The Battle of Berlin was the final major Soviet offensive on the European front of World War 2. The Red Army encircled the city after the battles at Seelow Heights and Halbe. Before the end of the battle, Hitler and a number of his entourage committed suicide. Although the city surrendered, fighting on the outskirts of the city continued for six more days. Germany surrendered unconditionally on 8 May 1945 (9 May in the Soviet Union), thus bringing the end of the war in Europe.
Before the battle for Berlin, Soviet military effort was concentrated on clearing the flanks of the forthcoming assault on the Nazi capital while building up forces and supplies for that assault. The Russians cleared Pomerania and East Prussia of German forces. The Soviets fought their way into Königsberg.
The Soviet plan slated Berlin as the main object of Soviet offensive operations. Stalin had earlier stated his preference for Zhukov to take the city. He now gave final orders for the offensive to be conducted by three Fronts: the Second Belorussian, under Konstantin Rokossovsky; the First Belorussian under Georgy Zhukov; and the First Ukrainian, under Ivan Konev. There would be a prior attack by the Fourth Ukrainian Front further south which, combined with a pretend offensive on the left flank of the First Ukrainian Front, would fool the Germans into thinking that the next big attack would come in that area.
Hitler and the German high command were fooled into sending most of what few reserves they had to the southern end of the front in Germany, leaving the key central sector, which was about to be struck by a massive offensive, with almost no reserves at all. Hitler designated Admiral Karl Dönitz as commander of the northern remnants of the armed forces, and Field Marshal Albert Kesselring commander of the southern troops. Hitler had moved into the bunker beneath the Old Chancellery. From there he directed the final operations of the war.
Although Hitler was a head of state, during the last two and a half years of the war - ever since Stalingrad - the German people had seen almost nothing of him. He took most of his information from his Staff and from personal meetings with hard-pressed generals who almost all had to visit him. In this respect, he was completely different from Churchill and Brooke, who regularly flew out to talk with Allied commanders. The last time Hitler appeared in semi-public was on his fifty-sixth and last birthday on 20 April 1945, when he congratulated a line-up of Hitler Youth fighters who had distinguished themselves in fighting.
With some two and a half million soldiers in place, the offensive began. Stalin had told his commanders he wanted it completed in twelve to fifteen days. With an enormous cost in casualties, they delivered essentially what he had ordered. Rokossovsky’s forces took Mecklenburg. Zhukov’s forces at first encountered a well-organized resistance. But the overwhelming superiority of the Soviet forces meant that the Germans eventually lost ground. The Russians thus started their drive toward Berlin. Konev’s forces crossed the river Neisse, while the German 4th Panzer Army disintegrated.
At Seelow Heights, the Germans had prepared the final defensive line outside Berlin. General Kazakov had 8,983 artillery pieces, with up to 2,170 guns per kilometre on the breakthrough sectors, which meant a field gun every four metres. Because of this enormous buildup, Zhukov tended to underestimate the German defences.
Zhukov was so encouraged by the lack of resistance shown that he assumed the Germans were crushed. ‘It seemed that not a living soul was left on the enemy side after thirty minutes of bombardment,’ he wrote later. He gave the order to start the general attack. ‘Thousands of flares of many colours shot up into the air.’ This was the signal to the young women soldiers operating the 143 searchlights - one every 200 metres. Then tanks began roaring, searchlights were lit along all of the front line in order to blind the Germans. Then people started shouting everywhere, ‘Na Berlin!’ Russian and Polish troops had started their attack to force their way towards Berlin’s suburbs.
The advance of the 8th Guards Army progressed well at first. The troops were encouraged by the lack of resistance. The Russian Air Force constantly attacked the German defenders. Troops caught in the open were naturally the most vulnerable. The German defenders had problems identifying their targets because of poor visibility. But the Russian assault was very slow because of poor terrain. Zhukov changed the attack plan. With Stalin’s approval, he ordered the Russian tanks to attack the German lines before the infantry.
Katukov received orders in the afternoon to attack with the 1st Guards Tank Army in the direction of Seelow, while Bogdanov's 2nd Guards Tank Army was ordered to attack the Neuhardenberg sector. Eventually the leading brigades of the tank armies reached the bottom of the Seelow Heights and started the ascent. The Russian attack had started to advance more quickly.
In the centre, meanwhile, between Seelow and Neuhardenberg, Goring's vaunted 9th Parachute Division had buckled under the hammering. The front had started to collapse in this sector. The regimental commander in the area ordered an immediate counter-attack. It failed, and the remaining Germans were obliterated.
The intensity of the bombardment was so great that in Berlin's eastern suburbs, sixty kilometres from the target area, the effect was like a small earthquake. Although the more fanatical Nazis elements denied the reality of the situation, the Berliners started to stockpile on food supplies. The children’s clinic at the Potsdam hospital was evacuated. At the official levels, everyone wanted news of what was going on. But fewer and fewer units from the front were reporting in.
On the Oderbruch and the Seelow Heights, the battle continued in chaotic fashion. Because of the lack of visibility, much of the killing was done at close range. One member of the Grossdeutschland guard regiment wrote later that the marshland was ‘not a killing field but a slaughterhouse’. Confused fighting continued as the Germans stood their ground.
The 8th Guards Army, meanwhile, suffered ‘serious disadvantages’, a standard euphemism for incompetence leading to near disaster. But the fault here was Zhukov's, not Chuikov's. The preparatory fire worked well on the enemy's front line. But the artillery could not destroy enemy fire positions, especially on the Seelow Heights. Even the use of aviation did not make up for this. The Russian medical services were also inadequate. On the German side, General Busse and General Heinrici, commander-in-chief of Army Group Vistula, could not have been expected to do much better in the circumstances. But some senior officers still believed in Adolf Hitler.
That night must have been one of the worst of Zhukov's life. The eyes of the army and, more crucially, the eyes of the Kremlin, were fixed on the Seelow Heights, which he had failed to secure. His armies could not now perform their task of taking ‘Berlin on the sixth day of the operation’. One of Chuikov's rifle regiments had reached the edge of the town of Seelow, and some of Katukov's tanks were nearly at the crest at one point. But this would certainly not satisfy Stalin. Despite Zukhov’s assurances, Stalin was not convinced that the Russian army would take Seelow Heights the next day. Stalin told Konev to send his armies to Berlin’s southern flank.
Marshal Konev decided that the best tactic for his 1st Ukrainian Front was to keep the enemy occupied and blind them while his point units crossed the river Neisse. The attack opened with a devastating artillery barrage. Covered by a smokescreen, the lead units dashed forward, carrying their assault boats, and launched themselves into the stream, paddling furiously. The Russians quickly established bridgeheads across the river. Shell-shocked, the Germans could not put up a coherent defence.
The race between Zhukov and Konev began in earnest. Konev, incited by Stalin, rose enthusiastically to the challenge. Zhukov, although rattled by the setback on the Seelow Heights, believed that Berlin was rightfully his. The fighting capabilities of the German Army had not yet collapsed, as Zhukov and his troops discovered. A renewed advance by Katukov and Bogdanov's tank armies did not achieve the success promised by Zhukov. General Yushchuk's 11th Tank Corps, on the other hand, managed to surround Seelow itself astride the Reichstrasse 1, the old Prussian highway which used to lead from Berlin all the way to the now destroyed Konigsberg.
The fortunes of war still favoured Konev's 1st Ukrainian Front after its attack across the Neisse. The 13th Army and the 5th Guards Army had broken open the second line of German defence. Even while heavy fighting continued on either side, Konev sent through his leading tank brigades to race for the River Spree between Cottbus and Spremberg. The bulk of both tank armies was able to follow on across the Spree during the night.
Konev's forces were now less than eighty kilometres to the south-west of the German command centres at Zossen. Yet neither the Fourth Panzer Army nor Field Marshal Schorner's Army Group Centre had reported that the Soviet 3rd and 4th Guards Tank Armies were crossing the Spree in force and that there were no further reserves to stop them. The attention of staff officers at Zossen was fixed primarily on the struggle for the Seelow Heights. All remaining reinforcements were concentrated there.
Zhukov now knew that Konev’s tank armies had been allowed to swing north on Berlin. Zhukov’s orders to his army commanders that morning were uncompromising. They were to reconnoitre their front in person and report back on the exact situation. Artillery was to be moved forward to take on German strongpoints over open sights. The advance was to be accelerated and continued day and night. Both of Zhukov’s extreme flanks had met with little success. The breakthrough came suddenly just behind Seelow on the Reichstrasse I. There the Russians took Diedersdorf. The Red Army began to divide the enemy defences.
The Ninth Army began to split up in three main directions, as General Busse had feared. The Red Army's capture of Wriezen and the 3rd Shock Army's advance further westward onto the plateau behind Neuhardenberg forced CI Corps back towards Eberswalde and the countryside north of Berlin. Weidling's LVI Panzer Corps in the center began to withdraw due west into Berlin. And on the right, the XI SS Panzer Corps began to withdraw south-westwards towards Furstenwalde. There was no hope of re-establishing an effective front line, despite the best efforts of the more experienced officers.
President Roosevelt had won reelection to a fourth term in 1944. But the pressures of campaigning on top of the enormous pressures of the war had strained his health. Instead of some real opportunity for relaxation, there had been not only the continued drain of the war—with the Battle of the Bulge and Iwo Jima—but also the long trip to Yalta, which proved most exhausting. The disputes with Stalin were also a strain. Roosevelt died 11 weeks into his 4th term. He is considered to be one of the greatest American presidents. His Vice-President, Harry Truman, became president in his stead.
The last-minute concerns of the German leaders hardly engaged the real dilemmas facing them. They were worried about evacuating their supplies of poison gas lest the Allies utilize their discovery of the gas as a pretext for using it against the Germans. They rejoiced over the death of President Roosevelt as a sign that all would be well for Germany. Hitler started to move armies on the front in order to save Germany. But these armies existed only in his imagination. Increasing numbers of the German military leaders, however, had by this time a rather different perspective. They recognized that the war was lost.
As Hitler made his decision to stay in Berlin, some of the Nazi leaders, such as Heinrich Himmler and Hermann Göring, wanted to try their hand at ending the war either for themselves or for the country. Many simply fled and tried to vanish. Of these, some were caught by the German political or military police and summarily shot. A few attempted to negotiate surrender, not just of a sector of the front, like Karl Wolff in Italy, but of a wider scale.
The advancing Russians were breaking into Berlin from north, east and south even as the spearheads of Zhukov's and Konev's fronts met west of the city. The German capital was completely surrounded at a time when the main defence force, the 12th Army, had itself been surrounded in a separate encirclement by the Red Army. The Soviet armies started to enter the city. The final days of the Third Reich were at hand. General Helmuth Weidling was appointed commander of the German forces in Berlin.
Within six days the Red Army was inside Berlin, but the desperate fighting in the streets and rubble reduced their advantages, and increased the Germans’. The Wehrmacht’s lack of tanks mattered less in the built-up areas. Hundreds of Soviet tanks were destroyed in close fighting by the Panzerfaust, an anti-tank gun that was very accurate at short range. The Red Army had long been shooting anyone captured in SS uniform. Those SS men who had discarded it nonetheless could not escape the fact that their blood group was tattooed on their left arms. Fear of execution made the desperate fighting even worse. The SS would also hang those who refused to fight.
In desperate urban fighting, the tactics were changed to fit the situation. The Germans had rifleman defending buildings from windows. They attacked Russian tanks with panzerfaust weapons from cellars. As their tanks advanced, the Russians sprayed the buildings with submachine gun fire. They also blasted German barricades and buildings with the tank cannons. Infantry tactics were based largely on Chuikov's notes, evolved since Stalingrad and hurriedly updated after the storming of Poznan. The assault groups of six to eight men should be backed by reinforcement groups and then by reserve groups, ready to deal with a counterattack.
The few unevacuated hospitals which had remained in Berlin were so inundated with casualties that most newcomers were turned away. The situation was made even worse by the fact that wards were limited to the cellars. In the days of bombing, staff had been able to get the patients downstairs when the sirens went, but with constant artillery fire, there was no warning. Because of the virtual impossibility of obtaining official help, many wounded soldiers and civilians were tended in the cellars of houses by mothers and girls.
The Soviet advance into Berlin was extremely uneven. Some units advanced quicker than others. But all fought their way toward the city center with one goal in sight: The Reichstag building. The Spandau prison, Gatow airfield, Tiergarten park, Landwehr Canal, Dahlem, Moabit, the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physics - all of these landmarks eventually fell into Russian hands.
Moabit prison did not appear to be an easy target to storm. The artillery brought forward a heavy gun, but it attracted frantic firing from within the prison. The very first gun-layer was killed and so was the second, but a breach was soon blasted in the walls. Storm groups dashed across the street and entered the courtyard. Once they were inside, the German garrison surrendered very quickly. From the Moabit prison, it was only 8oo metres to the Moltke bridge over the Spree. Another 6oo metres beyond that stood the Reichstag. This building was chosen by Stalin as the symbol of Berlin. It had to be captured before the Red Army could declare victory in Berlin.
Among those determined not to die were the remnants of Busse's Ninth Army, trying to break through the forests south of Berlin. Some 25,000 soldiers and several thousand civilians had breached or slipped through Marshal Konev's stop-lines. Like hunted animals, they forced themselves on even though exhausted. Amid constant Russian air attack, these men tried to escape beyond the Russian lines. Many of them died.
Because of the Germans’ serious defences, the attack on the building began with a heavy artillery bombardment. When the Russians attacked, they had to clear the building room by room. Heavy fighting ensued in the building, with both sides suffering terrible casualties.
The looting, drunkenness, murder and despoliation indulged in by the Red Army in East Prussia, Silesia and elsewhere in the Reich – especially Berlin – were the inevitable responses of soldiers who had marched through devastated Russian towns and cities over the previous twenty months. The women of Germany were also about to pay a high personal price for the Wehrmacht’s attack on the Soviet Union. As many as 2 million of them were raped by Russian soldiers, many of them in Berlin. Stalin knew and approved of this horrible behavior.
As the fighting neared the immediate vicinity of the bunker used as Hitler's headquarters, the Führer married his mistress Eva Braun and dictated his political and private testaments. In the former he defended his policies, made nasty comments about his generals whom he blamed for the defeat and called on any surviving Germans to continue his racial policies of slaughtering Jews. He appointed Dönitz as his successor. On 30 April 1945, he and his new wife committed suicide.
The remains of Hitler, Eva Braun and the Goebbels family (Joseph and Magda had murdered their six children) were physically destroyed during the night of 4 April 1970. The bodies had been buried at a Smersh (military counter-intelligence) base in Magdeburg in East Germany in February 1946. This base was about to be turned over to the locals as surplus to requirements, and construction work was due to take place there.
The Berlin garrison—or rather what was left of it—was surrendered to the Red Army soon after the last acting German army Chief of Staff, General Hans Krebs, attempted to work out a broader surrender and failed. The battle for Berlin was over. According to one careful study, the most conservative estimates indicated that it had cost half a million people their lives or their health. The Soviets did not waste time. As Berlin fell, they flew German communists in from Russia to establish a new government.
In the north, Admiral Donitz had taken control both of whatever remnants of a government could be put together, and the German armed forces still controlling western Holland, all of Norway and Denmark, a substantial portion of north and small pieces of south Germany as well as portions of Austria, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia. The pieces of Italy were about to be surrendered. The admiral had been a dedicated follower of Hitler and believed practically until the last minute that the tide could yet turn in Germany's favor. When he took over the immediate heritage of Hitler, Donitz realized that the war was lost.
The surrender was signed in two installments, once in Reims on the 7th of May and again in Berlin on the 8th of May. These complications clearly show both the common aims and the divergent perspectives of the Western Allies and the Soviet Union. All were agreed that the German military leaders must this time sign an unconditional surrender. There was agreement that the Dönitz government would be utilized to ensure an orderly and swift surrender. But once that had been accomplished, those associated with the Dönitz government, if not already arrested, would be locked up, with some of them later tried as war criminals.
There can be no doubt that the United States and the Soviet Union were the greatest victors of the the Second World War. The British empire had to be dissolved. France also lay in the dust for over a decade. Germany lay broken and in ruins. It suffered a horrendous loss of life. The German state would not be made whole until after the Iron Curtain fell in 1989.
In Austria, the Soviet Union had already begun to implement the concept agreed upon by the Allies at the Moscow Conference. The country would be revived as an independent state, by establishing a new government under the elderly Socialist Karl Renner, with the assumption that Austria would also be temporarily divided into four occupation zones and a four-power controlled capital in Vienna. The Austrians would regain their unity and independence within ten years.
The Germans had no central institutions of their own once the Dönitz government had been arrested. With no civilian government in existence, the four Allied supreme commanders in Berlin proclaimed the end of the German government and assumed all sovereign power for their governments, to be exercised through the Allied Control Council. Germany was divided into four occupation zones: American, British, French and Russian.
The entrance of the troops of the Western Allies into their sectors of Berlin paved the way for a final meeting of the victorious allies in Potsdam. It was during this meeting that the results of the British election became known. This election removed Churchill as Prime Minister and installed Clement Attlee, the leader of the Labour Party and former Deputy Prime Minister, as head of the British government and delegation. Churchill had led Britain to victory, but the citizens thought that it was time for a new government in post-war Britain. Churchill had tried at the last moment to retrieve some of the concessions made to the Soviet Union. However, it was now too late.
Russia suffered the heaviest casualties of all the nations that fought in the war. The issue of how many Russians – military and civilian – died during their Great Patriotic War was an intensely political one, and the true figure was classified as a national secret in the USSR until the fall of the Berlin Wall. Stalin minimized the losses at only 7 million. During Nikita Kruschev’s thaw, that number was upped to about 20 million. Russia probably suffered up to 27 million dead during the war.
A few weeks before the end of the war, the British War Cabinet discussed how to deal with German war criminals. The notes taken of this meeting by the Additional Cabinet Secretary, Norman Brook, became available in 2008. They show that the Minister of Aircraft Production, Labour’s Sir Stafford Cripps, disagreed with the policy set out by the Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden, for a large-scale trial, saying that it ‘mixes politics and judicial decision with disadvantage to both’. Some British officials supported Cripps’ point of view. Others wanted a trial. The US and USSR made it clear that a trial should take place.
Held for the purpose of bringing Nazi war criminals to justice, the Nuremberg trials were a series of 13 trials carried out in Nuremberg, Germany. The defendants, who included Nazi Party officials and high-ranking military officers along with German industrialists, lawyers and doctors, were indicted on such charges as crimes against peace and crimes against humanity. The legal justifications for the trials and their procedural innovations were controversial at the time. The trials are now regarded as a milestone toward the establishment of a permanent international court, and an important precedent for dealing with later instances of crimes against humanity.