Closing on Berlin April 1945

During the night of 22/23 April, General Helmuth Weidling, CO of 56th Panzer Corps, had been forced to relocate his headquarters to Rudow, a borough located between Neukolln and Schonfeld. His unit was now well within the city limits and in close contact with Soviet forces. It therefore came as some relief when he received orders from General Busse to break through the Soviet forces and link up with the northern flank of 9th Army near Konigs Wusterhausen. As his troops were preparing to disengage from the enemy on the morning of 23 April, Weidling was at last able to re-establish contact with Berlin. His telephone call to the bunker was passed on to General Krebs. Guderian’s successor greeted him with barely concealed contempt, informing Weidling coldly that he had been sentenced to death for pulling his troops back to the Olympic Village at Doberitz, located to the west of the city. To Weidling, this was utter nonsense, as his troops were attempting to disengage from the Soviet forces on the eastern sector of the city. He then made, what was in the circumstances, a brave decision to put his case personally to Hitler.

Weidling arrived at the bunker in the early evening to be met by General Krebs and General Burgdorf who received him coolly. Unfazed, Weidling launched into a spirited defence, stating that the only troops that he had sent to the west were a small number of foreign ‘volunteers’ attached to labour battalions and some sick and wounded. Asked for the present whereabouts and situation of his Corps, Weidling replied that his troops were currently in the process of disengaging from the enemy in order to move south as ordered.  Krebs assured Weidling that it had all been a misunderstanding. Before seeing Hitler, the orders for his Corps to move south were cancelled and he was given fresh instructions to concentrate on the defence of the city.

The subsequent meeting with Hitler resembled a one act farce, as the death sentence was rescinded and replaced by an appointment as commandant of the Berlin defence area (replacing Colonel Ernst Kaether who had been in post for less than a day). Weidling later recalled his meeting with Hitler:

Behind a table covered with maps sat the Fuhrer of the German Reich. He turned his head as I entered. I saw a bloated face and delirious eyes. When he tried to stand up, I noticed to my horror that his hands and one of his legs were trembling. He managed to stand up with great difficulty. He offered me his hand. With a distorted smile and in a barely audible voice he asked whether we had met before. When I replied that he had decorated me with the oak leaves to my Knight’s Cross on 13 April 1944, he said: ‘I recall the name, but I can’t remember the face’. His own was like a grinning mask. He then laboriously got back into his armchair. Even while he was sitting down, his left leg kept twitching. His knee moved like the pendulum of a clock, only faster.

After having made Weidling responsible for the defence of Berlin, Hitler issued instructions for his Corps to deploy in the southern and eastern sectors of the city. He then went on to expound his own ideas for the defence of the city which involved pulling in the forces of Wenck, Busse and Steiner. That day, Weidling started to disengage his forces. The reduced 56th Panzer Corps consisting of remnants of the 9th Parachute Division, the badly mauled Muncheberg Panzer Division, the 20th Panzer Grenadier Division, the 11th Panzer Grenadier Division ‘Nordland’ and the 18th Panzer Grenadier Division. His units were used to stiffen the defence sectors held by a miscellany of trained troops and poorly equipped home guard units.

On the morning of 24 April, 20th Panzer Grenadier Division were engaged in hard fighting along the Teltow Canal, successfully eliminating a Soviet bridgehead at Lankwitz.  However, they were too thinly spread to prevent the establishment of a small lodgement at Stahnsdorf. Watching the unfolding drama from a rooftop observation post, Marshal Konev surveyed the scene:

From the roof of this building we had a fine view of Berlin, especially its southern and south-western districts. The left flank could be seen as far as Potsdam. Our field of vision extended to the right flank where, on the outskirts of Berlin, the troops of the 1st Ukrainian and the 1st Belorussian fronts were to link up.

I remember how vast the city appeared to me. I noted the massive old buildings, in which the district that lay before me abounded, and the density of these buildings; I took note of everything that might complicate our task of capturing Berlin. I also noticed the canals, rivers and streams that crossed Berlin in different directions and were plainly visible from above. Such a multiplicity of water obstacles promised additional difficulties.

Before us lay a front-line city, besieged and prepared for defence. Had there been a reasonable government at the head of Germany it would have been logical, under the circumstances, to expect from it an immediate surrender. Only surrender could have preserved what still remained of Berlin; it would also have saved the lives of many of its citizens. But it was apparently futile to expect a reasonable decision and we had to fight it out. As I gazed upon Berlin I reflected that its end would spell the end of the war and that the sooner we took the city the sooner the war would be over.

Konev’s hopes came a step closer following the main breakthrough which came in the centre of the line at Teltow itself.  By late morning 6th Guards Tank Corps crossed the canal establishing a firm bridgehead which was soon strengthened by the addition of a tank bearing bridge. Later, General David Abramovitch Dragunski described the assault on the German defences:

The attack began. The approaching dusk was submerged by the artillery preparation’s sea of fire. A mighty shock wave pressed us into the earth… I had not seen firing of such intensity for a long time. The breakthrough near Kiev, the battle of Lvov, the attack on the Sandomierz bridgehead, all these vast operations could not be compared with what occurred on the Teltow Canal in the morning hours of 24 April… A whole artillery corps concentrated within two days on a narrow breakthrough sector, effecting a density of 600 gun barrels per kilometre of front, massing together mortars, organising the fire plan, measuring out the firing positions while on the move and finally coordinating everything that could be achieved by a talented army commander like Marshal Konev… Then thousands of shells roared over the heads of our tank troops. Behind us rumbled the dull thumps of the mortars. The fire trails of the Katiushas ripped apart the sky. General Riasanov’s bombers and fighters attacked, while Pokryschkin’s fighters covered them from above.

The north bank of the canal and the southern boundary of Berlin were in flames. Buildings and fortified positions fell in rubble and ashes as thick clouds of smoke rose up… Thousands of enemy soldiers were killed… Futilely, Goebbels cried out that the Russians would never get into the city. In vain, many of his believing audience put their hopes in the so-called wonder weapons… Right until the last minute they hoped for some miracle or other, but the miracle kept them waiting…

The watches hand crept slowly forward. The murderous artillery fire moved off to the north. The bombs were already exploding somewhat to the side of us. The time for our attack came even closer… A series of green verey lights climbed into the sky. The reconnaissance parties, engineers and submachine-gunners climbed out of their trenches and cover to storm the canal bank, the engineers dragging up the boats to cross by, and behind them came the landing troops… The riflemen had it somewhat easier than us as they did not have to get heavy tanks and self-propelled guns across… It looked as if everyone was convinced that the result of the battle depended entirely on his personal efforts.

Once it became light we could see several dark objects on the opposite bank. These were the members of our storm groups… I knew precisely how important it was to support the men. What could they achieve on the other bank with their light weapons… The commanders of two brigades of the Breakthrough Artillery Division suddenly appeared near me. They had assessed the situation and were already giving the necessary orders. Some stout hearted gunners hastened past us on their way to establish a forward observation post on the other bank. Shortly afterwards the guns thundered, clearing the way for our battalion.

At last Bystrov reported that the bridge, which the enemy had made impassable the day before, was now usable. Nevertheless, only light tanks could pass over the temporarily repaired bridge under heavy fire… The enemy had recovered from our artillery preparation and was now conducting a massive resistance. We even had to reckon with counter-attacks… The artillery and tank fire fight had lasted for over an hour already. The Fascists were increasingly active… Bystrov had only been able to get three self-propelled guns across the canal, two others having fallen into the water with the wrecked bridge…

We tied down the enemy’s forces, but that was all we achieved. The same applied to our right hand neighbour. But our action lightened the load of other units. In the centre the 22nd Guards Motorised Rifle Brigade, followed by the 23rd, was able to force the canal, form a bridgehead and get its main forces across. Several hours later, a bridge had been established over which the tank brigades and corps rolled. The battle for the Teltow Canal was decided, the gateway to Berlin had been opened.

The defence of Teltow served to demonstrate to the Red Army that the battle for the capital of the Reich would be a hard-fought affair.

The battle for Tempelhof would be equally as bitter, as the Red Army was determined to cut off this major airfield and possible escape route for the Nazi elite. General Chuikov sent in elements of the 39th and 79th Guards Rifle Divisions in a flanking manoeuvre. He then launched his main attack with elements from 8th Guards Army and 1st Guards Tank Army against the southern perimeter. Chuikov later recalled in his memoirs the savage fight for the airfield:

The aerodrome was defended by anti-aircraft units, SS troops, and tanks, the latter being drawn up in a large L-shape along the southern and eastern edges of the field. Most of them were dug into the ground, and thus made invulnerable fire points. It looked as though the Berlin garrison had no more fuel supplies for their tanks; all the petrol and diesel fuel, according to depositions from captured tank crews, had been taken by the air force for their planes.

In the underground hangars of the aerodrome planes were standing ready, tanks filled with fuel, able to take off at any minute; beside them were their crews, standing on duty every hour in the twenty-four, and amongst these men were pilots and navigators who in the past had been entrusted with the duty of flying Hitler, Goebbels, Bormann and other Nazi leaders to destinations all over Germany. From this information one might conclude that Hitler and his closest associates were still in Berlin, and might – who knows what the devil has up his sleeve! – slip out through this last loop-hole. So we had to do everything possible to ensure that this did not happen…

We did not know the precise location and other details of the exit gates from the underground hangars, so storm groups reinforced with tanks were assigned to the job of cutting off all access to the runways themselves by fire from guns and machine guns, and so keeping the planes bottled up underground. The plan worked perfectly. From the evening of 25 April on, not a single plane took off from the field, and by midday on 26 April the aerodrome itself, and the whole airport complex of Tempelhof – hangars, communications, installations, and the main ‘Affluence’ building were in our hands.

The Red Army advances came at a high price in terms of both men and machines. Weidling’s forces had inflicted heavy losses, albeit at high cost to themselves. Whilst the Red Army could sustain high losses, the German garrison could not. What Weidling needed more than anything at this time was reinforcements.

Remarkably, some German reinforcements made it into the beleaguered city. On the evening of 24 April, approximately ninety men, including most of the officers, the best non-commissioned officers and the divisional chaplain Monsignor Count Mayol de Lupe arrived at the Olympic Stadium. The volunteers who had accompanied their commander General Gustav Krukenberg to Berlin were on the whole fierce anti-Communists, arguably none more so than the divisional chaplain. The Monsignor was a larger than life character who was highly decorated, having been awarded the Legion d’ Honneur and the Iron Cross first and second class. Aged seventy two, he had been twice wounded in combat and was not adverse to anointing the dying with one hand, whilst firing his revolver with the other. His staunch anti-Communist credentials were laid out in this statement:

The world must choose; on the one hand Bolshevist savagery, an infernal force; on the other Christian civilisation. We must choose at all costs. We cannot loyally remain neutral any longer! It’s Bolshevist anarchy, or Christian order!

The uncompromising cleric joined his comrades in the defence of Neukolln. Later, the remnants of the volunteer force were pushed back into the central government district which had been designated as Defence Sector Z. Here, the Frenchmen fighting for Hitler’s lost cause acquitted themselves exceedingly well, turning the streets of Berlin into a graveyard for Soviet armour.

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