The fall of berlin 1945, p.5
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       The Fall of Berlin 1945, p.5
 

           Antony Beevor

  The next twenty-four hours proved that the Soviet armies which had broken through the Vistula front were indeed advancing at full speed. Each seemed to outbid the other.

  The rapid advances of Zhukov’s tank armies were partly due to the simplicity and robust construction of the T-34 tank and its broad tracks, which could cope with snow, ice and mud. Even so, the mechanic’s skills proved at least as important as cavalry dash, because field workshops could not keep up. ‘Ah, what a life it was before the war,’ a driver remarked to Grossman. ‘There were plenty of spare parts then.’ Once the weather cleared, Shturmovik fighter bombers, known to the Germans as ‘Jabos’ for Fagdbomber, were able to support the headlong advance, as Zhukov had promised his tank commanders. ‘Our tanks move faster than the trains to Berlin,’ boasted the ebullient Colonel Gusakovsky, who had blasted his way across the Pilica.

  The small German garrison in Warsaw did not stand a chance. It consisted of engineer detachments and four fortress battalions – one of them was an ‘ear battalion’ made up of hearing casualties recycled back into service. The thrust of the 47th Guards Tank Brigade up to Sochaczew from the south and the encirclement of Warsaw from the north by the 47th Army meant that the garrison lost contact with its parent formation, the Ninth Army.

  General Harpe’s staff at Army Group ‘A’ warned OKH in Zossen on the evening of 16 January that they would not be able to hold the city. Colonel Bogislaw von Bonin, the head of the operations department, discussed the situation with Guderian. They decided to give army group headquarters a free hand in the decision, and Guderian signed the signals log with his usual ‘G’ in green ink. But in the Nachtlage, Hitler’s midnight situation conference, the proposal to abandon Warsaw was reported to Hitler by one of his own staff before Guderian’s deputy, General Walther Wenck, brought the subject up. Hitler exploded. ‘You must stop everything!’ he shouted. ‘Fortress Warsaw must be held!’ But it was already too late and radio communications had broken down. A few days later Hitler issued an order that every instruction sent to an army group had to be submitted to him first.

  The fall of Warsaw led to another bitter row between Hitler and Guderian, who were still arguing over Hitler’s decision to move the Grossdeutschland Corps. Guderian was even more furious to hear that Hitler was transferring the Sixth SS Panzer Army not to the Vistula front, but to Hungary. Hitler, however, refused to discuss it. The withdrawal from Warsaw was, in his eyes, a far more burning issue.

  At the noon conference next day, 18 January, Guderian was given a public dressing-down, but worse was to follow. ‘That evening,’ recounted Colonel Baron von Humboldt of the OKH staff, ‘it was Bonin’s birthday. We were all standing round the map table with a glass of Sekt to congratulate him, when [General] Meisel, the second-in-command of the personnel department, arrived with two Oberleutnants armed with machine pistols. “Herr von Bonin,” he said. “I must ask you to come with me.”’ Two others were arrested with Bonin, Lieutenant Colonel von Christen and Lieutenant Colonel von dem Knesebeck. They were taken off to the Prinz-Albrechtstrasse on Hitler’s direct orders to be interrogated by the Gestapo.

  Hitler saw the incident as yet another act of betrayal by the army. As well as sacking General Harpe, he also removed General von Luttwitz from command of the Ninth Army. But the truth was that his monstrous vanity could not allow him to lose a foreign capital, even one which he had totally destroyed. Guderian stood up for his three staff officers, insisting that he be interrogated too since the responsibility for the decision was entirely his. Hitler, longing to indict the general staff, took him at his word. At this most critical stage of the Vistula campaign, Guderian was subjected to hours of interrogation by Ernst Kalten-brunner of the Reich Security Head Office, and Heinrich Müller, the chief of the Gestapo. The two more junior officers were released after two weeks, but Bonin remained in a concentration camp until the end of the war.

  The day after Bonin’s arrest, Martin Bormann reached Berlin. The next day, Saturday 20 January, he recorded in his diary: ‘the situation in the east is becoming more and more threatening. We are abandoning the region of Warthegau. The leading tank units of the enemy are approaching Katowice.’ It was the day that Soviet forces crossed the Reich border east of Hohensalza.

  Guderian’s wife abandoned Schloss Deipenhof ‘half an hour before the first shells began to fall’. The chief of staff wrote that the estate workers (they were probably resettled Baltic Germans) ‘stood in tears beside her car and many would willingly have accompanied her’. Although there can be little doubt about their desperation to leave, this may not have been due entirely to loyalty to their chatelaine. Rumours of what was happening in East Prussia had already started to circulate.

  Soldiers of the Red Army, and its Polish formations especially, were unlikely to feel any more merciful after what they had witnessed in the Polish capital. ‘We saw the destruction of Warsaw when we entered its empty streets on that memorable day, 17 January 1945,’ wrote Captain Klochkov of the 3rd Shock Army. ‘Nothing was left but ruins and ashes covered by snow. Badly starved and exhausted residents were making their way home.’ Only 162,000 remained out of a pre-war population of 1,310,000. After the unbelievably brutal suppression of the Warsaw uprising in October 1944, the Germans had systematically destroyed all the historic monuments of the city, even though none had been used by the rebels. Vasily Grossman made his way through the ruined city to the ghetto. All that remained were the three-and-a-half-metre-high wall topped with broken glass and barbed wire and the Judenrat, the Jewish administrative building. The rest of the ghetto was ‘a single undulating red sea of broken bricks’. Grossman wondered how many thousands of bodies were buried underneath. It was hard to imagine anyone escaping, but a Pole led him to where four Jews had just emerged from their hiding place high above the girders of a tall skeleton of a building.

  3

  Fire and Sword and ‘Noble Fury’

  When General Chernyakhovsky launched his offensive against East Prussia on 13 January, political officers erected signs to arouse the troops: ‘Soldier, remember you are now entering the lair of the fascist beast!’

  Chernyakhovsky’s attack did not get off to a good start. The commander of the Third Panzer Army, on the basis of good intelligence, withdrew his troops from the front line of trenches at the last moment. This meant that the massive bombardment was wasted. The Germans then launched some very effective counter-attacks. And in the course of the following week, Chernyakhovsky found, as he had feared, that German defence works on the Insterburg gap cost his armies very heavy casualties.

  Chernyakhovsky, however, soon spotted an opportunity. He was one of the most decisive and intelligent of senior Soviet commanders. The 39th Army was making better progress on the extreme right, so he suddenly moved the 11th Guards Army round behind and switched the weight of the attack to that flank. This unexpected thrust between the River Pregel and the River Niemen caused panic in the Volkssturm militia units. It was accompanied by another attack across the Niemen in the area of Tilsit by the 43rd Army. Chaos mounted in the German rear, largely because the Nazi Party officials had forbidden the evacuation of civilians. By 24 January, Chernyakhovsky’s 3rd Belorussian Front was within striking distance of Königsberg, the capital of East Prussia.

  As well as ignoring Stavka instructions when it was necessary, Chernyakhovsky, a tank commander and a ‘master of military science’, was also willing to change approved battle tactics. ‘Self-propelled guns became an integral part of the infantry after the crossing of the Niemen,’ Vasily Grossman noted. At thirty-seven years old, Ivan Danilovich Chernyakhovsky was much younger than most other Soviet commanders-in-chief. He was also something of an intellectual and used to recite romantic poetry with humorous panache to the writer Ilya Ehrenburg. Chernyakhovsky was intrigued by contradictions. He described Stalin as a living example of a dialectical process. ‘It’s impossible to understand him. All you can do is to have faith.’ Chernyakhovsky was clearly not destined to
survive into the post-war Stalinist petrification. He was perhaps fortunate to die soon in battle, his faith intact.

  Ilya Ehrenburg’s own mesmerizing calls for revenge on Germany in his articles in the Red Army newspaper Krasnaya Zvezda (Red Star) had created a huge following among the frontoviki, or frontline troops. Goebbels responded with loathing against ‘the Jew Ilya Ehrenburg, Stalin’s favourite rabble-rouser’. The propaganda ministry accused Ehrenburg of inciting the rape of German women. Yet while Ehrenburg never shrank from the most bloodthirsty harangues, the most notorious statement, which is still attributed to him by western historians, was a Nazi invention. He is accused of having urged Red Army soldiers to take German women as their ‘lawful booty’ and to ‘break their racial pride’. ‘There was a time,’ Ehrenburg retorted in Krasnaya Zvezda, ‘when Germans used to fake important documents of state. Now they have fallen so low as to fake my articles.’ But Ehrenburg’s assertion that the soldiers of the Red Army were ‘not interested in Gretchens, but in those Fritzes who had insulted our women’ proved to be wide of the mark, as the savage behaviour of the Red Army soon showed. And his frequent references to Germany as ‘the Blonde Witch’ certainly did not encourage a humane treatment of German and even Polish women.

  Marshal Rokossovsky’s 2nd Belorussian Front attacked north and northwestwards from the Narew bridgeheads on 14 January, the day after Chernyakhovsky. His main task was to cut off East Prussia by heading for the mouth of the Vistula and Danzig. Rokossovsky was uneasy about the Stavka plan. His armies would become detached from both Chernyakhovsky’s attack on Königsberg and Zhukov’s charge westwards from the Vistula.

  The offensive against the German Second Army began ‘in weather which was perfect for the attack’, as the corps commander on the receiving end noted regretfully. A thin layer of snow covered the ground and the River Narew was frozen. The fog cleared at noon, and Rokos-sovsky’s armies were soon supported by constant air sorties. Progress was still slow for the first two days, but once again it was the Soviet heavy artillery and the katyusha rocket launchers which made the first breakthroughs possible. Iron-hard ground also made the shells much more lethal, with surface explosions. The snowy landscape was rapidly scarred with craters and black and yellow scorch marks.

  On that first evening, General Reinhardt, the commander-in-chief of the army group, telephoned Hitler, then still at the Adlerhorst. He tried to warn him of the danger to the whole of East Prussia if he were not allowed to withdraw. The Führer refused to listen. The next thing Reinhardt’s headquarters received, at 3 a.m., was the order to transfer the Grossdeutschland Corps, the only effective reserve in the region, to the Vistula front.

  Reinhardt was not the only field commander to fulminate against his superiors. On 20 January, the Stavka suddenly ordered Rokossovsky to alter the axis of his advance because Chernyakhovsky had been held up. He was now to attack north-eastwards into the centre of East Prussia, not simply seal the region off along the Vistula. Rokossovsky was concerned by the vast gap opening on his left as Zhukov’s armies headed westwards for Berlin, but in East Prussia, this change of direction took German commanders by surprise. On Rokossovsky’s right flank, the 3rd Guards Cavalry Corps moved rapidly over the frozen landscape and entered Allenstein at 3 a.m. on 22 January. On his left, Volsky’s 5th Guards Tank Army advanced rapidly towards the city of Elbing beside the estuary of the Vistula. Part of the leading tank brigade entered the city on 23 January, having been mistaken for German panzers. A violent and chaotic skirmish broke out in the city centre, and they were forced out. The main body of the army bypassed the city and carried on to the shore of the great lagoon, the Frisches Haff. East Prussia was virtually cut off from the Reich.

  Although the German armed forces had expected the assault on East Prussia for several months, disorganization and uncertainty reigned in towns and villages. In rear areas the hated military police, the Feldgend-armerie, exerted a harsh order. The Landsers called them ‘chain-hounds’ because the metal gorgette which they wore on a chain round the neck looked like a dog collar.

  On the morning of Chernyakhovsky’s attack, 13 January, a leave train bound for Berlin was halted in a station by Feldgendarmerie. They bellowed orders that all soldiers belonging to divisions whose numbers they were about to call were to get out and form up immediately. The soldiers departing on leave, many of whom had not seen their families for two years at least, sat clenched, praying that their division would not be called. But almost all had to descend and line up in ranks on the platform. Anyone who failed to report faced execution. A young soldier, Walter Beier, was one of the few to be spared. Barely daring to believe his luck, he continued on the journey to his family near Frankfurt an der Oder. But he was to find himself facing the Red Army closer to home than he had ever imagined.

  The man most to blame for the chaos was Gauleiter Erich Koch, a Nazi leader already infamous for his rule as Reich’s Commissar for the Ukraine. Koch was so proud of his brutality that he does not appear to have objected to his nickname, ‘the second Stalin’. Completely imbued with the Hitlerian obstinacy of fixed defence, Koch had forced tens of thousands of civilians into digging earthworks. Unfortunately, he failed to consult army commanders on where they wanted them. He had also been the first to dragoon boys and old men into the Volkssturm militia, the Nazi Party’s most flagrant example of useless sacrifice. But worst of all, Koch had refused to countenance evacuation of the civil population.

  He and his local Nazi Party chiefs, having forbidden the evacuation of civilians as defeatist, then slipped away themselves without warning anybody when the attack came. The consequences were appalling for the wives, daughters and children who tried to escape too late across a landscape a metre deep in snow and temperatures down to minus twenty Celsius. A number of women farm workers, however, remained voluntarily, convinced that they would just be working under new masters and that little would change.

  The distant thunder of artillery when the offensives began created terrible fear in the isolated farms and villages of the mainly flat and forested East Prussian landscape. Women in East Prussia had heard of the atrocities at Nemmersdorf the previous autumn, when some of Chernyakhovsky’s troops invaded East Prussia at the end of the headlong advance in the summer of 1944. They may well have seen in a local town’s Kino the terrible newsreel footage of sixty-two raped and murdered women and young girls. Goebbels’s propaganda ministry had rushed cameramen to the front to record the atrocity and exploit it to the maximum. Yet there still seemed to be little idea of the degree of horrors in store for them. The most prevalent for girls and women of all ages was gang rape.

  ‘Red Army soldiers don’t believe in “individual liaisons” with German women,’ wrote the playwright Zakhar Agranenko in his diary when serving as an officer of marine infantry in East Prussia. ‘Nine, ten, twelve men at a time – they rape them on a collective basis.’ He later described how German women in Elbing, in a desperate attempt to seek protection, offered themselves instead to Soviet marine infantrymen.

  The Soviet armies advancing in huge, long columns were an extraordinary mixture of modern and medieval: tank troops in padded black helmets, their T-34S churning up the earth as they dipped and rolled with the ground, Cossack cavalrymen on shaggy mounts with loot strapped to the saddle, Lend-Lease Studebakers and Dodges towing light field guns, open Chevrolets with tarpaulin-covered mortars in the back and tractors hauling great howitzers, all eventually followed by a second echelon in horse-drawn carts. The variety of characters among the soldiers was almost as great as their military equipment. There were those who saw even young German boys as embryo SS men and believed that they should all be killed before they grew up and invaded Russia again, and there were those who spared children and gave them something to eat. There were freebooters who drank and raped quite shamelessly, and there were idealistic, austere Communists and members of the intelligentsia genuinely appalled by such behaviour. The writer Lev Kopelev, then a political officer, was ar
rested by SMERSH counterintelligence for having ‘engaged in the propaganda of bourgeois humanism, of pity for the enemy’. Kopelev had also dared to criticize the ferocity of Ilya Ehrenburg’s articles.

  The initial advances of Rokossovsky’s armies were so rapid that the German authorities in Königsberg sent several refugee trains to Allenstein unaware that it had been captured by the 3rd Guards Cavalry Corps. For the Cossacks, the refugee trains were ideal concentrations of women and booty falling into their hands.

  Beria and Stalin back in Moscow knew perfectly well what was going on. In one report they were told that ‘many Germans declare that all German women in East Prussia who stayed behind were raped by Red Army soldiers’. Numerous examples of gang rape were given – ‘girls under eighteen and old women included’. In fact victims could be as young as twelve years old. ‘The NKVD group attached to the 43rd Army discovered that German women who had stayed behind in Schpa-leiten had tried to commit suicide’, the report continued. ‘They interrogated one of them called Emma Korn. “On 3 February,” she told them, “frontline troops of the Red Army entered the town. They came into the cellar where we were hiding and pointed their weapons at me and the other two women and ordered us into the yard. In the yard twelve soldiers in turn raped me. Other soldiers did the same to my two neighbours. The following night six drunken soldiers broke into our cellar and raped us in front of the children. On 5 February, three soldiers came, and on 6 February eight drunken soldiers also raped and beat us.” ’ Three days later the women tried to kill the children and themselves by cutting all their wrists, but evidently they had not known how to do it properly.

  The Red Army attitude towards women had become openly proprietorial, especially since Stalin himself had stepped in to allow Red Army officers to keep a ‘campaign wife’. (She was known as a PPZh, because the full term, ‘pokhodno-polevaya zhena’, was so similar to PPSh, the standard Red Army sub-machine gun.) These young women, selected as mistresses by senior officers, were usually headquarters signallers, clerks or medics – young women soldiers who wore a beret on the back of the head instead of a fore-and-aft pilotka.

 
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