Panther Ausf G Command Tank from Panzer Division ‘Müncheberg’
On 28 March 1945, just before 1100 hours, the people of Berlin were startled by the wailing of air-raid sirens. Air raids were not in themselves a startling occurrence; they had been taking place with oppressive regularity for months. But the timing of this one was odd. The Berliners generally knew when to expect the raids: the Americans around 0900 hours, and again toward 1200 hours, and the British after nightfall. But this time the planes were coming from the east, with red stars on their wingtips.
The Soviets’ tactics were terrifying. Instead of heavy bombers like the Lancasters, or B-17 Flying Fortresses, these were Shturmovik fighter-bombers, streaking in at just above rooftop level, and raking the Berlin streets with machine-gun fire. As wave after wave of the low-flying fighters hit the city, the anti-aircraft gunners were forced to aim just above rooftop level. Many of the Berliners killed that morning were hit by German anti-aircraft shrapnel. It was the beginning of the final act in the Third Reich Gotterdammerung tragedy: the Battle for Berlin.
By the second week of April, the situation looked exceedingly bleak. On 11 April the US Second Armored Division successfully took Magdeburg, on the Elbe River, 140km (87 miles) south-west of Berlin. On 13 April Vienna fell to the Soviets, leaving of the Reich cities only Prague, Munich, and Berlin still in German hands. And the Red Army continued to build up on the Oder. After the disastrous attempts to break through the Küstrin pocket, Army Group Vistula was left with fewer than 480,000 troops, facing a Soviet army which intelligence estimated could be as many as three million men (though, in fact, Marshals Zhukov and Konev had just over one-and-a-half million). Col-General Heinrici, Army Group Vistula CO, had almost no reserves, and was desperately short of tanks, artillery, gasoline, ammunition, and even rifles. Some replacement units had been sent to him with hand-held anti-tank weapons, rather like small bazookas, instead of rifles, and with only one rocket per weapon. To make matters worse, Hitler had become convinced that the massive Soviet build-up at Küstrin was nothing but a ruse, and that the main assault would be directed at Prague, roughly 200 km (120 miles) to the south. Perhaps out of a desire to have his forces increased, Colonel General Ferdinand Schörner, the commander of the army group on the southern flank of Army Group Vistula, had warned Hitler: ‘It is written in history. Remember Bismarck’s words, Whoever holds Prague, holds Europe.’ Ever the aficionado of a bold, imaginative plan, Hitler was convinced and, after quickly promoting Schörner to Field Marshal, on 5 April transferred four of Heinrici’s panzer units to defend Prague. Heinrici could do nothing but make the best of the few resources he had and wait for the assault.
Preparing for the Battle
The preparations for the final Soviet offensive on Berlin were carried out in the by-now customary professional manner by Zhukov) Konev and their subordinates. However all realised that the Germans would not give up their territory easily) and would in many cases) fight to the death.
To the Red Army soldiers massing along the Oder and Neisse rivers, as much as to the Soviet leadership, the desire to conquer Berlin and bring the Nazi state to its knees was a force so compelling as almost to override every other consideration. Although weary of the war, one thing impelled them all: the desire to reach Berlin, to plant their flag atop the Reichstag, and to forever humble the Germanic Herrenvolk. Marshal Konev described their motivation: ‘Berlin was for us the object of such ardent desire that everyone, from soldier to general, wanted to see Berlin with their own eyes, to capture it by force of arms. This too was my ardent desire … I was overflowing with it.’ It was principally to Marshal Georgi Konstantinovich Zhukov that the task of crafting this final attack fell. Born at the tail-end of the previous century into a poor rural family, Zhukov had begun his military career as a regular cavalryman in the Tsar’s army during World War I. In February 1917, as the first phase of the revolution was breaking out, Zhukov’s unit in the 10th Dragoon Novgorod Regiment quickly sided with the more radical Bolsheviks; Zhukov was unanimously elected chairman of his squadron’s Soviet. His scrupulous attention to detail and hands-on approach; his stubborn refusal to accept anything short of their best effort from his subordinates; and his ability to inspire equal amounts of fear and loyalty bordering on love in his troops: all fueled Zhukov’s rapid rise through the ranks of the Red Army. His successes, including during the Soviet participation in the Spanish Civil War, were such that in 1936 he was distinguished with the Order of Lenin, one of the highest decorations given by the Soviet Government. Having survived the brutal purges of the officer corps which emasculated the Red Army during 1937 and 1938, Zhukov again distinguished himself during the brief war with Japan along the Manchurian and Mongolian borders. By the time the Germans launched ‘Operation Barbarossa’ on 22 June 1941, Zhukov had been promoted to chief of the Soviet General Staff. He was responsible for the successful defence of Moscow in 1941, and also for the defeat of the Germans in the largest tank battle in history at Kursk in July 1943. As the Stavka representative in the field, Zhukov also had the primary responsibility for ‘Operation Bagration’ , the Belorussian offensive which cleared the Germans from Soviet territory and began the long chase to Berlin. It was thus more as a reward than a demotion that, in November 1944, he was given field command of the First Belorussian Front, one of the two army groups which had been designated the spearheads of the final assault on Berlin.
The other spearhead unit, the First Ukrainian Front, was commanded by Marshal Ivan Stepanovich Konev. Konev and Zhukov were in at least one basic respect different types of men: while the latter had risen to his position from humble beginnings through the military ranks, Konev had begun his career as a political officer, responsible solely for the political education and reliability of the troops. It was only relatively late in his career, in the mid1920s, that he switched over to the military officer corps. Konev always retained a certain ease with the political world and, unlike Zhukov, he had a gift for glib expression and political-diplomatic niceties. He was also probably more a master of large-picture strategic analysis than was Zhukov, while Zhukov was arguably the better field tactician. But in other ways they were remarkably similar. Intensely ambitious and jealous of each other, both had been awarded their country’s highest honour, Hero of the Soviet Union, three times already. And they were both exceptionally good commanders, with the same attention to detail and respect from their soldiers.
Even before the plans for the Berlin operation were finalised at the Moscow conference at the beginning of April, Zhukov was convinced that the town of Küstrin, 60km (38 miles) straight down Reichsstraße 1 from Berlin, would be absolutely crucial to any assault. A medium-sized industrial town, dominated by the medieval castle rising from the Altstadt (Old Town), Küstrin had been designated a Festung-Stadt (Fortress City) by Hitler: a defensive bastion to which would be committed all necessary resources, and which was to be defended to the last man. The fortress numbered some 16,800 people, of which 10,000 were part of the military garrison; of these, 900 were members of the local Volkssturm unit. Virtually all branches of the German Wehrmacht, as well as the Waffen-SS and anti-aircraft and police units were represented. Heavy armaments included an estimated 102 artillery pieces, 30 anti-aircraft guns, 25 self-propelled guns, 50 mortars, and 10 Katyusha rocket launchers (‘Stalin Organs’ to the Germans). Colonel General Vassily Chuikov, the commander of the Eighth Guards Army, described the difficulties faced by the attackers:
‘The citadel itself was set on an island formed by the Oder and Warthe rivers. The spring flood had submerged all the approaches to the island. The only links between the citadel and the surrounding land were dykes and roads fanning out towards Berlin, Frankfurt, Posen and Stettin. Needless to say, the enemy had taken care to block these roads securely, covering the dykes and embankments with dugouts, pillboxes, trenches, caponiers, barbed wire, minefields and other defences. Our small subunits managed to come so close to the enemy fortifications that hand grenade and Panzerfaust exchanges went on almost round the clock. But we were unable to deploy large forces here since a single tank took up the whole width of a dyke.’
The town was by any measure a difficult military objective. At the same time, however, it was the ideal location for the launching of the Soviets’ attack on Berlin.
By the beginning of February, the Soviets had succeeded in establishing two bridgeheads on either side of Küstrin: at Kienitz and Göritz. Zhukov’s Fifth Shock, Eighth Guards, and 69th Armies had tried all through February and the first half of March to close the pincers and cut off Küstrin, but without success. The 21st Panzer Division and (after 9 February) the 25th Panzergrenadier Division managed to maintain a 3-5km (1.8-3 mile) wide corridor into the town. Though traversable only at night by tracked vehicles, ‘the pipeline’ was indispensable to Küstrin’s long-term survival. On 22 March, the day Generaloberst Gotthard Heinrici took command of Army Group Vistula, it was finally lost and the pincers closed, though not without considerable cost to the Soviets; the defending Ninth Army claimed 116 Soviet tanks that day.
It took still another week before the town itself was finally conquered. It had been subjected to devastating artillery, mortar, and Katyusha rocket attacks since February, and the Soviets had attempted a number of assaults on it, including at least two attempts in inflatable boats. On 8 March they “had finally succeeded in capturing the industrial Neustadt (New Town) along with a sizeable number of the defending troops, at which point the Germans blew up the remaining bridges across the Warthe to the heavily fortified Altstadt. The German counterattack of 27 March had failed to relieve the besieged town, and on that same day the Soviets succeeded in using rafts and barges to cross the flooded old Warthe and establish themselves on the railroad tracks leading into the town from the south-east. Reinefarth’s radioed request to General Busse, commander of the Ninth Army, for permission to break out of their position – effectively abandoning the Festung-Stadt – was the catalyst to Guderian’s dismissal in the Fuhrerbunker as OKH Chief of Staff, and orders from Hitler that Reinefarth be arrested and court-martialed. After a day of fierce hand-to-hand fighting near the Oder ‘Cow Bridge’, the garrison’s officers agreed among themselves to attempt a break-out, although in view of Hitler’s orders it was to be entirely voluntary for the soldiers. The attempt was launched at around 2300 hours on 29 March, and after fighting through six lines of Soviet trenches, 1318 men, including Reinefarth and 118 Volkssturm members, succeeded in getting through to their own lines. Another 135 Volkssturmer remained behind to negotiate a surrender to the Soviets. Altogether, the defence and attempted relief of Küstrin cost the Germans an estimated 5000 killed, 9000 wounded, and 6000 taken prisoner; the Soviets also lost 5000 killed and 15,000 wounded. Ultimately, however, Zhukov gained an ideal platform for an assault on Berlin.
On the same day that Kustrin fell, Zhukov arrived in Moscow to go over the plans for the operation with Stalin. On 1 April, Zhukov and Konev met with Stalin and the members of the State Defence Committee.
‘So, who is going to take Berlin,’ demanded Stalin. ‘Us or the soyuznichki [little allies]?’ The question was meant more than a little rhetorically, for he quickly made it clear that he wanted the Red Army to be in Berlin no later than 1 May, ‘May Day’, International Workers’ Day and the biggest holiday in the socialist world. The operation was to commence no later than 16 April and be completed within 12 to 15 days. Major General A.I. Antonov, from the Stavka’s General Staff, presented the basic operational plan. It called for a colossal assault carried out on a very broad front, along several axes of attack. The idea was for the German capital to be encircled from the north and south by three Red Army Fronts, cutting off any attempt to escape to the southern Alpine redoubt, while fixing actions in Czechoslovakia and Hungary would prevent the diversion of German forces from those regions to Berlin. The Soviet forces designated for the attack were to penetrate the outer German defences and cut them up into isolated sections, wiping them out piecemeal. The Ninth Army was to be destroyed outside the city; serious urban combat inside the city, it was hoped, could thus be avoided as the experience of Stalingrad was not something anyone wished to repeat. Once the perimeter defences had been breached, the city was expected to fall quickly.
This plan was very similar to that which Zhukov had already discussed with Stalin. In November 1944, Stalin had singled out the First Belorussian Front, with Zhukov in command, for the honour of taking Berlin, and the current plan showed lines of demarcation between the participating Fronts’ operational zones which would give the First Belorussian the only direct access to the city. But Antonov and the other members of the Defence Committee worried that an objective of the size and symbolic importance of Berlin, extremely well fortified, which may yet have to be taken street by street, would be beyond the capabilities of one Front. Konev was eager to agree. His First Ukrainian Front had been given the task of clearing the area south of Berlin, destroying the Fourth Panzer Army around Cottbus and then proceeding in a west-northwesterly direction to the Elbe and Dresden. Konev argued vehemently against any a priori exclusion of his troops from Berlin, urging that at least one or two of his tank armies should drive directly for Berlin’s south-western suburbs. According to several reports from that meeting, Stalin looked at the map, then quietly erased the part of the demarcation between the First Ukrainian and First Belorussian which ran from Lübben to Potsdam, leaving Konev a 65km (40 mile) opening towards Berlin. He then looked at his field commanders and said, ‘Whoever breaks in first, let him take Berlin-.’ Konev was then asked to develop an ‘operational variant’ which would require the Third and Fourth Guards Tank Armies to strike at the heart of Berlin from the southern suburbs. It was a typically Stalinesque resolution – setting his commanders in competition with each other – but it was also probably the only militarily sound solution.
Zhukov’s orders called for three separate attack axes in an 88km (55 mile) sector between the Oder-Spree rivers and the Hohenzollern Canal at the approach to Berlin. Here, it was expected, the main body of the Ninth Army would be destroyed. The First Belorussian consisted of one Polish and seven Soviet combined-arms armies, two tank armies, and four separate mobile corps. Its main assault would be launched by four rifle armies and two tank armies from the freshly secured Küstrin bridgehead. Two supporting attacks, each, employing two armies, would be launched simultaneously heading north-west, to Eberswalde-Fehrbellin, and southwest towards Fürstenwalde, Potsdam, and Brandenburg. Konev’s First Ukrainian Front was only slightly weaker, with five Soviet and one Polish combined-arms armies, two tank armies, and four mobile corps. The third Front slated for the Berlin operation was Marshal Konstantin Rokossovsky’s Second Belorussian Front, with five combined-arms armies and five mobile corps located on Zhukov’s right flank up to the Baltic coast. The Second Belorussian’s primary responsibility during the Berlin operation would be to clear Pomerania and northern Brandenburg of the enemy and prevent the Third Panzer Army from reaching Berlin. In an effort to allow the First Belorussian to concentrate on the main prize, Rokossovsky’s armies were also to take over a chunk of the former’s sector, from Kolberg to Schwedt, thereby reducing Zhukov’s frontline by some 160km (100 miles). In addition, two of Rokossovky’s armies were to be transferred to Konev.
Rather than the typical frontal penetration assault which had characterised the Soviet offensives since ‘Operation Bagration’ in the summer of 1944, Berlin was to be taken with a series of flanking attacks. First Belorussian’s right flank would sweep around north and north-west, while First Ukrainian’s right flank would swing around and up from the south. At the same time, the left flank of First Belorussian would strike at the bulk of the defending army in the southern suburbs. If successful, the plan would not only split the German defence up into manageable pieces, but would also cut off the bulk of the regular Wehrmacht units – the Ninth Army and Fourth and Third Panzer Armies – from the fighting in the city proper. The total number of resources committed to the planned offensive were 2.06 million Soviet combat troops, 155,900 Polish troops, 6250 tanks and self-propelled guns, 41,600 field artillery pieces and mortars, and 7500 combat aircraft. They would be opposed by an estimated 766,750 regular German front-line troops, 1159 tanks and assault guns, 9303 guns and mortars, and at least two million civilians, many of whom would fight alongside the army. The plan was agreeable to the two main field commanders, but it presented them with a logistical nightmare. In only 14 days, they would have to develop detailed unit plans and brief their officers; they would also have to undertake gargantuan resupply, reinforcement, and redeployment operations. None of the three fronts involved were at their full operational strength. Reinforcements were forthcoming, but they would have to be properly deployed and integrated into the command and supply structure, and many of them were still quite distant. Two of the armies which Konev was counting on to deliver his promised strike at Berlin – the 28th and 31st from the Third Belorussian Front couldn’t possibly reach the staging area by the beginning of the offensive, and would have to be thrown cold into the progressing battle as soon as they arrived. The existing units also had to be brought back up to strength after the long winter of fighting. Although in better shape than Germany, after over three and a half years of war, the Soviet Union was close to reaching its limits in manpower. For the first time, repatriated prisoners of war were being rearmed and distributed back into the front lines. Huge amounts of equipment, ammunition, food, and medical supplies also had to be repaired, overhauled, and stockpiled. The fuel requirements were enormous: in addition to the tanks and aircraft, ‘Operation Berlin’ was to involve 85,000 trucks and 10,000 towing vehicles, also requiring fuel. As for artillery ammunition, the planners expected to use over one million shells out of a stockpile of just over seven million on the first day alone. In the event, 1.23 million shells (98,000 tons, delivered in 2450 railway wagon loads) were hurled at the Germans as the offensive opened. Zhukov commented about the logistical operation:
‘The nature of the operation required a steady stream of ammunition from front depots to the troops, bypassing the intermediate links such as army and divisional depots. The railway line was converted to the Russian gauge and ammunition was brought up almost to the very bank of the Oder. To picture the scale of these transport operations it suffices to say that if the trains used to carry these supplies were stretched out buffer to buffer they would have extended over a distance exceeding 1200 km [746 miles].’
In the midst of this deployment and stockpiling, the bridgehead from which the attack was to be launched had to be readied. Most of the bridges into and out of Küstrin had been destroyed by the Germans; in any event, they would hardly have been large or numerous enough to carry the traffic the Soviets had planned. A total of 27 engineering and 13 pontoon battalions went immediately to work and, under nearly constant enemy fire, constructed 21 bridges at Küstrin – 19 of them from scratch – and five more at other points across the Warthe and Oder. The bridge at Göritz was reportedly demolished by the Germans 20 times during its construction, and the one at Zellin cost 387 casualties (201 deaths) during the seven days of construction. It was a prodigious feat, involving bravery and resourcefulness. The construction teams earned a reputation for being masters of underwater bridge-building when rising floods submerged some of their bridges, which they proceeded to mark out with poles so that they could still be used. The bridges and around 40 ferries which supplemented them began immediately to carry a constant stream of traffic. The five bridges and three ferries into the Fifth Shock Army’s sector of the bridgehead, for example, were put to use on the night of 8 April. The traffic of artillery was so high – roughly the equivalent of a brigade a night that a traffic control system had to be improvised. Starting on 11 April, the tanks started crossing into the sector at a rate of 75-90 per night, crossing at 300m (328yds) intervals. By 7 April, the protection of the bridges was significantly eased by the arrival of the Dnieper Flotilla. Two entire brigades, each consisting of 18 armoured boats, 20 minesweepers, six floating barriers, two gun-boats, and 20 semi-hydrofoils, provided security for the bridges and offered additional anti-aircraft power as well.
Konev’s First Ukrainian Front didn’t receive nearly as much in the way of materiel and support troops as did Zhukov’s First Belorussian. But he had no cause for complaint. At least 125 combat engineer battalions were deployed to his positions, where they constructed 136 bridges, 14,700 bunkers and command posts, and 11,780 machine-gun nests. Ultimately, his position was to receive 7733 field guns. For the First Ukrainian, lacking First Belorussian’s foothold on the western bank of the river, the bridges were even more crucial; all of their troops and weapons would have to be brought across the river during the initial assault. In addition to the fixed bridges, each rifle regiment was issued with two light assault bridges, each division with two three-tonne pontoon bridges, and each corps with one 16-tonne pontoon bridge, which were intended for use on the Spree once Berlin had been penetrated. In total, the three Fronts massed along the 376km (235 mile) Oder-Neisse line counted over 190 heavily armed divisions, and 16,716 assault guns, with an ammunition stockpile of over seven million shells.
This tremendous build-up and frenetic activity .along the central Oder front had, of course, to be accomplished with the greatest possible secrecy. It would be too much for the Soviets to suppose that the enemy had no inkling of their intentions. That Berlin was the ultimate target few in Germany could doubt, and the hard-won Küstrin bridgehead was too ideally suited for such an attack to be left unused. But the Soviets could try to keep secret the precise timing of the assault, and its main axis of advance. Zhukov accordingly placed a premium on elaborate mechanisms of deception. Troop and supply transports were permitted only during the night, without lights or radios. The same was true for the digging and road-construction operations. All traces of the work had to be removed, or camouflaged, by the break of daylight. Zhukov wrote:
‘The bridgehead would usually be deserted in the day-time, coming alive only by night. Thousands of men armed with spades and pickaxes would start noiselessly digging the ground. The work was rendered more difficult by underground spring waters close to the surface, and by the spring thaw. During these night sessions over 1,800,000 cubic metres [2,354,400 cubic yards] of earth were dug out. By morning no traces of this colossal work were to be seen. Everything was camouflaged as carefully as possible.’
The dozens of trainloads of combat equipment and troops arriving every day were disguised as loads of wood and hay, and in an effort to’ convince the Germans that no imminent major action could be expected, four open trainloads of tanks and artillery were sent daily to the rear, only to return the next night disguised as a load of hay. Zhukov even concocted an elaborate phony attack plan, complete with dummy ‘staging areas, river-crossing preparations, radio traffic, and reconnaissance raids, to make the Germans believe that the attack would take the form of a classic pincer movement launched from positions near Stettin and south of Frankfurt, more than 50km (30 miles) to either side of Küstrin. Clearly relishing the vast masquerade, Zhukov went to the extent of distributing dummy newspapers and fake documents announcing that he had been replaced by General Vasily Sokolovsky, which would again suggest that nothing major was being planned in that sector.
The Germans, meanwhile, were well aware that something could be expected in the not-too-distant future. Common sense dictated that the Soviets would want to follow up the Vistula-Oder operation with an assault on Berlin as soon as practicable. And as ingenious and well executed as the Soviet maskirovka (operational ‘camouflage’ or misleading the enemy) efforts may have been, they could not entirely obscure that there was a great deal of large-scale preparation taking place all along the Oder front, including in Küstrin. General Heinrici, the consummate defender, had an uncanny ability to sense the timing and direction of an imminent attack. Since the beginning of April he had been making daily flights over the Soviet positions in a small reconnaissance plane and studying the intelligence reports and prisoner interrogations. He was convinced that the main force of the attack would be launched directly at Berlin from Küstrin, with a secondary assault directed towards Schwedt, roughly 100km (60 miles) northeast of Berlin. But he did not yet know exactly when the attack would be launched, or how well his troops would be able to resist.
At a Fuhrer-conference in the Reichschancellery bunker on 4 April, Heinrici painstakingly detailed the alarming situation along his 160km (100 mile) front. ‘My Fuhrer, I must tell you that the enemy is preparing an attack of unusual strength and unusual force.’ It was clear to him, he went on, that ‘the main attack will hit Busse’s Ninth Army’ in the central sector around Küstrin, and ‘the southern flank of von Manteuffel’s Third Panzer Army around Schwedt’. He said:
‘While the Ninth Army is now in better shape than it was, the Third Panzer Army is in no state to fight at all. The potential of von Manteuffel’s troops, at least in the middle and northern sectors of his front, is low. They have no artillery whatsoever. Anti-aircraft guns cannot replace artillery and, in any case, there is insufficient ammunition even for these.’
He explained that even the relatively healthy looking numbers for the Ninth were misleading since the newly created Army Group Vistula was a patchwork of various units – some of them already badly battered – which had never fought together before. In fact many of the troops – the Volkssturm and Volkswehr had never fought at all. It also contained a number of allied armies, including for a time General Vlasov’s ‘Russian Liberation Army’, whose reliability in defending the German capital was dubious. Heinrici concluded, with characteristic bluntness:
‘My Fuhrer, I do not believe that the forces on the Oder front will be able to resist the extremely heavy Russian attacks which will be made upon them… I must tell you that since the transfer of the armoured units to Schörner [in Prague], all my troops – good and bad – must be used as front-line troops. There are no reserves. None. Will they resist the heavy shelling preceding the attack? Will they withstand the initial impact? For a time, perhaps, yes. But, against the kind of attack we expect, everyone of our divisions will lose a battalion a day. This means that all along the battle front we will lose divisions themselves at the rate of one per week. We cannot sustain such losses. We have nothing to replace them with. My Fuhrer, the fact is that, at best, we can hold out for just a few days. Then, it must come all to an end.’
In an effort to shore up his badly stretched lines, he urged the Fuhrer to allow the abandonment of Frankfurt an der Oder, one of those cities designated a Festung-Stadt. Hitler, with equally characteristic obstinacy, refused. Instead, to Heinrici’s disgust, the leaders of the various branches of the armed forces began trying to outbid each other in offering reinforcements to the defence of the Oder-Berlin sector: Göring 100,000 from the Luftwaffe, Himmler 25,000 from the Waffen SS, and Grand Admiral Dönitz 12,000 from the Kriegsmarine (navy). Heinrici knew that in their efforts to ingratiate themselves with Hitler, these commanders probably had no idea if they had these numbers of men at their disposal or not. In any event, he was hardly impressed by the idea of sailors attempting to fight against Soviet tanks. But Hitler was satisfied. ‘All right,’ he said. ‘We will place these reserve troops in the second line about eight kilometres behind the first. The front line will absorb the shock of the Russian preparatory artillery fire. Meanwhile, the reserves will grow accustomed to battle and if the Russians break through, they will then fight.’ Finally, Hitler explained to Heinrici that the Soviet preparations on the Oder were a colossal ruse, and that the main attack would be directed instead against Prague, and that he would not receive the armoured units he had requested back from that sector. Exhorting Heinrici to trust in the power of faith, Hitler rhapsodised about the glories awaiting them: ‘I tell you, Generaloberst, if you are conscious of the fact that this battle should be won, it will be won! If your troops are given the same belief – then you will achieve victory, and the greatest success of the war!’
Such faith, while perhaps the prerogative of messianic leaders, scarcely recommends itself to experienced military men, and the General Staff of Army Group Vistula were not inclined to leave the defence of the approaches to Berlin to such abstractions. Before the Vistula-Oder operation, strong forward defence had generally been the Germans’ preferred philosophy, but during the Vistula-Oder offensive, which saw the Germans lose some 450km (280 miles) of ground in three weeks, the Soviets had consistently managed to shatter both the Germans’ front lines and their mobile reserves with fierce opening artillery and air bombardments, before punching through with armoured units and overrunning the rear defences. In response, the OKH now adopted the defence-in-depth philosophy for which Heinrici was already known. The main idea was to construct multiple consecutive defensive ‘strips’ and to pull back the troops from the forward-most line just before the enemy’s initial barrage. Heinrici, who had used the technique to great effect in the retreat from Moscow, described the effect as causing the enemy to waste their artillery barrage on empty positions, ‘like hitting an empty bag’, after which the unharmed troops could reoccupy their front-line positions and offer fresh resistance to the attempted advance. On 30 March, Hitler approved the new tactic with a detailed order. Additional orders from Heinrici placed special attention on the preparation of alternate and dummy artillery positions, in addition to the primary positions.
Under these guidelines, Army Group Vistula’s defensive preparations came to comprise three separate ‘defensive strips’, each consisting of a number of ‘defensive lines’ of fortified locations and barrier zones, extending to a depth of 40km (24 miles). The first one, the ‘Forward Combat Zone’ was, despite the intention to abandon part of it during the opening bombardment, a formidable defensive complex. It was located on the western bank of the Oder, just below the Seelow Heights, a chain of steep bluffs rising 40-50m (130-165ft) up from the floor of the Oder valley, approximately 12-15km (7-9 miles) from the river and stretching roughly 20km (12 miles) in front of the attackers. In the boggy zone between the heights and the river, Heinrici directed the construction of three defensive lines, each 1-3km (0.6-1.8 miles) deep for a total depth of 8-1Okm (4.8-6 miles). Twelve divisions of troops manned the extensive networks of concealed trenches and machine-gun nests in the Forward Combat Zone, and they were supported by a number of fortified points, including the Frankfurt ‘Fortress-City’, which sported a number of tank turrets in its fortifications.
The Second Defensive Strip, in keeping with the new defence philosophy, was accorded the same importance and resources as the first position; indeed, as the ‘Main Combat Zone’, it was possibly considered even more important. This zone took maximum advantage of the natural benefit provided by the terrain to the defenders. Much of the Seelow escarpment was too steep for the tanks, and the numerous draws and ravines were ideal for concealed gun positions with a commanding view over the river and valley floor.
The forward line of this Second Position, called the ‘Hardenberg-Stellung’ (Hardenberg Position), ran along the lip of the bluffs and the Alte Oder and again consisted of between two and three lines of concealed trenches reinforced by machine-gun nests. The town of Seelow became another fortified city, with a battalion-sized garrison blocking the highway to Berlin. Artillery positions were dug in on the reverse slopes, providing effective cover even as they provided excellent field of fire and observation.
While the first two ‘strips’ were intended to be the main theatre of the battle, a Third Defensive Strip was constructed along a line from the western edge of Scharmützel Lake, near Buckow, to the eastern edge of Fürstenwalde, generally no more than 30km (18 miles) east of Berlin. This was the ‘Wotan-Stellung’ and consisted of a string of heavily fortified towns (most importantly Fürstenwalde, Müncheberg, Sternebeck, and Eberswalde) linked by anti-tank barricades and fields of fire. From this position, if necessary, artillery, tanks, SPGs, and tank-hunters would be able to coordinate their fire and so prevent a 72 breakout by Soviet armour. In between the last two strips, blocking positions were constructed to cover both the Küstrin-Berlin and Frankfurt-Berlin Autobahnen (motorways).
Though this was an enviably strong position, aided by the natural obstacles presented by the flooding Oder and Seelow escarpment, General Busse was concerned by his shortfall in heavy weaponry, particularly artillery, and the woeful shortage of military manpower. Of the 137,000 reserve troops so eagerly promised by Goring, Himmler, and Donitz, only 30,000 completely unequipped and inexperienced men ever materialised, for whom, as it turned out, only 1000 rifles could be found by Army Group Vistula. The Ninth Army was partially filled out with replacements and reinforcements from sundry depot, guard, and training units and by a number of Volkssturm battalions raised in Berlin, Potsdam, Stettin, and elsewhere. The civilian population also lent a hand. Civilians had been evacuated from the most forward area back in February, although all healthy adult males were expected to remain to participate in the defence preparations. The villages and towns in the Second and Third Defensive Strips, however, seem to have remained fully inhabited right up until the attack.
By the eve of the battle, Ninth Army consisted of four corps and an army reserve division, totalling about 200,000 men, as well as 512 operational tanks, SPGs, and tank-hunters, and 658 artillery and flak batteries with 2625 guns with scant ammunition. There was also a sort of bizarre, jury-rigged armoured train – the ‘Berlin’ – which consisted of five flatcars carrying tanks for which there was no fuel. This ‘Zug-Panzer’ ran back and forth out of the Seelow station. The Army could also count on some air support from the Fourth Air Division of the Sixth Air Fleet. The division’s 300 aircraft (of a total of some 3000 left to the Germans over the whole of the eastern front) were allocated exclusively to Army Group Vistula. But the critical shortage of fuel and the dwindling number of serviceable airfields seriously reduced the number of sorties which could be mounted at anyone time. Not all the planes, however, needed much fuel: fantastically, the Luftwaffe had by this time even created its own kamikaze unit – the ‘Special Operations Unit’ – which was manned by 39 volunteer pilots and operated from Jüterbog.
In addition to these units of Army Group Vistula, the Fourth Panzer Army of Schörner’s Army Group Centre, with two corps, defended the southern approach to Berlin along the Dresden-Neisse River axis. And finally, the confines of the city itself were defended by the so-called ‘Berlin Garrison’, a collection of forces under the immediate control not of the Wehrmacht hierarchy, but of Berlin’s Gauleiter, Josef Goebbels. This garrison included the 56th Panzer corps with five or six divisions, more than 50 Volkssturm battalions, and a few units of ‘Alarm Troops’, which were made up primarily of clerks, cooks, and other non-combat personnel. The garrison’s commander was Major General Helmuth Reymann. Only appointed a few weeks previously on 6 March, Reymann was not enthusiastic about his position. He had been trying for over a month to convince Goebbels to authorise comprehensive measures for the care and protection of the city’s civilian population. In the face of Goebbels’ stubborn refusal to order more than the most cursory paper plans, Reymann decided that their only hope would be for the Berlin Defence Region to come under the command of Heinrici’s Army Group Vistula, and so benefit from the general’s greater resources and defensive talents. He had learned that the OKH had tentative plans to eventually do just that, although Heinrici was less than enthusiastic about the proposal. ‘It’s absurd!’ he had complained to his staff. On 15 April Reymann met with General Heinrici to try to convince him to take the city under his wing and bolster its defensive preparations. But Heinrici made clear that his hard-pressed units could offer very little to the city. He hoped to mount a successful enough defence so that there would be no need for any kind of serious fighting within the city, but if it came to that, he told Reymann ‘not to depend on the Army Group Vistula for support. Of course, I may be ordered to send units into Berlin, but you should not depend on it.’ Fortunately, if somewhat perversely, in one way Reymann actually benefitted from the Reich’s overall weakness. In this last ditch battle, with the amount of territory to defend rapidly dwindling, he was able to muster thousands of now-redundant anti-aircraft batteries to use as ground artillery.
The ‘Berlin Defensive Region’, extending to the city’s suburban outskirts, was, rather like the Ninth Army’s position on the Oder across from Küstrin, divided into three concentric rings, which were further subdivided into a total of nine defensive sectors. An extensive communications system linked all sectors with each other and with the OKW’s huge and sophisticated telecommunications switchboard (perhaps the largest in all of Europe) in Zossen. The city’s U-Bahn subway system was used to move troops and materiel around undetected. The central sector, in the heart of the governmental quarter near the Tiergarten, was the most heavily fortified and contained the greatest concentration of troops. The centre of it all, the nerve centre of the entire crumbling Third Reich, was the Führerhauptquartier (Führer Headquarters: FHQ), located 16.7m (55ft) below the garden of the old Reichschancellery building, surrounded by concrete bulkheads 1.8m (6ft) thick and protected by a massive 4.8m (16ft) thick ceiling, with its own ventilation system. This was the last of Hitler’s 13 Führerbunkers scattered around the country, into which he had descended on 16 January 1945. He would never see another full day above ground.
It didn’t require too much military genius to understand that this last stage of the war would be fought predominantly in large, urban areas. There had been some significant city battles fought already in this war, most notably in Stalingrad and Warsaw. But for the most part it had been a war of large-scale, mobile operations conducted in open terrain or before cites; the kind of warfare best suited to the era’s fascination with tanks and other mobile armour. But in April 1945, on the eve of the war’s final act, with Germany’s room for manoeuvring and building reserves rapidly disappearing, that kind of operational depth was no longer available. Inevitably, particularly given the Allies’ insistence on Germany’s unconditional surrender and Hitler’s inability to consider any kind of retreat or surrender, the final battle would almost certainly have to be fought inside the Third Reich’s capital.
Though they were eager to enter Berlin as conquerors, an urban battle was not a prospect looked forward to by the Soviet soldiers. Urban warfare is both terrifying and unpredictable. And, as the Germans discovered at Stalingrad, the normal defenders’ advantage is tremendously magnified in a battle for a large city. With a greatly shortened frontline to defend, and with a tremendous population of reservists, cadets, Volkssturmer, and paramilitary Hitler Youth to reinforce the hard core of experienced Wehrmacht soldiers – not to mention a vast civilian population which could be counted on to resist the enemy in innumerable small ways in defence of their homes and streets – the Germans could promise a difficult and costly fight. The Soviet plan called for the annihilation of the main body of Busse’s Ninth Army outside the city, but even if that was accomplished, there was a very good chance that resistance, however diminished, would move into the city. Even with luck, it was sure to be a desperate fight.
The massive assembling of men, weapons, and supplies which the Soviets had been undertaking along the Oder since the beginning of April would, it was hoped, even the odds somewhat and enable the Red Army to overcome the German resistance before the May Day holiday. In addition, to help prepare the troops for the peculiar rigours and tactics of city fighting, Colonel General V. l. Chuikov of the Eighth Guards Army – the headquarters unit at the Battle of Stalingrad – had his staff prepare a pamphlet on the special problems of urban warfare for distribution throughout the First Belorussian Front. Zhukov also required every rifle division in the Front to form a special unit to train specifically for street warfare’ while the rest of the Front rehearsed river crossings.
As the second week of April drew to a close, the Red Army troops all along the Oder front made last minute preparations for battle. Several thousand aerial reconnaissance missions were flown over the city and photographic maps of the city and its defences assembled. Utilising those maps, as well as captured documents and prisoner interrogations, a team of Red Army engineers produced an exact-scale model of the city to use in planning the assault. Each unit was given specific and detailed orders. The Third and Fifth Shock Armies with the Eighth Guards, the core of the Küstrin formation, were assigned the spearhead role of smashing Heinrici’s defensive positions and opening up a corridor for the armour; by day six they were to be at the eastern shore of Lake Havel in the Hennigsdorf-Gatow sector, on the far western side of the city. The 47th Army was ordered to sweep around on the city from the north-west, and attack at Nauen-Rathenow, reaching Schönhausen on the Elbe by day 11.
The chief tactical obstacle was the Seelow Heights. Steep, cut by numerous ravines, and heavily defended by artillery and machine-gun positions, the heights were no place for tank battles. It was clear to Zhukov that his tank armies could be committed on this line only after the heights had been captured, but in the event of strong German resistance and a delay in the main strike force’s momentum, he did not want his tanks idling in the rear. He therefore decided on a revision to the original plan developed with Stavka in Moscow. Instead of deploying the First and Second Guards Tank Armies with the main strike force, he now instructed them to perform flanking movements north and south of the city, squeezing the defending armies between their pincers, to ‘rip the defences wide open’, as the main force punched in from the east. Marshal M.E. Katukov’s First Guards Tank Army, with Major General Yushchuk’s 11th Tank Corps, would move from their position on the southern flank into the breach opened up by Chuikov’s Eighth Guards Army and seize the Köpenick-Friedrichshafen-Neuenhagen area by the second day. Meanwhile, Marshal S.I. Bogdanov’s Second Guards Tank Army, coming in from the northern flank, would drive into the breach made by the Fifth Shock Army and continue on to the Havel River in the Oranienburg-Hennigsdorf sector. At that point the two tank armies were to meet up and together take the Zehlendorf and Charlottenburg districts in the western part of the city. To cover these primary assaults on Berlin, Zhukov ordered four of his armies to conduct two supporting attacks to the north and south. The 61st and First Polish were to attack north-west through Liebenwalde and from there reach the Elbe no later than 11 days after the start of the operation. At the same time, the 69th and 33rd Armies were supposed to launch a southern assault, breaking the German defences around Frankfurt, and head towards Fürstenwalde-Potsdam-Brandenburg on the southern and south-western outskirts of Berlin, thus effectively preventing the German Ninth Army from coming to Berlin’s defence.
The objectives assigned to the First Ukrainian Front were not quite as straightforward as those assigned to Zhukov’s First Belorussian. Its primary mission was to launch an assault on a southerly axis towards Cottbus, there engaging the Third Panzer Army to prevent it from moving to Busse’s defence, and then moving towards Dresden and a rendezvous with the Western Allies. But, in an apparent effort to stimulate some ‘socialist competition’ between his two top commanders, Stalin had also instructed Konev to prepare an ‘operational variant’ which would throw some of his forces into the Berlin battle. As Zhukov’s long-time rival, Konev very much hoped that his First Ukrainian would be able to join in that final, spotlight effort, but the task of being ready to go with two different plans, on top of his near-overwhelming logistical hurdles, seemed like an impossibility. He finally realised that it would greatly simplify his predicament and strengthen his chances of joining the conquest of Berlin – while remaining faithful to the spirit of Stalin’s instructions – if he simply merged the two plans, integrating into the original mission a turn towards Berlin by some of his forces.
Accordingly, his final plan called for a strong main strike-force from Triebel to smash through all German front-line defences in the area of Forst-Muskau and drive on to the Spree River and Cottbus by the second day, which would enable a couple of units to wheel to the north and enter Berlin’s southern suburbs in time for the main battle. The rest of the force would drive through to the Beelitz-Wittenberg line and from there on to the Elbe. Taking part in the main assault would be the Third, Fifth, and 13th Guards Rifle Armies, and the Third and Fourth Guards Tank Armies. Once the Spree was gained, the operation would unfold in a way similar to Zhukov’s plan. The rifle armies were instructed to open up breaches in the defence for the tank armies, which were then to plunge through to their objectives. The Third Guards Tank Army, commanded by Marshal P.S. Rybalko, had orders to enter the breach opened by the Third Guards south of Cottbus, secure the Trebin-Treuenbritzen-Luckenwalde sector by the fifth day, and seize Brandenburg by the sixth. Rybalko was also instructed to ‘bear in mind’ the possibility of sending forces up to attack Berlin at that point: a reinforced tank corps, joined by one of the Third Guards’ rifle corps had been pre-designated for this. General D.D. Lelyushenko’s Fourth Guards Tank Army, meanwhile, following closely behind Zhadov’s Fifth Guards, was also to swing north-west after jumping off from the Spree and secure the Finsterwalde area by day three, and the Niemegk-Wittenberg-Arnsdorf line by day five, finally seizing Rathenow and Dessau by the sixth day. As a cover for the main assault, Konev directed the Second Polish Army and right-flank divisions of the 52nd Army to launch an all-out drive in the direction of Dresden.
The third Front commander involved in the Berlin operation, Marshal Rokossovsky of the Second Belorussian, was less engaged in this kind of precise pre-battle planning than his colleagues in the First Belorussian and First Ukrainian. His forces, badly depreciated by reassignments and nearly constant combat, had been engaged, with a couple reinforcement units from the First Belorussian Front, in a major offensive operation right up until early April to take Danzig and Gdynia, and to clear Pomerania of German forces. Positioned now on the northern flank of the Red Army’s Oder-Neisse front, along more than 350km (218 mile) from Danzig to Stettin, the Second Belorussian Front urgently needed to regroup and resupply its forces which comprised four rifle armies, three tank and one mechanised corps, numbering approximately 314,000 men with some 597 tanks. At the same time, it would have to turn its units from the recently completed eastward moving operations against Danzig and Gdynia to the west and south in order to take over the northern part of the First Belorussian’s sector, thereby freeing Zhukov’s troops for the concentrated assault on Berlin. Over 300km (200 miles) of completely devastated terrain had to be covered in a couple of weeks. Tanks were carried by train, which could proceed only very slowly due to the overwhelming destruction in the region. Other units moved equally slowly by truck, or on foot, marching with full gear and weaponry at a pace of 30km (20 miles) a day. Once the redeployment was accomplished, the Front had orders to commence offensive operations, forcing a crossing of the Oder near Schwedt and preventing the German Third Panzer Army from coming to Berlin’s aid. After a good deal of argument by Rokossovsky, the Second Belorussian was given until 20 April (four days after Zhukov’s and Konev’s main assaults were to have begun) to complete its redeployment and commence its attack.
On 13 April the first of Rokossovksy’s armies, the 65th Army commanded by General P.I. Batov, arrived in its new positions along the Altdamm-Ferdinandstein line, and the preparations for the final assault entered their final phase. For weeks, Zhukov and Konev had been moving up supplies, briefing their officers, and staging exercises. The attack, Zhukov had decided, would commence in the middle of the night, two hours before dawn on 16 April. To ensure his troops could see what they were doing and, he hoped, to blind and confuse the enemy, he took the unorthodox measure of employing 143 huge searchlights which, on his orders, would all be snapped on at the exact moment the artillery began pounding the German positions. The plan was not without its detractors, including Konev, who felt that the lights would blind their own troops as well as the Germans. Nevertheless, after testing the idea in war games, Zhukov was confident that the blinding lights would work only to his advantage. The searchlights were accordingly brought in from the Front Searchlight Company and the Fifth Air Defence Corps, manned by all-female crews who arrived on 15 April. They were placed at 366-9144m (400-1000yds) from the front line, at 183m (200yd) intervals, and had a range of 4.8km (3 miles). Konev, on the other hand, who still had to gain a crossing of the Neisse at the beginning of the attack, decided that the darkness would work to his benefit, and planned to maximise it with a dense smokescreen and a massive, 145-minute artillery barrage.
On 15 April, Hitler buoyed by the news of US President Roosevelt’s death, composed a strident proclamation to his troops, the last he would ever write.
‘SOLDIERS OF THE EASTERN FRONT!
Our mortal enemy – the Jewish Bolshevik – has begun his final massive attack. He hopes to smash Germany and wipe out our people …
If in the coming days and weeks every soldier on the eastern front does his duty, Asia’s last assault will fail …
Berlin remains German, Vienna (which had fallen to the Soviets on 13 April) shall once more be German, and Europe shall never be Russian … At this hour the entire German population looks to you, my fighters of the east, and hopes only that through your tenacity, your fanaticism, by your weapons and under your leadership the Bolshevik attack will drown in a bath of blood. At the very moment fate removed the greatest war criminal of all times [Roosevelt] from the world, the turning point of this war shall be determined.
That same day, 15 April, back at the Oder front, Heinrici saw the signs of an impending assault. The Soviets had been making sporadic feints against his defences. He began to prepare orders for his men to fall-back to their secondary positions.