12th Army to the Rescue

23 APRIL 1945

Field Marshal Keitel reached General Wenck’s headquarters in the woods east of Magdeburg with some difficulty at about 0100 hours on 23 April. Wenck’s 12th Army, whose boundary extended from the junction of the Havel and Elbe Rivers in the north to below Leipzig in the south, consisted of the following formations:

XXXIX Panzer Corps, under Lieutenant-General Karl Arndt, which had been sent into the Harz Mountains to support 11th Army and had been virtually destroyed within five days. Its remnants had only been re-assigned to 12th Army on 21 April.

XXXXI Panzer Corps, under Lieutenant-General Rudolf Holste, which was based near Rathenow, and consisted of miscellaneous units, some of which were survivors of the Rhine battles.

XX Corps, under Lieutenant-General Carl-Erik Koehler, which was currently engaged in containing the minor American bridgeheads near Zerbst and consisted of:

Theodor Körner RAD Infantry Division

Ulrich von Hutten Infantry Division

Ferdinand von Schill Infantry Division

Scharnhorst Infantry Division

XXXXVIII Panzer Corps, under General Maximilian Freiherr von Edelsheim, which constituted the army reserve near Coswig, and consisted mainly of miscellaneous units culled from the Leipzig and Halle areas.

Keitel first briefed Wenck on the general situation as he knew it, and then gave him Hitler’s orders for 12th Army. Keitel waited for Wenck to draft out his orders, as he wanted to take a copy with him back to the Führerbunker and he also wanted to deliver the orders in person to General Koehler’s XX Corps, which was to provide the bulk of the attacking force. At dawn he reached one of Koehler’s infantry divisions, which was already preparing for the operation, and addressed the assembled officers.

The 12th Army’s specific orders read:

By extensively disregarding the Elbe defences between Magdeburg and Dessau and on the Mulde front between Dessau and Grimma, an assault group of at least three divisions is to be formed in the area west and south-west of Treuenbrietzen with the task of striking at the Russian forces attacking Potsdam and the southern outskirts of Berlin along the line Jüterbog–Brück towards Zossen and Teltow … 9th Army has orders to hold the line Cottbus–Peitz–Beeskow and, if necessary, to keep east of the line Lübbenau–Schwielochsee, in order to release forces for an attack towards Baruth from the east.

What Keitel failed to realize was that Wenck, unlike his immediate superiors, had formed a very clear appreciation of the situation and had no illusions about the future, which he saw as a simple choice between captivity in either the east or the west. There was no doubt in his own mind which was preferable and he regarded his primary task as that of holding a door open for a general exodus from what would become the Soviet Zone of Occupation.

It became obvious to me that this man [Keitel] and with him the Supreme Commander-in-Chief [Hitler], whom he advised, were long since out of touch with what was happening in this war. After consulting with my staff, I decided to go my own way from then on. We had already started to do so some weeks before, when we stopped demolition squads from destroying supply depots in our area. Now, however, was the time to lead the army guided solely by what we knew ourselves. We could not free Berlin with our forces, but we could help vast numbers of people by opening a way to the west for them with a determined attack. By attacking from the Belzig area towards Potsdam, it would be possible to free the 20,000 troops encircled there. It did not seem impossible for 9th Army to get out of its pocket after such a thrust. Apart from this, the columns of refugees moving behind our front to the west would gain a few extra days time in which to reach the Elbe and escape the Russians.

Wenck was fortunate in that many supply barges from all over the country had been trapped and stranded in his sector, so that he had no shortage of supplies, including motor fuel. Although he dutifully reported all this, no attempt was made by the OKW to have this windfall distributed.

By 1100 hours Keitel was back in Krampnitz, where he conferred with Jodl and had a brief rest before they set off for the Chancellery together. At the afternoon war conference Keitel reported to the Führer on his trip and General Krebs announced that 12th Army was already on the move. Hitler asked if 9th and 12th Armies had established contact yet, but there was no information available on this point and Krebs was directed to tell 9th Army to get on with it. Before departing, Keitel again tried, without success, to persuade Hitler to leave Berlin.

This conference clearly illustrates the air of fantasy in which Hitler and his staff operated and which Keitel did nothing to dispel. He must have been fully aware that neither army was ready to act immediately and yet said nothing to this effect. In fact, Wenck did not expect to be ready until the 25th, by which time his formations would be redeployed for the attack and he hoped to have recovered some of his armour from west of the Elbe to assist him. In the meantime Wenck was acutely conscious of the threat from the south-east, where 1st Ukrainian Front was making rapid progress in his direction.

At 1300 hours the signal authorising 9th Army’s withdrawal was sent by Army Group Weichsel. General Busse purportedly used this order to implement his own intended and already initiated redeployment towards the west without openly opposing Berlin. To this end, he reported the following measures taken in fulfilment of his task that day:

  1. Withdrawal of the eastern and north-eastern fronts on the general line Burg–Butzen–Schwielochsee–Spree in one move during the night of 23/24 April.
  2. V Corps to take over command of the eastern front from the right wing (Königs Wusterhausen) to Burg inclusive. V SS Mountain Corps to take over command of the eastern front from Burg to the Kersdorf locks (2 km west of Briesen) …
  3. Released forces: 342nd Infantry Division, one reinforced battlegroup from 35th SS Police Division (deployed until now north of Guben), one battlegroup from the Frankfurt Fortress Garrison (about two regiments) already with XI SS Panzer Corps. No artillery as yet.
  4. For the intended assault group to unite with 12th Army within the sense of the new plan: 21st Panzer Division’s battlegroup, 342nd Infantry Division, elements 35th SS Police Division, one SS armoured reconnaissance group (105th SS Armoured Reconnaissance Battalion of V SS Mountain Corps under SS-Major Fucker). Earliest start 25 April.

Busse later claimed: ‘Thus my headquarters had freedom to adjust its forces itself with a view to a rapid redeployment for a break-out to the west.’ However, his subsequent behaviour indicates that he was in fact still attempting to comply with superior orders. Unlike Generals Heinrici and Wenck, he failed to see that his primary concern should have been the fate of his men and the accompanying refugees dependent upon him.

The problem here was that Busse, like many of his contemporaries, basically owed his successful military career to Hitler, to whom he was now in thrall, a situation further exacerbated by the consequences of the failure of Colonel Claus Graf Schenk von Stauffenberg’s assassination plot of 20 July 1944, which had imposed an even greater subservience on commanders and the General Staff. A major obstacle to independent action, as previously mentioned, was the personal oath of allegience to Adolf Hitler that the obsequious commander-in-chief, General Werner von Blomberg, had imposed on the Wehrmacht immediately following the death of President von Hindenburg on 20 August 1934, which many continued to think of as binding, even when the failure and criminality of the regime had been exposed.

Busse had enlisted in the German Army as a potential officer in December 1915 and ended the First World War as a substantive second lieutenant. His war service had obviously attracted official attention, for he had been awarded the Knight’s Cross with Swords of the Hohenzollern Order, the Kaiser’s equivalent of the British royal family’s Victorian Order. His subsequent service with the Reichswehr saw painfully slow progress with promotion to captain not achieved until 1933, but then came rapid acceleration to major in 1936, lieutenant-colonel in 1939 and full colonel in 1941, by which time he was on the General Staff. He then served as Chief of Staff to Army Groups Süd and Nordukraine on the Eastern Front, achieving the rank of major-general and then lieutenant-general in 1943, and being awarded the German Cross in Gold on 24 May 1942 and the Knight’s Cross on 30 January 1944. Busse had been given command of 122nd Infantry Division in July 1944, and then, on 1 August 1944, I Corps with Field Marshal Ferdinand Schörner’s Army Group Nord, which was trapped on the Courland peninsula and condemned to extinction by Hitler’s refusal to allow evacuation. He would therefore have been mightily relieved to have been flown out and then given command of the shattered 9th Army as a general of infantry on his own home ground around Frankfurt on 21 January 1945.

The withdrawal of Busse’s troops from their eastern and southern fronts was relatively well protected by the geographical features, particularly the dense waterways of the Lower and Upper Spreewald areas, which formed an ‘L’ from Leibsch via Lübben to Cottbus. The Soviets were unable to follow closely enough to endanger the German troops. However, V Corps’ 342nd Infantry Division, fighting an isolated action in the Burg–Cottbus area, was overrun that afternoon. Meanwhile, V Corps headquarters, which had been made responsible for 9th Army’s southern flank on 22 April, reported having established a perimeter defence along the line Löpten–Teupitz–Halbe, south of which a regiment of 35th SS Police Division held the line down to Lübben with the Engineer Training Battalion beyond.

The Soviets were able to gain the south bank of the Spree near Fürstenwalde, and also to close up to the Oder–Spree Canal. The remains of the 561st SS Tank-Hunting Battalion held fast on the autobahn east of Fürstenwalde in the Biegen, Briesen and Kersdorf areas, enabling the Frankfurt Garrison and the remains of 286th Infantry Division and SS Regiment Falke to get through. The 712th Infantry Division was still holding out at Petershagen, the 169th at Alt Madlitz, and Battlegroup Nederland at Falkenberg. Elements of the Kurmark Division prevented Soviet penetration of the woods on either side of the Scharmützelsee.

It was different on the northern flank, where conditions had become worse since the withdrawal of LVI Panzer Corps into the capital. Despite constant counterattacks being mounted, not all the planned lines could be held. In some areas the hard-pressed divisions and battlegroups had to withdraw as much as ten or fifteen kilometres before they could hold.

A soldier of the 32nd SS Motorized Artillery Regiment, which had been covering the withdrawal from just north-east of Beeskow, described the situation:

The concerned expressions, but also the good wishes of the civilian population, gave us many problems. The civilian bush telegraph was faster than our marching speed. They knew that Ivan was only a few hundred metres behind us. We were often begged to take on the protection of a place, and civilian clothing was offered us. With very heavy hearts, we marched on with our unit. Many old soldiers watched us with tears in their eyes.

That evening HQ 9th Army, which had already issued its orders for the withdrawal, received revised orders to: ‘… hold on to the largest possible area between the autobahns leading to Berlin from Frankfurt and Cottbus, and to cooperate with 12th Army’s attack from Treuenbrietzen to the north-east against the Soviets attacking Berlin from the south.’

To do this would mean holding fast on the northern flank in the first case, something which was already beyond 9th Army’s ability. General Busse, whose staff had meanwhile moved from Bad Saarow to the Scharmützelsee railway station at the southern end of the lake, later wrote:

The traverse of a distance of 60 kilometres as the crow flies to the 12th Army, right through the rear communications area of 1st Ukrainian Front’s northern wing, would only have been possible providing the thrust was so rapid that the enemy were unable to mount effective countermeasures. The troops would have had to keep moving day and night. They could only have done this if the effectiveness of the strong Russian air and tank forces could possibly be reduced. The wide expanse of woodland from Halbe via Kummersdorf to north of Luckenwalde offered the only possibility for this. This became more apparent with 12th Army’s disappointing announcement that it was not attacking to the east, but to the north, towards Beelitz, so there was no longer any question of a thrust being made to meet us. Nevertheless, the High Command still ordered that 9th Army, following a successful break-out, was immediately to wheel and attack the rear of the enemy on the southern outskirts of Berlin. This order 9th Army neither heeded nor acknowledged.

    We had to go about things in accordance with our intention to get as many troops away as possible from the Russians’ grasp. Our firm resolve was to breach the encirclement on either side of Halbe and break through to south of Beelitz using the cover of the woods.

The 21st Panzer Division was now deployed south from Karlshof, two kilometres north-west of the autobahn junction, with a series of strongpoints stretching to the west of Ragow and Mittenwalde down to Teupitz, and was heavily engaged all day. On its right, the land link to Berlin was reduced to a corridor barely four kilometres wide and already under artillery surveillance. Behind them in Königs Wusterhausen were the remains of the 32nd SS Volunteer Grenadier Division’s battlegroup, which had been forced out of Wernsdorf and Niederlehme on the Spree–Dahme line by Chuikov’s troops. A field hospital in the town, many of whose citizens were already displaying white flags, came under repeated attack from Soviet aircraft.

During the day elements of 128th Rifle Corps of the Soviet 28th Army continued to arrive to take part in the operation but one formation, 152nd Rifle Division, was caught up near Mittenwalde in what was thought to be a break-out attempt by 9th Army. Whatever the cause, 152nd Rifle Division was still fighting in the Mittenwalde area that night and does not appear to have rejoined its parent formation for another day or two. The two other corps of 28th Army, 3rd and 20th Guards Rifle Corps, were also heading north towards Berlin, but were diverted to assist with the encirclement of 9th Army. As an additional safeguard, 25th Tank Corps was moved into the area of Duben as a mobile reserve.

The 4th Guards Tank Army continued closing in on Potsdam and closing the gap with 1st Byelorussian Front’s 47th Army encircling Berlin from the north, but made no attempt to cross the line of the Havel, which seems to have been its operational boundary. The 6th Guards Mechanized Corps split off at Beelitz, wheeling west towards Brandenburg and Paretz (near Ketzin), taking Lehnin that day.

By the end of 23 April the Soviet 13th Army had almost reached the Elbe at Wittenberg. Koniev decided to detach its 350th Rifle Division to 4th Guards Tank Army to assist with the screening of Potsdam, and to take over its reserve corps at Luckau as his front reserve and locate it at Jüterbog, where it would be more centrally placed to meet anticipated contingencies.

Further south the bulk of 5th Guards Army closed up to the Elbe around Torgau on a wide front that day, thus cutting the remains of the Third Reich in two. Koniev decided to leave only 34th Guards Rifle Corps in that area to await the arrival of the Americans on the opposite bank, and pulled back 32nd Guards Rifle and 4th Guards Tank Corps into the second echelon prior to striking a counterblow at the German forces on his southern flank. These had now penetrated some thirty kilometres towards Spremberg, separating the 52nd and 2nd Polish Armies and creating havoc in their rear areas.

Although he had just sufficient troops to cope with this emergency in the south, it is clear that Marshal Koniev’s forces were extremely finely stretched at this stage. His active northern front extended in a great loop from Cottbus in the east to Wittenberg in the west, via Berlin, Potsdam, Brandenburg and Beelitz, and he had only a very small reserve in the centre to counter the real threat posed by the German 9th and 12th Armies. It was therefore even more remarkable that he should personally concentrate, with the key members of his front staff, solely on 3rd Guards Tank Army’s penetration of Berlin and the race for the Reichstag.

That evening Lieutenant-General Gerhard Engel’s Ulrich von Hutten Infantry Division set off from the River Mulde with two grenadier regiments, supporting artillery and SPGs, in convoys of vehicles confiscated from construction battalions, factories, rear area units and Nazi Party sources, acting in accordance with orders to establish as big a bridgehead as possible in the Wittenberg area and to hold on as long as possible against the advancing Soviet forces.

The LVI Panzer Corps’ headquarters had moved across the Spree and the southern branch of the Teltow Canal during the night into the suburb of Rudow. Sometime during the day, General Weidling’s chief of staff, Lieutenant-Colonel Theodor von Dufving, telephoned an old friend from his cadet days, Colonel Hans Refior, now on the Berlin Defence Area staff, to ask for news. Refior was surprised when von Dufving told him that the corps was seeking to rejoin 9th Army and had no intention of defending the capital, but enabled von Dufving to re-establish contact with 9th Army Headquarters. General Weidling then spoke to the chief of staff, Colonel Hölz, who gave him orders to secure 9th Army’s northern flank.

From another source Weidling learnt that a general had been sent to Döberitz to arrest him on Hitler’s instructions, so he tried to contact Krebs for an explanation. Eventually he was summoned to report to the Führerbunker at 1800 hours, where he saw Krebs and General Burgdorf. They received him most coolly at first, but once they had heard his account they agreed to put his case to the Führer immediately. Weidling then told them that he was moving his corps south towards Königs Wusterhausen that night in support of 9th Army in accordance with General Busse’s instructions, but Krebs said that these orders would have to be cancelled as LVI Panzer Corps was needed in Berlin. Weidling saw Hitler shortly afterward and was shocked by the Führer’s appearance and obvious deterioration. When he emerged from this interview, Krebs informed him that, with immediate effect, he was to take over the defence of the city’s south-eastern and southern defence sectors with his corps. LVI Panzer Corps would not be rejoining 9th Army.