The fall of berlin 1945, p.9
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       The Fall of Berlin 1945, p.9

           Antony Beevor

  Army Group Vistula headquarters, it turned out, not only lacked trained staff officers, it also had no supply or transport organization and no signals detachment. The sole means of communication was the chief of staff’s telephone. And apart from the road map which Eismann had brought on his journey from Berlin, the headquarters possessed no more than one map. Even those general staff officers who had experienced earlier disasters still found it hard to fathom the degree of incompetence and irresponsibility of ‘Hitler’s Kamarilla’.

  Himmler, still determined on a counter-attack, wanted to throw together odd regiments and battalions. Eismann suggested a divisional commander, who at least had a staff and communications, to organize it, but Himmler insisted on a corps commander to make it sound impressive. He chose Obergruppenführer Demmlhuber. (Army officers had given Demmlhuber the nickname of ‘Tosca’ after a well-known scent of that name which he was suspected of using.) A makeshift corps staff was assembled and the following day Demmlhuber took over. Demmlhuber, who had more experience than Himmler, was not overjoyed at the task given him. The operation, if it deserved such a name, proved a complete failure, and he became one of the very few Waffen SS generals to be dismissed. This perhaps provoked jokes among opera-lovers on the army general staff that ‘Tosca’ may have been pushed out, but at least he had not had to jump.

  Another Waffen SS officer arrived to take over as chief of staff of the army group. This was Brigadeführer Lammerding, a former commander of the SS Das Reich Panzer Division. Although a respected commander, he had little staff experience and no taste for compromise. Meanwhile, the Soviet advance on Schneidemühl forced Army Group Vistula head-quarters to withdraw northwards to Falkenburg. Schneidemühl, designated a fortress by Hitler along with Poznan, was left to its fate, with eight battalions of Volkssturm, a few engineers and some fortress artillery. Hitler’s dogma, ‘Where the German soldier has once stood, he will never retreat’, remained the watchword.

  A Pomeranian Volkssturm battalion on its way to Schneidemühl by train from Stolp passed Himmler’s Steiermark train. This so-called ‘battalion’ was commanded by Baron Jesko von Puttkamer, the landowner who had threatened the pot-bellied Nazi official. He and his officers, dressed in their uniforms from the First World War, had brought their old service pistols. Their men, mostly farmers and shop-keepers, had no weapons at all, only Volkssturm armbands. They were supposed to receive weapons in Schneidemühl. Suddenly, the train came under fire from Soviet tanks. The driver managed to stop and then reverse with remarkable promptness.

  Once they were well away from danger, Puttkamer ordered his men out of the train. He then marched them back to Stolp through the knee-deep snow, with the strongest placed at the front to trample a route for the rest. He refused to allow them to be killed for nothing. On their return, the townspeople greeted him as a hero in the Stephansplatz outside the town hall. But Baron von Puttkamer retired to his house, sick at heart, and put away the old uniform, which had become dishonoured ‘under these Hitlers and Himmlers’.


  The Charge to the Oder

  By the fourth week in January, Berlin appeared to be in a state of ‘hysteria and disintegration’. There were two air-raid warnings a night, one at 8 and the next at 11. Refugees from the eastern territories passed on terrible accounts of the fate of those caught by the Red Army. Hungary, Germany’s last ally in the Balkans, was now siding openly with the Soviet Union and rumours of the rapid advance of Soviet tank armies led to predictions that the whole Eastern Front was disintegrating. Ordinary soldiers hoped that the enemy would shoot only officers and the SS, and workers and minor officials tried to convince themselves that the Russians would do them no harm.

  The most accurate news of the situation on the Eastern Front filtered back through railway workers. They often knew how far the enemy had advanced before the general staff. More and more Germans took the risk of listening to the BBC to find out what was really happening. If denounced to the Gestapo by a neighbour, they faced a spell in a concentration camp. Yet many Hitler and Goebbels loyalists still passionately believed every word of the news according to the ‘Promi’, the Propaganda Ministerium.

  Public transport was still repaired and people continued their struggle to work each day through the ruins. But more and more arranged to sleep in apartments closer to their work. A sleeping-bag had become one of the most essential items of equipment. Camp beds were also needed for relatives and friends fleeing from the east or who had been bombed out in Berlin. The well connected discussed different ways to escape the capital. Rumours of landowners shot out of hand by Soviet troops in East Prussia convinced them that the upper classes as a whole would be targets. Soviet propaganda was aimed almost as much at the eradication of ‘Junker militarism’ as at National Socialism.

  Those attempting to get out had to be careful, because Goebbels had declared that leaving Berlin without permission was tantamount to desertion. First of all, they needed a travel permit, which could be obtained only with some story of essential work outside the capital. Many of those who really did have an official trip to make away from Berlin received murmured advice from envious colleagues, ‘Don’t come back. Stay there.’ Almost everyone dreamed of seeking sanctuary in a quiet corner of the countryside where farms still had food. Some even investigated the possibility of purchasing false passports, and foreign diplomats suddenly found themselves extremely popular. Members of ministries were fortunate. They were evacuated to the south over the next few weeks.

  Most menacing of all was the wave of executions carried out by the SS on Himmler’s orders. On 23 January, with the Red Army now breaching the old frontiers of the Reich, several members of the German resistance linked to the July plot were put to death in Plötzensee prison. The victims included Count Helmuth James von Moltke, Eugen Bolz and Erwin Planck, the son of the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Max Planck.

  Goebbels’s new slogan, ‘We shall win, because we must win’, provoked contempt and despair among non-Nazis, but the majority of Germans did not yet think to question it. Even though only fanatics now believed in ‘final victory’, most still held on because they could not imagine anything else. The strategy of Goebbels’s relentless propaganda, ever since the war in the east turned against Germany, had been to undermine any notion of choice or alternative.

  Goebbels, as both Reich Commissar for the Defence of Berlin and minister for propaganda, appeared in his element as chief advocate of total warfare: visiting troops, making speeches, reviewing Volkssturm parades and haranguing them. The population at large saw nothing of Hitler. He had disappeared from the newsreels, and they heard only Hitler’s very last broadcast on 30 January, marking twelve years of Nazi government. His voice had lost all its strength and sounded completely different. It was hardly surprising that so many rumours circulated about his death or confinement. The public was not told whether he was at Berchtesgaden or in Berlin. And while Goebbels visited the victims of bombing, gaining considerable popularity as a result, Hitler refused even to look at his severely damaged capital.

  The Führer’s invisibility was due partly to his own withdrawal from public life and partly to the difficulty of concealing the dramatic changes in his appearance. Staff officers visiting the Reich Chancellery bunker who had not seen him since before the 20 July bomb explosion were shaken. ‘He was sometimes hunched over so much,’ said Guderian’s aide, Major Freytag von Loringhoven, ‘that he almost had a hump.’ The once glittering eyes were dull, the pale skin now had a grey tinge. He dragged his left leg behind him on entering the conference room and his handshake was limp. Hitler often held his left hand with his right in an attempt to conceal its trembling. Still just short of his fifty-sixth birthday, the Führer had the air and appearance of a senile old man. He had also lost his astonishing grasp of detail and statistics, with which he used to batter doubters into submission. And he no longer received any pleasure from playing followers off against each other. Now, he saw treason all around him.
  Officers of the general staff were all too aware of the anti-army atmosphere when they visited the Reich Chancellery bunker each day from Zossen. Guderian’s arrival in his large staff Mercedes was greeted by SS sentries presenting arms, but once inside, he and his aides had to offer up their briefcases to be searched. Their pistols were taken from them and they had to stand while SS guards examined the line of their uniform with a practised eye, searching for suspicious bulges.

  Army officers also had to remind themselves before entering the Reich Chancellery that saluting in the traditional manner had now been banned. All members of the Wehrmacht had to use the ‘German greeting’, as the Nazi salute was known. Many found themselves raising their hand to the cap, then suddenly having to shoot the whole arm outwards. Freytag von Loringhoven, for example, was not in the most comfortable of positions in such surroundings. His predecessor had been hanged as part of the July plot, and his cousin Colonel Baron Freytag von Loringhoven, another conspirator, had committed suicide.

  The Reich Chancellery was almost bare. Paintings, tapestries and furniture had been removed. There were huge cracks in the ceilings, smashed windows were boarded up and plywood partitions concealed the worst of the bomb damage. Not long before, in one of the huge marble corridors leading to the situation room, Freytag had been surprised to see two expensively dressed young women with permed hair. Such elegant frivolity seemed so out of place in the surroundings that he had turned to his companion, Keitel’s adjutant, to ask who they were.

  ‘That was Eva Braun.’

  ‘Who’s Eva Braun?’ he asked.

  ‘She’s the Führer’s mistress.’ Keitel’s adjutant smiled at his amazement. ‘And that was her sister, who’s married to Fegelein.’ The Wehrmacht officers attached to the Reich Chancellery had remained completely discreet. Hardly anyone outside had ever heard of her, even those who visited the place regularly from the army high command headquarters at Zossen.

  Freytag certainly knew Fegelein, Himmler’s liaison officer. He thought him ‘a dreadful vulgarian with a terrible Munich accent, an arrogant air and bad manners’. Fegelein used to interrupt generals in mid-conversation, trying to involve himself in everything. But despite his intense dislike, Freytag summoned up his courage to ask a favour. A friend of his had been one of the many arrested in the wake of the July plot and was still held in the cellars of Gestapo headquarters. He told Fegelein that he was virtually certain that his friend had had nothing to do with the conspiracy, and asked if he could at least find out what charges were being laid against him. To his surprise, Fegelein agreed to look into it and his friend was released shortly afterwards.

  Fegelein, an SS cavalry commander who had won the Knight’s Cross fighting partisans in Yugoslavia, was enamoured of his own rather louche good looks. He clearly enjoyed using his massive influence, which came partly from his position as Himmler’s representative and partly from his proximity to the Führer. He had become very close to Eva Braun, with whom he danced and rode. Some suspected an affair between them, but this was unlikely. She was genuinely devoted to Hitler, while he was probably too ambitious to risk a dalliance with the Führer’s mistress. On 3 June 1944, on the eve of the Allied invasion, Hitler had been chief witness at Fegelein’s marriage to Eva’s youngest sister, Gretl. It was the closest anyone could get to a dynastic marriage under National Socialism.

  Hitler’s ostensibly military court managed to be both superficially austere and profoundly corrupt at the same time, a contradiction which the rhetoric of self-sacrifice failed to conceal. Incompetence and chaos between competing warlords and party functionaries were cloaked by a false unity of loyalty to their ideological godhead. The mentality of such an assembly, despite all its military uniforms, saluting and twice-daily situation conferences, could not have been further from the reality of the front. And while Hitler’s health visibly deteriorated, intrigues and jockeying for position increased as the Reich crumbled. Göring, Goebbels, Himmler and Bormann all visualized themselves as the Führer’s successor. Perhaps the true measure of the fantasy of Nazi leaders was the very notion that the world might accept any form of succession within the Third Reich, assuming that it had any territory left.

  At the end of the third week in January, Marshal Konev’s 1st Ukrainian Front surged into Silesia after the capture of Kraków and Radom. Konev, to preserve the mines and factories of Upper Silesia, as Stalin had instructed, decided to commence a semi-encirclement of the industrial and mining region from Katowice to Ratibor while leaving a route of escape for the German forces left in the area. The 3rd Guards Tank Army had been heading for Breslau but, on Konev’s order, wheeled hard left on the march and came back up along the eastern bank of the Oder towards Oppeln. As if organizing a great shoot, Konev brought up the 21st, 59th and 60th Armies to flush the Germans out.

  On the night of 27 January, the German divisions of the Seventeenth Army pulled out and fled for the Oder. General Rybalko’s 3rd Guards Tank Army then acted as the guns, catching large numbers of them in the snow-covered landscape. Rybalko’s tanks were camouflaged, rather improbably, with white tulle from a large supply captured in a Silesian textile factory supposedly devoted to total war.

  Stalin’s ‘gold’ was secured intact over the next two days. It was a disaster for Germany, as Guderian had warned. Speer’s forecasts for armaments production, presented to the corps commanders at Krampnitz only two weeks before, lay in ruins. He recognized this himself, predicting that Germany could now hold out for a matter of weeks at best. The loss of the mines as well as the steelworks and factories was probably a greater blow for German production than all the Allied bombing of the Ruhr industrial region over the last two years.

  Perhaps the most surprising part of the operation was the fact that the German withdrawal was authorized by Führer headquarters. Hitler had sacked General Harpe and replaced him with his favourite commander, General Schörner, a convinced Nazi whose motto was ‘Strength through fear’. Schörner was only satisfied when his soldiers were more afraid of his punishment than they were of the enemy.

  The Seventeenth Army managed to withdraw, but relatively few women and children escaped from Upper Silesia. Many, especially the old, stayed out of choice. Sometimes widows refused to leave the grave of a husband, while others could not face leaving farms which had been in their family for generations. They sensed that if they left, they would never return. A Swedish woman who managed to make her way through Soviet lines in a farm cart told the Swedish embassy that although Soviet troops ‘had acted in a correct manner’ in some places, German propaganda stories seemed to be mostly true. She added that this did not surprise her after the way that the Germans had behaved in Russia. Soviet troops were equally ruthless whenever they suspected ‘partisan’ activity. The officers of a rifle company, on finding a Russian soldier from a patrol lying dead in a village street, ‘ordered their men to liquidate the whole population of the village’.

  The rapidity of the 1st Ukrainian Front’s advance created its own problems for the Soviet authorities. NKVD rifle regiments for the repression of rear areas were sometimes thrown into battle against bypassed German units. They had to reorganize rapidly, in some cases even having to refer to the Red Army instruction book. In the headlong advance, General Karpov, the commander of the NKVD rifle division following the fighting troops, complained on 26 January to Meshik, the Front’s NKVD chief, that their three regiments were ‘clearly not sufficient for this area which has difficult terrain and is covered with large areas of forest’. They would need even more troops and vehicles to guard their lines of communications and depots when they crossed the Oder.

  In Konev’s centre, meanwhile, the 5th Guards, helped by German chaos when faced with Rybalko’s sweeping manoeuvre, managed to seize a bridgehead across the Oder around Ohlau, between Breslau and Oppeln. And Lelyushenko’s 4th Guards Tank Army on the right seized another bridgehead on the west bank of the Oder round Steinau, north-west of Breslau, even though Steinau itself w
as fiercely defended by ΝCOs from a nearby training school. His tank crews appear to have made good use of their time before the Vistula offensive began. Lelyushenko had given them intensive target practice on Tiger tanks captured the previous autumn, and their gunnery, seldom a strong point in Red Army tank formations, had improved. They now began target practice on German steamers heading downstream from Breslau.

  The Germans, meanwhile, were rushing the 169th Infantry Division to stiffen the defences of the Silesian capital, which Führer headquarters had declared to be ‘Fortress Breslau’. Hitler, on hearing that Soviet troops had established the Steinau bridgehead, ordered General von Saucken and General Nehring to counter-attack immediately, even though their troops had not had a chance to recover and replenish since their hazardous escape from Poland.

  Whether or not German refugees from Breslau went down with the steamers sunk by Lelyushenko’s tanks, the fate of women and children who had left the city on foot during the panic-stricken evacuation was terrible. All husbands not already serving in the Wehrmacht were called up for the Volkssturm to defend the city. Wives were therefore left to fend for themselves entirely. All they heard were the loudspeaker vans telling civilians to flee the city. Although frightened, the mothers who did not manage to obtain places on the overcrowded trains took the normal precautions to look after infant children, such as filling a thermos with hot milk and bundling them up as warmly as possible. They took rucksacks containing powdered milk and food for themselves. In any case, they expected after the announcements that the Nazi Party social welfare organization, the NSV, would have prepared some form of help along the way.

  Outside Breslau, however, the women found that they were on their own. Very few motor vehicles were leaving the city, so only a lucky few received lifts. The snow was deep on the roads and eventually most women had to abandon their prams and carry the youngest children. In the icy wind they also found that their thermoses had cooled. There was only one way to feed a hungry infant, but they could not find any shelter in which to breast-feed. All the houses were locked, either abandoned already or owned by people who refused to open their door to anyone. In despair, some mothers offered their baby a breast in the lea of a shed or some other windbreak, but it was no good. The child would not feed and the mother’s body temperature dropped dangerously. Some even suffered a frostbitten breast. One young wife, in a letter to her mother explaining the death from cold of her own child, also described the fate of other mothers, some crying over a bundle which contained a baby frozen to death, others sitting in the snow, propped against a tree by the side of the road, with older children standing nearby whimpering in fear, not knowing whether their mother was unconscious or dead. In that cold it made little difference.

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