SHORT ACCOUNT OF COMBAT OPERATIONS
FIGHTING TO THE EAST OF BERLIN 16 – 22 April 1945
Before the beginning of the final Russian offensive one panzer division and four panzer grenadier divisions were held in reserve behind the Oder Front. They had suffered severe casualties in the earlier fighting and had not been fully rehabilitated. Two of these units, Panzer Grenadier Divisions “Nordland” and “Nederland,” were largely composed of non-German personnel.
In the period from 12 to 15 April the enemy widened the bridgehead on either side of Kuestrin in preparation for the final drive on Berlin. (The major lines of attack are shown in Sketch 2) It was already necessary at this early stage to commit Panzer Division “Muencheberg” to action.
On 16 April the enemy opened a large-scale offensive from the Kuestrin bridgehead and from along the Neisse in the Forst – Guben sector against the Fourth Panzer Army of Army Group Schoerner. On the whole the unity of the Oder front was maintained during the first day of attack. Certain units, however, were already so hard pressed that it was necessary to commit another reserve unit, the 25th Panzer Grenadier Division.
On 17 and 18 April the enemy succeeded in making deep inroads into the lines, and the German defenses opposite the bridgehead began to weaken. The moving up of reserves was delayed. On 18 April the 18th Panzer Grenadier Division went into action, followed on 20 April by Panzer Grenadier Division “Nordland” and parts of Panzer Grenadier Division “Nederland”. Consequently no effective counterattacks were launched after that time. The LVI Panzer Corps, commanding the forces east of Berlin, could do nothing but delay the Russian advance while engaging in a step-by-step retreat.
The attacking wedge between Forst and Guben pushed forward into open country. The bulk of the forces attacking in this sector turned northward, threatening the flank and rear of the Ninth Army and menacing Berlin from the south. To counter this threat, Division Jahn, a unit still in process of being formed out of Labor Service components, was committed to action by the Army High Command along a forty-kilometer front facing south on either side of Baruth. This was the so-called Armeegruppe Spree. On 20 April the Russians broke through this weak defense line near Baruth, reaching Zossen on 21 April and the southern perimeter of Berlin on 22 April. Some elements of Division Jahn withdrew to Potsdam.
The southern wing of the 1st Russian Army Group, advancing from the Kuestrin bridgehead, swung south against the Erkner – Frankfurt-on-the-Oder line. The center of the army group engaged in heavy fighting with the LVI Panzer Corps, which was pushed back toward Berlin. The northern wing met with littie resistance. It reached Werneuchen on 21 April and on the following day advanced by way of Bernau toward the Havel River between Spandau and Oranienburg. When repulsed near Oranienburg an armored wedge by a bold move crossed the Havel near Henningsdorf, north of Spandau, in the face of weak resistances.
To protect the south flank of the Third Panzer Army, which was still holding out on the lower Oder, Army Group Vistula had previously deployed some security forces, consisting of a few police battalions and Luftwaffe replacement units, along the Finow Canal as far as Oranienburg. On 19 April a naval division had begun moving from Swinemuende to Oranienburg. Owing to the destruction of rail facilities through air attack, only two battalions of this division reached Oranienburg, arriving there just in time to beat back a Russian attempt to cross the Havel. The security forces in the sector from Oranienburg to the near limits of Eberswalde had been placed under the command of SS Obergruppenfuehrer Sieiner.
Since Army Group Vistula did not have at its disposal additional forces to man the sector stretching south of Oranienburg to Spandau, it had requested the Army High Command to provide troops there. At the latter’s orders the so-called “Mueller Brigade,” scraped together from a few understrength battalions, set out from Doeberitz. Either this force failed to reach the Havel or else it could not put up sufficient resistance; in any case, the Russians succeeded in gaining the west bank of the Havel and thus found themselves in a position to encircle Berlin from the west. On the same day, 22 April, Russian forces approaching from the north-east reached the perimeter of the city near Weissensee and Pankow.
Commentary. The collapse of the Oder front was an unavoidable consequence of the numerical and material superiority of the Russians. The available reserves were far too weak and even if committed on a mass scale would in the long run have been unable to achieve success. While the bulk of the German forces fought valiantly, the complete failure of individual units shows that the morale of the German troops was no longer uniformly high. Moreover, it is necessary to take into account not only the shortages in materiel of all kinds and the virtual lack of air power, but the fact that most older units as well as the newly set-up units contained a large number of inexperienced personnel.
Hitler believed that the attack across the Neisse would be aimed at Prague, by way of Dresden. Instead, the main force of the attack was directed at Berlin. In view of this development, Hitler gravely erred in ordering the Ninth Army to stand firm on the central Oder over the protests of Army Group Vistula. The order led to the surrounding of the Ninth Army and the encirclement of Berlin from the south.
The security measures along the Finow Canal proved expedient, but inadequate south of Oranienburg. To assure that troops would occupy this important sector in time, the Army High Command should have made certain that the routes of communication with the west were kept open. But here, as well as on the southern front, the necessary forces were lacking as a further consequence of the Ninth Army’s firm stand on the Oder.
The Russian commanders were active in exploiting the gaps effected in the lines to aid the rapid advance of strong motorized and armored forces. They correctly estimated the slight danger threatening the flanks of their spearheads, and armored points advanced boldly north of Spandau. The advance on Berlin itself, however, was cautious and hesitant. Obviously the Russians overestimated the strength of the defense positions and the number of troops occupying them. Army Group Vistula expected that by 21 or 22 April the first Russian tanks would already have reached the Reich Chancellery. Such generals as Rommel or Patton would not have lost this opportunity for a surprise thrust. As long as the LVI Panzer Corps was still east of Berlin, such an attack from the northeast or from the north would have had good chance of success.
Despite the preparations for the defense of Berlin, by 22 April the city was almost helpless against a powerful attack from the south, north-east or north. Along the approximately sixty kilometers of the city perimeter defense ring (not including the western front, which had not yet been attacked), and in the positions along the city circuit railroad, the lines were held almost solely by the Volkssturm and other units of low combat value. The government sector, of course, was still guarded by units of the SS.
FIGHTING IN AND AROUND BERLIN (23 – 30 April 1945)
On 23 April the Russians attacked the position along the city perimeter in the south, east, and north, breaking through at several points, and in the east driving forward to the inner defense ring, where they first stopped in the vicinity of the Friedrichshain flak tower.
Advancing by way of Spandau, west of the Havel, they reached Doeberitz on 23 April, Nauen on 24 April, and Rathenow on 25 April. Pushing ahead to the south of Doeberitz on 23 April, the enemy had cut off Berlin from the west by evening. Potsdam was also encircled.
On the evening of 23 April, General Weidling took command of the city and that same night moved the troops of the LVI Panzer Corps into Berlin. The divisions were immediately committed at crucial points in the battle lines. Remnants of the 20th Panzer Grenadier Division went into action in the south-west, Panzer Division “Muenchenberg” in the south-east, Panzer Grenadier Division “Nordland” and remnants of Panzer Grenadier Division “Nederland” in the east, and the 18th Panzer Grenadier Division in the northern and southern parts of the Zoo sector. This indication of the distribution of forces can serve only as a general guide, since the position and composition of the units changed daily and even hourly. The Panzer corps and the SS units under Mohnke now carried the burden of the stiffening resistance to the uninterrupted Russian attacks, which were concentrated in the southeast, east, and north. In the west, Berlin was attacked by comparatively weaker forces, but they were still far superior to the defenders. The forces advancing from the south behind the 1st Ukrainian Army Group had to divert elements against the Ninth Army, Potsdam, and later the Twelfth Army.
In the course of heavy fighting, the German troops were pushed back to the city circuit railroad and even beyond it0 By 30 April only the government sector, the immediate vicinity of the Tlergarten and a strip extending westward from the Zoo sector to the Havel River were still held by the defenders. The Russians employed a planned and methodical procedure of attack. Bombing and heavy artillery and mortar fire preceded every fresh assault. The infantry was supported by tanks advancing singly or in group formation and by engineer troops with flame-throwers and demolition equipment. Advances were made by small sectors – street by street and house by house. The infantry took every opportunity to infiltrate through back yards, cellar passageways, subway tunnels, and sewers. In this way many of the defense positions were stormed from behind or below.
At first the defenders made use of the prepared positions. After being driven from these, new vantage points were found in bombed-out lots, cellars, and buildings. The few available tanks sought out suitable firing positions amid the ruins or were used for counterthrust. So some tanks were dug into position after they ran out of fuel. The defenders fell back for support on the large air-raid bunkers and above all on the flak towers, each of which was tightly enclosed by field fortifications. The artillery had to depend for its firing positions on open squares, parks, and railroad yards. Toward the end of the fighting the remaining guns were closely crowded together in the Tiergarten.
Commentary. The character of the bitter street fighting and the extensive commitment of materiel on the part of the Russians led to a high expenditure of strength. Thus it was necessary to feed a constant stream of fresh forces into the battle. In contrast to the defenders, the attackers had such forces in large quantity.
The German plans had failed to provide for the timely manning of the city perimeter defense position by adequate numbers of troops. Stronger forces were needed than those finally ordered by the LVI Panzer Corps. After Berlin had been surrounded and the Russians had penetrated into the heart of the city. it would have been impossible, even in the long run, to halt the attackers. Nevertheless, the LVI Panzer Corps possessed sufficient gallantry and fighting strength to inflict heavy losses on the Russians and to resist for more than a week behind steadily extracting lines.
After the Russians had failed to take the city in the first onslaught before the arrival of the Panzer Corps, the systematic combat procedure adopted by them became expedient.
THE RELIEF ATTACKS (24 – 29 April 1945)
1. From the North. As soon as a Russian break-through toward Bernau by way of Wriezen appeared imminent, Army Group Vistula became justifiably concerned over the Third Panzer Army’s southern flank. Measures taken for the protection of the canal line from Eberswalde to Oranienburg have been pointed out above. When the Russians succeeded in crossing the Havel River on 22 April, the possibility of a drive in the direction of Mecklenburg or Hamburg presented an ever-greater danger for the rear of the army group. The only possibility for countering this threat was to launch a local attack southward from the Finow Canal against the deep flank of the Russian spearhead. That same day, 22 April, the army group ordered SS Obergruppenfuehrer Steiner to direct such an attack, and for this purpose placed on his disposal about seven improvised battalions. This mixed task force was not ready for action until the morning of 24 April. The attack caught some Russian security detachments by surprise and pushed forward without interruption for about ten kilometers to Zehlendorf and Klosterfelde. The Russians then threw stronger forces into actor and drove the attackers across the Finow Canal and hack to their lines of departures.
The attack had fulfilled its purpose by diverting the attention of Russian forces which would otherwise have driven further westward„ The same purpose was accomplished by holding a bridgehead at Eberswalde, which was attacked for days by the Second Polish Army. Hitler, however, saw in the operation a chance to relieve Berlin by launching an attack with stronger forces from the north, whereupon he ordered SS Obergruppenfuehrer Steiner to direct a strong attack on Spandau from the area west of Oranienburg. Keitel laid repeated stress on these orders by appearing personally at army group headquarters. For this operation, troops were to be brought in from the Elbe. The 28th Panzer Grenadier Division, which had been fighting near Eberswalde, was also to participate. In the meantime the situation had radically changed. In the Oranienburg sector SS Obergruppenfuehrer Steiner, with only one hastily assembled division still at his disposal, stood face to face with the Russians. On 25 April the lines of the Third Panzer Army had been pierced south of Stettin by a major attack and it was necessary for the army to withdraw to the west while at the same time abandoning the Finow Canal. The 25th Panzer Grenadier Division was urgently needed to support the Third Panzer Army and thus make possible the latter’s withdrawal and it was in fact committed by the army group to this front. Corps Holste, coming up from the Elbe, had to move in with utmost speed in order to lengthen the deep southern flank of the army group along the Rhin Canal and there halt a Russian attack directed toward Hamburg.
A sharp clash now developed between the commander of Army Group Vistula and General Keitel. General Keitel regarded as treason General Heinrici’s efforts to save at least the remaining elements of his army group. On 29 April he relieved Heinrici of his post and appointed Generaloberst Student as his successor; Generaloberst von Tippelskirch assumed command until the new commander’s arrival. This shift effected no change in the actual situation, however. The movements ordered by Generaloberst Heinrici were carried out, and the bulk of the Third Panzer Army, the Steiner forces, and the troops grouped under the Twenty-first Army along the Rhin River surrendered to the Western Allies.
2. From the Southeast. The Ninth Army, in compliance with strict orders from Hitler, had remained so long on the central Oder that it was encircled by the enemy. Hitler gave orders on 23 April that the Ninth Army was to break out in the direction of Mariendorf, on the southern perimeter of Berlin, to join forces with the Twelfth Army for a relief attack on the capital. This order presupposed on the part of the Ninth Army a freedom of action which it no longer possessed. Shortly before receiving the order, the commander, General der Infanterie Busse, had decided to attempt a break-through to the west by way of Halbe in order to continue in the same direction under cover of the extensive forests in that area. The army adhered to this decision even after the receipt of Hitler’s orders. After bitter fighting, the Ninth Army, with a force of 30,000 men, succeeded in breaking through the Russian encirclement and meeting the Twelfth Army near Beelitz on 29 – 30 April.
3. From the West. The Twelfth Army, under the command of General der Panzer Truppen Wenck, was originally assigned to the Magdeburg area, with its front facing west. On 23 April it received orders to face about and, leaving only the weakest security detachments on the Elbe, to attack Berlin and liberate the capital with the assistance of the Ninth Army. The army succeeded in quickly regrouping its forces and, with the three divisions of the XX Corps protecting its flanks, reached the Beelitz-Ferch sector on 28 April. There it was joined by escaped elements of those troops which had withdrawn to Potsdam under General Reymann and by the remains of the Ninth Army.
After that the Twelfth Army barely had time to return to the Elbe, where it was captured by the Americans„ At no time was there any possibility of continuing the attack on Berlin.
Commentary. The orders given for the contemplated relief attacks failed completely to take into account the actual conditions in the field. They nevertheless greatly stimulated the hope and will to resist on the part of the defenders. After the Twelfth Army failed in its attempted attack, Hitler committed suicide.
With the death of Hitler, the commanders outside Berlin found themselves in the position to make clear decisions of their own with a view to saving their troops. Keitel’s senseless orders were no longer needed.
ENGAGEMENTS IN BERLIN AFTER 30 APRIL AND THE FINAL SURRENDER
On 30 April, soon after Hitler’s death, General Weidling received a letter prepared at 1300 hours that same day and signed by Hitler. It left the defenders free to attempt to break out of the city, but at the same time forbade them to surrender. Since Weidling did not regard a breakthrough on a mass scale as feasible, he allowed the troops under his command to leave the city on their own initiative. This order was issued by Weidling from the Reichs Chancellery, which he had been unable to leave since 29 April. Shortly afterwards, Goebbels intervened and in his capacity as minister forbade all attempts to leave the city, announcing at the same time, that he would enter into negotiations with the Russians0 Since Weidling naturally supposed that these negotiations would lead to a cease-fire, he revoked his earlier order on the afternoon of 30 April.
On 1 May, when it became evident that Goebbels’ negotiations were not leading to a capitulation, Weidling hesitated between attempting a break-through and surrendering. On the afternoon of 1 May the troops received a new order, stating that a break-through would be attempted that evening. In the meantime, however, Weidling had decided to capitulate. He also revoked his second break-through order and on the evening of 1 May called the commanders who could still be reached to the Bendler Bunker and informed them of his intention to surrender the next morning. The offer was communicated to the Russians by radio and by Colonel (GSC) von Duffing as truce representative. An offer of surrender made independently of Weidling”s by State Secretary Fritsche — each being unaware of the other’s action — came to naught. Goebbels, after the failure of his attempted negotiations, by which he hoped to be recognized as minister in a new government, had again proclaimed a fight to the bitter end. He then committed suicide.
The vacillation of the leaders, the orders and counter orders, had produced great confusion among the troops. Many combat groups had not received the order calling off the break-through, while others had received no orders at all. Many units, in small or large groups, moved out from the Zoo sector by way of the subway tunnel, past the radio tower and Ruhleben, to the Havel. A break-through across the northern bridge at Spandau was made by a force with tank support, although heavy losses resulted. Individual detachments and stragglers succeeded in escaping, but the bulk of these forces were encircled in the open terrain north of Nauen and taken prisoner.
The surrender was effected in Berlin on the morning of 2 May, although not without difficulty. In many instances officers announcing the capitulation were accused of treason and threatened with death. Individual combat groups, especially among the SS, refused to surrender and fought on for hours, and even days, to the last man. The bulk of the defenders fell prisoner to the Russians on 2 May.
Commentary. To continue the defense was hopeless and could only have led to further senseless losses among the troops and the civilian population. Likewise, attempts by entire units to break out of the city in a body had not the slightest chance of success. That this was tried in many instances only shows how great was the fear of capture by the Russians.
Soviet Formations Engaged in the Reduction of Berlin
1st Byelorussian Front (Marshal G.K. Zhukov)
1st Gds Tk Army (Col-Gen. M.Y. Katukov)
2nd Gds Tk Army (Col-Gen. I.I. Feduninsky)
47th Army (Lt-Gen. F.I. Perkhorovitch)
3rd Shock Army (Col-Gen. V.I. Kutznetsov)
5th Shock Army (Gen/Col-Gen. N.E. Berzarin)
8th Gds Army (Col-Gen. V.I. Chuikov)
3rd Army (Col-Gen. A.V. Gorbatov)
1st Polish Inf Div Tadiuscz Kosciuszko (Gen. Stanislaw Poplawski)
16th Air Army (Col-Gen. S.I. Rudenko)
18th Air Army (AVM A.Y. Golovanov)
Dnieper Flotilla (Rear Adm.V.V. Grigoryev)
1st Ukrainian Front (Marshal I.S. Koniev)
3rd Gds Tk Army (Col-Gen. P.S. Rybalko)
10th Gds Tk Corps (4th Gds Tk Army) (Lt-Gen.Y.Y. Belov)
128th Rifle Corps (28th Army) (Maj-Gen. P.F. Batirsky)
350th Rifle Div (13th Army)
10th Aslt Arty Corps (5th Gds Army)
25th Aslt Arty Div
23rd AA Arty Div
2nd Air Fighter Corps (2nd Air Army)
Soviet Street-Fighting Organisation
The combat teams generally consisted of a platoon of infantry, one or two tanks, some sappers, some man-pack flame-throwers, a section of anti-tank guns, and two or three field guns, usually 76mm, but sometimes even 150mm guns or 203mm howitzers were used in this role when particularly strong positions had to be attacked.
For the mass artillery the main problem was finding sufficient open space in which to operate, and in some places the guns were packed so closely together it seemed that their wheels must be touching. The Katyusha rocket-launcher units found a solution to their problem by dismantling the frames from the truckbeds and reassembling them on convenient rooftops. All these artillery concentrations were protected by a profusion of anti-aircraft guns.
A pattern emerged by which all the artillery combined in a massive hour-long bombardment of the day’s targets first thing every morning. This was first experienced at 0515 hours on 24 April and gradually increased in intensity as more guns were brought into play on subsequent days. At night the shelling did not actually stop but diminished considerably.
Soviet Street-Fighting Techniques
The street-fighting techniques used by the 1st Byelorussian Front were based on the principle that each street should be tackled by a complete regiment, with one battalion working down either side of the street and the third battalion in reserve and bringing up the rear. The frontage of a regiment was thus as little as 200 to 250 yards, while that of higher formations varied according to the terrain. Individual units were each day assigned immediate tasks, subsequent tasks and an axis for further advance, the depth of penetration expected of them varying according to the circumstances. Usually the troops did not advance down the streets themselves but mouseholed their way through the buildings at different levels, while the supporting artillery pushed its way through the back yards and alleys with engineer assistance. The light infantry guns and dismantled rocket-launchers were manhandled up into buildings and used with great flexibility. In attacking a heavily defended building the assault group would usually split into two, one part concentrating on quickly bottling up the enemy in the cellars, where they would normally have taken shelter during the preliminary bombardment, and the other clearing the upper storeys.
In this direct support role the guns advanced with their teams, firing over open sights at ranges of up to 400 yards down the axis of the streets. They would set themselves up under cover of smokescreens, or would fire at the blank walls of buildings to raise clouds of dust for the same purpose. At these ranges the gunners inevitably took casualties from infantry fire, and it was a particularly trying time for their observers with the leading infantry, who frequently needed relief from the strain and fatigue of their role.