The opportune arrival of Lieutenant-General A.A. Luchinsky’s 28th Army from the 2nd Byelorussian Front on the night of 20 April enabled Koniev to fill the gap between 3rd Guards Tank Army pushing on Berlin and 3rd Guards Army both besieging Cottbus and engaged with the German V Corps beyond it as far north-west as Baruth. He therefore allocated the 28th Army all his available transport with instructions to send one division, the 61st Guards Rifle Division, to the support of the 3rd Guards Tank Army, and to deploy two other rifle divisions in the woods around Baruth by the evening of 21 April. The rest of the army was to deploy between Zossen and Baruth by 23 April. This screening force was to block off 9th Army’s exit routes with strong defences against tanks and infantry to thwart any possible break-out to the west or south-west. Koniev was also very conscious of the vulnerability of his tank armies on the main communications route, the Dresden– Berlin autobahn.
Baruth, the nodal traffic point on the east–west flow of the Baruther Urstromtal (glacial valley) with its swamps and streams, was recognized as the critical exit point for a German break-out from the Spreewald.
Much as he would have liked to concentrate on Berlin, Koniev had other urgent responsibilities, as he described:
The difficulty of my position, as commander of the front, was that operations were developing simultaneously in several directions and each of these directions required attention and supervision. Fighting for Cottbus was still going on in the north, while in the centre, after the liquidation of the Spremberg area of resistance, our troops were confidently advancing towards Berlin and the Elbe. On our left flank, however, in the Dresden direction, we were still having a hard time of it, and this distracted me very much from our main attack.
Koniev was also responsible for 6th Army besieging Breslau well in his rear, but there he could urge restraint. He also sent his Chief of Staff, General Petrov, to deal with his problems on the southern flank.
By evening the leading elements of 3rd Guards Tank Army had come close to the outer sections of the Berlin Defence Area, and some of their scouts reached Königs Wusterhausen from the south, thereby effectively completing the encirclement of the German 9th Army. Although, as they were on the other side of the water complex from Colonel-General Chuikov’s 8th Guards Army, the troops of the two Soviet fronts remained unaware of their proximity to each other.
Meanwhile 4th Guards Tank Army’s 5th Guards Mechanized Corps continued to be heavily engaged in the Jüterbog area. The vanguard of 10th Guards Mechanized Brigade, having bypassed the town through the woods to the north during the night, reached the northern perimeter of the Altes Lager at daybreak and was met by fire from anti-tank guns, SPGs and Panzerfaust-armed infantry, which were shortly reinforced by the arrival of a troop of tanks coming from Treuenbrietzen. The brigade commander, Colonel V.N. Buslaiev, then sent off 51st Guards Tank Regiment to secure the right flank in the Niebel– Treuenbrietzen area, while the main body engaged the Altes Lager defences. These were overrun by the end of the morning with Soviet claims of four German tanks and two armoured personnel carriers (APCs) destroyed. Some large camps were then discovered nearby containing prisoners of war and forced labourers from Russia, Poland and France.
The local Volkssturm units, which had been deployed in defence of Treuenbrietzen the previous evening, disbanded themselves on the morning of 21 April, leaving the town’s anti-tank barriers open and unguarded. The first of 51st Guards Tank Regiment’s tanks arrived at 1700 hours and by 1900 hours twelve had passed through the town heading for Wittenberg with about a company of infantry on board. The inhabitants had expected American, not Russian troops, and some had already hung American flags from their windows, but these were soon replaced with white ones when the locals realized the identity of the intruders. Some elements of the Friedrich Ludwig Jahn Division, which were in the town, hastily withdrew to the western outskirts after losing an SPG and then came under Soviet artillery and mortar fire. They then mounted a counterattack, but this was repulsed with the loss of two tanks.
While this was going on, another part of Lieutenant-Colonel E.I. Grebennikov’s 51st Guards Tank Regiment took Niebel without a fight that afternoon after having bypassed Treuenbreitzen well to the east.
On 3rd Guards Tank Army’s line of advance on 21 April 1945 we have this account from Willi Klär, from Kummersdorf Gut, where the German Army’s main artillery testing ranges were located. The complex included barracks, workshops, stores, a secret atomic and chemical warfare research laboratory complex, its own railway station and sidings, as well as some military and civilian accommodation. However, apart from the military families living on site, most of the civilians employed here lived in the main village, a new settlement resulting from the increased activity arising from Hitler’s military expansion and located a kilometre away to the north-east off the Sperenberg road. (This should not be confused with the main village of Kummersdorf, which lies immediately beyond Sperenberg several kilometres north of the military installation, although ‘Kummersdorf ’ to most German soldiers meant the ranges at Kummersdorf Gut.)
Our village was spared the bombing attacks on Berlin. Only once an aerial mine landed near the railway level crossing near Schönefeld village and some incendiaries landed between the water tower, market garden, barracks and our village, but did little damage. The aircraft came from the direction of Luckenwalde, where they had dropped some bombs. A house and seven barns were set on fire in the nearby village of Horstwalde by incendiaries dropped by the same aircraft.
There were no proper air raid shelter facilities for those living in the village or near the ranges, only the cellars of their houses and some slit trenches covered with concrete slabs and sand. There was one in front of the old folks’ home. The constant air alerts were frightful and made the people exhausted, putting their nerves on edge.
On 20 April 1945 all the men and youths still remaining in the village were rounded up to stop the advance of the Red Army, which had already reached Baruth. During the night of 20/21 April the Volkssturm had to dig foxholes in the cleared ground beyond Lindestrasse, Birkenallee and Am Ring. They were supposed to stop the tanks with their rifles.
Soldiers were deployed on the ranges from the forest warden’s lodge, where the command post was located, along the main road to Schönefeld. The first enemy tanks approached the Königsgraben on the Horstwalde road early on the morning of 21 April.
An engine-less Tiger tank and a 75-mm anti-tank gun had been deployed in defence of the bridge over the Königsgraben but, after a brief exchange of fire, the crews abandoned them in face of the overwhelming numbers of the enemy.
None of the modern weapons being tested on the ranges were brought into use on 21 April, or our losses would have been even greater.
The soldiers deployed on the ranges also abandoned their positions after a short exchange of fire. Most of the local inhabitants who had been deployed in the defence outside the village were captured. Some died a hero’s death and a few were able to escape, withdrawing to the Elbe, only to return home a few weeks later exhausted and half-starved.
Some of the ammunition stores were blown up as the Red Army approached on 21 April, as were the two industrial railway bridges over the main line to Sperenberg, and the industrial railway bridge over the main road to Sperenberg, in order to check the advance.
Three teenage youths, a young woman and four men over normal military age were killed during the fighting on 21 April. Most of the women and children had already fled on the evening of 20 April, or in the early hours of 21 April, to the observation bunker on the east range and remained there for a few days, returning to their homes once things had quietened down.
Orders from Hitler for 9th Army, which were received by Heinrici at 1720 hours, were to hold on to the existing defensive line from Cottbus to Fürstenberg, and from there to curve it back via Müllrose to Fürstenwalde. At the same time a strong front was to be established between Königs Wusterhausen and Cottbus, from which repeated, vigorous and coordinated attacks were to be made, in cooperation with 12th Army, on the deep flank of the Soviet forces attacking Berlin from the south.
General Busse’s Spreewald concentration now became a focus of round the clock attention for Air Chief Marshal A.A. Novikov, who devoted a large part of the resources of his 2nd, 16th and 18th Air Armies to the harassment of the 9th Army pocket, with as many as 60 to 100 aircraft in action at a time.
With 9th Army were tens of thousands of refugees from Germany’s eastern provinces who had been camping out in the woods since their arrival in the area during the winter. The Nazi Party authorities had been reluctant to initiate evacuation for fear of being accused of defeatism, with the consequence that civilians continued to remain in the combat area until the Soviet onslaught caught them out, as General Busse himself complained. However, fear of the Soviet invaders led to evacuation on a vast scale where no stable front existed, as in the preceding winter when the Soviet forces had swept across from the Vistula to the Oder. Many of the refugees seeking shelter in the Spreewald came from the part of Germany east of the Oder, including the Warthegau province, part of which had been seized from Poland in 1939 and re-settled with ethnic Germans from the Baltic states, other parts of Poland, Bessarabia and Romania. Organising themselves in community-related treks, these refugees took what they could of their worldly possessions in horse-drawn wagons, or pulled them along in the four-wheeled type of handcart then common to German households for conveying heavy loads. The refugees were mainly women, children and the elderly, all able men of military age having long since been taken into the armed forces, and all others up to the age of 60 having more recently been conscripted into the Volkssturm.
In February 1945 the Nazi Party authorities had established a system for passing these refugees on, allowing them to stay overnight in the villages on their route but having them move on by 1000 hours the next day, only those who had fallen ill being allowed to remain. Halbe itself was accommodating about 1,000 refugees per night. It seems that a large number of those who had no relatives to head for, or who had chosen not to leave their fate to the authorities, had decided to camp out in the comparative safety of the Spreewald.
With the collapse of the 9th Army front, the number of existing refugees was greatly augmented by those fleeing their homes from the Fürstenwalde–Frankfurt–Cottbus area as the troops withdrew. Although there was sufficient food for everyone, internal communications rapidly deteriorated, and troops and civilians became hopelessly mixed in their predicament as the perimeter of the pocket contracted. Ammunition and fuel were in particularly short supply and when the artillery began running out of shells on 21 April, Colonel-General Heinrici at Army Group Weichsel advised General Busse to find some means of disengaging from the Soviet forces and to forget Hitler’s orders about holding on to the Oder.
Consequently, General Busse started making preparations for a break-out as suggested by Heinrici. The redisposition of the newly acquired V Corps was part of his plan. As soon as the Frankfurt garrison could withdraw into his lines, V Corps and V SS Mountain Corps were to start a simultaneous withdrawal from their Oder/Neisse positions in two bounds, going back on either side of Friedland to the line Staupitz–Beeskow–junction of the Spree and the Oder–Spree Canal.
The imminent danger to his northern flank caused Busse to decide to use Colonel-General Helmuth Weidling’s LVI Panzer Corps with the SS Panzergrenadier Divisions Nordland and Nederland to establish a screen along the line of the Spree west of Fürstenwalde, behind which those of his formations still on the Oder could withdraw westwards, but he was unable to bring himself to issue the necessary orders as this would have been in defiance of Hitler. He thus remained dependent upon the thinly spread 32nd SS Volunteer Grenadier Division’s battlegroup deployed south of the Spree to cover his north-west flank.
Part of Lieutenant-General Werner Marcks’ scattered 21st Panzer Division arrived opportunely in the Halbe area, and was sent to establish a new line of defence along the chain of lakes between Teupitz and Königs Wusterhausen facing west. As the men drove north through the Spreewald, they caught glimpses of the Soviet forces moving parallel to them on the autobahn. Marcks only had with him what remained of the 1st, 5th and Workshop Companies of the 22nd Panzer Regiment, Major Brand’s 21st Armoured Reconnaissance Battalion, the two battalions of the 125th Panzergrenadier Regiment and the 1st Company of the 192nd Panzergrenadiers, elements of the 220th Armoured Engineer Battalion, the staff and two battalions of the 155th Armoured Artillery Regiment Tannenberger, and the 305th Army Flak Battalion. The remains of the 10th SS Armoured Reconnaissance Battalion Frundsberg, which was following these elements of 21st Panzer Division, then took up north-facing defensive positions just outside Königs
Ernst-Christian Gädtke, then serving with the 32nd SS Tank-Hunting Battalion in Riessen, near Fürstenberg, gives us some idea of the atmosphere in the ranks as 9th Army’s withdrawal began:
At 0500 hours we were alerted and ordered to prepare to move off. As we packed up the rumours started flying around. The Russians were said to be before Berlin.
At roll-call we were given no explanations as usual, only confirmation that the Russians were before Berlin and that we were to defend it. We left at 0530 hours for Fürstenwalde and Rauen.
In the damp, foggy, early spring morning, our tank-hunting company with its four assault guns rattled off to the west, complete with the supply section.
After the highly-charged garrulousness of the previous day, a grim silence now reigned. The speech had been knocked out of us, and the silence was quite profound. No one dared say what he was thinking or feared, as everyone now accepted the terrible truth that defeat was inevitable. Nevertheless, the step in thinking from foreboding to certainty was one that I did not take. I continued to do what I had been doing for so long now, as did so many others; I just suppressed what I didn’t want to accept.
So our journey to the west was somewhat despairing, grim and silent. The morning was foggy and became cloudy, remaining like that all day. The engines thundered monotonously, the tracks rattled, squeaking and screaming whenever we took a bend. We crouched down dumb and grim-faced in our hatches. The gun was overloaded and packed with infantry, who crouched under their tent-halves and clung on as usual. Everything was grey. We drove through villages and small market towns – there, too, everything was dull and grey. People stood on the streets in Müllrose, watching us pass with doubt and uncertainty. Could we have dispelled their anxieties and fears as we passed through, or were we no longer any use as defenders of the fatherland? We should have looked back at them full of confidence, but we couldn’t.
By afternoon we were in Rauen. The Russians were said to be already in Fürtstenwalde, north of the Spree.
In his diary, SS-Lieutenant Bärmann of the same unit gave some indication of the confusion arising out of the redeployment on the northern flank of 9th Army that day. He wrote that the battalion command post was first established in Bad Saarow that morning, then moved back east to Alt Golm. He conducted a reconnaissance of the road from Alt Golm to Saarow, finding the route blocked with troops of all kinds who did not know what was ahead of or behind them. He then drove west to Friedersdorf to try and locate Battlegroup Krauss (based on 32nd SS Division’s tank-hunting battalion) but it had already moved on. On his way he met SS-Captain Paul Krauss, commander of the battalion, in Niederlehme and went on with him to Wernsdorf.
Behind the lines, Märkisch Buchholz was declared a fortress and prepared for all-round defence. Of vital importance here were the three bridges leading out of the town where the River Dahme connected with the Dahme Flood Canal that helped drain the Upper Spreewald. One was on the Halbe road next to the weir on the upper stretch of the canal and two across the lower stretch leading into the Hammer Forest, one of which carried Reichstrasse 179.
Meanwhile a Waffen-SS unit occupied Halbe and expressed its intention to defend the village, come what may. The local Volkssturm unit had already prepared an anti-tank barrier on the east–west running high street, and another on the street south leading to Teurow. The inhabitants prepared for the coming fighting, realising that their village lay on the main route to the west. Many prepared dugouts in the woods around, or prepared to take to their cellars, while concealing their valuables by burying them in boxes.