The Battle for Berlin is perhaps one of the most savagely fought battles in history. The invaders: Russians in large numbers with lots of heavy guns and a bitter hatred for anything German. The defenders: Some sad remnants of the German armed forces, old men and young boys armed mostly with panzerfaust.
The fighting was bitter. The Germans were fighting for their lives, some for an ideology. To die fighting than face the ignominy and hatred of a bitter foe.
Many dark, brutal things happened in the last days of April in Berlin in 1945. The following pictures perhaps give a hint of them.
The final chapter in the destruction of Hitler's Third Reich began on April 16, 1945 when Stalin unleashed the brutal power of 20 armies, 6,300 tanks and 8,500 aircraft with the objective of crushing German resistance and capturing Berlin. By prior agreement, the Allied armies (positioned approximately 60 miles to the west) halted their advance on the city in order to give the Soviets a free hand. The depleted German forces put up a stiff defense, initially repelling the attacking Russians, but ultimately succumbing to overwhelming force. By April 24 the Soviet army surrounded the city slowly tightening its stranglehold on the remaining Nazi defenders. Fighting street-to-street and house-to-house, Russian troops blasted their way towards Hitler's chancellery in the city's center.
Inside his underground bunker Hitler lived in a world of fantasy as his "Thousand Year Reich" crumbled above him. In his final hours the Fuehrer married his long-time mistress and then joined her in suicide. The Third Reich was dead.
VIDEO: YOUNG GERMAN SOLDIERS ON THE ODER FRONT 1945 WAIT FOR THE RUSSIAN ONSLAUGHT
Berliners, gaunt from short rations and stress, had little to celebrate at Christmas in 1944. The mood in Germany had changed exactly two years before. Rumours had begun to circulate just before Christmas 1942 that General Paulus's Sixth Army had been encircled on the Volga by the Red Army. The Nazi regime found it hard to admit that the largest formation in the whole of the Wehrmacht was doomed to annihilation in the ruins of Stalingrad and in the frozen steppe outside. To prepare the country for bad news, Joseph Goebbels, the Reichsminister for Propaganda and Enlightenment, had announced a 'German Christmas', which in National Socialist terms meant austerity and ideological determination, not candles and pine wreathes and singing '
. By 1944, the traditional roast goose had become a distant memory.
Dorothea von Schwanenfluegel was a twenty-nine-year-old wife and mother living in Berlin. She and her young daughter along with friends and neighbors huddled within their apartment building as the end neared. The city was already in ruins from Allied air raids, food was scarce, the situation desperate - the only hope that the Allies would arrive before the Russians. We join Dorothea's account as the Russians begin the final push to victory:
"Friday, April 20, was Hitler's fifty-sixth birthday, and the Soviets sent him a birthday present in the form of an artillery barrage right into the heart of the city, while the Western Allies joined in with a massive air raid.
The radio announced that Hitler had come out of his safe bomb-proof bunker to talk with the fourteen to sixteen year old boys who had 'volunteered' for the 'honor' to be accepted into the SS and to die for their Fuhrer in the defense of Berlin. What a cruel lie! These boys did not volunteer, but had no choice, because boys who were found hiding were hanged as traitors by the SS as a warning that, 'he who was not brave enough to fight had to die.' When trees were not available, people were strung up on lamp posts. They were hanging everywhere, military and civilian, men and women, ordinary citizens who had been executed by a small group of fanatics. It appeared that the Nazis did not want the people to survive because a lost war, by their rationale, was obviously the fault of all of us. We had not sacrificed enough and therefore, we had forfeited our right to live, as only the government was without guilt. The Volkssturm was called up again, and this time, all boys age thirteen and up, had to report as our army was reduced now to little more than children filling the ranks as soldiers."
VIDEO: RUSSIANS IN BERLIN 1945
AN EYEWITNESS ACCOUNT (Contd.)
Encounter with a Young Soldier
VIDEO: GERMAN SOLDIERS SURRENDER
Berlin had been the city with the highest proportion of opponents to the Nazi regime, as its voting records before 1933 indicate. But with the exception of a very small and courageous minority,opposition to the Nazis had generally been limited to gibes and grumbles. The majority had been genuinely horrified by the assassination attempt against Hitler on 20 July 1944.And as the Reich's frontiers became threatened both in the east and in the west, they drank in Goebbels's stream of lies that the Führer would unleash new 'wonder weapons' against their enemies, as if he were about to assume the role of a wrathful Jupiter flinging thunderbolts as a symbol of his power
On 13 March, a day in which 2,500 Berliners died in air raids and another 120,000 found themselves homeless, Bormann ordered 'on the grounds of security' that prisoners must be moved from areas close to the front to the interior of the Reich. It is not entirely clear whether this instruction also accelerated the existing SS programme for evacuating concentration camps threatened by advancing troops. The killing of sick prisoners and the death marches of concentration camp survivors were probably the most ghastly developments in the fall of the Third Reich.
AN EYEWITNESS ACCOUNT (Contd.)
The Russians Arrive
"The Soviets battled the German soldiers and drafted civilians street by street until we could hear explosions and rifle fire right in our immediate vicinity. As the noise got closer, we could even hear the horrible guttural screaming of the Soviet soldiers which sounded to us like enraged animals. Shots shattered our windows and shells exploded in our garden, and suddenly the Soviets were on our street. Shaken by the battle around us and numb with fear, we watched from behind the small cellar windows facing the street as the tanks and an endless convoy of troops rolled by.
It was a terrifying sight as they sat high upon their tanks with their rifles cocked, aiming at houses as they passed. The screaming, gun-wielding women were the worst. Half of the troops had only rags and tatters around their feet while others wore SS boots that had been looted from a conquered SS barrack in Lichterfelde. Several fleeing people had told us earlier that they kept watching different boots pass by their cellar windows. At night, the Germans in our army boots recaptured the street that the Soviets in the SS boots had taken during the day. The boots and the voices told them who was who. Now we saw them with our own eyes, and they belonged to the wild cohorts of the advancing Soviet troops.
Facing reality was ten times worse than just hearing about it. Throughout the night, we huddled together in mortal fear, not knowing what the morning might bring. Nevertheless, we noiselessly did sneak upstairs to double check that our heavy wooden window shutters were still intact and that all outside doors were barricaded. But as I peaked out, what did I see! The porter couple in the apartment house next to ours was standing in their front yard waving to the Soviets. So our suspicion that they were Communists had been right all along, but they must have been out of their minds to openly proclaim their brotherhood like that.
As could be expected, that night a horde of Soviet soldiers returned and stormed into their apartment house. Then we heard what sounded like a terrible orgy with women screaming for help, many shrieking at the same time. The racket gave me goosebumps. Some of the Soviets trampled through our garden and banged their rifle butts on our doors in an attempt to break in. Thank goodness our sturdy wooden doors withstood their efforts. Gripped in fear, we sat in stunned silence, hoping to give the impression that this was a vacant house, but hopelessly delivered into the clutches of the long-feared Red Army. Our nerves were in shreds."
'There was a big slogan painted up in our canteen,' a cyphering with the headquarters of the 1st Belorussian Front remembered. ' "Have you killed a German yet? Then kill him!"We were very strongly influenced by Ehrenburg's appeals and we had a lot to take revenge for.' Her own parents had been killed in Sevastopol. 'The hatred was so great that it was difficult to control the soldiers.
"The next morning, we women proceeded to make ourselves look as unattractive as possible to the Soviets by smearing our faces with coal dust and covering our heads with old rags, our make-up for the Ivan. We huddled together in the central part of the basement, shaking with fear, while some peeked through the low basement windows to see what was happening on the Soviet-controlled street. We felt paralyzed by the sight of these husky Mongolians, looking wild and frightening. At the ruin across the street from us the first Soviet orders were posted, including a curfew. Suddenly there was a shattering noise outside. Horrified, we watched the Soviets demolish the corner grocery store and throw its contents, shelving and furniture out into the street. Urgently needed bags of flour, sugar and rice were split open and spilled their contents on the bare pavement, while Soviet soldiers stood guard with their rifles so that no one would dare to pick up any of the urgently needed food. This was just unbelievable. At night, a few desperate people tried to salvage some of the spilled food from the gutter. Hunger now became a major concern because our ration cards were worthless with no hope of any supplies.
Shortly thereafter, there was another commotion outside, even worse than before, and we rushed to our lookout to see that the Soviets had broken into the bank and were looting it. They came out yelling gleefully with their hands full of German bank notes and jewelry from safe deposit boxes that had been pried open. Thank God we had withdrawn money already and had it at home."
"The next day, General Wilding, the commander of the German troops in Berlin, finally surrendered the entire city to the Soviet army. There was no radio or newspaper, so vans with loudspeakers drove through the streets ordering us to cease all resistance. Suddenly, the shooting and bombing stopped and the unreal silence meant that one ordeal was over for us and another was about to begin. Our nightmare had become a reality. The entire three hundred square miles of what was left of Berlin were now completely under control of the Red Army. The last days of savage house to house fighting and street battles had been a human slaughter, with no prisoners being taken on either side. These final days were hell. Our last remaining and exhausted troops, primarily children and old men, stumbled into imprisonment. We were a city in ruins; almost no house remained intact."
The Nazi leadership did not just rely on the 'flying courts martial' and SS execution squads to terrorize soldiers into continuing the fight. The tales of atrocities from the propaganda ministry never ceased. Stories of women commissars castrating wounded soldiers, for example, were circulated. The ministry also had its own squads both in Berlin and close to the Oder front, painting slogans on walls as if they were the spontaneous expression of the civilian population, such as 'We believe in victory!', 'Wewill never surrender' and 'Protect our women and children from the Red beasts!'
It was a pitiless battle. At Hermersdorf, south-west of Neuhardenberg, Soviet infantry advanced past a T-34 still burning from a panzerfaust. A German soldier in a nearby foxhole screamed to them for help. A grenade dropped in the foxhole had blown off his feet and he lacked the strength to pull himself out. But the Red Army soldiers left him there, despite his cries, in revenge for the burned crew.
German prisoners sent towards the rear were overawed by the endless columns of tanks,self-propelled guns and other tracked vehicles moving forward. 'And this is the army,'some of them thought, 'which in 1941 was supposed to have been at its last gasp.' Soviet infantrymen coming up the other side of the road would greet them with cries of ' Gitler kapuuutt!' , accompanied by a throat-cutting gesture.One of the German prisoners was convinced that a number of the dead they passed were 'Soviet soldiers who had been crushed by their own tanks'. He also saw Russian soldiers trying out some captured panzerfausts by firing them at the wall of a half-ruined house.Others were stripping greatcoats from their own dead, and in one village, he saw a couple of soldiers taking pot shots at nesting storks. Target practice seemed compulsive even after the battle. Some of the prisoners, taken to the magnificent schloss at Neuhardenberg,were alarmed when their escort, spotting a 'superb chandelier', raised his sub-machine gun and fired a burst at it. A senior officer reprimanded him, 'but that seemed to make little impression'.
The Feldgendarmerie and SS groups continued to search for deserters. No records were kept of the roadside executions carried out, but anecdotal evidence suggests that on the XI SS Corps sector, many, including a number of Hitler Youth, were hanged from tree son the flimsiest of proof. This was nothing short of murder. Soviet sources claim that25,000 German soldiers and officers were summarily executed for cowardice in 1945.This figure is almost certainly too high, but it was unlikely to have been lower than10,000.
The 19th of April was another beautiful spring day, providing Soviet aviation with perfect visibility. Every time Shturmoviks came over, strafing and bombing, the road emptied as people threw themselves in the ditches. Women and girls from nearby villages, terrified of the Red Army, begged groups of soldiers to take them with them: 'Nehmt uns mit, nehmt uns bitte, bitte mit!'
field telephones had been abandoned. There was also no hope of re-establishing an effective front line, despite the best efforts of the more experienced officers, who grabbed any stragglers from other units and incorporated them into their own little command
Friday 20 April was the fourth fine day in a row. It was Adolf Hitler's fifty-sixth birthday.A beautiful day on this date used to prompt greetings between strangers in the street about 'Führer weather' and the miracle that this implied. Now only the most besotted Nazi could still hint at Hitler's supernatural power. There were still enough diehards left,however, to attempt to celebrate the event. Nazi flags were raised on ruined buildings and placards proclaimed, ' Die Kriegsstadt Berlin grüst den Führer!'
Hitler told General Krebs to launch an attack from the west of Berlin against Konev's armies to prevent encirclement. The force expected to 'hurl back' the 3rd and 4th Guards Tank Armies consisted of the
Friedrich Ludwig Jahn Division, made up of boys in Reich Labour Service detachments, and the so-called 'Wünsdorf Panzer formation', a batch of half a dozen tanks from the training school there.A police battalion was sent to the Strausberg area that day 'to catch deserters and execute them and shoot any soldiers found retreating without orders'. But even those detailed as executioners began to desert on their way forward. One of those who gave themselves up to the Russians told his Soviet interrogator that 'about 40,000 deserters were hiding in Berlin even before the Russian advance. Now this number is rapidly increasing.' He went on to say that the police and the Gestapo could not control the situation.
An intensive artillery bombardment of Berlin began at 9.30 a.m., a couple of hours after the end of the last Allied air raid. Hitler's SS adjutant, Otto Günsche, reported that the Führer, a few minutes after having been woken, emerged unshaven and angry in the bunker corridor which served as an anteroom. 'What's going on?' he shouted at Genera Burgdorf, Colonel von Below and Günsche. 'Where's this firing coming from?'Burgdorf answered that central Berlin was under fire from Soviet heavy artillery. 'Are the Russians already so near?' asked Hitler, clearly shaken.
From that morning until 2 May, they were to fire 1.8 million shells in the assault on the city.The casualties among women especially were heavy as they still queued in the drizzling rain, hoping for their 'crisis rations'. Mangled bodies were flung across the Hermannplatzin south-west Berlin as people queued outside the Karstadt department store. Many others were killed in the queues at the water pumps. Crossing a street turned into a dash from one insecure shelter to another. Most gave up and returned to their cellars. Some,however, took what seemed like the last opportunity to bury silver and other valuables in their garden or a nearby allotment. But the relentlessness of the bombardment and the random fall of shells soon forced the majority of the population back underground.
Side roads and main routes alike were encumbered by civilians with handcarts, prams and teams of farm horses. Soldiers were surrounded by civilians desperate for news of the enemy's advance, but often had no clear idea themselves. Pickets of Feldgendarmerie at each crossroads again grabbed stragglers to form scratch companies. There were also men hanged from roadside trees, with a card on their chest stating, 'I was a coward.'Soldiers sent to defend houses either side of the road were the luckiest. The inhabitants gave them food and some hot water to shave and wash in, the first for many days.
Perhaps as a side-effect of this law linking death with sexual maturity, the arrival of the enemy at the edge of the city made young soldiers desperate to lose their virginity. Girls,well aware of the high risk of rape, preferred to give themselves to almost any German boy first than to a drunken and probably violent Soviet soldier. In the broadcasting centre of the Grossdeutscher Rundfunk on the Masurenallee, two-thirds of the 500-strong staff were young women - many little more than eighteen. There, in the last week of April, a 'real feeling of disintegration' spread, with heavy drinking and indiscriminate copulation amid the stacks of the sound archive. There was also a good deal of sexual activity between people of various ages in unlit cellars and bunkers. The aphrodisiac effect of mortal danger is hardly an unknown historical phenomenon.
Berliners now referred to their city as the 'Reichsscheiterhaufen' - the 'Reich's funeralpyre'. Civilians were already suffering casualties in the street-fighting and house-clearing.Captain Ratenko, an officer from Tula in Bogdanov's 2nd Guards Tank Army, knocked at a cellar door in Reinickendorf, a district in the north-west. Nobody opened it, so he kicked it in. There was a burst of sub-machine-gun fire and he was killed. The soldiers from the 2nd Guards Tank Army who were with him started firing through the door and the windows. They killed the gunman, apparently a young Wehrmacht officer in civilian clothes, but also a woman and a child. 'The building was then surrounded by our men and burned down,' the report stated.
Serov was perhaps most surprised by the state of Berlin's defences. 'No serious permanent defences have been found inside the ten- to fifteen-kilometre zone around Berlin. There are fire-trenches and gun-pits and the motorways are mined in certain sections. There are some trenches just as one comes to the city, but less in fact than any other city taken by the Red Army.' Interrogations of Volkssturm men revealed how few regular troops there were in the city, how little ammunition there was and how reluctant the Volkssturm was to fight. Serov discovered also that German anti-aircraft defence had almost ceased to function, thus allowing Red Army aviation a clear sweep over the city.
Civilian casualties had been heavy already. Like Napoleonic infantry, the women standing in line for food simply closed ranks after a shell burst decimated a queue.Nobody dared lose their place. Some claimed that women just wiped the blood from their ration cards and stuck it out. 'There they stand like walls,' noted a woman diarist, 'thosewho not so long ago dashed into bunkers the moment three fighter planes were announced over central Germany.' Women queued for a handout of butter and dry
sausage, while men emerged only to line up for an issue of schnapps. It seemed to be symbolic. Women were concerned with the immediacy of survival while men needed escape from the consequences of their war.