The US Office of Strategic Services (OSS, precursor of the CIA), while cautioning against excessive alarmism, took the threat seriously enough to urge a revision of operational planning. British Major General Kenneth W. D. Strong, Eisenhower’s chief of intelligence, summarised in a report: ‘The redoubt may not be there, but we have to take steps to pre vent it being there.’
Thus, on 28 March, with these concerns and pressures mounting, Eisenhower made a command decision which was to become one of the most closely “examined and controversial military decisions of the war. After first sending an unprecedented ‘Personal Message to Marshal Stalin’ in which he outlined his operational plans and requested information on the Soviet forces’ plans, the Supreme Commander draft ed a cable to his immediate superior, US Chief of Staff General of the Army George C. Marshall, and immediately after that, one in response to Field Marshal Montgomery. In them, Eisenhower made his new orders clear. Montgomery’s 21st Army Group was to link up with Bradley’s 12th east of the Ruhr, at ,which point the major role would become Bradley’s. Operational control of the US 9th Army under Lieutenant General William H. ‘Simpson would be taken over from Montgomery by Bradley, and the expanded 12th Army Group would be expected to mop up the Ruhr, ‘and with the minimum delay will deliver his main thrust on the axis Erfurt-Leipzig Dresden to join hands with the Russians’ near Dresden, roughly 160km (100 miles) south of Berlin, thus effectively dividing Germany in half, and preventing any further German military or political withdrawal to the south. Montgomery, in the meantime, was ordered to advance to the Elbe, at which point command of the 9th might revert back to him, and hold there. In a defence of his plan several days later, Eisenhower explained:
‘Berlin itself is no longer a particularly important objective. Its usefulness to the German has been largely destroyed and even his government is preparing to move to another area. What is now important is to gather up our forces for a single drive, and this will more quickly bring about the fall of Berlin, the relief of Norway and the acquisition of the shipping and the Swedish ports than will the scattering around of our effort.’
The decision set off a furious debate between Washington, London, and the modest former techni cal college in Rheims that was serving as the SCAF’s headquarters. Churchill, in particular, was incensed that Eisenhower had violated protocol and the chain of command by approaching Stalin directly, that his plan would relegate the British ‘to an almost static role in the North’, leaving the Americans to garner all the glory, and above all that he was underestimating the continued importance of Berlin which, in Churchill’s view, could both prolong the war and seriously complicate an Allied post-war settlement if the Soviets were allowed to take the city unassisted. In a personal cable to Eisenhower, the vexed Prime Minister put his point as strongly as he could:
‘If the enemy’s position should weaken, as you evidently expect … why should we not cross the Elbe and advance as far eastward as possible? This has an important political bearing, as the Russian army … seems certain to enter Vienna and overrun Austria. If we deliberately leave Berlin to them, even if it should be in our grasp, the double event may strengthen their conviction, already apparent, that they have done everything. Further, I do not consider that Berlin has lost its military and certainly not its political significance. The fall of Berlin would have a profound psychological effect on German resistance in every part of the Reich. While Berlin holds out, great masses of Germans will feel it their duty to go down fighting. The idea that the capture of Dresden and the juncture with the Russians there would be a superior gain does not commend itself to me … Whilst Berlin remains under the German flag, it cannot in my opin ion fail to be the most decisive point in Germany.’
Churchill was not alone; much of the British Chiefs of Staff agreed, and so did Field Marshal Montgomery, who sent a cable of protest. Eisenhower’s relationship with Montgomery had always been rather strained, but now the normally diplomatic Supreme Commander was rapidly becoming exasperated by the reaction to his decision. In an interview years later, Eisenhower described his irritation: ‘Montgomery was becoming so personal in his efforts to make sure that the Americans – and me, in particular – got no credit, that, in fact, we hardly had anything to do with the war, that I finally stopped talking to him.’ There was a general sense at SHAEF that ‘Monty’ was too concerned with personal glory. The British Deputy Chief of Staff at SHAEF, Lieutenant General Sir Frederick Morgan, wrote: ‘At that moment, Monty was the last person Ike would have chosen for a drive on Berlin – Monty would have needed at least six months to prepare.’ His anger rising, Eisenhower responded to Montgomery’s protest with firmness:
‘1 must adhere to my decision about Ninth Army passing to Bradley’s command … As I have already told you, it appears from this distance that an American formation will again pass to you at a later stage for operations beyond the Elbe. You will note that in none of this do 1mention Berlin. That place has become, as far as I am concerned, nothing but a geo graphical location, and 1have never been interested in these. My purpose is to destroy the enemy’s forces.’ To Churchill, he had already bluntly stated, ‘Berlin is no longer a major military objective.’ Although the dispute continued for some days, the US Combined Chiefs of Staff gave Eisenhower their unqualified support on 31 March, discounting the British leader ship’s second-guessing of Eisenhower’s judgement: ‘The battle of Germany is now at the point where the Commander in the Field is the best judge of the measures which offer the earliest prospect of destroying the German armies or their power to resist … General Eisenhower should continue to be free to communicate with the Commander-in-Chief of the Soviet Army … The single objective should be quick and complete victory.’
The decision had been made, but the British remained unhappy. Churchill’s concerns increased when he saw Stalin’s reply to Eisenhower’s cable. On 1 April, the Soviet leader had conferred with his two top field commanders, Marshals Zhukov and Konev, and the seven-member State Defence Committee. Before discussing the concrete plans for the capture of Berlin, Stalin wanted to air his concern that the soyuznichki (little allies), despite their Yalta promises, intended to seize Berlin ahead of the Red Army. He showed them reports from unnamed sources which cited the divisions over the issue in the Anglo-American camp. They claimed further that two Allied airborne divisions were being prepared for an assault on Berlin, and that Montgomery was developing plans to enable his 21st Army Group to race across northern Germany to take Berlin. These reports were, of course, strictly speaking, true, and the Soviet leaders were justifiably wary of Allied, and particularly British, intentions. But the Soviets also had other reasons for wanting to get to Berlin. The Russians and other peoples of the Soviet Union had suffered grievously at the hands of the Germans, and the lust for revenge was understandably strong. The Soviet PoWs liberated by the Red Army frequently told horror stories about the way they had been treated. Units of the Fourth Guards Rifle Corps from Colonel General Vassily Chuikov’s Eighth Guards Army, among the first to reach the Oder south of Kustrin on 1 February, stumbled upon a Gestapo prison at Sonnenburg whose 700 inmates had been executed by the fleeing Germans.
Stalin gave Zhukov and Konev 48 hours to develop plans for the conquest of Berlin, which he indicated he wanted to commence in mid-April, and then crafted his response to Eisenhower. He expressed his agreement with the SCAF’s proposal for cutting the German forces in two through a meeting of the eastern and western Allies around Dresden-Leipzig. Churchill’s suspicions were raised particularly by the portion of the cable which indicated that ‘the main blow of the Soviet Forces’ would be directed to the Dresden-Leipzig area, rather than towards Berlin. ‘Berlin has lost its former strategic importance,’ Stalin explained. ‘The Soviet High Command therefore plans to allot [only] secondary forces in the direction of Berlin.’ The timing for the Soviet offensive, he informed Eisenhower, would be ‘approximately the second half of May’. Churchill was given to doubt the intentions of the Soviets, but even if what Stalin had written were true, he explained in another telegram to Eisenhower, ‘I am all the more impressed with the importance of entering Berlin which may well be open to us by the reply from Moscow to you … [it is] highly important that we should shake hands with the Russians as far to the east as possible.’ A few days later Eisenhower sent a small sop to the British, conceding that if Germany were to suddenly collapse, then the western Allies would rush forward to Berlin. ‘Naturally if I can get a chance to take Berlin cheaply, I shall do so,’ he added.
So began an undeclared race to the German capital. As Marshals Konev and Zhukov were developing their plans for Berlin’s conquest, the Allied troops in the West, unaware of the decision at the top levels which reduced Berlin’s strategic importance, continued to battle their way forward. General Bradley’s 12th Army Group, now with the US Ninth Army numbering nearly one million men, completed the encirclement of the Ruhr on 2 April, trapping Field Marshal Walter Model’s Army Group B, with 325,000 men. Leaving a part of the Ninth and the First to clean up the Ruhr pocket, the rest of Bradley’s Group drove through central Germany, heading toward the Elbe and Leipzig-Dresden. Eisenhower’s instructions to Bradley ordered him to exploit any opportunity to The commander of just about every other unit in the Group had his own ideas. The Second Armored ‘Hell on Wheels’ Division, the ‘Rag-Tag Circus’ of the 83rd Infantry Division, the Fifth Armored ‘Victory’ Division, the British Seventh Armoured ‘Desert Rats’ Division: all wanted the kill for themselves. The competition was so fierce that it sometimes resulted in furious arguments between the various commanders and their subordinates. When units of the 83rd Infantry and the Second Armored Divisions reached the Weser river at the same time on 5 April, a bitter row erupted over which one would cross it first. The two commanders finally reached a compromise: they would cross simultaneously, their units sandwiched together. But the commander of the ‘Hell on Wheels’ division, Major General Isaac White, was still incensed. ‘No damned infantry division is going to beat my outfit to the Elbe!’
Their anticipation was heightened by the speed of the Allied troops’ advance, and by the relatively light resistance. Not that the advance was without risk; some of the engagements were as ferocious as any thing these soldiers had encountered since Normandy. But the resistance was very uneven. Some areas surrendered with hardly a fight. Civilian authorities in particular hoped to avoid the destruction of attempts to resist the inevitable capitulation. Other units, especially the SS, put up a tenacious struggle, exacting stiff Allied casualties. The city of Detmold in the Teutoburger Woods, for example, was the scene of some prolonged and very bloody combat before the American infantry units succeeded in pacifying it; to their chagrin they had discovered that Detmold was the home of a large SS training centre. But for much of the campaign, the Allied advance met only very sporadic, unorganised, and dispirited resistance. For most troops of the German 12th Army, which bore the brunt of this central Allied thrust, the war was next to over, and they were only too happy to have the opportunity to surrender to the British and Americans rather than to the Soviets. Captain Ben Rose of the US 113th Mechanized Cavalry Group recalled how during their drive to the east, he witnessed some German officers, in full dress uniform, jogging alongside the column, ‘trying to get someone to notice them long enough to surrender their side arms’. The GIs, however, anxious to keep their momentum, simply waved the Germans to the rear.
The airborne units, too, though increasingly fearful that they would miss the action and be relegated to police duty – or worse, ‘saved’ for a drop on Tokyo – had their own plans for Berlin. On 25 March, the commanders of the US 82nd and 101st Airborne divisions and the British First Airborne Corps were briefed on a secret contingency operation for a drop on Berlin. The timing was uncertain, dependent on the speed of the ground forces’ advance, but the 101st’s Operations Chief, Colonel Harry Kinnard, thought that they could be in Berlin within five hours of receiving the green light. No one expected it to be easy; initial plans called for 1500 transport planes, 20,000 paratroopers, 3000 support fighters, and more than 1000 gliders. The plans for a hostile drop were never put into operation.