Definitions

Battle_in_Berlin

Battle in Berlin

The Battle in Berlin was a part of the Battle of Berlin. While the Battle of Berlin encompassed the attack by three Soviet Army Groups to capture not only Berlin but the territory of Germany still under German control, the Battle in Berlin dealt with the ever tightening ring around the German capital.

The outcome of the Battle in Berlin was decided during the initial phases of the Battle of Berlin that took place outside the city. As the Soviets invested Berlin and the German forces placed to stop them were destroyed or forced back, the city's fate was sealed. Nevertheless, there was much heavy fighting within the city of Berlin as the Red Army fought its way, street by street, through to the centre of the city.

On 23 April 1945, the first Soviet ground forces started to penetrate the outer suburbs of Berlin. By 27 April, Berlin was completely cut off from the outside world. The battle in the city continued until 2 May 1945. On that date, the commander of the Berlin Defence Area, General Helmuth Weidling, surrendered to the commander of the Soviet 8th Guards Army, Lieutenant-General Vasily Chuikov. Chuikov was a constituent of Marshal Georgiy Zhukov's 1st Belorussian Front.

Prelude

Battle of the Oder-Neisse

The sector in which most of the fighting in the overall battle took place was the Seelow Heights, the last major defensive line outside Berlin. The Battle of the Seelow Heights was one of the last pitched battles of World War II. It was fought over four days, from 16 April until 19 April 1945. Close to one million Soviet soldiers and more than 20,000 tanks and artillery pieces were in action to break through the "Gates to Berlin" which was defended by about 100,000 German soldiers and 1,200 tanks and guns.

On 19 April, the fourth day, the 1st Belorussian Front broke through the final line of the Seelow Heights and nothing but broken German formations lay between them and Berlin,. Marshal Ivan Konev's 1st Ukrainian Front having captured Forst the day before was fanning out into open country. One powerful thrust was heading north east towards Berlin while other armies headed west towards a section of United States Army front line south west of Berlin on the Elbe.

By the end of 19 April the German eastern front line north of Frankfurt around Seelow and to the south around Frost had ceased to exist. These breakthroughs allowed the two Soviet fronts to envelop the German IX Army in a large pocket east of Frankfurt. Attempts by the IX Army to break out to the west would result in the Battle of Halbe. The cost to the Soviet forces had been very high between 1 April and 19 April, with over 2,807 tanks lost, including at least 727 at the Seelow Heights.

Encirclement of Berlin

Main article Battle of Berlin: Encirclement of Berlin

On 20 April, Hitler's birthday, Soviet artillery of the 1st Belorussian Front began to shell the centre of Berlin and did not stop until the city surrendered. After the war the Soviets pointed out that the weight of explosives delivered by their artillery during the battle was greater than the tonnage dropped by the Western Allied bombers on the city. The 1st Belorussian Front advanced towards the east and north-east of the city.

The 1st Ukrainian Front had pushed through the last formations of the northern wing of General Ferdinand Schörner's Army Group Centre and had passed north of Juterbog well over halfway to the American front lines on the river Elbe at Magdeburg. To the north between Stettin and Schwedt, Konstantin Rokossovsky's 2nd Belorussian Front attacked the northern flank of General Gotthard Heinrici's Army Group Vistula, held by Hasso von Manteuffel's III Panzer Army.

By 24 April, elements of the 1st Belorussian Front and the 1st Ukrainian Front had completed the encirclement of the city.

The next day, 25 April, the 2nd Belorussian Front broke through III Panzer Army's line around the bridgehead south of Stettin and crossed the Rando Swamp. They were now free to move west towards the British 21st Army Group and north towards the Baltic port of Stralsund. The Soviet 58th Guards Division of Zhadov's 5th Guards Army made contact with the US 69th Infantry Division of the First Army near Torgau, Germany on the Elbe River. The Soviet investment of Berlin was consolidated with leading Soviet units probing and penetrating the S-Bahn defensive ring. By the end of the 25 April there was no prospect that the German defence of the city could do anything but temporally delay the capture of the city by the Soviets as the decisive stages of the battle had already been fought and lost by the Germans outside the city.

Preparation

The forces available to General der Artillerie Helmuth Weidling for the city's defence included several severely depleted Wehrmacht and Waffen-SS divisions, in all about 45,000 men. These divisions were supplemented by the police force, boys in the compulsory Hitler Youth, and the Volkssturm. Many of the 40,000 elderly men of the Volkssturm had been in the army as young men and some were veterans of World War I. The commander of the central district, SS Brigadeführer Wilhelm Mohnke, who had been appointed to this position by Hitler, had over 2,000 men under his command. On April 20th, the Wehrmacht initiated "Clausewitz", which called for the complete evacuation of all Wehrmacht and SS offices in Berlin; this essentially formalized Berlin's status as a frontline city.

Weidling organized the defences into eight sectors designated 'A' through 'H' each one commanded by a colonel or a general, but most had no combat experience. To the west of the city was the XX Infantry Division. To the north of the city was the IX Parachute Division. To the north east of the city was the Panzer Division Müncheberg (Werner Mummert). To the south east of the city and to the east of Tempelhof Airport was the XI SS Panzergrenadier Division Nordland (Johachim Ziegler). The reserve, XVIII Panzergrenadier Division, was in Berlin's central district.

Tactics

A Soviet combat group was a mixed arms unit of about eighty men in assault groups of six to eight men, closely supported by field artillery. These were tactical units which were able to apply the tactics of house to house fighting that the Soviets had been forced to develop and refine at each Festungsstadt (fortress city) they had encountered from Stalingrad to Berlin.

The Germans tactics used for the urban warfare that took place in Berlin were dictated by three considerations. These were: the experience that the Germans had gained during five years of war; the physical characteristics of Berlin; and the tactics used by the Soviets. Most of the central districts of Berlin consists of city blocks with straight wide roads with several waterways, parks and large railway marshalling yards. It is predominantly flat but there are some low hills like that of Kreuzberg that is 66m above sea level. Much of the housing stock consisted of apartments blocks built in the second half of the 19th century. Most of those, thanks to housing regulations and few elevators, were five stories high and built around a courtyard that could be reached from the street through a corridor large enough to take a horse and cart or the small trucks used to deliver coal. In many places, these apartment blocks were built around several courtyards one behind the other, each one reached through the outer courtyards by a similar ground level corridor like that between the first courtyard and the road. The larger more expensive flats faced the street and the smaller less expensive ones could be found around the inner courtyards.

Just as the Soviets had learned a lot about urban warfare, so had the Germans. The Waffen SS did not use the makeshift barricades erected close to street corners, because these could be raked by artillery fire from guns firing over open sights further along the straight streets. Instead they put snipers and machine guns on the upper floors and roofs because the Soviet tanks could not elevate their guns that high. Alternatively, they put men armed with panzerfausts in cellar windows to ambush tanks as they moved down the streets. These tactics were quickly adopted by the Hitler Youth and the First World War Volkssturm veterans.

To counter these tactics the Soviets mounted sub-machine gunners on the tanks who sprayed every doorway and window, but this meant the tank could not traverse its turret quickly. The other solution was to rely on heavy howitzers (152mm and 203mm) firing over open sights to blast defended buildings and to use anti-aircraft guns against the German gunners on the higher floors. Soviet combat groups started to move from house to house instead of directly down the streets. They moved through the apartments and cellars blasting holes through the walls of adjacent buildings (for which the Soviets found abandoned German panzerfausts were very effective) while others fought across the roof tops and through the attics. These enfilading tactics took the Germans lying in ambush for tanks in the flanks. Flamethrowers and grenades proved to be very effective, but as the Berlin civilian population had not been evacuated these tactics inevitably killed many.

Battle in Berlin

In the suburbs

With the decisive stages of the battle being fought outside the city, Berlin's fate was sealed, yet the resistance inside continued. By 23 April some of Chuikov's rifle units had crossed the Spree and the Dahme south of Köpenick and by 24 April were advancing towards Britz and Neukölln. Accompanying them were the leading tanks of Colonel-General Mikhail Katukov's 1st Guards Tank Army. Sometime after midnight a corps of Colonel-General Nikolai Berzarin's 5th Shock Army crossed the Spree close to Treptow Park. At dawn on the 24 April the LVI Panzer Corps still under Weildling's direct command counterattacked, but were severely mauled by the 5th Shock Army, which was able to continue its advance around mid day. Meanwhile the first large Soviet probe into the city was put into operation. Colonel-General Mikhail Katukov's 1st Guards Tank Army attacked across the Teltow Canal. At 06:20 a bombardment by 3,000 guns and heavy mortars began (a staggering 650 pieces of artillery per one kilometer of front). At 07:00 hours the first Soviet battalions were across and they were followed by tanks around 12:00 shortly after the first of the pontoon bridges were completed. By the evening Treptow Park was in Soviet hands and they had reached the Berlin S-Bahn ring railway.

While the fighting raged in the south east of the city, between 320 and 330 French volunteers commanded by Brigadeführer Gustav Krukenberg and organized as Sturmbataillon (assault battalion) "Charlemagne" were attached to XI SS Panzergrenadier Division Nordland. They moved from the SS training ground near Neustrelitz to the centre of Berlin through the western suburbs which apart from unmanned barricades across the Havel and Spree were devoid of fortifications or defenders. Of all the reinforcements ordered to Berlin that day only this Sturmbataillon arrived.

On 25 April, Krukenberg was appointed as the commander Defence Sector C which included the Nordland Division, whose previous commander Johachim Ziegler was relieved of his command the same day. The arrival of the French SS men bolstered the Nordland Division whose Norge and Danmark regiments had been decimated in the fighting. Just midday as Krukenberg reached his command, the last German bridgehead south of the Teltow Canal was being abandoned. During the night Krukenberg informed General Hans Krebs Chief of the General Staff of (OKH) that within 24 hours the Nordland would have to fall back to the centre sector Z (for Zentrum).

Soviet combat groups of the 8th Guards Army and the 1st Guards Tank Army fought their way through the southern suburbs of Neukölln towards Tempelhof Airport which was located just inside the S-Bhan defensive ring. Defending Sector D was Panzer Division Müncheberg. This division, down to its last dozen tanks and thirty APCs had been promised replacements for battle losses but only stragglers and Volkssturm were available to fill the ranks. The Soviets advanced cautiously using flamethrowers to overcome defensive positions. By dusk the Soviet T43 tanks had reached the airfield, only six kilometres (four miles) south of the Führerbunker, where they were checked by stiff German resistance. The Müncheberg Division managed to hold the line until the afternoon of the next day, but this was the last time that they were able to check the Soviet advance for more than a few hours.

On 26 April, with Neukölln heavily penetrated by Soviet combat groups, Krukenberg prepared fallback positions for Sector C defenders around Hermannplatz. He moved his headquarters into the opera house. The two understrength German divisions defending the south east were now facing five Soviet armies. From east to west they were the 5th Shock Army, advancing from Treptow Park, the 8th Guards Army and the 1st Guards Tank Army advancing through Neukölln north were checked at Tempelhof Airport and Colonel-General Rybalko's 3rd Guards Tank Army (part of Konev's 1st Ukrainian Front) was advancing from Mariendorf. As the Nordland Division fell back towards Hermannplatz the French SS and one-hundred Hitler Youth attached to their group destroyed 14 Soviet tanks with panzerfausts, and one machine gun position by the Halensee bridge managed to hold up any Soviet advances in that area for 48 hours. The Nordlands remaining armour, eight tiger tanks and several assault guns, were ordered to take up positions in the Tiergarten, because although these two divisions of Weidling's LVI Panzer Corps could slow the Soviet advance they could not stop it.

Hitler summoned Field Marshall Robert Ritter von Greim from Munich to Berlin to take over command of the German Air Force (Luftwaffe) from Goering. While flying over Berlin in a Fieseler Storch, von Greim was seriously wounded by Soviet anti-aircraft fire. Hanna Reitsch, his mistress and a crack test pilot, landed von Greim on an improvised air strip in the Tiergarten near the Brandenburg Gate.

On 26 April, the same day that Reitsch and von Greim landed in Berlin, German General of the Artillery (General der Artillerie) Helmuth Weidling was appointed commander of the Berlin Defence Area. On 22 April, only four days earlier, Hitler had ordered that Weidling be executed by firing squad. This was due to a misunderstanding concerning a retreat order issued by Weidling as commander of the LVI Panzer Corps. On 20 April, Weidling had been appointed commander of the LVI Panzer Corps. Weidling replaced Lieutenant-Colonel (Oberstleutnant) Ernst Kaether as commander of Berlin. Only one day earlier, Kaether had replaced Lieutenant-General (Generalleutnant) Helmuth Reymann, who had held the position for only about a month.

Marshal Zhukov appointed Colonel-General Berzarin to start to organize the German civil administration in the areas that they had captured. Bürgermeisters, like the directors of the Berlin utilities, were summoned to appear before Berzarin's staff. The next day (27 April) 2,000 German women were rounded up and ordered to help clear Tempelhof Airport of debris so that the Red Army Air Force could start to use it.

As the Soviet armies of the 1st Belorussian Front and the 1st Ukrainian Front converged on the centre of the city there were many accidental friendly fire incidents involving artillery shellings because the spotter planes and the artillery of the different Soviet Fronts were not coordinated and they frequently mistook, assault groups in other armies as enemy troops. Indeed the rivalry between the Soviet armies to capture the city centre was becoming intense. A corps commander of the 1st Ukrainian Front joked with laconic humour "Now we should be scared not of the enemy, but of our neighbour ... There's nothing more depressing in Berlin than learning about the successes of your neighbour". The military historian Antony Beevor has suggested that the rivalry went further than just jokes and says that Chuikov deliberately ordered the left flank of the 8th Guards Army (of 1st Belorussian Front) across the front of the 3rd Guards Tank Army (of the 1st Ukrainian Front), blocking its direct path to the Reichstag. As Chuikov did not inform Rybako, commander of the 3rd Guards Tank Army, that the 8th was doing this, the troops ordered to carry out this manoeuvre suffered disproportionate casualties from friendly fire.

In the south west, Rybalko's 3rd Guards Tank Army, (supported by Lieutenant-General Luchinsky's 28th Army) were advancing through the wooded park and suburbs of the Grunewald attacking what remained of the XVIII Panzergrenadier Division on their eastern flank and were just entering Charlottenburg. In the south, Chuikov's 8th Guards Army and Katukov's 1st Guards Tank Army breached the Landwehr Canal on 27 April, the last major obstacle between them and the Führerbunker next to the Reich Chancellery less than two kilometres away (a little over a mile). In the south east Berzarin's 5th Shock Army had bypassed the Friedrichshain flak tower and was now between Frankfurterallee and the south bank of the Spree where its IX Corps was fighting.

By 27 April the Soviet Armies had penetrated the German's S-Bahn outer defensive ring from all directions. The Germans had been forced back into a pocket about twenty-five kilometres (fifteen miles) long from west to east and about three kiliometres (one and a half miles) wide at its most narrow, just west of the old city centre, near the Tiergarten. In the north west, Lieutenant-General Gusev's 47th Army was now approaching Spandau, and was also heavily involved in a battle to capture Gatow airfield which was defended by Volkssturm and Luftwaffe cadets using the feared 88mm anti-aircraft guns in their anti-tank role. In the north Colonel-General Semyon Bogdanov's 2nd Guards Tank Army was bogged down just south of Siemensstadt. Colonel-General Kutznetsov's 3rd Shock Army had bypassed the Humboldthain flak tower, (leaving it to follow up forces) and had reached the north of the Tiergarten and Prenzlauerberg.

On the morning of 27 April, the Soviets continued the assault with a heavy bombardment of the inner city. The 8th Guards Army and the 1st Guards Tank Army were ordered to take Belle-Alliance-Platz (an alternative name for the Battle of Waterloo) that in a twist of history was defended by French SS soldiers of the Nordland Division. That night Weidling gave a battle situation report to Hitler, and presented him with a detailed breakout plan which would be spearheaded with just under forty tanks (all the combat ready German tanks in Berlin). Hitler rejected the plan saying he would stay in the bunker and that Weidling would carry on with the defence.

In sectore Z (centre) Krunebberg Nordland divisional headquarters was now a carriage in the Stadtmitte U-Bahn station. The Nordland's armour was reduced to four captured Soviet APCs and two half-tracks, so Krunebberg's men's chief weapon was now the panzerfaust which were used for close quarters battles against both Soviet armour and in house to house fighting against Soviet combat groups.

At dawn on 28 April, the youth divisions Clausewitz, Scharnhorst and Theodor Körner, attacked from the south west in the direction of Berlin. They were part of Wenck's XX Corps and were made up of men from the officer training schools, making them some of the best units the Germans had left. They covered a distance of about 24 kilometres (15 miles), before being halted at the tip of Lake Schwielow south-west of Potsdam and still 32 kilometres (20 miles) from Berlin. Later on 28 April, Hitler learned of Heinrich Himmler's contacts with Count Folke Bernadotte in Luebeck. Himmler had asked Bernadotte to convey a peace proposal to US General Dwight D. Eisenhower. Enraged at Himmler's duplicity, Hitler ordered von Greim and Reitsch to fly to Dönitz's headquarters at Ploen. Von Greim was ordered to arrest the "traitor" Himmler.

By 28 April, the Müncheberg Division had been driven back to the Anhalter railway station less than one kilometre (half a mile) south of the Führerbunker. To slow the advancing Soviets, allegedly on Hitler's orders the bulkheads under the Landwehr Canal were blown up. It caused a panic in the Berlin U-Bahn tunnels under the Anhalter railway station in which some were trampled to death. But the water level only suddenly rose by about a metre (yard) and after that much more slowly. Initially it was thought that many thousands had drowned, but when the tunnels were pumped out in October 1945 it was found that most of the bodies were of people who had died of their wounds, not from drowning. In any event, the Soviets continued their advance with three T-34s making it as far as Wilhelmstrasse U-Bahn station before being ambushed and destroyed by the Frenchmen of the Nordland Division.

In the city centre

During 27 April and 28 April, most formations attached to Konev's 1st Ukrainian Front that were engaged in the Battle in Berlin were ordered to disengage and proceed south to take part in the Prague Offensive (the last great offensive of the European theatre). This did not mitigate their resentment at being denied the honour of capturing the centre of Berlin, but left the 1st Belorussian Front under Marshal Zhukov to claim that honour for themselves alone.

By 28 April, the Germans were now reduced to a strip less than five kilometres wide and fifteen in length, from Alexanderplatz in the east to Charlottenburg and the area around the Olympic Stadium (Reichssportfeld) in the west. Generally the Soviets avoided fighting their way into tunnels and bunkers (of which there were about 1,000 in the Berlin area), instead they sealed them off and continued the advance. However just over a kilometre to the north of the Reichstag building the 3rd Shock Army did use heavy guns at point blank range to blast a hole in the walls of Moabit prison and after the breach was made, and the prison stormed, the garrison quickly surrendered. The 3rd Shock Army were in sight of the Victory Column in the Tiergarten and during the afternoon advanced down towards the Moltke bridge over the Spree, just north of the Ministry of the Interior and a mere 600 metres (660 yards) from the Reichstag. German demolition charges damaged the Moltke bridge but left it passable to infantry. As dusk fell and under heavy artillery bombardment the first Soviet troops crossed the bridge. By midnight, the Soviet 150th and 171st rifle divisions had secured the bridgehead against any counterattack the Germans could muster.

On 28 April, General Hans Krebs, made his last telephone call from the Führerbunker. He called Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel Chief of OKW (German Armed Forces High Command) in Fuerstenberg. Krebs told Keitel that, if relief did not arrive within 48 hours, all would be lost. Keitel promised to exert the utmost pressure on Generals Walther Wenck, commander of XII Army, and Theodor Busse commander of the IX Army. Meanwhile, Martin Borman wired to German Admiral Karl Dönitz: "Reich Chancellery (Reichskanzlei) a heap of rubble." He went on to say that the foreign press was reporting fresh acts of treason and "that without exception Schörner, Wenck and the others must give evidence of their loyalty by the quickest relief of the Führer". Borman was the head of the Nazi Party Chancellery (Parteikanzlei) and Hitler's private secretary.

During the evening, Von Greim and Reitsch flew out from Berlin in an Arado Ar 96 trainer. Von Greim was ordered to get the Luftwaffe to attack the Soviet forces that had just reached Potsdamerplatz and to make sure that Himmler was punished. Fearing that Hitler was escaping in the plane, troops of the Soviet 3rd Shock Army, which was fighting its way through the Tiergarten from the north, tried to shoot the Arado down. The Soviet troops failed in their efforts and the plane took off successfully.

During the night of 28 April, General Wenck reported to Keitel that his XII Army had been forced back along the entire front. This was particularly true of XX Corps that had been able to establish temporary contact with the Potsdam garrison. According to Wenck, no relief for Berlin by his army was now possible. This was even more so as support from the IX Army could no longer be expected. Keitel gave Wenck permission to break off his attempt to relieve Berlin.

At 0400 hours on 29 April, in the Führerbunker, General Wilhelm Burgdorf, Goebbels, Krebs, and Bormann witnessed and signed the last will and testament of Adolf Hitler. Hitler dictated the document to Traudl Junge, shortly after he had married Eva Braun.

After Rokossovsky's 2nd Belorussian Front had broken out of their bridgehead, General Gotthard Heinrici disobeyed Hitler's direct orders and allowed Hasso von Manteuffel's request for a general withdrawal of the III Panzer Army. By 29 April, Army Group Vistula Headquarters staff could no longer contact the IX Army, so there was little in the way of coordination that Heinrici's staff could still to do. As Heinrici had disobeyed a direct order from Hitler (in allowing Manteuffel to retreat), he was relieved of his command. However Manteuffel refused Keitel's request that he take over, and although ordered to report to OKW's headquarters, Heinrici dallied and never arrived. Keitel later recalled the incident in his memoirs and said that command passed to the senior army commander of the XXI Army, General Kurt von Tippelskirch. Other sources claim that von Tippelskirch appointment was a temporary appointment until the arrival of General Kurt Student, but that Student was captured by the British and never arrived. Whether von Tippelskirch or Student or both took command, the rapidly deteriorating situation that the Germans faced, meant that Army Group Vistula coordination of the armies under its nominal command during the last few days of the war were of little significance.

In the early hours of 29 April, the 150th and 171st Rifle Divisions crossed the Moltke bridge and started to fan out into the surrounding streets and buildings. Initially the Soviets were unable to bring forward artillery, as the combat engineers had not had time to strengthen the bridge or build an alternative. The only form of heavy weaponry available to the assault troops were individual 'Katyusha' rockets lashed to shot sections of railway lines. Major-General Shatilov's 150th Rifle Division had a particularly hard fight capturing the heavily fortified Ministry of the Interior building. Lacking artillery they had to clear it room by room with grenades and sub-machine guns.

In the south east at dawn of 29 April, Colonel Antonov's 301st Rifle Division pressed on with its assault. After very heavy fighting they managed to capture the Gestapo headquarters on Prinz-Albrechtstrasse, but a Waffen SS counter-attack forced the regiments of the division to withdraw from the building. Still imprisoned in the building were seven prisoners spared in the massacre of the other prisoners on 23 April.To the south west Chukiov's 8th Guards Army attacked north across the Landwehr canal into the Tiergarten.

The Nordland Division was now under Mohnke's central command. All the men were exhausted from days and nights of continuous fighting. The Frenchmen of the Nordland had proved particularly good at destroying tanks, of the 108 Soviet tanks destroyed in the central district, they had accounted for about half of them. That afternoon the last two Knight's Crosses of the Third Reich were awarded one when to Eugéne Vaulôt who had personally destroyed eight tanks and Major Friedrich Herzig the commander of the 503 SS Heavy Panzer Battalion. Two others received less prestigious awards for only knocking out five tanks each.

During the evening of 29 April, at Weidling's headquarters in the Bendlerblock, now within metres of the front line, Weilding discussed with his divisional commanders, the possibility of breaking out to the south west to link up with the XII Army who's spearhead had reached the village of Ferch on the banks of the Schwielowsee near Potsdam. The breakout was planned to start the next night at 22:00. Late in the evening, Krebs contacted General Alfred Jodl (Supreme Army Command) by radio: "Request immediate report. Firstly of the whereabouts of Wenck's spearheads. Secondly of time intended to attack. Thirdly of the location of the IX Army. Fourthly of the precise place in which the IX Army will break through. Fifthly of the whereabouts of General Rudolf Holste's spearhead." In the early morning of 30 April, Jodl replied to Krebs: "Firstly, Wenck's spearhead bogged down south of Schwielow Lake. Secondly, XII Army therefore unable to continue attack on Berlin. Thirdly, bulk of IX Army surrounded. Fourthly, Holste's Corps on the defensive."

Battle for the Reichstag

At 06:00 on 30 April the 150th Rifle Division had still not captured the upper floors of the Ministry of the Interior, but while the fighting was still going on the 150th launched an attack from there across the 400 metres of Königsplatz towards the Reichstag. For the Soviets, Reichstag was the symbol of the Third Reich (ironically, never restored by the Nazis after the Reichstag fire) and one that they wanted to capture before the May Day parade in Moscow. The assault was not an easy one. The Germans had dug a complicated network of trenches around the building and a collapsed tunnel had filled with water from the Spree forming a moat across Königsplatz. The initial infantry assault was decimated by cross fire from the Reichstag and the Kroll Opera House on the western side of Königsplatz. By now the Spree had been bridged and the Soviets were able to bring up tanks and artillery to support fresh assaults by the infantry, some of which were tasked with flanking the Opera House and attacking it from the north west. By 10:00 the soldiers of the 150th had reached the moat, but accurate fire from 88 mm guns two kilometres away on the Berlin Zoo flak tower, prevented any further successful advance across the moat during daylight. Throughout the rest of the day, with ninety artillery pieces, some as large as 203mm howitzers, as well as Katyusha rockets launchers, bombarded the Reichstag and its defensive trenches, Colonel Negoda's 171st Rifle Division, on the left flank of the 150th, continued to capture the buildings of the diplomatic quarter to the north of Königsplatz.

As the perimeter shrank and the surviving defenders fell back on the centre they became concentrated. By now there were about 10,000 German soldiers in the city centre, who were being assaulted from all sides. One of the other main thrusts was along Wilhelmstrasse on which the Air Ministry built of reinforced concrete was pounded by large concentrations of Soviet artillery. The remaining German Tiger tanks of the Hermann von Salza battalion took up positions in the east of the Tiergarten to defend the centre against the 3rd Shock Army (which although heavily engaged around the Reichstag was also flanking the area by advancing through the northern Tiergarten) and the 8th Shock Army advancing through the south of the Tiergarten. These Soviet forces had effectively cut the sausage shaped area held by the Germans in half and made an escape to the west for those German troops in the centre much more difficult.

During the morning, Mohnke informed Hitler the centre would be able to hold for less than two days. Later that morning Weidling informed Hitler in person that the defenders, would probably exhaust their ammunition that night and again asked Hitler permission to break out. At about 13:00 Weidling who was back in his headquarters in the Bendlerblock, finally received Hitler's permission to attempt a breakout. During the afternoon Hitler shot himself and Braun took cyanide. In accordance with Hitler's instructions, the bodies were burned in the garden of the Reich Chancellery. In accordance with Hitler's last will and testament, Joseph Goebbels, the Minister for Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, became the new "Head of Government" and Chancellor of Germany (Reichskanzler). At 3:15 am, Reichskanzler Goebbels and Borman sent a radio message to Admiral Karl Dönitz informing him of Hitler's death. Per Hitler's last wishes, Dönitz was appointed as the new "President of Germany" (Reichspräsident).

Because of the smoke, dusk came early to the centre of Berlin. At 18:00 hours, while Weidling and his staff finalized their breakout plans in the Bendlerblock, under cover of a heavy artillery barrage, three regiments of the 150th Rifle Division, closely supported by tanks, assaulted the Reichstag. All the windows were bricked up, but they managed to force the main doors and entered the main hall. The German garrison, of about 1,000 defenders – a mixture of sailors, SS and Hitler Youth – fired down on the Soviets from above, turning the main hall into a medieval style killing field. Suffering many casualties, the Soviets made it beyond the main hall and started to work their way up through the building. The fire and subsequent wartime damage had turned the building's interior into a maze of rubble and debris amongst which the German defenders were strongly dug in. The Soviet infantry were forced to clear them out room by room, facing fanatical resistance at every turn. As May Day approached Soviet troops reached the roof of the Reichstag as fighting continued inside. Moscow claimed that they hoisted the Red Flag on the top of the Reichstag at 22:50, however Beevor points out that this may have been an exaggeration as "Soviet propaganda was fixated with the idea of the Reichstag being captured by 1 May". Whatever the truth the fighting inside the Reichstag raged throughout the night and through the morning, until late into the afternoon when about the last 300 Germans combatants surrendered. A further 200 defenders were dead and another 500 were already hors de combat lying wounded in the basement, many before the final assault had started.

At about 04:00 on 1 May, Krebs talked to Chuikov commander of the Soviet 8th Guards Army. Krebs returned empty handed after refusing to agree to an unconditional surrender. Only Reichskanzler Goebbels now had the authority to agree to an unconditional surrender. In the late afternoon, Goebbels had his children poisoned. At about 20:00, Goebbels and his wife, Magda, left the bunker and close to the entrance bit on a cyanide ampule and either shot themselves at the same time, or were given a coup de grâce immediately afterwards by the SS guard detailed to dispose of their bodies. At 21:00, Borman, SS-Brigadeführer Erich Naumann, and the remaining Führerbunker guards tried to break out from the Reich Chancellery. General Burgdorf, who played a key role in the death of Erwin Rommel, committed suicide. As promised by the Soviets, at 10:45 on 1 May they unleashed a "hurricane of fire" on the German pocket in the centre to force the Germans to surrender unconditionally.

For a brief period after Hitler's suicide, Goebbels was Germany's Reichskanzler. On 1 May, after Goebbels' own suicide, Reichspräsident Admiral Karl Dönitz appointed Ludwig von Krosigk as Reichskanzler. The headquarters of the Dönitz government were located around Flensburg, along with Mürwik, near the Danish border. Accordingly, the Dönitz administration was referred to as the Flensburg government.

The commanders of two formidable Berlin fortresses agreed to surrender to the Soviets, so sparing both sides the losses involved in further bombardment and assault. The commander of the Zoo flak tower (that had proved impervious to direct hits from 203mm howitzer shells,) was asked to surrender on 30 April, after a long delay a message was sent back to the Soviets on the 1 May informing them that the garrison would surrender to the Soviets at midnight that night. The reason for the delay was because the garrison intended to join in the attempt at a breakout. The other fortress was the Spandau Citadel of Trace italienne design which although several hundred years old presented a difficult structure to storm. After negotiations, the citadel's commander surrendered to the Lieutenant-General Perkhorovitch's 47th Army just after 15:00 on 1 May.

Breakout

Weildling had given the order for the survivors to break out to the north west starting at around 21:00 hours on 1 May. The breakout started later than planned at around 23:00 hours. The first group from the Reich Chancellery lead by Mohnke avoided the Weidendammer bridge over which the mass breakout took place and crossed by a footbridge, but Monnke's group became split (Mohnke failed to escape and was captured the next day and like others who were captured and had been in the Führerbunker was interrogated by SMERSH). A Tiger tank that spearheaded the first attempt to storm the Weidendammer bridge was destroyed. There followed two more attempts and on the third attempt, made around 1:00, Martin Bormann in another group from the Reich Chancellery managed to cross the Spree. He was reported to have died a short distance from the bridge, his body was seen and identified by Arthur Axmann who followed the same route.

Kurkenberg and many of the survivors of the remnants of the Nordland Division crossed the Spree shortly before dawn but could not break through and were forced back into the centre. There they split up, some discarded their uniforms and tried to pass themselves off as civilians, but most were either killed or like Kurkenberg captured. An attempt to break out northward along the Schönhauseralle by German troops on the eastern side of the central defence area failed because the Soviets were now aware that breakout attempts were being made and were hurriedly putting cordons in place to stop them. The remnants of the Münchenberg Division (five tanks, four artillery pieces, and a handful of troops), and the remnants of the 18th Panzer Grenadier and 9th Parachute divisions broke out of the centre westward through the Tiergarten. They were followed by thousands of stragglers and civilians. Spandau was still in the hands of a Hitler Youth detachment, so an attempt was made to force a passage across the Charlottenbrücke (Charlotten bridge) over the Havel. Despite heavy shelling which killed many, German weight of numbers meant that they were able drive the Soviet infantry back and many thousands crossed into Spandau. The armoured vehicles that successfully crossed the bridge made for Staaken.

Only a handful of survivors reached the Elbe and surrendered to the Western Allies, the majority were killed or captured by the Soviets. The numbers of German soldiers and civilians killed attempting the breakout is unknown.

Capitulation

On the morning of 2 May the Soviets stormed the Reich Chancellery. In the official Soviet version, the battle was similar to that of the battle for the Reichstag, there was an assault over Wilhelmplatz and into the building with a howitzer to blast open the front doors and several battles within the building. Major Anna Nikulina of Lieutenant-General Rossly's 9th Rifle Corps of the 5th Shock Army commanded the assault group which unfurled the red flag on the roof. However, Beevor suggests that the official Soviet description is probably an exaggeration, because as most of the German combat troops had left in the breakouts the night before, the resistance must have been far less than that inside the Reichstag.

At 01:00 hours the Soviets picked up radio message from the German LVI Corps requesting a cease-fire and stating that emissaries would come under a white flag to Potsdamer bridge. General Weidling surrendered with his staff at 06:00 hours. He was taken to see Lieutenant-General Chuikov at 8:23 am. Chuikov (who had commanded the successful defence of Stalingrad), asked: "You are the commander of the Berlin garrison?" Weidling replied: "Yes, I am the commander of the LVII Panzer Corps." Chuikov then asked: "Where is Krebs?" Weidling replied: "I saw him yesterday in the Reich Chancellery." Weidling then added: "I thought he would commit suicide." In the discussions that followed, Weidling agreed to an unconditional surrender of the city of Berlin. He agreed to order the city's defenders to surrender to the Soviets. Under the direction of Chuikov and Soviet General Vasily Sokolovsky (Chief of staff of the 1st Ukrainian Front), Weidling put his order to surrender in writing.

The 350-strong garrison of the Zoo flak tower final left the building. There was sporadic fighting in a few isolated buildings where some SS still refused to surrender. The Soviets simply blasted any such building to rubble. Most Germans, soldiers and civilians, were grateful to receive food issued at Red Army soup kitchens. The Soviets went house to house and rounded up anyone in a uniform including firemen and railwaymen, a total of 180,000, and marched them eastwards as prisoners of war.

Aftermath

Main article Battle of Berlin: Aftermath

The Red Army made a major effort to feed the residents of the city. However, in many areas, vengeful Soviet troops (usually rear echelon units) looted, raped (estimated at 100,000), and murdered civilians for several weeks.

According to Grigoriy Krivosheev's work based on declassified archival data, Soviet forces sustained 20,000–25,000 dead in the city of Berlin; some previous Western estimates are much higher. The battle in the city ended after a week of heavy fighting because the Germans ran out of men and supplies. The German supply dumps were located outside the outer defence line (the Inner Ring) and were captured quite early in the battle by the Soviets.

See also

References

Further reading

  • Hastings, Max; Armageddon: The Battle for Germany, 1944-1945, Macmillan, 2004, ISBN 0-333-90836-8
  • Hillers, Marta; A Woman in Berlin: Six Weeks in the Conquered City Translated by Anthes Bell, ISBN 0-8050-7540-2
  • Le Tissier, Tony. The Battle of Berlin 1945, Jonathan Cape, London, 1988, ISBN 0224025287. Palgrave Macmillan, New York, 1988 ISBN 0312016042
  • Read, Anthony; The Fall of Berlin, London: Pimlico, 1993. ISBN 0-7126-0695-5
  • Ryan, Cornelius; The Last Battle, ISBN 0-684-80329-1
  • Sanders, Ian J. ; Photos of World War 2 Berlin Locations today
  • Shepardson, Donald E.; "The Fall of Berlin and the Rise of a Myth", The Journal of Military History, Vol. 62, No. 1. (1998), pp. 135–153.
  • Remme, Tilman; The Battle for Berlin in World War Two BBC article
  • White, Osmar By the eyes of a war correspondent Alternative account of crimes against civilians

Footnotes

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