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Battle of Berlin
- This article is about the 1945 Soviet assault on Berlin. For the strategic bombing raids on Berlin, see Battle of Berlin (air).
The Battle of Berlin was one of the final battles(1) of the European Theatre of World War II. A massive Soviet army attacked Berlin from the east. The battle lasted from late April 1945 until early May. Before it was over, Adolf Hitler committed suicide, and Germany surrendered five days after the battle ended.
At the start of 1945 the Eastern Front had been relatively stable since August 1944 in the aftermath of the Operation Bagration. The Germans had lost Budapest and most of Hungary. Romania and Bulgaria were forced to surrender and declare war on Germany. The Polish plain was open to the Soviet Red Army.
The Soviet commanders, after their inaction during the Warsaw Uprising, took Warsaw in January 1945. Over three days, on a broad front incorporating four army Fronts, the Red Army began an offensive across the Narew River and from Warsaw. After four days the Red Army broke out and started moving thirty to forty kilometres a day, taking the Baltic states, Danzig, East Prussia, Poznan, and drawing up on a line sixty km east of Berlin along the Oder River.
A counterattack by the newly created Army Group Vistula , under the command of Heinrich Himmler, failed by February 24, and the Russians drove on to Pomerania and cleared the right bank of the Oder River. In the south, three German attempts to relieve the encircled Budapest failed and the city fell on February 13 to the Soviets. Again the Germans counterattacked, Hitler insisting on the impossible task of regaining the Danube River. By March 16 the attack had failed and the Red Army counterattacked the same day. On March 30 they entered Austria and captured Vienna on April 13.
Only a twelfth or less of the fuel needed by the Wehrmacht was available. Fighter aircraft and tank production was down, and the quality was much lower than in 1944. It was clear to everyone that Germany's defeat was only a matter of a few weeks, but the fighting would be as fierce as at any time in the war; national pride, the allied insistence on unconditional surrender and the desire to gain time for refugees to get to the West before the Red Army arrived led German units to fight bitterly.
Adolf Hitler decided to remain in the city.
The Western Allies had tentative plans to drop paratroops to take Berlin, but decided against it. Eisenhower saw no need to suffer casualties taking a city that would be in the Soviet sphere of influence once the war was over. The plan was unrealistic in terms of the number of soldiers and the amount of supplies needed for the operation.
The East German offensive
The Soviet offensive into what was to become East Germany (GDR) had two objectives. Because of Stalin's suspicions about the intentions of the Western Allies to hand over territory occupied by them in the post war Soviet zone of occupation, the offensive was to be on a broad front and was to move as rapidly as possible to the west, to meet the Western Allies as far west as possible. But the overriding objective was to capture Berlin. The two were complementary because possession of the zone could not be won quickly unless Berlin was taken. Another consideration was that Berlin itself held useful post war strategic assets, including Adolf Hitler and the German atomic bomb programme.
On April 9, 1945 Königsberg in East Prussia finally fell to the Red Army. This freed up General Rokossovsky's 2nd Belorussian Front (2BF) to move west to the east bank of the Oder river. During the first two weeks of April the Russians performed their fastest Front redeployment of the war. General Georgy Zhukov concentrated his 1st Belorussian Front (1BF) which had been deployed along the Oder river from Frankfurt in the south to the Baltic, into an area in front of the Seelow Heights. The 2BF moved into the positions being vacated by the 1BF north of the Seelow Heights. While this redeployment was in progress gaps were left in the lines and the remnants of the German II Army, which had been bottled up in a pocket near Danzig, managed to escape across the Oder. To the south General Konev shifted the main weight of the 1st Ukrainian Front (1UF) out of Upper Silesia northwest to the Neisse River. The Three Soviet Fronts had altogether 2.5 million men (including 78,556 soldiers of the 1st Polish Army); 6,250 tanks; 7,500 aircraft; 41,600 artillery pieces and mortars; 3,255 truck-mounted Katyushas rockets, (nicknamed 'Stalin Organs'); and 95,383 motor vehicles, many manufactured in the USA.
General Gotthard Heinrici replaced Himmler as commander of Army Group Vistula on March 20. He was one of the best defensive tacticians in the German Army and immediately started to lay defensive plans. He (correctly) assessed that the main Soviet thrust would be made over the Oder river and along the main east west autobahn. He decided not to try to defend the banks of the Oder with anything more than a light skirmishing screen. Instead he arranged that his engineers fortify the Seelow Heights which overlooked the Oder river at the point where the Autobahn crossed it. He started to thin out the line in other areas to increase the manpower available to defend the heights. German army engineers turned the Oder's flood plain, already saturated by the spring thaw, into a swamp by releasing the waters in a reservoir upstream. Behind this they built three belts of defensive which reached back towards the outskirts of Berlin. Theses lines consisted of anti-tank ditches; anti-tank gun emplacements; and an extensive network of trenches and bunkers.
The battle of the Oder-Neisse
In the early hours on April 16 the offensive began with a massive bombardment by thousands of artillery pieces, and Katyushas rockets which sustained the barrage for days. Shortly afterwards and well before dawn the 1BF attacked across the Oder. The 1UF attacked across the Neisse before the dawn the same morning. The 1BF was the stronger force but it had the more difficult assignment and was facing the majority of the German forces.
The initial attack by the 1BF was a disaster. Heinrici anticipated the attack and withdrew his defenders from the first line of trenches just before the Soviet artillery obliterated them. The light from 143 searchlights which it was planned would blind the defenders was diffused by the early morning mist and made useful silhouettes of the attacking Soviet formations. The swampy ground proved to be a great hindrance and under a German counter barrage, Soviet casualties were enormous. Frustrated by the slow advance, or on the direct orders of Stalin, Zhukov threw in his reserves, which in his plan were to have been held back to exploit the expected breakthrough. By early evening a Soviet an advance of almost six kilometres had been achieved in some areas, but the German lines remained intact. In the south the attack by the 1UF was keeping to plan. Zhukov was forced to report that the Battle of the Seelow Heights was not going to plan. Stalin to spur Zhukov on told him that he would give Konev permission to wheel his tank armies towards Berlin from the south.
On the second day the 1BF staff were reduced to combing the rear areas for any troops which could be thrown into the battle. The Soviet tactic of using massed attacks was proving more costly than usual. By night fall of April 17 the German front before Zhukov remained unbroken, but only just. To the south Army Group Centre under the command of General Ferdinand Schorner were not proving such a hindrance. IV Panzer Army on the north flank of his formation was falling back under the weight of the 1UF Attack. He kept his two reserve panzer division in the south covering his centre, instead of using them to shore up the IV Panzer Army. This was the turning point in the battle because by nightfall the positions of both the Army Group Vistula and southern sectors of Army Group Centre were becoming untenable. Unless they fell back in line with the IV Panzer Army they faced envelopment. In effect Konev's successful attacks on Schorner's poor defences, to the south of the battle of the Seelow Heights, were unhinging Heinrici's brilliant defence.
On April 18 Both Soviet Fronts made steady progress but Soviet losses were again substantial. By the nightfall the 1BF had reached the third and final German line of defence and the 1UF having captured Forst was preparing to break out into open country.
On April 19 the fourth day the 1BF broke through the final line of the Seelow Heights and nothing but broken German formations lay between them and the Berlin. The remnants of the IX Army which had been holding the heights and the remnants northern flank of the IV Panzer army were in danger of being enveloped by elements of the 1UF, these were the 3rd Guards Army and the 3rd and 4th Guards Tank Armies, which having broken through the IV Panzer Army turned North towards Berlin and the 1BF. Other armies of the 1UF raced west towards the Americans. By the end of the 19th the German Eastern Front line has ceased to exist all that remain are pockets of resistance. The cost to the Soviet forces has been very high between April 1 and April 19 they have lost over 2,807 tanks. During the same period the Allies in the West lost 1,079 tanks.
The encirclement of Berlin
On April 20 Soviet artillery of the 1BF began to shell the centre of Berlin and did not stop until the city surrendered. After the war the Soviets pointed out that the weight of explosives delivered by their artillery during the battle, was greater than the tonnage dropped by the Western Allied bombers on the city. 1BF advanced towards the east and north-east of the City.
The 1UF had pushed thought the last formations of South Army Group Centre and had past north of Juterbog well over halfway to the American front lines on the river Elbe at Magdeburg. To the North between Stettin and Schwedt the 2BF attacked the northern flank of Army Group Vistula, held by the III Panzer Army .
On April 21 the 2nd Guards Army advanced nearly 50 Km north of Berlin and then attacked south-west of Werneuchen . Other Soviet units reached the outer defence ring. The Soviet plan was to encircle Berlin first and then envelop the IX Army.
The command of the IV Panzer Army corps trapped with the IX Army north of Forst, passed from IV Panzer Army to the IX Army. The corps was still holding onto Cottbus. When the southern flank of IV Panzer Army had some local successes counter attacking north against the 1UF, Hitler gave some orders which showed that his grasp of military reality had gone. He ordered IX Army to hold Cottbus and set up a front facing west then they were to attack into the Soviet columns advancing North. This would allow them to form the northern pincer which would meet with the IV Panzer Army coming from the south and envelop the 1UF before destroying it. They were to anticipate an attack south by the III Panzer Army and to be ready to be the southern arm of a pincer attack which would envelop the 1BF which would be destroyed by SS Lieutenant-General Felix Steiner's III SS Corps advancing from North of Berlin. Later in the day when Steiner made it plain that he did not have the divisions to do this. Heinrici made it clear to Hitler's staff that unless the IX Army retreated immediately it was about to be enveloped by the Soviets. He stressed it was already too late for it to move North West to Berlin and would have to retreat west. Heinrici went on to say that if Hitler did not allow it to move west then he asked to be relieved of his command.
On April 22 at his afternoon situation conference Hitler fell into a tearful rage when he realised that his plans of the day before were not going to be realised. He declared that the war was lost, he blamed the generals and announced that he would stay on Berlin until the end and then kill himself. In an attempt to coax Hitler out of his rage, General Alfred Jodl speculated that the XII Army which was facing the Americans could move to Berlin because the Americans already on the Elbe river were unlikely to move further east. Hitler immediately grasped the idea and within hours General Walther Wenck was ordered to dis-engage the Americans and move XII Army north-east to support Berlin. It was then realised that if the IX Army moved west it could link up with the XII Army. In the evening Heinrici was given permission to make the link up. Away from the map room in the Berlin Fuhrerbunker with its fantasy attacks of phantom divisions, the Soviets were getting on with winning the war. The 2BF had established a bridgehead on the east bank of the Oder over 15 Km deep and was heavily engaged with the III Panzer Army. The IX Army had lost Cottbus and was being pressed from the East. A Soviet tank spearhead was on the river Havel to the East of Berlin and another had at one point penetrated the inner defensive ring of Berlin.
On April 23 The Soviet BF1 and UF1 continued to tighten the encirclement including severing the last link that the German IX army had with the city. Elements of the 1UF continue to move to the west and they start to engage the German XII Army moving towards Berlin. Hitler appointed General Helmuth Weidling defence commandant of Berlin. By April 24 elements of the 1BF and 1UF had completed the encirclement of the city.
The next day on April 25 the 2BF broke through the III Panzer Army's line around the bridgehead south of Stettin and crossed the Rando Swamp . They were now free to move west towards the British 21st Army Group and north towards the Baltic port of Stralsund. The Soviet 58th Guards Division of the 5th Guards Army made contact with the US 69th Infantry Division of the First Army near Torgau, Germany on the Elbe River.
The battle of Berlin
The forces available for the city's defense included several divisions of the regular army and Waffen-ss , supplemented by the police, boys in the compulsory Hitler Youth, and the Volkssturm which consisted of elderly men, many of whom had been in the army as young men and some were veterans of World War I.
Berlin's fate was sealed, but the resistance continued. The Soviet advance to the city centre was along some main axis: from the south-east, along the Frankfurter Allee (ending and stopped at the Alexanderplatz); from the south along Sonnen Allee ending north of the Belle Alliance Platz, from the south ending near the Potsdamer Platz and from the north ending near the Reichstag. Reichstag with Moltke bridge, Alexanderplatz and Havel bridges at Spandau were the places were the fighting was heaviest with house-to-house and hand-to-hand combat. The foreign contingents of the SS fought particularly hard because they were ideologically motivated and they believed that they would not live if captured.
On April 30, as the Soviet forces fought their way into the centre of Berlin, Adolf Hitler married Eva Braun and then committed suicide by taking cyanide and shooting himself. General Weidling, defence commandant of Berlin, surrendered the city to the Soviets on May 2.
The battle of Halbe
Main article: Battle of Halbe.
To the south of Berlin, during the battle of Berlin and for a number of days afterwards, the German IX Army fought a desperate action to break out of the pocket which they were in so that they could link up with the German XII Army and then to cross the river Elbe and surrender to the Americans.
The battle ended after a week of heavy fighting because the Germans ran out of men and material. The German supply dumps were located outside the outer defence line (the Inner Ring) and were captured quite early in the battle by the Soviets. In the battle for the city the Soviets lost about 2,000 armoured vehicles. The Germans had only a few tanks.
In most areas of the city, vengeful Soviet troops (usually rear echelon units), looted, raped many women and murdered some civilians. Initially this behaviour was tolerated by many Red Army officers, but as the invasion turned into occupation the army authorities and the NKVD put a stop to it. The Soviets sustained 50,000 dead in the city and 135,000 in Eastern Germany as a whole; the Germans sustained as many as 325,000 killed, wounded or missing, civilians included.
A breakdown of killed soldiers and civilians can be made as follows:
- the crossing of the Oder river: Soviets: 35,000 (majority near Seelow), Germans: 20,000.
- the defence of Berlin: Soviets: 50,000; Germans: 45,000 (25,000 men from the Wehrmacht; 15,000 Volkssturm and 5,000 Hitler Youth) and 45,000 civilians.
- the battle around Halbe: Soviets: 30,000; Germans: 60,000 (incl. 25,000 civilians)
- other battles in the attack: Soviets: 20,000; Germans: 25,000 and 25,000 civilians
Total killed: Soviets: 135,000; Germans: 125,000 and 95,000 civilians. Germans surrendered 135,000 in Berlin and in the Halbe pocket, many of them were wounded.
Following Hitler's wishes, on his death Admiral Karl Dönitz became the new Reichspräsident and Joseph Goebbels the new Reichskanzler. However Goebbels' suicide on May 1, 1945 left the new head of state to orchestrate negotiations of national surrender on his own. All German armed forces surrendered unconditionally to the Allies on 8 May 1945. The war in Europe was over, and with it went the Third Reich. Hitler's "thousand-year Reich" had lasted for twelve years at a cost of 40 million deaths across Europe.
The last major battle was the Prague Offensive on May 6-May 11, 1945, when the Soviet Army with the help of Polish, Romanian and Czechoslovak forces defeated the parts of Army Group Centre which continued to resist in Czechoslovakia. The operation involved about 3,000,000 personnel from both sides.
- Beevor, Antony. Berlin: the Downfall, 1945. ISBN 0670886955
- Ryan, Cornelius. The Last Battle. ISBN 0684803291
- A Woman in Berlin: Six Weeks in the Conquered City Translated by Anthes Bell ISBN 0805075402
- BBC article
- Photos of World War 2 Berlin Locations today
- Map of the battle
- The battle and buildup
- "They raped every German female from eight to 80" Antony Beevor
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