Fortress Berlin II

Eighth Guards Army was now responsible for flushing out German resistance in the Tiergarten, where, as various participants in the action recalled, the rhododendrons were just coming into bloom, and the Anhalter Station.

During the course of the next day, 28 April, Wenck’s thrust towards Potsdam linked up with the forces stationed there and began to evacuate them to the west. Commanding a skeletal unit still called a division there was General Reymann, the officer formerly in charge of Berlin’s defences.

However, the crowning moment of 28 April belonged to Third Shock Army’s LXXIX Rifle Corps which, having fought its way down Alt Moabit, came in sight of the Reichstag. During First Belorussian Front’s preparations for the Berlin offensive, senior officers had familiarised themselves with the landscape of Berlin by means of a massive architectural model, on which the Reichstag was objective 105.

With his empire’s capital reduced to a smouldering heap, Hitler, ensconced in his bunker, continued to act as though he still controlled armies by the dozen and subjects by the million. Having decided to remain in Berlin and die, Hitler, on 27 April, having stripped Goering of all his offices for alleged treason, received General von Greim and appointed him commander of the Luftwaffe. Others, such as Albert Speer, the Minister for Arms Production, had already made their farewells. Indeed, on 23 April Speer had described Hitler as an old man resigned to death. Again on 27 April Hitler had repeated his order to Ninth and Twelfth armies that their attacks must be, ‘principally to save Berlin’ but no response was forthcoming. SS Obergruppenfuhrer Fegelein, brother-in-law of Eva Braun, the Fuhrer’s mistress, was arrested and later executed for alleged knowledge of Himmler’s plot to negotiate with the Anglo–American governments. This covert scheme of Himmler’s was, for Hitler, the final straw, particularly when it was confirmed by Reuters News Agency on 28 April. Convinced there was no longer anyone he could trust, Hitler married Eva Braun and dictated his political and personal statements. Appointing Grand Admiral Doenitz Reich President, he blamed an international Jewish cabal for forcing him to go to war. Command of the army was given to General Field Marshal Schorner, who was leading the remains of Army Group Centre in Czechoslovakia. Having completed his paperwork he joined his wife, and the newlyweds retired to bed. It was Sunday 29 April.

Fortress Berlin – Collapse

The advance along Alt Moabit towards the Spree river by two infantry divisions of Third Shock Army, the 150th and 171st, had brought them, on 28 April, within 800m of the river, across which lay the Reichstag. To reach this objective they had to cross the Spree, and in front of them was the intact, inviting shape of the Moltke bridge. Barricaded and mined with artillery and machine-guns to both flanks, the bridge would not make for easy crossing, however. The task was made more difficult when, at 18.00 hrs, the Germans blew it up, but the explosives had only done a partial job and it was clearly passable on foot. Having arranged artillery covering fire, an infantry platoon, led by Sergeant Pyatnitsky, led the crossing. As the Hitlers celebrated their wedding, more and more men of both Soviet divisions crossed the river into the governmental sector, an area dotted with the monolithic ministerial buildings, many of which were heavily fortified and garrisoned. The first building that the 150th Infantry Division had to contend with was the Ministry of the Interior. As it was impossible to bring heavy guns over the Moltke bridge, hand-to-hand combat went on all morning.

At dawn on 29 April another of Fifth Shock Army’s units, 301st Infantry Division, attacked the Gestapo HQ on Prinz-Albrechtstrasse. Preceded by point-blank artillery fire, two battalions overcame the defenders and planted a Red Flag on the roof. But the victory was short-lived as a fierce counterattack by men of the Nordland SS Division reoccupied the building.

Simultaneously, Eighth Guards and First Guards Tank armies crossed the Landwehr canal and were now within 2km of the Reichstag. The guards infantry had either swum or used improvised rafts, accomplishing the crossing under cover of a smokescreen. However, the Potsdammer bridge was captured intact by the faking of a fire on board a T-34; oily rags on its hull were set ablaze, then the crew opened fire on the defenders at close range as more tanks followed through the smoke. A dug-in Tiger I formed part of the defences as by now almost all fuel had been used up. Damaged vehicles were used as anti-tank positions until they were overwhelmed.

Chuikov’s right flank was now almost opposite Weidling’s HQ in the Bendlerstrasse. Weidling, realising that the end was approaching rapidly, conferred with his senior officers informing them that Twelfth Army had reached Potsdam. Following a situation report that indicated that there were approximately 10,000 troops in the Citadel area, it was decided that a breakout towards the west would be made at 22.00 hrs the following day. Naturally Weidling had to seek Hitler’s permission for the breakout and visited him the next day. Two days earlier Weidling had proposed leaving the city with Hitler under close escort but the Fuhrer had declined. Weidling’s second attempt was initially refused but later in the day permission was granted as long as the escapees joined up with combat formations to continue the fight. Word of the attempt was spread as rapidly as possible. But as Weidling laid his plans, so did First Belorussian Front. Remarkably Stalin had been comparatively relaxed during the Berlin operation, allowing his Front commanders to guide matters more freely than had been the case. Possibly this light touch was the result of having surrounded the city, thereby denying access to the Anglo–American forces.

The Reichstag was the focus of attention for Zhukov and his subordinates; it was the symbolic building that he wished to present to Stalin in time for the 1 May parade in Moscow. The honour of mounting the first attack on the Reichstag fell to 150th Infantry Division, commanded by Major General V. M. Shatilov, a part of Third Shock Army. Under orders to carry submachine-guns, and having eaten a hearty breakfast prepared for them in the cellars of the Ministry of the Interior, the first wave went into the attack at 06.00 hrs on 30 April.

To reach the Reichstag the attackers had to cross the open ground of the Konigsplatz, which was cut across with a flooded anti-tank ditch some 3m wide. Heavy fire from the partially bricked-up windows of the Reichstag caused considerable casualties, which increased sharply when crossfire from the Kroll Opera House hit the attackers’ right flank and rear. Cut off while other units were sent to subdue the Opera’s defenders, the first assault wave hugged the ground until, a little after 11.00 hrs, they reached the anti-tank ditch. For another two hours they lay and endured fire from the Reichstag, itself under continual bombardment, until risking a further charge. Once again hit by flanking fire, this time from the flak tower in the zoo grounds, the Soviet infantry sought cover in shell holes and behind broken barricades. As they lay waiting for darkness few suspected that at 15.15 hrs Hitler and his wife had committed suicide. At 18.00 hrs Weidling was summoned to the Fuhrer bunker and told of Hitler’s death. Sworn to secrecy, he was also told to forget the breakout attempt, as an armistice was about to be requested and as Berlin’s commander he would be required to be present.

Less than a kilometre away from the bunker the Soviets launched their final attack on the Reichstag. Heedless of casualties and under cover of smoke, dust and the coming of darkness, three infantry regiments rushed the building with armoured support. Breaking into the vast reception hall the men of 150th Infantry Division found the defenders had either hurried upstairs or gone to the cellars. For several hours vicious fighting continued from room to room as flag bearers attempted to reach the roof.

Officially the Red Flag was planted on the Reichstag’s dome at 22.50 hrs as the fighting raged below.

Six hours later General Krebs was ushered into Chuikov’s HQ, where he remained while news of his appeal for an armistice was passed up the chain of command. Stalin was only prepared to offer unconditional surrender, which Krebs felt unable to accept. As May Day morning drew on and no word was received from the Germans they were given a reminder of the power they were facing as the guns of First Belorussian Front let loose a shattering bombardment. In the Reichstag and in other government buildings the battle continued into the afternoon. But elsewhere across the city isolated German units began to capitulate as the Soviet troops celebrated May Day.

At 06.00 hrs on 2 May Weidling crossed into the Soviet positions and while Martin Bormann and other of Hitler’s cronies tried to make good their escape, arranged the surrender of the Berlin garrison with effect from 15.00 hrs that day.

The agreement to surrender did not end hostilities immediately. Although a recording of Weidling’s voice was broadcast there were few who heard it. A leaflet-drop achieved more success and gradually the news spread across the city. However, there were those who did not wish to surrender, such as members of the foreign SS units who had no home to return to and only a cause to die for, as surrender, to them, meant, more often than not, immediate execution. Such men fought on until killed during the course of the next two or three days. Thousands attempted to escape in groups of varying sizes and with different results. Some reached Twelfth Army in Potsdam but many were rounded up by the growing cordon of NKVD and regular troops established by Zhukov to ensure that neither Hitler nor his closest followers such as Goebbels eluded capture. The hunt for Hitler and the others now proceeded apace as the population of Berlin tried to come to terms with their new situation.

Surrender

Weidling had surrendered to General Chuikov, entirely appropriately in the minds of many, as it was his valiant defence of Stalingrad that had turned the tide on the Eastern Front, but there were other armies’ surrenders to consider, especially now that Berlin had capitulated, in particular, Army Group Centre in Czechoslovakia.

General Field Marshal Schorner, a particularly devoted Nazi, had signalled Doenitz on 2 May that Army Group Centre was well supplied with munitions and fuel and would head for the Elbe river. However, events overtook Schorner as Konev’s First Ukrainian and Malinovsky’s Fourth Ukrainian fronts bore down on his forces threatening them with encirclement. Then, on 4 May, the population of Prague rose up and broadcast appeals in English and Russian for help in ridding their country of the Germans. Schorner attempted to regain control of the city but at this point the Russians intervened. However, these were not Stalin’s men but Vlasov’s renegade Russian Liberation Army, which had regrouped around Prague after the debacle on the Oder. Having briefly supported the insurgents, the newly convened Czech National Council told Vlasov and his men to go. With the Soviets closing in, representatives of Army Group Centre surrendered to the Czechs in preference to Konev. Caught completely off balance, Moscow only ordered Konev and Malinovsky to move on 6 May. When Soviet overtures to Army Group Centre went unanswered a brief battle took place and on 9 May First Ukrainian and Fourth Ukrainian fronts linked up in Prague. Army Group Centre surrendered the same day, as did German units isolated at the mouth of the Vistula river.

Back in Berlin the days immediately following the garrison’s surrender had been busy ones for the city’s new masters. In keeping with Russian military tradition the general commanding the first troops into a city became its governor. Therefore, this honour fell to General Nikolai Berzarin, commander of Fifth Shock Army, who was appointed to the post by Zhukov on 26 April. What Zhukov and Berzarin did not know was that the city was to become an NKVD fiefdom and the NKVD owed its allegiance to Stalin and not the Red Army. Indeed, it was NKVD and SMERSH operatives from Third Shock Army, chosen to avoid any connection with Berzarin, who took responsibility for the hunt for Hitler and other high-ranking Nazis. Information regarding this matter was denied to Zhukov and his staff.

The bodies of Hitler and his wife were finally discovered on 5 May and promptly smuggled out of Berlin to a SMERSH forensic unit. Dental records confirmed the cadavers’ identities two days later.

As the NKVD combed Berlin for Nazis, great and small, Berzarin busied himself with governing the city. With an army to feed and house he was remarkably tolerant towards the German population. Hospitals were opened, the utilities were restored and civilians cleared the rubble-filled streets, and corpses were buried to prevent the spread of disease as summer drew on. Indeed, when Berzarin was killed in a motoring accident the sadness of Berliners was genuine.

As well as the NKVD being beyond the control of the Red Army so too were the ministerial representatives from Moscow who arrived in Berlin tasked with the removal of as much of Germany’s industrial equipment as could be taken as reparations. Entire factories were shipped to the USSR, many simply to rot by the railways in Siberia. However, alongside the nuts and bolts, intellectual property and, more importantly, the ore to produce atomic weapons were at the top of Stalin’s list. Operation Borodino, the Soviet atomic research programme, was to benefit from the capture of the scientists and the plant and research undertaken at a facility south-west of Berlin, but the Soviet scientists’ particular need was uranium. The home of Germany’s atomic research was the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute, which was captured on 25 April. Although much had already been evacuated before the NKVD cordoned the area off, ‘250kgs of metallic uranium, three tons of uranium oxide and 20 litres of heavy water’ were discovered there, which amounts were adequate for the Soviets’ immediate requirements. Other sources of uranium lay in Saxony and Czechoslovakia, now also accessible to the USSR, but only after the peace treaties had been signed.

During 2 May on Germany’s Western Front the provisional German government under Grand Admiral Doenitz published directives that continued the war against the Soviets with the simple intention of allowing as many Germans as possible to escape to the west. War with the Western Allies would continue only where they disturbed this policy. The same day the remains of Army Group Vistula surrendered. The next day Ninth and Twelfth German armies east of the Elbe river opened negotiations with American Ninth Army and began to cross to the west in significant number on 4 May. Simultaneously, Field Marshal Montgomery accepted the surrender of all German forces in Holland, Denmark and northern Germany. General Field Marshal Jodl, as Doenitz’s representative, was sent to meet with Eisenhower at his HQ in Rheims. Unable to avoid unconditional surrender, Doenitz ordered Jodl to sign a total capitulation document with effect from midnight on 8 May. At midday on 7 May Doenitz ordered all commanders on the Eastern Front to ‘fight their way through the Russians if they had to’ but above all to head for the west as soon as possible. Furthermore, all hostilities against the Western Allies were to cease. Jodl also obtained a statement from Eisenhower’s Chief of Staff that the Wehrmacht High Command would not be held accountable should ‘individual soldiers and some units’ disobey the surrender order.

Signatures were affixed at 02.41, one of which was that of General I. Susloparov, the Soviet representative attached to Eisenhower.

Livid, Stalin insisted on a ceremony in Berlin as the Red Army was still fighting Army Group North in Courland and Army Group Centre in Czechoslovakia.

On 8 May Britain’s Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Tedder, with Lieutenant General Carl Spaatz from the USA and General de Lattre de Tassigny, representing France, arrived in Berlin at the same time as Jodl and the German delegation. At Zhukov’s HQ the Allies signed the act of surrender, followed by the Germans, who then left the city. The deed was done and the celebrations began; the battle for Berlin and Europe ended at 23.01 hrs on 8 May 1945.

Hitler’s ‘Fortified Area’ Order March 1944

The Führer            Führer Headquarters

High Command of the Army          8th March 1944

Führer Order No. 11        

(Commandants of Fortified Areas and Battle Commandants) In view of various incidents, I issue the following orders:

A distinction will be made between ‘Fortified Areas’, each under a ‘Fortified Area Commandant’, and ‘Local Strong points’, each under a ‘Battle Commandant’. The ‘Fortified Areas’ will fulfil the functions of fortresses in former historical times. They will ensure that the enemy does not occupy these areas of decisive operational importance. They will allow themselves to be surrounded, thereby holding down the largest possible number of enemy forces, and establishing conditions for successful counter-attacks. Local strong points deep in the battle area, which will be tenaciously defended in the event of enemy penetrations. By being included in the main line of battle they will act as a reserve of defence and, should the enemy break through, as hinges and corner stone’s for the front, forming positions from which counter-attacks can be launched.

Each ‘Fortified Area Commandant’ should be a specially selected, hardened soldier, preferably of General’s rank. The Army Group concerned will appoint him. Fortified Area commandants will be instructed to personally be responsible to the Commander-in-Chief of the Army Group. Fortified Area Commandants will pledge their honour as soldiers to carry out their duties to the last. Only the Commander-in-Chief of an Army Group in person may, with my approval, relieve the Fortified Area commandant duties, and perhaps order the surrender of the fortified area. Fortified Area Commandants are subordinate to the Commander of the Army Group, or Army, in whose sector the fortified area is situated. Further delegation of command to General officers commanding formations will not take place. Apart from the garrison and its security forces, all persons within a fortified area, or who have been collected there, are under the orders of the commandant, irrespective of whether they are soldiers or civilians, and without regard to their rank or appointment. The Fortified Area Commandant has the military rights and disciplinary powers of a commanding General. In the performance of duties he will have at his disposal mobile courts-martial and civilian courts. The Army Group concerned will appoint the staff of Fortified Area Commandants. The Chiefs of Staff will be appointed by High Command of the Army, in accordance with suggestions made by the Army Group

The Garrison of a fortified area comprises: the security garrison, and the general garrison. The security garrison must be inside the fortified area at all time. Its strength will be laid down by Commander-in-Chief Army Group, and will be determined by the by the size of the area and the tasks to be fulfilled (preparation and completion of defences, holding the fortified area against raids or local attacks by the enemy). The general garrison must be made available to the Commandant of the fortified area in sufficient time for the men to have taken up defensive positions and be installed when a full-scale enemy threatens. Its strength will be laid down by the Commander-in-Chief Army Group, in accordance with the size of the fortified area and the task which is to be performed (total defence of the fortified area).

Signed: ADOLF HITLER

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