Battle of Berlin
Contributor: C. Peter Chen
After the Soviet forces captured Vienna on 14 Apr 1945, Joseph Stalin ordered 20 armies, 8,500 aircraft, and 6,300 tanks to march toward Berlin. In a fashion typical of the Soviet dictator, he pitted his best generals Georgy Zhukov and Ivan Konev in a race for glory against Berlin. On the other side of Berlin, the western Allies were 60 miles west of the German capital, though Dwight Eisenhower seemed to be moving south of Berlin to prevent top German brass from escaping to the southern mountains instead of aiming for Berlin. The German troops, at this time, were hurt and demoralized. "Our troops were everywhere swarming over western Germany and there were few remaining targets against which the air force could be directed without danger of dropping their bombs on either our own or the Soviet troops", said Eisenhower. With the western Allies just securing the industrious region of the Ruhr River, the Soviet troops advanced and surrounded Berlin before the western Allies.
On 15 Apr, Zhukov's troops began to shell the city to soften the initial German resistance. For thirty minutes he pounded the city, raining half a million shells five miles deep into the German lines. There was no answer from German guns. A moment later, still before dawn, a single search light beam shined vertically upwards into the sky, followed by 143 other search lights that followed suit. The lights were Zhukov's secret weapon. Operated by women, the search lights were dipped low to aim into the eyes of the German defenders as the Soviet infantry and armor charged forward. Although the search lights were initially effective in aiding the Soviet attackers, they eventually became a psychological weapon against his own troops: the Soviet troops felt naked as they ran across the battlefield, feeling that they were silhouetted against the light. As the battle waged on, the battlefield soon filled with a fog made of smoke and dust that actually reflected the light back into the eyes of the Soviet soldiers. The offensive soon broke into chaos until the situation of the front lines finally was passed to the rear, and the order to switch off the lights was given. Most soldiers simply waited behind cover for the sun to come up.
Meanwhile, on the same day, Konev began his offensive as well. 55 miles south of Seelow, his artillery began firing at 0415 along his entire 250-mile front, while the Second Air Army's VIth Guards Air Corps bombed the German rear. After 40 minutes of bombardment, Soviet troops began charging cross the river that divided the two sides at 0455. Engineers worked under machine gun fire to establish either bridges or simply searched for shallow points of the river so that the artillery pieces could cross. Their efforts came to fruition 20 minutes later, and an hour after that Soviet artillery pieces were firing on German positions from the Berlin side of the river.
Both Zhukov and Konev now were charging full speed at Berlin, but at a very high cost. Unimaginable amounts of casualties were inflicted upon the Soviet attackers, but their generals only had one thing in mind: to be the first to reach Berlin.
Civilian life in Berlin continued despite the presence of Soviet troops only miles away. People struggled to work in their offices, shops, and factories, while housewives lined up to exchange their ration tickets for the last amounts of food in the city. The most amazing feat accomplished by the people of Berlin was perhaps the fact that even at this time the post office still delivered letters to residents of the city. While the fanatical followers of Adolf Hitler ran around executing anyone who refused to be drafted into the last desperate armies, the people of Berlin only had survival on their minds.
At the night of 17 Apr, Konev's tanks forded across the River Spree. As soon as they crossed, they fired their cannons on the few German defenders. It only took them a few minutes to shatter the German line. Just past midnight, Konev issued Directive Number 00215 to his commanders Rybalko and Lelyushenko, telling them to speed to Berlin without bothering with securing towns and large communities which might take away precious time. Hearing that Konev was making headway, he pushed his commanders to renew their offensives. Vassili Chuikov launched a fresh attack against the German lines on the morning of 18 Apr against stubborn German troops who actually staged a counter-offensive, though it had failed. By the end of the day, Chuikov won control of Seelow Heights for Zhukov, though at a cost of 30,000 lives.
In Berlin, the situation became more desperate. On 19 Apr, commander of the Berlin defenders Helmuth Reymann only had 41,253 men at his disposal. Fewer than 15,000 out of that number were actually trained soldiers; the rest consisted of 1,713 policemen, 1,252 Hitler Youth and Labor Service boys and men, and 24,000 Volkssturm troops that were mostly old men and those previously deemed too sick or weak to fight. Arming them was also an issue. Only 42,095 rifles, 773 sub-machine guns, 1,953 light machine guns, 263 heavy machine guns, and a small stock of mortars, field guns, and Panzerfausts were available to arm these troops. Reymann knew it was almost criminal for him to order these mostly untrained men to fight against the impending Soviet invasion into the city. To Reymann's astonishment, from the underground bunker, Hitler and Joseph Goebbels actually ordered a battalion of his previous troops to the front lines. "Tell Goebbels that it is no longer possible to defend the Reich capital", said Reymann to a subordinate officer. "The inhabitants are defenseless."
In the bunker, Hitler and his staff planned the defenses from the bunker beneath of the Chancellery, where they could now actually hear the rumble of Soviet artillery. On 20 Apr, Hitler's birthday, he came up to the surface to review a small parade consisted of a few SS troops and Hitler Youth units. The parade was nowhere near the grandeur of the large parades held in his honor in the past, and Hitler felt the desperation. He offered a few words of encouragement to the troops present, and returned to this bunker. This birthday parade would be the last time he saw sunlight. To "celebrate" Hitler's birthday, both sides of the Allied forces made special efforts to attack Berlin. Shortly before 1000 that day, 1,000 American bombers bombed city center for two hours with hardly any German response. Immediately following the American bombing, British Mosquitoes sporadically bombed various targets in Berlin. Chief of the Supreme Command of the Armed Forces Wilhelm Keitel recalled the bombing on Hitler's birthday:
As Keitel noted, this was to be the last time the western Allies bombed Berlin in a large scale; from this point on, the Soviets were to take over the fight for Berlin. At 1150, Zhukov delivered his "present" for Hitler as his Soviet troops took over the operation, sending a salvo of half-ton long-range artillery shells into city. It was about this time Hitler's secretaries noticed he finally began to acknowledge the possibility of defeat. When his secretaries asked him whether he would make his escape from Berlin, the German dictator responded "no, I can't." He continued, "If I did, I would feel like a lama turning an empty prayer wheel. I must bring about the resolution here in Berlin, or else go under." To continue the fight in case of his death, Hitler appointed Admiral Karl Dönitz as his successor; Dönitz was to lead the country as its president should Hitler become captured or killed.
After some delay, Konev's troops reached Zossen, a major headquarters of Germany's military since 1939. This vast underground facility designed by Hans Beltow once was the center of all communications across the entire continent. The first Soviet troops on site were amazed at the extent of the underground facilities, seeing that fully-equipped offices, libraries, and residences were all present for the men who used to serve here. All the telephones at Zossen were still working, and rumor had it that Berlin attempted to call Zossen to request the latest news, and a Soviet soldier named Ivan picked up the call. He colorfully responded to the caller "this is Ivan. You can go fuck yourself!"
On 23 Apr, Hitler named Helmuth Weidling the new commander of Berlin's defenses. Knowing the dire situation, Weidling's immediate response was "you might just as well have me shot" to the messenger, though he regained composure soon after and accepted the duty. Meanwhile, the generally orderly situation in Berlin finally crumbled on a large scale. Previously disciplined citizens followed rumors on what government warehouses stored excess food, and looted the rumored locations. People staggered along the streets hauling butter and preserved meat. The SS tried to keep order, going as far as shooting several looters, but finally some of them gave in to the needs of the starving citizens. Some guards allowed the people to march right into the Karstadt department store and carry out necessities; some tried to take advantage of the situation and carry out luxury items such as fancy dresses and fur coats, but the SS men ordered the people to drop them. While the people in Berlin did all they could the secure the last supplies of food for their families, the Soviet armies made tremendous progress: Zhukov and Konev's forces linked up near Schönefield airfield. In fact, it was so tremendous that Zhukov was surprised as well. A complete encirclement of Berlin would happen less than two days from then as Konev's Fifth Guards Army would link up with the forward units of the First Ukrainian Front and First Byelorussian Front. Also on 25 Apr, General Courtney Hodges' 69th Division and Konev's Fifth Guards Army met each other near Torgau on the River Elbe. By this time, Berlin had no airfields left to evacuate any top commander who remained in Berlin; the last two airfields, Gatow and Tempelhof, were both taken after the last flights left in the early mornings of 26 Apr under heavy Soviet fire. Around that time, a German counterattack from outside the city led by General Walther Wenck began with promise, but very soon was bogged down by the Soviet defenders, therefore failing the last attempt to link up with the forces in Berlin. The army commanded by Hasso von Manteuffel, on the other hand, realized the impending doom, and began an organized retreat into Berlin. When Keitel discovered the retreat, he furiously ordered the front lines reinstated, but he no longer had any authority over most of the men who had already lost the fighting spirit. Of the few who remained on guard, many were incompetent as soldiers and officers. Keitel noted in his memoirs that on 25 Apr he met an officer who evacuated into a town early on mere rumors of Soviet advance; Keitel had to take him personally to the front lines to show him that, beyond a few long-range shell bursts, there were no signs of the enemy, and ordered him to bring his artillery back to the front lines and to dig in his men.
In Moscow, after some consideration, Stalin drew new boundaries between Konev and Zhukov's advancing armies. The line went from Lübben through Mariendorf to Anhalter station, which means that Reichstag, symbol of the German government and the Soviets' final target, went to Zhukov. However, Zhukov was not notified of it quite yet. Stalin wished to squeeze a final ounce of gain out of the competition between his Field Marshals.
In Berlin, German women uglied themselves as rumors of Soviet retribution flooded the streets. Zhukov's first echelon troops were proud and disciplined veterans, but the second echelon, filled with replacements recently freed from prisons and concentration camps, committed heinous atrocities. They looted stores and banks, shot innocent civilians, and raped countless number of women. Over 90,000 women visited doctors in Berlin as a result of rape. No one knew how many simply kept silent.
Zhukov's tactics were simple. His artillery and phosphorus-filled rockets would simply knock down and burn everything that might have given shelter to enemy troops or snipers. Sometimes heavy siege guns firing shells that weighed more than half a ton would be used as well. A Soviet reporter traveling with the troops recalled, "[o]ur guns sometimes fired a thousand shells on to one small square, a group of houses, or even a tiny garden." Casualties were especially high as neither side was taking prisoners. With this tactic, Chuikov's men neared Reichstag by the end of 27 Apr. Because of Chuikov's position blocked other Zhukov's generals, some were only several yards behind him, therefore securing his eventual fame as the one who would take the Reichstag. Naturally this pleased Zhukov and disappointed Konev. A day later, Konev redirected his men toward Savignyplatz instead of toward the Reichstag, therefore officially ending his army's bid for it. The city was now for Zhukov's taking alone. On the same day, Red Army Colonel General Nikolai Berzarin was named the Chief of Garrison and City Commandant of Berlin. Berzarin promptly issued orders to German citizens announcing the institution of a curfew and enforcing the registration of all men of the German armed forces, SS, SA, and police and firefighting services.
On 30 Apr, Hitler married his long-time mistress Eva Braun. After a brief celebration, Hitler met with his SS guards to offer his last thanks, then the newly weds locked themselves in Hitler's room. Several minutes later, a gunshot was heard. Hitler was found with gun wound to his right temple, and Braun with cyanide in her body. Their remains were wrapped in blankets and doused in fuel, then burned in a shallow ditch by the Chancellery. On the same day, main assaults on the Reichstag commenced with howitzers and rockets pounding the Reichstag and the buildings surrounding it. The Reichstag was secured at 2250 that night and a large Soviet flag was sent to its rooftop. The next morning the flag flying was re-enacted once again during daylight for the reporters to take photographs. At 0600 on Wednesday, 2 May 1945, Weidling crossed the front lines and officially surrendered the city to the Soviets after a day of failed negotiations for a conditional surrender.
Sources: BBC, Crusade in Europe, Eyewitness to History, the Fall of Berlin, In the Service of the Reich.
Battle of Berlin Interactive Map
Battle of Berlin Timeline
|16 Apr 1945||From their positions on the Oder-Neisse Line, Soviet 1st Byelorussian and Soviet 1st Ukrainian Fronts began their final push on Berlin, Germany. Hitler's order of the day dated on the previous day was released to all German troops, ordering all who would flee in the face of the Soviet attack to be arrested or shot.|
|17 Apr 1945||Even as Soviet 1st Byelorussian Front met unexpectedly fierce resistance along the Seelow Heights, Soviet 1st Ukrainian Front broke through to Berlin, Germany.|
|18 Apr 1945||Soviet 1st Byelorussian Front finally penetrated the Seelow Heights defensive lines at Berlin, Germany. Joseph Goebbels burned files in his office as Soviet troops approached.|
|20 Apr 1945||The German OKW moved from Zossen near Berlin, Germany to Mürwik, northern Germany to escape the approaching Soviet forces.|
|21 Apr 1945||Soviet infantry reached Berlin, Germany. Adolf Hitler ordered an all-out counterattack against the Soviets at Berlin under the command of SS General Felix Steiner; this counterattack was never to be attempted.|
|21 Apr 1945||Soviet troops under Ivan Konev captured the German military headquarters near Zossen, south of Berlin, Germany.|
|22 Apr 1945||Soviet 1st Byelorussian Front penetrated the Berlin, Germany suburbs from the east and north. In the city, at the conference at 1500 hours, Adolf Hitler learned that the counterattack he ordered on the previous day was never carried out by SS General Felix Steiner and grew furious; when he was told by Wilhelm Keitel that Soviet tanks were now entering the city, Hitler conceded that the end was near, and decided for certain that he was to remain in Berlin. The most important papers stored at the bunker were now being burned. On the same day, Albert Speer entered Hitler's bunkers and met with him for the last time before Speer would leave Berlin.|
|23 Apr 1945||Soviet troops reached outskirts of Berlin, Germany.|
|25 Apr 1945||When units of Soviet 1st Byelorussian and 1st Ukrainian Fronts met near Kietzen, completing the encirclement of Berlin, Germany. German III.SS-Panzer Korps attempted to break this newly formed encirclement in failure. About 70 kilometers to the south, American and Soviet troops met at Torgau.|
|26 Apr 1945||General Walther Wenck's German 12.Armee started to move in an attempt to relieve Berlin, Germany, but this attempt was repulsed by Soviet forces.|
|27 Apr 1945||German 9.Armee and 20.Armee both attempted to attack towards Berlin, Germany, but both were rebuffed by Soviet forces. Inside Berlin, Soviet forces completed the capture of Templehof airfield, with other fighting concentrated in the Spandau and Grunewald areas.|
|28 Apr 1945||In Berlin, Germany, Marshal Ivan Koniev's men had virtually cleared the Potsdamer Strasse and Soviet troops were now within a mile of the Chancellery and the Reichstag, spurred on by Joseph Stalin's explicit wish that the Soviet flag should fly there in time for the May Day celebrations. In the bunker under the Chancellery, Adolf Hitler awaited reports for the progress of the counterattack he had ordered Walther Wenck to commence; he would receive no such report as he counterattack never took place.|
|29 Apr 1945||In the afternoon, Colonel Nicolaus von Below and other three adjutant officers departed Adolf Hitler's bunker in Berlin, Germany.|
|30 Apr 1945||In the Tiergarten district of Berlin, Germany, Zhukov launched an assault, refusing to permit an armistice, demanding only unconditional surrender.|
|1 May 1945||German 12.Armee retreated from Berlin, Germany to the Elbe River and attempted to begin negotiations with US troops.|
|2 May 1945||General Helmuth Weidling accepted General Vasily Chuikov's terms of unconditional surrender; the surrender of the Berlin garrison in Germany was to be effective at 1500 hours.|
|2 May 1945||The Soviet Hammer and Sickle flag was hoisted atop the Reichstag building in Berlin, Germany.|
|11 May 1945||Soviet counterintelligence official Pavel Meshik reported to the Soviet high command in Berlin, Germany that Soviet discipline was poor, and that lootings and rapings continued to occur in and around the German capital.|
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James Forrestal, Secretary of the Navy, 23 Feb 1945