Seelow Heights

Note: these are combat troop strengths.

On 20 March a desperate Colonel General Heinz Guderian, Chief of Staff of the Army, convinced Himmler to give up command of the Army Group Vistula, arguing that his multiple responsibilities left him overtaxed. Hitler reluctantly agreed and, at Guderian’s suggestion, appointed Colonel General Gotthard Heinrici as the new commander. The 58- year-old Heinrici was a German officer of the old school. The son of a Protestant minister, he read his Bible daily and insisted on Sunday church parades for his troops, none of which sat very well with the Nazi authorities. But Heinrici was one of Germany’s most brilliant defensive tacticians. His unglamourous job was to take over when things were going wrong, to hold the line for as long as possible, and then to manage the retreat. In January 1942, he had been given command of the remnants of the Fourth Army after the assault on Moscow had faltered. The Fourth held the key position, directly facing Moscow. Ordered to hold the line at all costs in anticipation of the next assault which ‘would surely take the city’, they lasted for nearly 10 weeks in the brutal Russian Winter, which claimed nearly as many of Heinrici’s soldiers as the Red Army did, before beginning the long, staggered retreat back to Poland. The slight Heinrici, nicknamed ‘unser Gijtzwerg (literally, ‘our poisonous dwarf’) by enemies and admirers alike, was a tough, stubborn commander, but he had the respect of his troops. He was known to be a crafty and creative defender and to stand for no nonsense from either his troops or ‘the Nazi court jesters’.

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 tac tic 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 sep arate ‘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 Scharmutzel Lake, near Buckow, to the eastern edge of Furstenwalde, 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 Furstenwalde, Muncheberg, 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 breakout by Soviet armour. In between the last two strips, blocking positions were constructed to cover both the Kustrin-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.

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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 south ern 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 commit ted 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 forth coming, 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].’

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General Heinrici knew which his enemy had well. incorporated Despite the few innovations which Zhukov had incorporated into his plans for this, his greatest battle, he was basically following a well-tried Red Army attack plan. The Voyenniie razvedky (reconnaissances-in-force) tactic of probing the enemy’s front lines for the emplacement and combat readiness of their defences was a Soviet favourite; it signalled to the savvy defender that a full-bore assault could be expected within the next 48 hours. All day on Saturday 14 April, reinforced rifle battalions of Zhukov’s main forward-strike force – the 47th, Third Shock, Fifth Shock, and Eighth Guards Armies – had been making test feints into Ninth Army’s positions. Supported by a few tanks, and covered by artillery fire, the units pushed towards Seelow, in places as far as 5km (3 miles). The reconnaissance forays succeeded in charting a number of minefields and creating some havoc with the German fire system. But they ‘failed’, in the judgement of historian John Erickson, inasmuch as neither Zhukov nor his sub ordinate commanders recognised that the second line of German defences was the crucial one. It was here at which the opening bombardment would have to be directed if the initial assault was not to be seriously stymied. In any event, the Germans were not misled by the Soviet feints; captured German soldiers con fessed to their Soviet interrogators that their commanders had told them that the main assault would not come for another day or two.

Though the Battle of Berlin is usually portrayed as having begun in the early-morning hours of 16 April, it could be said to have actually begun the evening before. Early on the night of the 15th, aircraft of the Fourth and 16th Air Armies began to pound the Germans’ first defensive strip. By then, however Heinrici had already decided that the proper moment had arrived. Shortly after 2030 hours, the commander-in-chief of Army Group Vistula suddenly ceased his pacing at his field HQ. ‘It was as though he had suddenly sniffed the very air,’ said an aide. ‘I believe the attack will take place in the early hours, tomorrow,’ Heinrici told his staff, and issued a brief order to General Busse, commander of the Ninth Army: ‘Move back and take up positions on the second line of defence.’ Not all of his generals were pleased with the order to give up their front-line positions; to many it felt like they were retreating before the battle even began. To such complaints the Giftzwerg responded brusquely that in a steel mill one doesn’t leave one’s head under the trip hammer; one pulls it back in time. Under cover of darkness, the pull-back went off remarkably well. Only a handful of troops were left in well-fortified positions on the front line, many unaware that the bulk of their army was withdrawing to secondary positions.

Meanwhile, the Soviet troops were gathering for their customary last-minute pep-talks. In passionate speeches, genuinely emotional political officers mixed their traditional anti-fascist Party rhetoric with good old-fashioned patriotism and appeals to military camaraderie. At the end, the Red Army soldiers took turns swearing on oath on their red flags to fight with bravery and honour. In the words of Eighth Guards commander Colonel General Vassiliy Chuikov, ‘Lenin’s face looked down as if alive from the scarlet banners on the soldier-liberators, as if summoning them to be resolute in the last fight with the hateful foe.’

In the pre-dawn darkness everyone waited tensely. At the stroke of 0400 hours, as Zhukov had ordered, over 40,000 field guns, mortars, and Katyusha rocket-launchers thundered into life. In a ferocious barrage unlike anything seen before in the war, over a million shells and rockets (over 100,000 tonnes) were spewed into the German positions. Eyewitnesses have described the deafening din and terrifying convulsions of the ground as forests and villages as far away as 8km (5 miles) burst into flame and disintegrated under the storm of steel and explosives. The bombardment, joined by hundreds of sorties by the Red Army’s air forces, continued for half an hour. A few minutes before it ended, thousands of green and red flares illuminated the dark night sky. On that signal, the women soldiers operating the searchlights snapped on their huge instruments, instantly flooding the night with an artificial day of a hundred billion candlelight. The starkly lit up scene of the Seelow Heights being blown to bits in front of them was, Zhukov wrote later, ‘an immensely fascinating and impressive sight, and never before in my life had I felt anything like what I felt then’. Captain Sergei Golbov, a front-line correspondent for the Red Army press, reported that the massive bombardment released a huge rush of pent-up energy and emotion in the Soviet troops. All around he saw ‘troops cheering as though they were fighting the Germans hand-to-hand and everywhere men were firing whatever weapons they had even though they could see no target’.

As the aerial and artillery bombardment continued, shifting their range deeper into the German positions, the mechanised and infantry units were given the order to begin the assault. Cheering and yelling wildly, hundreds of thousands of men and machines charged across the Oder and towards the Seelow bluffs. The numbers still on the eastern bank of the river were so high, and the fighting spirit of the Soviet troops so great, that in many places, frustrated by the long waits to get across the clogged bridges and ferries, soldiers commandeered anything they could find – boats, barrels, pieces of wood, tree limbs – to paddle across the river, or simply threw themselves into the water, fully loaded down with weapons and gear, to swim across. Captain Golbov recalled seeing the regimental doctor, ‘a huge man named Nicolaieff, running down the river bank dragging behind him a ridiculously small boat’. As a physician, Nicolaieff was ‘supposed to stay behind the lines at the field hospital, but there he was in this tiny boat, rowing like hell’.

The Germans hardly fired back at all; only a few scattered machine-guns could be discerned from the other side. At first the assault made good progress. When the opening bombardment ended after 30 minutes and the first radio-phone reports began coming in, Chuikov could report that ‘the first objectives have been taken’ by his Eighth Guards Army. Zhukov, who had been observing the opening of the attack from Chuikov’s command post with a perfect view of the Kustrin bridgehead, congratulated his subordinate warmly.

The Marshal’s relief quickly gave way to frustration and anger, however, as the attack swiftly bogged down after just a couple kilometres on the approach to the Seelow Heights. Although in his memoirs Zhukov himself recounted no difficulties with them, part of the problem was the searchlights. Several of his sub-commanders reported that the lights hindered at least as much as they helped the advancing troops. Chuikov wrote in his own memoirs that, blinded and confused by the powerful beams, the troops in many sectors simply ‘came to a halt in front of the streams and canals running across the Oder valley, waiting for the light of dawn to show them clearly the obstacles they had to overcome’. General Andreia Getman, corps commander in Katukov’s First Guards Tank Army, had complained to Lieutenant General Nikolai Popiel, a member of Zhukov’s general staff and a military historian, that, ‘they didn’t blind the main forces of the enemy. But I’ll tell you what they did do – they absolutely spot lighted our tanks and infantry for the German gunners.’ In other sectors, the searchlight operators were given orders to turn the lights off, only to have the orders almost immediately countermanded by higher-ups, resulting in a surreal strobe-light effect over the terrifying battlefield.

But other, more serious problems also slowed the attack. The marshy, boggy terrain, criss-crossed by flooded streams and irrigation canals, proved even more difficult than expected. Many of the SPGs and mechanised vehicles were mired down and started to lag behind, adding to the already chaotic traffic problem. Helplessly churning their wheels and tracks in the mud and water, the bogged-down vehicles were irresistible targets to the German artillery, which now began pounding the Soviets, completely destroying several tanks. The biggest obstacle was the Hauptkanal (Main Canal), located just before the Seelow Heights. The few bridges were under direct German artillery fire, and the banks were too steep for the vehicles to ford the canal which was too swollen by the spring thaw to be manoeuvrable. Here Chuikov’s main axis of assault came to a dead stop, roughly 1.5km (1600yds) from its starting point.

Zhukov, not a commander known for gentleness or diplomacy, was furious. When informed by Chuikov that the advance had stalled, the commander of the First Belorussian Front exploded: ‘What the hell do you mean – your troops are pinned down?’ As the unflapped Chuikov explained what had happened, according to Popiel, Zhukov let loose with ‘a stream of extremely forceful expressions’ – no doubt a decided understatement of the earthy language of this peasant’s son. Zhukov knew well that the attack would not be easy and that they were working under a preposterously short timetable for the conquest of a city the size of Berlin. He was under huge pressure from Stavka, and his leadership style had always been to keep the pressure on his subordinate commanders. But this outburst was clearly more than just a motivational tool: he hadn’t anticipated such immediate difficulties. Zhukov and most of his general staff had fully expected the initial artillery and air bombardment to demolish the primary line of German defences, enabling them to gain the Heights and puncture the forward positions before the Germans had a chance to organise any kind of effective resistance. It was now becoming clear that the Germans had divined their intentions and pulled back most of their forces in time to escape the barrage; they were still almost entirely intact. ‘Our artillery fire hit everything but the enemy,’ was the bitter comment of the commander of the Third Shock Army, General Vasili Kuznetsov. ‘As usual, we stuck to the book, and by now the Germans know our methods.’

At the same time, however, Heinrici knew he was in no position for self-congratulatory gloating. He went over the reports from the front with Busse, commander of the Ninth. Army, in Army Group Vistula’s command post in’ the Schonewalde forest north of Berlin. Though Busse had known what to expect, the opening bombardment had been truly terrifying; in his words, ‘the worst ever’. After the first reports from the front, many in the command post assumed that their forward defences had been total ly annihilated. But the Giftzwergs plan had worked well. At Frankfurt, defenders had even managed to repel the Soviets, throwing them back from their starting positions. But it had all cost the hard-strapped Germans significantly. Some of the Ninth’s commanders reported that they were outnumbered ten to one. One of Busse’s division commanders reported: ‘They come at us in hordes, in wave after wave, without regard to loss of life. We fire our machine guns, often at point-blank range, until they turn red hot. My men are fighting until they run out of ammunition. Then they are simply wiped out or completely overrun. How long this can continue I don’t know.’ Heinrici knew that it was just a matter of time. He had neither the men nor the weapons to hold off the vast numbers of the enemy. And while Zhukov’s assault was, for the moment, pinned down, he wondered what Konev to the south and Rokossovsky in the north were up to. The answer was not long in coming.

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