ Grossman noted down. ‘Fires and smoke, smoke, smoke. Huge crowds of prisoners of war. Faces are full of tragedy and the grief on many faces is not only personal suffering but also that of the citizen of a destroyed country.’ The personal suffering and dread of the future were indeed great, both for the men and boys about to be marched away and for the women and girls left behind. ‘Prisoners,’ he jotted. ‘Policemen, clerks, old men and schoolboys, almost children. Many of the men are walking with their wives, beautiful young women, some of whom are laughing and trying to cheer up their husbands. One young soldier with two children, a boy and a girl. The people around are very nice to the prisoners. Faces are sad, they give them water and bread.’ In the Tiergarten, Grossman saw a wounded German soldier sitting on a bench with a girl medical assistant, hugging her. ‘They don’t look at anyone. The world around has ceased to exist for them. When I walk past them an hour later they are still sitting in the same position.’

  ‘This overcast, cold and rainy day is undoubtedly the day of Germany’s collapse in the smoke, among the blazing ruins, among hundreds of corpses littering the streets.’ Some of the dead, he noted, had been crushed by tanks, ‘squeezed out like tubes’. He saw a dead old woman, ‘her head leant against the wall, sitting on a mattress near a front door with an expression of quiet and everlasting grief. And yet a short distance away, Russians were amazed by the thoroughness of the German hausfrau: ‘In the streets which are already quiet, the ruins are being tidied and swept. Women are sweeping pavements with brooms as if they were indoor rooms.’

  Grossman must have walked round and round for most of that day. In the ‘huge and powerful’ Reichstag, he found Soviet soldiers ‘making fires in the entrance hall, rattling their cooking pans and opening tins of condensed milk with bayonets’.

  While SMERSH carried on its work in the cellars and in the Führer bunker, Grossman was allowed, like other visitors, into the gigantic reception rooms of the Reich Chancellery. In one of them, Hitler’s huge metal globe of the world was crushed and broken. In another, ‘a dark-skinned young Kazakh with wide cheekbones’ was learning to ride a bicycle. Grossman, along, it seems, with almost every other visitor, collected a few souvenirs to take back to Moscow.

  In the Zoo, where there had been heavy fighting close to the great flak tower, he found ‘broken cages, the corpses of monkeys, tropical birds and bears. On the island of baboons, babies are gripping their mothers’ bellies with their tiny hands.’ In front of a cage with a dead gorilla, he spoke to the old attendant, who had spent the last thirty-seven years looking after the monkeys.

  ‘Was she fierce?’ Grossman asked.

  ‘No, she just roared loudly,’ the primate keeper replied. ‘Humans are much fiercer.’

  Grossman encountered many people that day. Released foreign labourers sang songs but also shouted curses at German soldiers. It was only later in the day, when the firing finally stopped, that ‘the colossal scale of the victory’ began to sink in. Spontaneous celebrations took place round ‘the tall woman’ – the Siegessäule victory column in the Tiergarten. ‘The tanks are so covered in flowers and red banners that you can hardly see them. Gun barrels have flowers in them like trees in spring. Everyone is dancing, singing, laughing. Hundreds of coloured signal flares are fired into the air. Everyone salutes the victory with bursts from sub-machine guns, rifles and pistols.’ But Grossman learned later that many of those celebrating were ‘the living dead’. In their desperation for alcohol, soldiers had drunk from metal barrels containing industrial solvent which had been found nearby. They took at least three days to die.

  South-west of Berlin, General Wenck’s soldiers continued to transport the shattered survivors of the Ninth Arm
y in trucks and goods trains to the Elbe. Twelfth Army soldiers hoped that they too, with the civilian refugees, would be able to cross over to the Americans during the next few days. There were over 100,000 soldiers and almost as many civilian refugees moving south of Brandenburg towards the Elbe. Increasingly strong Soviet attacks further north, especially between Havelberg and Rathenau, risked cutting them off.

  On 3 May, news of events in Berlin arrived. General Wenck immediately issued an order reinstating the military salute instead of the Nazi version. ‘It’s over!’ wrote Peter Rettich, the battalion commander with the Scharnhorst Division. ‘Hitler is dead, expired in the Reich Chancellery. Berlin taken by the Russians. Images of the collapse pile up. It’s deeply shocking but nothing can be done.’ He and his few remaining men were now marching back to the Elbe and the Americans as fast as they could go. As they went through Genthin, he saw the canal full of empty bottles of schnapps. Soldiers ahead had obviously looted some store or depot. ‘Signs of disintegration!’ Rettich noted in his diary.

  General Wenck’s staff issued orders to Twelfth Army divisions for a fighting withdrawal to the river, where they would have to defend a perimeter against Soviet attack. Wenck also ordered one of his corps commanders, General Baron von Edelsheim, to negotiate with the US Ninth Army. On 3 May, Edelsheim and his staff crossed the Elbe near Tangermünde in an amphibious vehicle and made contact with the local American commander. Surrender negotiations took place next day in the town hall of Stendal. The American commander, General William Simpson, was in a difficult position. He had to consider not just the humanitarian concerns, but also the United States’s obligations to its Soviet ally, as well as the practical problem of feeding and dealing with such a huge influx. He decided to receive wounded and unarmed soldiers, but he refused Edelsheim’s request to help build and repair bridges to assist the evacuation. He also refused to accept civilian refugees. They were in any case supposed to return home at the end of the war.

  The next morning, 5 May, the crossing of the Elbe began in earnest at three points: the very badly damaged railway bridge between Stendal and Schönhausen; the remnants of the road bridge near Tangermünde; and the ferry at Ferchland, a dozen kilometres to the south. The survivors of the Ninth Army were given first priority. Everyone remaining on the east bank wondered how long they had left. The Twelfth Army’s defensive perimeter was already being reduced under Soviet attack. It had a frontage on the river of under twenty-five kilometres long and was about eighteen kilometres deep in the middle. Soviet artillery fire started to inflict heavy casualties on civilian refugees as well as soldiers.

  The feelings of Twelfth Army soldiers at this time were very mixed. They were proud of their rescue mission, loathed the Red Army, were furious with the Americans for not having advanced further and detested the Nazi regime which had betrayed its own people. It all seemed to be summed up for them on the road of refugees to Tangermünde. By the side of it a Nazi Party hoarding still proclaimed, ‘It is thanks to our Führer!’

  US Army detachments controlled and filtered the flow of soldiers on to the bridges, searching for SS, foreigners and civilians. Some of them relieved German soldiers of watches and medals as well as their weapons. Many German soldiers gave their steel helmets and greatcoats to women in an attempt to smuggle them over, but the majority were discovered and pulled out of the queue. Other threatened groups also tried to slip across. Soviet-born ‘Hiwis’ still in their Wehrmacht uniform attempted to infiltrate the queues. They knew that they faced a terrible retribution if taken by Soviet troops. There had been 9,139 Hiwis on the ration strength of the Ninth Army at the beginning of April on the Oder, but no more than 5,000 could have survived to reach the Elbe.

  Soldiers of the Waffen SS heard that the Americans would hand them over to the Red Army, so they destroyed their papers and ripped off their badges. Some of the foreign Waffen SS pretended to be forced labourers. Joost van Ketel, a dentist with the SS Nederland Division, had managed to escape arrest when stopped by Red Army soldiers in the forest near Halbe. ‘Nix SS,’ he had said. ‘Russki Kamerade-Hollandia.’ He had shown a red, white and blue striped pass, and this was accepted. Ketel managed the same trick with the Americans further south near Dessau, but his German companion was caught out immediately.

  General Wenck had established his headquarters in the park at Schönhausen, the seat of Prince Bismarck. The irony that it should end there of all places was plain, since it had been Bismarck’s firm belief that Germany should avoid war with Russia at all costs. By 6 May, the surrounding bridgehead had been compressed to eight kilometres wide and two deep and the battalions defending the perimeter were virtually out of ammunition. Soviet tank, artillery and katyusha rocket bombardments were killing thousands of those still queuing to cross the single-track bridges. It was a question of ‘Kriegsglück’ – ‘the fortunes of war’ – whether you were killed in the last moments. But the increased onslaught on 6 May also put the American troops filtering the refugees in danger. The US Ninth Army, anxious not to lose men to Soviet fire, withdrew them across the river and pulled back a little way from the Elbe. This presented just the opportunity the refugees needed. They surged across.

  ‘Quite a few people who were not able to cross the Elbe killed themselves,’ said Wenck’s chief of staff, Colonel Reichhelm. Others tried to get across the broad, fast-flowing river using dinghies and rafts fashioned out of planks of wood or fuel cans lashed together. Colonel von Humboldt, the operations officer, remembers canoes, skiffs and every sort of craft imaginable being used. ‘The real problem,’ he pointed out, ‘was that one person had to bring the boat back, and among people escaping, there were few volunteers.’ American detachments on the far side still tried to send them back, but they would try again. General von Edelsheim claimed that American troops were given orders to shoot at boats with civilian refugees, but this is uncertain. Strong swimmers took across the end of a line of signal cable held in their teeth, then fastened it to a tree or root on the far bank. Weaker swimmers and women and children hauled their way across on these makeshift lines, but they often broke. Scores of soldiers and civilians drowned in their attempts to cross, maybe even several hundred of them.

  On the morning of 7 May, the perimeter started to collapse. The last few artillery pieces of the Twelfth Army fired off their remaining shells and then blew up their guns, ‘by far the hardest moment for any artilleryman’, wrote Rettich. He was shocked by the disintegration of some units and took great pride in the soldierly bearing of his cadets in the Scharnhorst Division – ‘probably the last formation of the Wehrmacht still in battle order in northern Germany’. Prior to pulling back across the river, they destroyed their last stores and vehicles. He dealt with his ‘faithful Tatra jeep’ by pouring a can of petrol over it and then lobbing in a hand grenade. Hundreds of abandoned horses ran around nervously. Men tried to chase them into the water in the vain hope of forcing them to swim the river. It was ‘a pitiful sight’.

  Rettich assembled his remaining men near the Schönhausen bridge for a farewell address about the hard road which they had travelled together. In bitter defiance of defeat, they voiced ‘a thundering “Sieg Heil” to Germany’ before they left, ‘to be parted for ever’. As they crossed the twisted iron bridge, they threw their weapons, binoculars and other remaining equipment into the dark waters of the Elbe.

  That afternoon, General Wenck crossed the river close to his headquarters at Schönhausen. He and his staff had left it until the last moment. Soviet troops opened fire on his boat, wounding two NCOs, one fatally.

  In Berlin, meanwhile, the search for Hitler’s corpse continued without success. The bodies of the six Goebbels children were not discovered until 3 May. They were found under blankets in their three sets of bunk-beds. A dark blush lingered on their faces from the cyanide, making it look as if they were still alive and asleep. Vice-Admiral Voss, Hitler’s Kriegsmarine liaison officer, was brought in by SMERSH to identify them. Voss, apparently, looked ab
solutely devastated when he saw them.

  A strange event occurred that day when generals from the 1st Belo-russian Front visited the Reich Chancellery. The body of a man with a small toothbrush moustache and diagonal fringe was found. The corpse was subsequently eliminated from the investigation because its socks were darned. The Führer, it was agreed, would not have worn darned socks. Stalin was far more concerned to hear that some ordinary soldiers had been allowed to see Goebbels’s corpse. The officers responsible were punished.

  The interpreter Rzhevskaya, writing about the veil of secrecy thrown over the identification of Hitler’s body, emphasized that ‘Stalin’s system needed the presence of both external and internal enemies, and he feared the release of tension’. The double was presumably to be used as evidence of some sort of anti-Soviet plot. Even when Hitler’s real body was found on the very next day, orders immediately came from the Kremlin that nobody was to breathe a word to anybody. Stalin’s strategy, quite evidently, was to associate the west with Nazism by pretending that the British or Americans must be hiding him. Rumours already circulated at a high level that he had escaped through tunnels or by aeroplane with Hanna Reitsch at the last moment, and was hiding in American-occupied Bavaria. This was almost certainly the black propaganda extension of Stalin’s suspicion that the Western Allies would do a deal with the Nazis behind his back.


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