Last Defence before Berlin
By early April the situation for Army Group North, now renamed Army of East Prussia, deteriorated further. Its forces were now hemmed in around the Bay of Danzig from Samland and Konigsberg to the mouth of the Vistula. The remnants of two corps were given the task of holding positions north of Gotenhafen on the Hel peninsula. Hitler demanded that it be held and all costs. He instructed all forces in the Army of East Prussia and Army Group Kurland, to stay in the front, and then hold in order to draw the maximum enemy forces toward itself and hopefully away from the main Soviet drive on Berlin.
In the first two weeks of April as German forces tried to maintain their unstable position in the north the Red Army pulled together its forces into three powerful fronts with the main front being directed against Berlin. In the north the 2nd Belorussian Front was to cross the Oder north of Schwedt and strike toward Neustrelitz. Its thrust was intended to drive out the defending 3rd Panzer Army back against the coast and cover the advance toward Berlin on the north. German forces, however, were determined to try and hold their positions for as long as possible and prevent the Russians from taking possession of German territory. But in spite of dogged resistance in many places the Germans no longer had the man power, war plant or transportation to defend their positions effectively. The 3rd Panzer Army had 11 remaining divisions, whilst the 2nd Belorussian Front had 8 armies totalling 33 rifle divisions, 4 tank and mechanized corps, and 3 artillery divisions plus a mixture of artillery and rocket launcher brigades and regiments. The Germans were dwarfed by enemy superiority but continued to fight from one fixed position to another.
By mid-April the 2nd Belorussian Front had successfully pushed back the 3rd Panzer Army and had taken a bridgehead ten miles long above the city of Stettin. Inside Stettin the city had been turned into a fortress and was being defended by ‘Fortress Division Stettin’. It was formed out of parts of the 3rd Panzer Army, and during its defensive battle it put up a staunch defence.
Elsewhere on the Eastern Front the Germans were trying their utmost to hold back the Russian drive. By April 1945 the atmosphere among the troops of Army Group Vistula became a mixture of terrible foreboding and despair as the Russians prepared to push forward on the River Oder. Here along the Oder and Neisse fronts the troops waited for the front to become engulfed by the greatest concentration of firepower ever amassed by the Russians. General Zhukov’s 1st Belorussian Front and General Konev’s 1st Ukrainian Front were preparing to attack German forces defending positions east of Berlin. For the attack the Red Army mustered some 2.5 million men, divided into four armies. They were supported by 41,600 guns and heavy mortars as well as 6,250 tanks and self-propelled guns.
At dawn on 16 April 1945, just thirty-eight miles east of the German capital above the swollen River Oder, red flares burst into the night sky, triggering a massive artillery barrage. For nearly an hour, an eruption of flame and smoke burst along the German front. Then, in the mud, smoke, and darkness, the avalanche broke. In an instant, General Zhukov’s soldiers were compelled to stumble forward into action. As they surged forward, the artillery barrage remained in front of them, covering the area ahead.
Under the cover of darkness on the night of 15th, most German forward units had been moved back to a second line just before the expected Russian artillery barrage. In this second line, as the first rays of light prevailed across the front, soldiers waited for the advancing Russians. Along the entire front the 3rd and 9th Armies had fewer than 700 tanks and selfpropelled guns. The largest division, the 25th Panzer, had just 79 such vehicles: the smallest unit had just two. Artillery too was equally spurse with only 744 guns. Ammunition and fuel were in a critical state of supply and reserves in some units were almost non-existent. Opposing the main Russian assault stood the 56th Panzer Corps. It was under the command of General Karl Weidling, known to his friends as ‘smasher Karl’. Weidling had been given the awesome task of preventing the main Russian breakthrough in the area.
When the Soviet forces finally attacked during the early morning of 16 April, the Germans were ready to meet them on the Seelow Heights. From the top of the ridge, hundreds of German flak guns that had been hastily transferred from the Western Front poured a hurricane of fire into the enemy troops. All morning, shells and gunfire rained down on the Red Army, blunting their assault. By dusk the Russians, savagely mauled by the attack, fell back. It seemed the Red Army had underestimated the strength and determination of their enemy.
By the next day, the Russians had still not breached the German defences. But General Zhukov, with total disregard for casualties, was determined to batter the enemy into submission and ruthlessly bulldoze his way through. Slowly and systematically the Red Army began smashing through their opponents. Within hours hard-pressed and exhausted German troops were feeling the full brunt of the assault. Confusion soon swept the decimated lines. Soldiers who had fought doggedly from one fixed position to another were now seized with panic. The Battle for Berlin had now begun.
Fortress Berlin – Encirclement
On Monday, 23 April in the weakly beating heart of Nazi Germany the less-important courtiers of Hitler’s regime were taking their leave. As some left, others moved in, among them were Magda Goebbels and her six children. Outside the Fuhrer bunker, across the bomb- and shell-ravaged city, Berliners waited for the battle to begin on their doorsteps.
Having fallen back on Berlin, General Helmut Weidling, commanding LVI Panzer Corps, although under sentence of death, arrived at the Fuhrer bunker to find that he was now commander of the capital’s defenders. His own corps consisted of 18th and 20th Panzergrenadier divisions, the Muncheberg Panzer Division, the 11th SS Panzergrenadier Division Nordland and fragments of 9th Parachute Division. All were now at a tithe of their titular strength, therefore Weidling told off all bar 18th Panzergrenadier Division, which constituted his reserve, to strengthen the eight defence sectors. The force available to Weidling numbered approximately 45,000 army and SS men and 40,000 Volkssturm with roughly 60 tanks. It was anticipated that stragglers and more cohesive groups would swell the numbers over the next few days.
However, according to NKVD General I. A. Serov’s report on the condition of the city’s defences there was little for Weidling’s men to stand behind: ‘No serious permanent defences have been found inside the 10–15km zone around Berlin. There are fire-trenches and gun pits and the motorways are mined in certain sections. There are some trenches as one comes to the city, but less in fact than any other city taken by the Red Army.’ Further comments included intelligence gained from Volkssturm POWs who told how few regular troops were in Berlin, how short of arms and equipment they were and how unwilling the Volkssturm was to fight.
Unaware of this report, troops of First Belorussian Front began to move cautiously into suburban Berlin from the north, the east and the south-east. The main thrust was an attack by Fifth Shock, Eighth Guards and First Guards Tank armies. Several units of Eighth Guards crossed the Spree and Dahme rivers in the direction of the suburb of Britz, on the Teltow canal. To their right, Fifth Shock, with the support of gunboats of the Dnieper Flotilla, also crossed the Spree.
Further west along the banks of the Teltow canal Konev’s Third Guards Tank Army, supported by a colossal concentration of artillery, prepared to launch itself across this vital water barrier. Opposing them were numerous Volkssturm battalions braced with elements of 18th and 20th Panzergrenadier divisions.
The Nordland Division, falling back in the face of Zhukov’s Guards infantry and tanks, took the opportunity to refuel its armour at Tempelhof airfield. Any possible repairs were made, and they even received armoured reinforcements. However, the bulk of the fighting rested on the weary shoulders of the infantry, and on 24 April they were launched in a series of counterattacks to push the Soviets back across the Spree river. As Weidling’s counterattacks began, so did Konev’s canal crossing. Soviet artillery and mortars began firing at 06.20 hrs, and 40 minutes later the first footholds had been established. Fighting desperately, the Panzergrenadiers and Volkssturm were unable to hold the line and by midday T-34s began to cross the newly erected pontoon bridges.
To the east Zhukov’s troops held their ground and then counterattacked so successfully in their turn that they overran Treptow Park and reached the line of the S-Bahn railway, where they halted to regroup and bring up supplies.
Third Shock Army, approaching the outskirts of Berlin from the north-east, made steady progress passing through the infamously communist district of Wedding to reach the Schiffahrts canal.
Surrounded though Berlin was to the north-west and the west, the Soviet ring was as yet fairly porous as a group of French Waffen SS men found out as they made their way from the north, passing on the way thousands of refugees, Wehrmacht stragglers and escaping foreign workers. The French were subordinated to the Nordland Division just at the time it was retiring to defend Tempelhof airfield alongside the few tanks and men of the Muncheberg Panzer Division. This latter formation was a remarkable unit, having been formed less than two months previously around a cadre of men and machines from the Kummersdorf equipment-testing facility. Its armoured component included examples of nearly every tank and armoured fighting vehicle ever produced, including one-off experimental types. Even after the losses it had suffered at Seelow Heights and during the retreat into the city the Muncheberg Division could still pack a punch. But even this armoured miscellany could not hold Tempelhof indefinitely. LVI Panzer began to withdraw towards the city centre during the afternoon of 25 April. An officer of the Muncheberg Division described ‘incessant Russian artillery fire…despite strong artillery fire the civilians population tried to escape’ but more ominously the wounded soldiers were ‘left where they were for fear of running into the hands of the mobile courts.’ In the hell that Berlin was becoming, drumhead courts martial roamed the streets rounding up apparent deserters and hanging them from any convenient tree or lamppost with a sign describing them variously as ‘traitors to the Reich’, ‘cowards’ or any other suitable insulting epithet. The officer continued describing the cries of women and children, the whistles of Stalin Organs and the smell of death and explosives mixed with chlorine. His last words were ‘The fight continues tenaciously.’
With Zhukov’s forces heavily engaged around Tempelhof and the Hohenzollern–Schiffahrts canal and the Fifth Shock Army moving into the Freidrichshain district on the eastern edge of the city, First Ukrainian Front had split the defences on the Teltow canal forcing 20th Panzergrenadier Division onto Wannsee Island as its left flank pushed through the Grunwald forest towards Charlottenburg and the centre advanced driving the Volkssturm and 18th Panzergrenadier Division back towards the city centre.
Now, almost everywhere the fighting was taking place in densely built-up areas which neither the Soviets nor the Germans had experienced so seriously since Stalingrad 30 months before. Bombing and shelling had destroyed many buildings creating ready-made fortresses in which defenders could take cover and from which they could launch tip-and-run ambushes. Trams, shattered vehicles, rubble and all manner of everything to hand was pressed into the creation of barricades to block roads and junctions. Where possible, slit trenches and machine-gun or Panzerfaust pits were dug. Railway tunnels were demolished and the guns of the three immensely strong Flak towers were turned to face the approaching Soviet armour.
In the cellars of buildings German troops waited with Panzerfausts, and suddenly Soviet tank and infantry losses began to rise dramatically. Countermeasures were drawn from Chuikov’s notes made during the Stalingrad campaign with updates from his recent experience of urban warfare in Poznan, and the small infantry assault group made its return.
But outside the city events were shaping somewhat differently, and in Hitler’s bunker the last politicking of the ‘Thousand-Year Reich’ continued at fever pitch.
Fortress Berlin – Fantasy Armies
So far the advance into Berlin was proceeding well but German Ninth and Twelfth armies were beginning to fight back and pose problems for Konev’s rear to east and west. Moscow had been lax in dealing with these formations as its focus was the battle for Berlin. However, when it came, the reaction was swift. General Busse’s Ninth Army included men from XI SS Panzer Corps and V SS Mountain Corps as well as survivors of the Frankfurt garrison and V Corps, in all, upwards of 80,000 troops. The number of civilians who had attached themselves to Ninth Army was not recorded. However, Busse still had 31 tanks fuelled from abandoned vehicles. Ninth Army had been in contact with Wenck’s Twelfth Army on the Elbe river. On 22 April Hitler had agreed to General Field Marshal Jodl’s suggestion that Twelfth Army should be rotated eastwards from its position opposite the Americans on the Elbe and set out to rescue Berlin. Ordering General Field Marshal Keitel to ‘co-ordinate the actions of Twelfth and Ninth armies’, Hitler packed him off with brandy, sandwiches and chocolate for the journey to Wenck’s HQ. Back in the Spree forest Busse was heavily engaged fighting off units of First Belorussian Front. Keitel reached Wenck on 23 April and delivered the order to save the capital. Hitler so lacked trust in his senior officers that he demanded that the order to save Berlin be broadcast on the national radio channel. When Keitel departed, Wenck and his staff planned their move. Part of Twelfth Army would march to Potsdam at the extreme western edge of Berlin while the greater part would head east to link up with Ninth Army. The objective was simple – to save as many soldiers and civilians as possible from the Soviet advance and then fall back to the west, where a screening force was to remain on the Elbe. When the men of the Twelfth Army were informed of this operation there appears to have been little dissent. For the people of Berlin, Wenck’s arrival could not come too soon, as it was about their only hope of deliverance from the Soviets, other than the arrival of the Anglo–Americans. Indeed, so wrapped up in the fantasy was Hitler that he informed Weidling on 25 April that Ninth and Twelfth armies would ‘deliver a crushing blow to the enemy’. Just what sort of blow could be delivered by two small, understrength forces that lacked fuel, armour, men and munitions was not detailed.
Wenck’s XX Corps, composed of four inexperienced, newly raised infantry divisions, set off eastwards on 24 April. One of its units, the Ulrich von Hutten Infantry Division, headed for Potsdam, and the others for Ninth Army.
The route that both Ninth and Twelfth armies were to follow led through forests, the most dangerous points of which were the crossing of open spaces, notably the roads that ran across their path. Busse’s force began its exodus on 25 April, ignoring all signals from Berlin. However, behind Ninth Army’s rearguard followed Zhukov’s II Guards Cavalry Corps and elements of Thirty-Third and Sixty-Ninth armies. Konev contributed Third Guards and Twenty-Eighth armies. It was a gap between these two armies that Ninth Army broke through on 26 April after bitter fighting. For the next five days Ninth Army fought its way through three lines of extemporised Soviet defence. Finally, on 1 May, Busse’s advance guard linked up with Twelfth Army at the village of Beelitz. Behind them came the rest, moving, as Busse described it, ‘like a caterpillar’. Roughly 25,000 soldiers had escaped, along with uncounted civilians.
Although Konev had had to switch his focus to his rear flanks the effect on the Berlin operation had not been critical.
Tactically the Soviet style had altered. Tanks no longer drove in column down the centre of a road but operated in pairs, one on each side of the road, giving cover to each other from Panzerfaust-wielding ambushers in the cellars and basements, or Molotov cocktails dropped from windows and rooftops. Supporting infantry operated in assault groups of between six and eight, armed with close-order weapons such as submachine-guns, grenades, knives and sharpened shovels. Artillery of all calibres was deployed to clear away barricades and stubborn pockets of resistance. And everywhere were flamethrowers and engineers with demolition charges for ‘bunker busting’.
Late on 26 April, Tempelhof airfield was abandoned as the Muncheberg and Nordland divisions’ remaining armour was ordered back to the Tiergarten. With room to manoeuvre, Chuikov projected his left flank across Konev’s right, cutting First Ukrainian Front off from the Reichstag and glory. As the fighting began to close in on the central defensive area, the Citadel, German reinforcements arrived in the shape of some Kriegsmarine personnel and Latvian SS men.
Elsewhere, Spandau Prison, on the Havel river to the north-west was taken and Gatow airfield came under ground-attack. Along the Landwehr canal, Fifth Shock Army was making progress onto the Wilhelmstrasse while Third Shock Army crossed the Westhafen canal. Pushing on throughout 27 April, the Soviets reduced the German defence area to a zone 5km by 15km, which roughly ran from the Alexanderplatz in the east to Charlottenburg and the Reichssportsfeld in the west.
News, inside this enclave and outside, as Soviet control of many areas was incomplete despite their best efforts, was at a premium as the radio service had virtually ceased to function, therefore one of the major sources was the tabloid Der Panzerbar – The Armoured Bear, referencing Berlin’s symbolic animal, the bear. Der Panzerbar’s headline for 26 April ran, ‘The battle has reached its climax, German reserves are rushing to Berlin.’ Lower down the page, a box read: ‘Whoever shows cowardice over fighting like a man…is nothing but a low-down bastard.’ The same day an attempt was made to relieve 20th Panzergrenadier Division but failed.
In some areas the defenders established in strongly built structures held out. On Third Shock Army’s front the Stettiner Railway Station posed particular problems, as did the Schleisischer Railway Station and the Lowen Brewery for Fifth Shock Army. In these cases the Germans enjoyed the fire support of the two massive flak towers at Humboldthain and Friedrichshain respectively.