Battle of Berlin
The Soviet Union defeats Germany. The end of the war in Europe.
16 April 1945 - 2 May 1945
author Paul Boșcu, February 2017
The Battle of Berlin was the final major Soviet offensive on the European front of World War 2. 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, thus bringing the end of the war in Europe.

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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.

The Germans on the Eastern Front fought with the bravery born of desperation to save their own lives and what they believed was the future of their families and homes. Once the front situation had collapsed and there appeared to be a way out, they began to make the equally desperate effort to escape by heading west or surrendering.

The misery in occupied Germany was vast, but there was no political interest. The area occupied by the Western Allies was a food deficit area and was experiencing great hunger. It would continue to do so, as no food shipments from east Germany could be expected. Meanwhile, the population was rapidly growing as a result of vast movements of refugees westward.

The lines of demarcation between the Allies were agreed upon even before the Yalta Conference. Once reconfirmed there, it fell to the Russians to fight the battle of Berlin.

Bradley’s assessment to Eisenhower was that a Western attack on Berlin would cost 100,000 casualties, which he considered ‘a pretty stiff price for a prestige objective’. This figure is almost certainly too high. Konev later stated that the Red Army lost 800 tanks in the battle for Berlin, and it is thought that Russian casualties amounted to as many as 78,291 killed and 274,184 wounded. These figures could probably have been lower if Stalin had not been in such a hurry to capture the capital as soon as possible regardless of the human cost involved.

In a summary of the situation and prediction of the future, General Marshall had reported to Roosevelt that the war would end as the pockets of resistance collapsed one by one, the key question being the location of Hitler. The Germans would fight hard at that point, but there would be little guerilla warfare. The southern redoubt would function as a center of resistance only if Hitler went there in person. There would be no overthrow of the Nazi regime from the inside.

The Soviets displayed the greatest abilities at the operational level of war. From Bagration, which took out virtually all of Army Group Center, to the operations that destroyed German forces in East Prussia and Poland, Soviet commanders exhibited outstanding capabilities in deception, planning, and the conduct of operations. Their victories were far superior to anything the Germans had achieved early in the war.

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.

In battles of tremendous ferocity, the Red Army first failed and then succeeded in destroying most of the German forces in Pomerania and driving back the remnants across the Oder.

The two German armies which had been cut off in East Prussia were split into several pockets and destroyed, except for those evacuated by sea and a tiny enclave which held out until May.

Relying heavily on their artillery, the divisions of the Third Belorussian Front pounded their way into Königsberg—now Kaliningrad—and quite literally smashed into pieces the bulk of what was left of the old northern wing of the German Eastern Front. The German general who finally surrendered what was left of Königsberg was condemned to death in absentia and his family arrested.

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.

‘I have the impression that a very heavy battle lies ahead of us,’ said Stalin as he opened the last planning session for the capture of Berlin, and he was right. Yet he had 2.5 million troops, 6,250 tanks and 7,500 aircraft to throw into this enormous final assault.

Directly east of Berlin was Zhukov's First Belorussian Front, which already had bridgeheads across the Oder. This army group would move out in three thrusts: striking north of the German capital and eventually surrounding it, heading directly towards it, and heading south-west, thus cutting off the defending Germans from the north.

In the north, Rokossovsky's Second Belorussian Front had the most difficult preliminary re-shuffling and faced the worst terrain. He had to carry out an assault crossing over a river divided into branches, in an area of flooded ground easily shelled by the defenders. His Army Group, therefore, was scheduled to attack several days after the other two.

While the Third Ukrainian Front was driving deep into Austria, taking Vienna, the massive preparations for the main offensive went forward. These were greatly aided, as in previous prepared offensives, by the thousands of trucks delivered by the United States under Lend-Lease.

Konev's First Ukrainian Front, while pretending to attack on its left flank, would in fact launch assault crossings of the Neisse river into the German 4th Panzer Army, head northwest to assist in cutting off the 9th Army, and also reach further west both to meet the Americans and to surround Berlin from the south. The drive to meet the Americans would split the whole German military mechanism apart. It would make it far more difficult for them to maintain resistance centers in the north and south. In this regard, Soviet planning essentially coincided with Eisenhower's.

One of the main reasons for Stalin’s haste was that his spy chief, Lavrenti Beria, had discovered that the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physics in Dahlem, a south-western suburb of Berlin, housed the German atomic research programme. There they hoped to find scientists, equipment, many litres of heavy water and several tonnes of uranium oxide. Stalin therefore encouraged an ill-concealed race between the rivals Zhukov and Konev as to who would take south-western Berlin first.

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.

The constant Allied air raids were bad for German morale, but worse was the knowledge that a 6.7 million-strong Red Army was massed on the Reich’s borders from the Baltic to the Adriatic, with the city of Berlin as the ultimate goal.

The irony was that, before the war, this liberal city had been the most anti-Nazi place in Germany. Yet now it faced destruction because of its most prominent resident, who had returned from the Wolfschanze and was living in the bunker beneath the Old Chancellery in the Wilhelmstrasse. Although the bunkers under the New Chancellery were more spacious, the Old Chancellery ones were chosen as they were deemed safer.

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.

In equally stark contrast to Churchill, Hitler never visited a bomb site. Instead, the curtains in his Mercedes-Benz were closed as it sped past them.

Armin Lehmann, a member of the Hitler Youth present at Hitler’s last appearance, recalls the Fuhrer’s weak voice and rheumy eyes as he squeezed their ears and told them how brave they were being. Analysis of the film footage with modern, computer-assisted lip-reading techniques for speech recognition confirms that he went down the line with exhortations such as ‘Well done’, ‘Good’ and ‘Brave boy’ for most of the fighters, who look as if they were barely in their teens.

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.

Around 22,000 guns and mortars rained 2,450 freight-car loads of shells on the German lines. The Russian gunners had to keep their mouths open when firing, in order to stop their eardrums from bursting. The Second Belorussian Front struck, with only the northernmost of the three assault crossings successful. Rokossovsky quickly shifted emphasis to that sector and then drove into Mecklenburg.

Zhukov's 1st Belorussian Front started out with bridgeheads across the Oder. Its first attacks, launched at night with searchlights intended to blind the Germans, barely drove the defenders back at all. For three days the assaulting formations piled up against the defenses. Driven forward by Zhukov at Stalin's insistence, the attackers ground forward. As artillery wore down the defenders, Red Army units broke into and through the front of Army Group Vistula toward and north of Berlin. There were very heavy casualties on both sides. Numerous Soviet tanks were destroyed, many by hand-held anti-tank rockets carried by Hitler Youth members.

Konev's forces made successful assault crossings of the Neisse river on the heels of a tremendous artillery barrage. In short order, several divisions of the 4th Panzer Army simply disintegrated. Before the Germans quite realized what was happening, Konev's spearheads were cutting in behind the 9th Army. Within five days, it was clear that the Eastern Front had been ripped open. The only remaining question was whether the Germans would try to fight on or give up.

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 usually insisted on visiting the front line in person to study the terrain before a major offensive. But this time - mainly due to constant pressure from Stalin - he had relied largely on photo reconnaissance. This vertical picture failed to reveal that the Seelow Heights, dominating his bridgehead on the Oderbruch, was a far more formidable feature than he had realized.

‘Immediately the whole area was lit by many thousands of guns, mortars and our legendary katyushas.’ No bombardment in the war had been so intense. General Kazakov's artillerymen worked in a frenzy. ‘A terrible thunder shook everything around,’ wrote a battery commander with the 3rd Shock Army. ‘You would have thought that even us artillerists could not be scared by such a symphony, but this time, I too wanted to plug my ears. I had the feeling that my eardrums would burst.’

Those few trapped in trenches in the target area who somehow survived the terrifying bombardment could describe the experience afterwards only in terms of ‘hell’ or ‘inferno’, or an ‘earthquake’. Many lost all sense of hearing. ‘In a matter of a few seconds,’ Gerd Wagner in the 17th Parachute Regiment recorded, ‘all my ten comrades were dead.’ When Wagner recovered consciousness, he found himself lying wounded in a smoking shell crater. He was only just able to struggle back to the second line. Few escaped alive from the artillery barrage. Bodies are still being discovered well over half a century later.

Even though almost every square metre of the German positions in front of the Seelow was churned up by shellfire, casualties were not nearly as high as they might have been. General Gotthard Heinrici had pulled the bulk of Ninth Army's troops back to the second line of trenches.

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.

Some German soldiers, no doubt over-influenced by Wunderwaffen propaganda, thought that the searchlights were a new weapon to blind them.

Captain Sulkhanishvili in the 3rd Shock Army found that ‘the light was so blinding one couldn't turn around, one could only move forward’. Yet this invention, of which Zhukov was so proud, did more to disorientate the attackers than dazzle the defenders, because the light reflected back off the smoke and dust from the bombardment. Commanders with the forward troops passed back orders to turn off the lights, then a counter-order switched them back on, causing even more night blindness among the troops.

The advance from the main Kustrin bridgehead began with Chuikov's 8th Guards Army on the left and Berzarin's 5th Shock Army on the right. Four days before, Zhukov had changed the Stavka plan, with Stalin's permission, to keep Katukov's 1st Guards Tank Army in support of Chuikov. They were then to force their way through to the southern suburbs of Berlin. On Berzarin's right was the 2nd Guards Tank Army, the 3rd Shock Army and the 47th Army.

On Zhukov's far right flank, the 1st Polish Army and the 61st Army had little in the way of bridgeheads. They had to cross the Oder under fire. Their leading battalions used amphibious vehicles, driven by young women soldiers, but most of the troops crossed in ordinary boats. Casualties were heavy in the crossing. The German resistance was also strong. When one battalion of the 12th Guards Rifle Division made the crossing, ‘only eight men reached the west bank of the Oder’.

On the extreme left flank, the 33rd Army, in its bridgehead south of Frankfurt an der Oder, together with the 69th Army to its north, were to advance to cut off the town with its fortress garrison.

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.

There were 6,500 sorties that day on the 1st Belorussian Front sector. But the bad visibility, with river mist and thick smoke and dirt from explosions, concealed their targets. As a result, comparatively little damage to defensive positions was achieved by bombing and strafing.

The young German conscripts and trainees had been panic-stricken by the bombardment and the searchlights. Only the seasoned soldiers prepared to open fire. But the problem was identifying a target in the virtually impenetrable mixture of river mist, smoke and dirt drifting in the air from the shell bursts. The defenders could hear the Russians calling to each other as they advanced, but it was impossible to see them. They could also hear the engines of Russian tanks straining in the distance.

Progress that morning had been very slow. Zhukov, in the observation post on the Reitwein Spur, was losing his temper, swearing and threatening commanders with demotion and transfer to one of the shtrafbats, penal companies on the eastern front. He had a furious row with General Chuikov in front of staff officers, because the 8th Guards Army was bogged down on the Oderbruch below the escarpment.

By the middle of the day, an increasingly desperate Zhukov decided to change his operational plan. The tank armies were not supposed to move forward until the infantry had broken through the German defence line and reached the Seelow Heights. But he could not wait. Chuikov was horrified, foreseeing the chaos this would cause, but Zhukov was adamant.

Zhukov called the Stavka to speak to Stalin. Stalin listened to his report. ‘So you've underestimated the enemy on the Berlin axis,’ he said. ‘I was thinking that you were already on the approaches to Berlin, but you're still on the Seelow Heights. Things have started more successfully for Konev.’ He seemed to take Zhukov's change of plan in his stride. But Zhukov knew only too well that everything depended on results.

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.

This premature movement of the tanks meant that the close-support artillery, which the rifle divisions had been demanding to deal with strongpoints, could not get forward, because of the state of the ground. There was indeed chaos, as Chuikov had predicted, with so many thousands of armoured vehicles packed into the bridgehead. Sorting out the different formations and units was a nightmare for the traffic controllers.

On the right, Bogdanov's tanks suffered badly from both the 88mm guns dug in below Neuhardenberg and fierce counter-attacks from small groups with panzerfausts - anti-tank weapons.

Katukov's leading brigades on the left received their nastiest shock when advancing to the Dolgelin-Friedersdorf road south-east of Seelow. A murderous armored engagement began there when they found Tiger tanks of SS Heavy Panzer Battalion 502 holding the line. The Soviet tank brigades were hampered by deep ditches and suffered heavy casualties.

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.

When the bombardment had begun that morning, the 27th Parachute Regiment had moved its headquarters from Schloss Gusow on the ridge back to a bunker in the woods behind. The stream of young Luftwaffe personnel running from the front, having abandoned their weapons, pointed to the collapse that was taking place. Eventually, a lieutenant arrived with the warning that the Soviet troops were already advancing toward the edge of the village.

Colonel Menke, the regimental commander, ordered an immediate counter-attack. Nearly all the paratroopers were shot down.

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.

‘It's started,’ people murmured anxiously to each other in the streets. Nobody had any illusions about what this signified. In the grey light of that overcast morning, ‘women and girls stood around in huddled groups, listening in dread to the distant sounds of the front.’ The most frequently asked question was whether the Americans would get to Berlin in time to save them.

The authorities’ loudly stated confidence in the defence line on the Oder was rather undermined by the flurry of activity back in the capital, sealing barricades and manning defence points. Goebbels made a passionate but unconvincing speech about this new storm of Mongols breaking itself against their walls. The immediate preoccupation of Berliners, however, was to fill their larders before the siege of the city began. The queues outside bakeries and food shops were longer than ever.

Amid the frenzied denial of reality at the top, somebody that morning fortunately had the sense to order the children's clinic of the Potsdam hospital to move further away from the capital. The sick children in the infants' clinic were moved in a German Red Cross ambulance, towed very slowly by two emaciated horses through the rubble-filled streets to the Cecilienhof palace.

In the underground headquarters in Zossen, telephones were ringing continually. An exhausted General Krebs kept going on glasses of vermouth from a bottle kept in his office safe. As the Soviet artillery and aviation destroyed command posts and cut telephone cables, there were soon much fewer headquarters to report in, but the calls from ministers and General Burgdorf in the Reich Chancellery bunker increased. Everyone in Berlin's government quarter was demanding news. The thoughts of staff officers, however, were with those at the front, imagining what they were going through.

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.

‘We moved across terrain cratered from shellfire,’ the Soviet sapper officer Pyotr Sebelev wrote in his letter home. ‘Everywhere lay smashed German guns, vehicles, burning tanks and many corpses, which our men dragged to a place to be buried. The weather is overcast. It is drizzling and our ground-attack aircraft are flying all over the German front line from time to time. Many of the Germans surrender. They don't want to fight and give their life for Hitler.’

Other Red Army officers were more exultant. Captain Klochkov in the 3rd Shock Army described the ground as ‘covered with the corpses of Hitler's warriors who used to boast so much.’ He then added, ‘To the astonishment of our soldiers, some corpses would rise unsteadily to their feet from the bottom of trenches and raise their hands.’ But this account overlooked their own casualties. The 1st Belorussian Front lost nearly three times as many men as the German defenders.

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.

The artillery failed to move forward to support the front line of infantry, but this was because the planners had failed to foresee that their massive bombardment would make the waterlogged ground almost impassable.

There were also cases of Soviet aircraft bombing and strafing their own men. This was partly due to the fact that the leading rifle battalions did not ‘know the right signal flares to use to show our front line’.

The medical services were clearly overwhelmed and ‘in some regiments the evacuation of the wounded from the battlefield was very badly organized’. One machine gunner lay for twenty hours without help. The wounded of the 27th Guards Rifle Division were left ‘without any medical aid for four to five hours’, and the casualty clearing station had only four operating tables.

The battle for the Seelow Heights was certainly not Marshal Zhukov's finest hour. Even if the planning and command of the operation were faulty, the courage of most Red Army soldiers and junior officers cannot be doubted for a moment.

Generals Heinrici and Busse saved countless lives by withdrawing the majority of troops from the forward positions just before the bombardment.

Colonel Hans-Oscar Wohlermann, the artillery commander in the LVI Panzer Corps, went to see his commander, General Weidling, at Waldsieversdorf, north-west of Muncheberg. Corps headquarters were established in the weekend house of a Berlin family. A single candle lit the room on the first floor. Weidling, who had no illusions about Hitler's conduct of the war, spoke his mind. The monocled Wohlermann was shaken. ‘I was deeply dismayed,’ he wrote later, ‘to find that even this dedicated soldier and daredevil, our old “Hard as Bones”, as he had been known in the regiment, had lost faith in our highest leadership.’

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.

The Soviet leader, who had sounded fairly relaxed during the afternoon, was clearly angry when Zhukov reported on the radio-telephone shortly before midnight that the heights were not occupied. Stalin blamed him for having changed the Stavka plan. ‘Are you sure that you'll capture the Seelow line tomorrow?’ he demanded. ‘By the end of the day, tomorrow, 17 April,’ Zhukov answered, trying to sound calm, ‘the defence of Seelow Heights will be broken. I am convinced that the more troops the enemy sends against us here, the easier it will be to capture Berlin. It is much easier to destroy troops in open countryside than in a fortified city.’

Stalin did not sound convinced. ‘We are thinking,’ Stalin said, ‘of ordering Konev to send the tank armies of Rybalko and Lelyushenko towards Berlin from the south, and telling Rokossovsky to speed up the crossing and also attack from the north.’ Stalin hung up with a curt ‘do svidaniya’ - goodbye - clearly conveying his dissatisfaction. It was not long before Zhukov's chief of staff, General Malinin, discovered that Stalin had indeed told Konev to send his tank armies up against 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 artillery bombardment began at 6 a.m. Moscow time, 4 a.m. Berlin time. It boasted 249 guns per kilometre, their greatest concentration of the war, and was intensified by heavy carpet-bombing from the 2nd Air Army. ‘The drone of aircraft and the thunder of guns and exploding bombs were so loud that one could not hear one's comrade shouting even a metre away,’ one officer recorded. It was also a much longer barrage than Zhukov's, lasting 145 minutes in total.

‘The assault boats were launched,’ the 1st Ukrainian Front reported, ‘before the guns fell silent. Communist Party activists and Komsomol members tried to be the first into the boats, and shouted encouraging slogans to their comrades: “For the Motherland! For Stalin!”’ When the first landings were made on the western bank, little red flags were set up to encourage the next wave.

The massive bombardment meant that few Germans in the forward positions were capable of effective resistance. Many were seriously shell-shocked. ‘We had nowhere to hide,’ Obergefreiter Karl Pafllik told his captors. ‘The air was full of whistling and explosions. We suffered unimaginable losses. Those who survived were rushing around in trenches and bunkers like madmen trying to save themselves. We were speechless with terror.’ Many took advantage of the smoke and chaos to surrender.

A deserter from the 5ooth Straf Regiment told his interrogators the well-known Berlin remark, ‘The only promise Hitler has kept is the one he made before coming to power. Give me ten years and you will not be able to recognize Germany.’ This was indeed an irony, as Germany was now a smoking ruin.

The lead elements of Lelyushenko's 4th Guards Tank Army began to cross. During the afternoon, the remaining bulk of the fighting forces crossed the river and continued the advance. The tank brigades, ordered to push ahead with all speed, were ready to take on the Fourth Panzer Army's counterattack spearheaded by the 21st Panzer Division. On the southern part of the sector, the Polish Army and the 52nd Army had also crossed successfully and were pushing forward. Their orders were to make for Dresden.

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 88mm anti-aircraft guns and tank-hunting infantry with panzerfausts immobilized many of the tanks. At midday, almost as soon as Katukov's tank brigades moved into Dolgelin and Friedersdorf, they faced a counter-attack by the remaining Panther tanks of the Kurmark Panzer Division.

In the confused fighting round Seelow, Yushchuk's tanks were repeatedly attacked by panzerfausts fired at close range. His soldiers responded by grabbing wire-sprung mattresses from nearby houses and fastening them to their turrets and flanks. This improvised spaced armor made the hollow-charge of the panzerfaust detonate before hitting the hull or turret.

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.

When the leading brigades of the 3rd Guards Tank Army reached the Spree, General Rybalko, their army commander, did not wait for bridging equipment to come up. He selected a point which looked as if it might not be too deep, then sent a tank straight into the river. The water rose above the tracks but no more. The tank brigade followed across in line, fording the river like cavalry. Unlike cavalry, however, they could ignore the German machine guns firing at them from the far bank.

Konev carried on pushing the 13th Army across the Spree behind his two tank armies. Gordov's 3rd Guards Army kept the pressure on the Germans round Cottbus. Zhadov's 5th Guards Army continued to attack Spremberg, thus securing the breach. By the end of that day, Rybalko's 3rd Guards Tank Army had advanced thirty-five kilometres beyond the Spree. Lelyushenko, facing less resistance, had moved forward forty-five kilometers.

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.

General Heinrici had already sent the major part of his army group reserve - Steiner's III SS Germanische Panzer Corps - to support Busse's beleaguered Ninth Army. The 11th SS Division Nordland received orders to move south to Seelow. The Nordland consisted mainly of Danes and Norwegians but also Swedes, Finns and Estonians.

General Reymann, commander of the Berlin Defence Area, had received an order to send all the Volkssturm units out of the city to the Ninth Army to strengthen a new line. Reymann was appalled that the city was to be stripped of its defences. When Goebbels, as Reich Defence Commissar for Berlin, confirmed the order, Reymann warned him that ‘a defence of the capital of the Reich is now unthinkable’.

General Weidling tried to persuade Artur Axmann, the head of the Hitler Youth, that it was futile to throw fifteen- and sixteen-year-olds armed with panzerfausts into the battle. It was ‘the sacrifice of children for an already doomed cause’. Axmann was prepared only to admit ‘that his youngsters had not received enough training’. Despite an assurance to Weidling that he would not use them, he clearly did nothing to withdraw them from combat.

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.

After another heavy barrage and bombing raids, Zhukov's exhausted armies went back into the attack early that morning. On the right, the 47th Army attacked Wriezen. The 3rd Shock Army pushed up to the Wriezen-Seelow road, but met heavy resistance around Kunersdorf.

The 5th Shock Army managed to push across the road north of Neuhardenberg but were also halted. Chuikov's 8th Guards Army and Katukov's 1st Guards Tank Army, meanwhile, continued to hammer at the town of Seelow itself and the Friedersdorf-Dolgelin sector. Chuikov was furious that the neighbouring 69th Army on his left had hardly advanced at all. This exposed his flank dangerously. But fortunately for him, all of Busse's forces were already heavily engaged.

South of Frankfurt, the 33rd Army was still grinding down the defences of the SS 30 Januar Division in the V SS Mountain Corps. And at the extreme northern end of the Oderbruch, the 61st Army and the 1st Polish Army had not been able to advance until Wriezen was taken.

The Russians broke through at Diedersdorf. They were heading for Muncheberg along the Reichstrasse 1. The 3rd Shock Army and the 5th Shock Army were splitting open the front between Wriezen and Seelow. Half a dozen kilometres west of Seelow, near the village of Alt Rosenthal, the Germans launched a counter-attack with infantry and tanks. It was a pitiless battle.

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.

The 1st Guards Tank Army and Chuikov's 8th Guards Army pushed on from Seelow along Reichstrasse 1 towards the key town of Muncheberg. The remains of the 9th Parachute Division, which had rallied the day before, fled in panic again. The reconnaissance battalion of the SS Nordland Division, which had finally reached the front, rounded up some of the paratroopers, gave them ammunition and brought them back into the battle in a temporarily successful counter-attack.

The retreat along Reichstrasse 1 and for quite a distance on either side soon collapsed into chaos and misery. ‘Are you the last?’ everyone was asking. And the reply always seemed to be, ‘The Russians are right behind us.’ Soldiers of all arms and services were mixed up together, Wehrmacht and Waffen SS alike.

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.

British businessman and statesman Oliver Lyttelton, who saw Roosevelt as a member of the British delegation to the San Francisco Conference for the founding of the United Nations, telegraphed Churchill that he ‘was greatly shocked by his appearance’.

President Roosevelt had guided the United States through the travails of the Great Depression and had given his people hope in desperate times. Driven into the war by the Tripartite Pact powers, he had set the basic priorities and aims in the great conflict: the defeat of Germany first, the engagement of American troops against the Germans in 1942, the double thrust toward Japan in the Pacific, the direct thrust at Germany across the Channel, and the development of atomic weapons.

It was when reporting to Congress after Yalta that Roosevelt - for the first and only time - made public reference to his physical handicap in explaining why he was sitting rather than standing during his speech. The collapse of Allied unity over Poland followed, together with Stalin's insulting messages about the surrender negotiations with German forces in Italy. Added to these were the terrible fighting and heavy casualties on Iwo Jima.

Roosevelt had selected the key figures in the American military and civilian war effort, and he had set the goal as the surrender of the country's enemies. During hostilities, he had worked hard to prepare the American public for a new role in the postwar world.

The new American President, Harry S. Truman, had been a follower of Roosevelt's who had come to public attention through his chairmanship of a Senate committee checking war plants for waste and fraud. Himself a veteran of front-line fighting in World War I, he was not likely to make immediate or major changes to the war policies of his predecessor. He had not actually been briefed on them in any systematic way before suddenly assuming the presidency. But he was a quick learner, very conscientious in his work, and had the self-confidence needed to make decisions.

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.

There is no evidence that anyone in Berlin had even the slightest interest in or knowledge about the new American President, Harry Truman. There was instead an increasing tendency to move non-existent forces around and to engage in the most bizarre historical reminiscences.

A fissure was finally beginning to open up. Hitler and a number of key political and military aides were intent on continuing the fighting in preposterous hopes of stabilizing a new front. The orders Hitler himself gave to reorient Wenck's 12th Army from heading west to heading east must be seen in this light. So too must his fantastic hope that a new organization, an ‘army’ headed by the SS General Felix Steiner and consisting mostly of imaginary formations, would drive south from Mecklenburg and cut off Zhukov's advancing spearheads. The support offered to such projects by Goebbels and Bormann from the political side and Keitel and Jodl from the military must also be judged in the light of these false hopes.

Hitler indulged himself in fantasies of the Allies falling out with each other once their armies met. He has often been accused of moving phantom armies around on maps in the bunker, and making hollow declarations of coming victory. This was in part the fault of the sub-standard communications centre. Unlike the well-appointed Wolfschanze, his Berlin bunker had only a one-man switchboard, one radio transmitter and one radio telephone. In order to discover how far the Soviets had advanced into the city, German officers were reduced to dialing numbers at random from the Berlin telephone directory. If the call was answered in Russian rather than German, they knew that the Red Army had reached that area.

The situation in Germany was desperate. Russian shells were falling in the capital, Red Army and American troops were about to meet in central Germany, and other American armies from the north and south were expected to join hands at the Brenner Pass. Thus, the German generals realised that the only purpose of continued fighting would be to gain time for civilians to flee from the east to the west, and possibly also enable a large proportion of their soldiers to be captured by the Western Allies instead of falling into the hands of the Red Army.

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 last direct order to be personally signed by Hitler in the bunker was transmitted to Field Marshal Ferdinand Schörner. Now in private hands, the original reads: ‘I shall remain in Berlin, so as to play a part, in honorable fashion, in the decisive battle for Germany, and to set a good example to all the rest. I believe that in this way I shall be rendering Germany the best service. For the rest, every effort must be made to win the struggle for Berlin. You can therefore help decisively, by pushing northwards as early as possible. With kind regards, Yours, Adolf Hitler.’

The SS chief Himmler, of all people, made contact with the Swedish Count Folke Bernadette in order to make peace with the Allies. At one point, Goring thought of arranging an end to the war. All these attempts were met by the demand for unconditional surrender to the entire Allied force, and the rumors which leaked out about them only served to enrage Hitler.

Martin Bormann wrote in his diary: ‘Himmler and Jodl stop the divisions that we are throwing in. We will fight and we will die with our Fuhrer, to whom we will remain devoted until the grave. Many are going to act on the basis of “higher motives”. They are sacrificing their Fuhrer. Phooee! What swine. They have lost any honour. Our Reich Chancellery is turning into ruins. “The world is now hanging by a thread.” The Allies are demanding unconditional surrender. This would mean a betrayal of the Fatherland. Fegelein has degraded himself. He tried to run away from Berlin in civilian clothes.’

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.

Hitler's frantic efforts to have the capital relieved had no substantial effect on operations. In hammer blows from all sides, Red Army units battered their way into the city, suffering substantial casualties but moving forward nonetheless.

The remaining elements of the German armies around Berlin tried, quite understandably, to escape from the scene of horrendous disaster. Inside the underground shelter, Hitler and his entourage alternated between dreams of last-minute redemption and despair.

The last garrison commander, General Helmuth Weidling, had been appointed to the post by Hitler right after he was supposed to have been shot for not handling his corps command the way Hitler wanted. He told Hitler that the ammunition would run out.

Hitler had by then implemented the earlier plan to have Dönitz and Kesselring direct the war in the northern and southern segments of the remaining territory. He now had only his personal situation to tend to, having sent away many of those who had been at headquarters until the last moment.

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.

The German Ninth Army under General Theodor Busse in the south of Berlin and the Eleventh Army under General Felix Steiner in the north would now try to defend a city with no gas, water, electricity or sanitation. When Steiner, who was outnumbered ten to one, failed to counter-attack to prevent Berlin’s encirclement, he was subjected to a tirade from Hitler.

At Berlin, as at Stalingrad and Monte Cassino, the indiscriminate artillery and aerial bombardment created fine opportunities for the defenders, of whom the city had 85,000 of all kinds. As well as the Wehrmacht, Waffen-SS and Gestapo contingents, there were several foreign volunteer forces (especially French Fascists) and the desperately under-armed Volkssturm (home guard) battalions made up of men over forty-five and children under seventeen. Many of the 3,000 Hitler Youth who fought were as young as fourteen. Some were unable to see the enemy from under their adult-sized coal-scuttle helmets.

British historian John Erickson speculates that it was this knowledge of certain death ‘which kept many formations at their post during the dark days of the battles for Berlin, but, just in case, the military police remained vigilant to the last, ready to hang or shoot suspected deserters’.

Goebbels's propaganda ministry was reduced to distributing handbills now that the radio transmitters were in enemy hands. ‘Berliner! Hold on. Wenck's army is marching to our relief. Just a few more days and Berlin will be free again.’ With several Soviet armies approaching the center of the city, fewer and fewer people believed that Berlin would be freed by a single German army.

Spreading defeatism was a capital offence: after a short mockery of a trial by the SS or Gestapo, those suspected of it for whatever reason were hanged from the nearest lamp-post, with signs around their necks stating ‘I have been hanged because I was too much of a coward to defend the Reich’s capital’, or ‘I am a deserter; because of this I will not see the change in destiny’, or ‘All traitors die like this one’. It is thought that at least 10,000 people died in this manner in Berlin. Because of this horror, the Germans fought on with an efficiency that was utterly remarkable given the hopelessness of the situation.

During the withdrawal toward the centre, Sector Z, the battle intensified. Whenever Germans managed to knock out a Soviet tank with a panzerfaust, the local Soviet commander always tried to retaliate with a katyusha rocket strike.

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 Waffen SS did not believe in standing behind the makeshift barricades erected close to street corners. They knew that these rather ineffective obstacles would be the first things blasted by gunfire. It was alright to put riflemen at windows of the upper floors or on roofs, because tanks could not elevate their guns enough. But with the panzerfaust, they made their ambushes from basements and cellar windows. This was because the panzerfaust was very hard to fire accurately from above.

Tank losses, especially in the 1st Guards Tank Army, prompted a rapid rethink of tactics. The first ‘new tactic’ was to cover each tank with sub-machine gunners who sprayed every window and aperture ahead as the vehicles advanced. But there were so many soldiers clinging to the tank that it could hardly move its turret. Then they went in again for festooning their vehicles with bedsprings and other metal to make the panzerfausts explode prematurely. But more and more they relied on heavy guns to blast barricades and buildings over open sights. The 3rd Shock Army also used its anti-aircraft guns constantly against rooftops.

Chuikov started from the precept that ‘Offensive operations carried out by major formations as if in normal battle conditions stand no chance of success.’ This was exactly how the two tank armies began. He rightly emphasized the need for careful reconnaissance, of both the approach and the enemy's likely escape routes. Smoke or darkness should be used to cover the approach of infantry until they were within thirty metres of their objective, otherwise losses would be prohibitively high.

The assault groups, as in Stalingrad days, were to be armed with ‘grenades, submachine guns, daggers, and sharpened spades to be used as axes in hand-to-hand fighting’. The reinforcement groups needed to be ‘heavily armed’, with machine guns and antitank weapons. They had to have sappers equipped with explosives and pick-axes ready to blast through walls from house to house.

While some of the assault groups made their way from house to house on the ground, others progressed along the rooftops, and others made their way from cellar to cellar to take the panzerfaust ambushers in the side. Flame-throwers were used to terrible effect. Sappers also prepared sections of railway line with dynamite attached to it to act as shrapnel for the final attack.

Chuikov urged a ruthless panache when house-clearing. ‘Throw your grenade and follow up. You need speed, a sense of direction, great initiative and stamina because the unexpected will certainly happen. You will find yourself in a labyrinth of rooms and corridors all full of danger. Too bad. Chuck a grenade at every corner. Go forward. Fire bursts of machine-gun fire at any piece of ceiling which still remains. And when you get to the next room chuck in another grenade. Then clean it up with your sub-machine gun. Never waste a moment.’

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.

A French surgeon operating on fellow prisoners of war described how they had to work in a cellar on a wooden table, ‘almost without antiseptic and with the instruments scarcely boiled’. There was no water to wash their surgical clothes, and lighting depended on two bicycles with dynamos.

Helping the wounded in cellars was dangerous, however, because the Russians reacted to the presence of any soldier in a cellar as if the whole place were a defensive position. To avoid this, the women usually stripped the wounded of their uniforms, which they burned, and gave them spare clothes from upstairs.

The Nazi regime, which had never wanted women to be sullied by war, or indeed anything which interfered with child-rearing, now claimed in its desperation that young women were fighting alongside men. On one of the very few radio stations still on the air, there was an appeal to women and girls: ‘Take up the weapons of wounded and fallen soldiers and take part in the fight. Defend your freedom, your honour and your life!’ Germans who heard this appeal far from Berlin were shocked at this ‘most extreme consequence of total war’. Yet only a very few young women took up weapons. Most were auxiliaries attached to the SS.

A handful, however, found themselves caught up in the fighting, through either extraordinary circumstances or an ill-judged rush of romanticism. In order to stay with her lover, Ewald von Demandowsky, the actress Hildegard Knef put on uniform and joined him at Schmargendorf, defending the freight yards with his scratch company.

The battle for Tempelhof aerodrome was fought by the Germans against the 8th Guards Army and the 1st Guards Tank Army. When the Muncheberg Panzer Division counter-attacked, so few tanks were left that they had to operate singly, supported by small groups of infantry and Hitler Youth armed with panzerfausts. The survivors extricated themselves with heavy losses.

Sturmbannfuhrer Rudolf Saalbach pulled back the remaining vehicles of the Nordland reconnaissance battalion to the railway terminus Anhalter Bahnhof. The division's remaining armor, eight Tigers of the ‘Hermann von Salza’ battalion and several assault guns, was ordered to the Tiergarten park.

Weidling presented to Hitler his recommendations for a mass breakout from Berlin to avoid further destruction and loss of life. His plan was for the garrison, acting as Hitler's escort, to break out westwards and join up with the remains of Army Group Vistula. This would be followed by the ‘Fuhrergruppe’, with Hitler and his Reich Chancellery staff, along with other ‘Prominente’. Hitler refused.

When Weidling came to an end, Hitler shook his head. ‘Your proposal is perfectly all right. But what is the point of it all? I have no intention of wandering around in the woods. I am staying here and I will fall at the head of my troops. You, for your part, will carry on with the defence.’

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.

In the north-west, the 47th Army was now approaching Spandau. Its officers had no idea that the huge citadel there housed German research into the nerve gases Tabun and Sarin. It was also involved in fierce fighting on Gatow airfield.

In the north, the 3rd Shock Army had reached the northern barrier to the Tiergarten park. The 3rd Shock Army had bypassed the immensely powerful Humboldthain flakbunker, which was left as a target for their heavy artillery and the bombers.

From the south, the 8th Guards Army and the 1st Guards Tank Army had reached and breached the Landwehr Canal. This was the last major obstacle to the government district, less than two kilometres from the Reich Chancellery, even though all of Zhukov's armies were obsessed with Stalin's target of the Reichstag.

Red Army troops reached Dahlem and the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physics. Since the one thing holding up Soviet attempts to replicate the Manhattan Project's research was the shortage of uranium, Stalin and Beria attached considerable importance to securing research laboratories and their supplies. They also wanted German scientists capable of processing uranium.

The major figures of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute - Werner Heisenberg, Max von Laue, Gerlag von Weizsäcker and Otto Hahn, who had won the Nobel Prize for chemistry only a few months earlier - were beyond the Soviet’s grasp. They were earmarked by the British and taken back to be lodged at Farm Hall, their debriefing centre for German scientists.

In Dahlem, some of Rybalko's officers visited Sister Kunigunde, the mother superior of Haus Dahlem, a maternity clinic and orphanage. She informed them that they had not hidden any German soldiers. The officers and their men behaved impeccably. In fact, the officers even warned Sister Kunigunde about the second-line troops following on behind. Their prediction proved entirely accurate. Nuns, young girls, old women, pregnant women and mothers who had just given birth were all raped without pity.

While the occupants of the Fuhrer bunker were preoccupied with the T-34s and Stalin tanks advancing from the Potsdamerplatz and up the Wilhelmstrasse, Soviet eyes were fixed on the northern side of central Berlin. The 3rd Shock Army angled its advance through Moabit, just northeast of the Spree, to line itself up for an attack on the Reichstag.

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.

The sappers, who had found mines near the entrance, went running in to check for explosives. Their commander remembered the heavy metallic echo as they ran up the iron stairways. Every German who came out with raised arms was closely examined. Cell doors were thrown open, and the liberated prisoners came out squinting in the sunlight.

The Reichstag from time to time became visible when the smoke cleared. For the 15oth Rifle Division, it seemed so close now, and yet they had no illusions about the dangers ahead. They knew that many of them would die before they could raise their red banners over the building chosen by Stalin as the symbol of Berlin.

The advance down to the Moltke bridge began. The lead battalions from the two divisions left from the same starting line, further emphasizing the race. The bridge ahead was barricaded on both sides. It was mined and protected with barbed wire and covered by machine-gun and artillery fire from both flanks. There was a deafening detonation as the Germans blew the Moltke bridge. The demolition was not entirely successful. The bridge sagged, but was certainly passable by infantry. The Russians established a bridgehead across the Spree.

The heavy bombardment at close range smashed the German fire-positions. The leading infantry platoons dashed across to fight their way into the large buildings on the Kronprinzufer and Moltkestrasse. By midnight, just as Hitler was marrying Eva Braun, they established a firm bridgehead.

The 15oth Rifle Division stormed the Ministry of the Interior, on the southern side of the Moltkestrasse. This massive building immediately became known as ‘Himmler's House’. With doors and windows blocked to provide embrasures for the defenders, it proved a hard fortress to storm.

Unable to bring forward gun and rocket batteries, sappers improvised individual katyusha launchers on lengths of railway line. But the basic tools of the close-quarter fighting were grenades and sub-machine guns.

Colonel Antonov's 301st Rifle Division began its assault in earnest. Two of his rifle regiments attacked Gestapo headquarters on the Prinz-Albrechtstrasse, a building which had been heavily damaged by an air raid. In the now standard tactic, heavy howitzers were brought forward to blast open a breach at close range. Two battalions stormed in and hoisted a red banner. But they were forced to withdraw by a ferocious Waffen SS counter-attack.

The Russians had no idea whether any prisoners of the Gestapo remained alive inside. In fact, there were seven left who had been specially spared from the horrendous massacre which had taken place.

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.

Some groups had already made the rendezvous of Kummersdorf, while others still tried to reach it. The day before, another attempt, with a spearhead of several tanks and civilians lined up ready behind, was broken by a sudden Soviet artillery bombardment just as they were about to attack the barrier ahead.

The Soviet 530th Anti-Tank Artillery Regiment, which had been given the task of holding a road junction near Kummersdorf without infantry support, found itself almost overwhelmed by German soldiers trying to break through. ‘The gun crews often had to grab their sub-machine guns and hand grenades in order to fight off attacking infantry,’ the report stated. It then went on to make the exaggerated claim that the enemy ‘left about 1,8oo dead in front of their fire positions, nine burnt-out tanks and seven half-tracks’.

The real danger came from air attack and Soviet gunners exploding their shells high in the trees. ‘We reached a clearing where one tank remained. It was already completely covered with wounded. We turned away, because the scene of other soldiers fighting each other for a place was so frightful, sad and full of suffering.’ The victors clambered on top, forcing aside the badly wounded, many of whom had unbandaged stumps from limbs which had been shot off.

The SS, in order to slow the Soviets, wanted to blow up Berlin’s metro system. The explosion led to the flooding of twenty-five kilometres of S-Bahn and also U-Bahn tunnels, once the water penetrated through a connecting shaft. Estimates of casualties range between ten and fifteen thousand. Although there were many thousands of civilians in the tunnels, as well as several ‘hospital trains’, which were subway carriages packed with wounded, the water did not rise quickly since it was spreading in many different directions.

Women and children running through the dark tunnels as the floodwater rose were naturally terrified. Some recount seeing exhausted and wounded soldiers slip beneath the water, as well as many who had been seeking oblivion in the bottle.

Soviet commanders were desperate to capture the Reichstag in time for the May Day parade in Moscow. Yet the pressure for results came, not from Stalin, but from those in the chain of command who assumed that nothing had changed. In fact, once the city was completely surrounded, preventing any American access, Stalin relaxed and made no attempt to interfere in decisions on the ground. The Reichstag, nevertheless, remained the chosen symbol for victory over the ‘fascist beast’, and so it was naturally the main focal point for Soviet propaganda.

A war correspondent, summoned to the headquarters of the 15oth Rifle Division just a few hours earlier, was told to hand over his pistol. He did so, horrified that he was being sent home for some misdemeanour. But the captain who had taken it from him put his mind at rest when he came back into the room with a fresh weapon. ‘The order has come through,’ he said, ‘that everyone going to the Reichstag must be armed with a sub-machine gun.’

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.

Some ninety guns, including howitzers, as well as katyusha rocket launchers, fired continuously at the Reichstag. It says much for the solidity of its construction fifty years earlier, during the Second Reich, that it withstood such a pounding.

The German defenders had dug a network of defences all round the Reichstag. Most daunting of all, a water obstacle ran right across the middle of the Konigsplatz. This was a tunnel which had collapsed from bombing and filled with water seeping in from the Spree.

The Russian riflemen, finding that the windows and doors had been blocked or bricked up, needed the heavy guns to blast a way in for them. They eventually forced their way through to the main hall, only to discover German defenders firing down at them with panzerfausts or throwing grenades from the stone balconies above.

The casualties were terrible, but the Red Army soldiers, using the usual combination of grenade and sub-machine gun, began to fight their way up the broad staircases, firing from behind balustrades. Part of the German garrison - a mixture of sailors, SS and Hitler Youth - withdrew into the basement. The rest conducted a fighting retreat upwards and back along corridors. Fires, ignited by panzerfausts and hand grenades, started in many rooms and soon the great halls began to fill with smoke.

As the Soviet troops fought their way upstairs, the Germans from the cellars attacked them from behind. At one point Lieutenant Klochkov saw a group of his soldiers crouched in a circle as if examining something on the floor. They all suddenly leaped back together and he saw that it was a hole. The group had just dropped grenades in unison onto the heads of unsuspecting Germans on the floor below.

The famous photograph of the red flag being waved over the Reichstag in 1945 was taken by the twenty-eight-year-old Ukrainian Jew Yevgenny Khaldei with a Leica camera. The flag was actually one of three red tablecloths that the photographer had, in his words, ‘got from Grisha, the bloke in charge of the stores at work. He made me promise to bring them back.’ The night before he left Moscow for Berlin, Khaldei and a tailor friend of his father’s had ‘spent all night cutting out hammers and sickles and sewing them onto the cloths to make Soviet flags.’

It was thus a tablecloth that was flown, somewhat precariously, over the devastated city of Berlin that day. ‘What do you mean, you left it on the Reichstag?’ Grisha cried when Khaldei explained to him what had happened. ‘Now you’re really going to get me into trouble!’ The Tass picture editor spotted that the young soldier, ‘a boy from Dagestan’, who was propping up his flag-waving comrade, had watches on both wrists, clear indication of Red Army looting. He made Khaldei remove that detail from the photo.

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.

Red Army troops loathed the neatness they found on the farms and in the towns of East Prussia: the china lined up on the dressers, the spotless housekeeping, the well-fenced fields and sleek cattle.

‘Altogether at least 2 million German women are thought to have been raped,’ records the historian of Berlin’s downfall, Antony Beevor, ‘and a substantial minority, if not a majority, appear to have suffered multiple rape.’ In Berlin alone, 90,000 women were raped in the last few days before the city surrendered.

Not only German women suffered. Polish women, Jewish concentration-camp survivors, even released Soviet female POWs were raped at gunpoint, often by up to a dozen soldiers. Because Order No. 227 had decreed that Russians who had surrendered to the Germans were traitors, gang rapes of Russian female POWs were permitted, even arranged.

Age, desirability or any other criteria made virtually no difference. In Dahlem, for example, nuns, young girls, old women, pregnant women and mothers who had just given birth were raped without pity. The documentary and anecdotal evidence is overwhelming and indisputable. The Red Army, which had behaved so heroically on the battlefield, raped the women of Germany as part of their revenge.

Stalin explicitly excused this behaviour on more than one occasion, seeing it as part of the rights of the conqueror. ‘What is so awful in his having fun with a woman, after such horrors?’ Stalin asked Marshal Tito about the ordinary Russian soldier in April 1945. ‘You have imagined the Red Army to be ideal. And it is not ideal, nor can it be… The important thing is that it fights Germans.’

It is perfectly possible that the Red Army would have brutalized the German women even if they had not wanted revenge. When the Red Army entered Manchuria in August 1945, there was widespread rape of Japanese and non-Japanese people, even though the USSR had not been at war with Japan and had not been invaded by her.

It was not the Red Army alone that indulged in this form of warfare against innocents. In North Africa and western Europe, the US Army stands accused of raping an estimated 14,000 civilian women between 1942 and 1945. Although there were arrests and convictions, nobody was ever executed for raping a German woman. Yet, for an overall perspective, Russian soldiers were not reprimanded for rape, and 14,000 rapes over three years of war hardly equates with two million in one city.

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.

‘It’s lucky I’m not married,’ Hitler had said on one occasion. ‘For me, marriage would have been a disaster… I’d have had nothing of marriage but the sullen face of a neglected wife, or else I’d have skimped my duties.’ Eva Braun felt the same, having before the war sighed to the Daily Telegraph’s Berlin correspondent, ‘It is too bad that Hitler became Reich Chancellor – or else he might have married me.’

Just before the wedding, the groom had dictated his Last Will and Testament to his secretary Traudl Junge, a predictable spew of anti-Semitism and self-justification. Junge was at the wedding reception, and recalled thinking to herself: ‘What will they raise their champagne glasses to? Happiness for the newly married couple?’

After testing a cyanide capsule on their Alsatian bitch Blondi, Eva swallowed one and Hitler shot himself. The bunker’s guards first guessed that Hitler was dead when they saw his Staff’s cigarette smoke coming out of the ventilation shafts. He had been a fanatical anti-smoker.

Only the head of the Irish Free State, Eamon de Valera, thought the occasion called for a condolence visit to the German Legation in Dublin, a gesture he had not considered appropriate when Roosevelt died. Few others shared his sadness.

The official who conducted Hitler’s wedding to Eva Braun was Walter Wagner, the deputy surveyor of rubbish collection in the Pankow district of Berlin. One of the many bizarre aspects of the ceremony was Wagner’s asking the couple, in accordance with Nazi marriage law, whether they were both Aryan. They answered in the affirmative. When she signed the register, Eva began her surname with a B, before it was pointed out to her ‘that her new name begins with H’.

The bodies were located by the Russians soon after— there had not been enough gasoline for the complete destruction Hitler had ordered in his private testament—but for years the Soviet government pretended in public that Hitler might still be alive. The rest of the world was soon reassured on that point.

Ferdinand Schörner, who had ordered large numbers of men shot for cowardice, was named in Hitler’s will as the new head of the Wehrmacht. But nine days later he deserted his army group and flew off in a small aircraft in civilian clothes to surrender to the Americans. He was handed over to the Russians and kept in captivity until 1954.

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.

So potent a symbol were the mortal remains thought to be for neo-Nazi revanchists – even though the ‘skulls, shin-bones, ribs, vertebrae and so on’ were in ‘an advanced state of decay, especially those of the children’ – that the USSR’s Chairman of State Security Yuri Andropov ordered that they be burnt with charcoal, crushed to dust, collected up and then thrown into a river.

The remains were re-incinerated and the ashes gathered into a canvas rucksack. ‘We walked to a nearby hillside,’ Vladimir Gumenyuk, the leader of the three-man detail charged with the task, told Russia’s NTV television station years later. ‘It was over in no time at all. I opened up the rucksack, the wind caught the ashes up into a little brown cloud, and in a second they were gone.’

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.

General Weidling had this to say to Berlin’s defenders at the hour of their surrender: ‘On 30 April 1945, the Führer committed suicide, and thus abandoned those who had sworn loyalty to him. According to the Führer's order, you German soldiers would have had to go on fighting for Berlin despite the fact that our ammunition has run out and despite the general situation which makes our further resistance meaningless. I order the immediate cessation of resistance. Every hour you keep on fighting prolongs the suffering of the civilians in Berlin and of our wounded. Together with the commander-in-chief of the Soviet forces I order you to stop fighting immediately. WEIDLING, General of Artillery, former District Commandant in the defence of Berlin’.

Krebs and Goebbels both committed suicide, their remains being thrown in with those of Mr and Mrs Hitler. Goebbels’ corpse was identified by the Russians from the special boot he wore for his club foot. The next day, on 2 May, Berlin surrendered, and six days later so did all German forces throughout the now defunct Reich.

Even as the last of the defenders were marched off into captivity, Soviet patrols searched for fugitive Nazi leaders. A group of German Communists led by Walter Ulbricht was flown in from Soviet exile to establish a new government in occupied Germany.

Vasily Ivanovich Chuikov – the hero of Stalingrad, commander of the Eighth Guards Army and now of Soviet forces in central Berlin – recalled the Germans’ attempted capitulation, which took place at his command post on May Day. ‘At last, at 03.50 hours, there was a knock at the door, and in came a German general with the Order of the Iron Cross around his neck, and the Nazi swastika on his sleeve.’ General Hans Krebs, whom the Führer had appointed chief of the OKH General Staff in Guderian’s place the previous month, was indeed straight out of Nazi central casting. ‘A man of middle height, and solid build, with a shaven head, and scars on his face,’ recalled Chuikov. ‘With his right hand he makes a gesture of greeting – in his own, Nazi, fashion; with his left he tenders his service book to me.’

Speaking through an interpreter, although it later turned out he was fluent in Russian from his three postings as a military attaché in Moscow, Krebs said: ‘I shall speak of exceptionally secret matters. You are the first foreigner to whom I will give this information, that on 30 April Hitler passed from us from his own will, ending his life by suicide.’

Chuikov recalled that Krebs paused after that, expecting ‘ardent interest in this sensational news’. Instead Chuikov replied calmly: ‘We know this.’ In fact he had not known it at all, but was ‘determined that I would meet any unexpected moves calmly, without showing the least shadow of surprise, and without drawing any hasty conclusions’.

Since Krebs had brought only an offer of a negotiated surrender with a new government of which Dönitz was president and Goebbels chancellor, Chuikov – under orders from Zhukov and the Stavka – refused and demanded an unconditional surrender. Krebs then left to report to Goebbels, but just before leaving he said, ‘May Day is a great festival for you,’ to which Chuikov answered, ‘And today why should we not celebrate? It is the end of the war, and the Russians are in Berlin.’

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.

His dedication to National Socialist ideas and his close identification with Hitler's strategy in the last stages of the war made him a logical choice for Hitler when naming his successor. And the fact that, in his own strange way, Hitler had assessed Donitz accurately, can be seen in the insistence of the latter when in jail as a war criminal as late as January 1953 that he was still Germany's legal chief of state. He claimed that only a system in which all parties including the National Socialists were allowed to participate could legally chose a successor!

Donitz hoped to end the war in such a fashion as to save as many soldiers as possible from the Eastern Front from the fate of becoming prisoners of war of the Russians. He also hoped to enable as many civilians as possible to flee west. As the Russians had refused the offer by General Krebs of a local surrender, so the Western Allies refused to allow Donitz to surrender only to them but insisted that he surrender the armed forces to all three Allies.

The Army Group in Italy and subsequently that in northwest Germany, as well as the force in Holland, could surrender in military capitulations similar to those of earlier surrenders on the Eastern Front. At the northern end of that front, the 3rd Panzer and 21st Armies surrendered to the Americans as they were squeezed between the advancing Second Belorussian Front and 21st Army Group. Some of the German soldiers in the central sector also entered American POW camps. But the vast majority of those who had fought on the Eastern Front, over one and a quarter million, became Russian prisoners.

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 could be no pretence, as happened after World War I, that the army had not really been defeated. There would be no civilians to blame afterwards for agreeing to give up.

All were anxious to obtain surrender from the various isolated German garrisons from the French Atlantic ports to the Baltic, as well as from German submarines at sea, rather than having them attempt last-ditch stands.

Dönitz himself and the remnants of his government and headquarters were all arrested by the British army, which controlled the area around Flensburg where it was located.

On 24 June 1945, an enormous victory parade was held in Red Square, in which over 200 captured Nazi standards were laid on the ground outside Lenin’s tomb, with Stalin standing on the balcony above. The scene outdid anything from Ancient Rome, with the mass of enemy banners – which can be seen today in the Museum of the Great Patriotic War in Moscow – laid at the feet of the all-powerful conqueror. After the war, fearing Zhukov’s increasing popularity, Stalin relegated him to a series of minor posts.

Zhukov was relegated after the war to a series of minor commands by a suspicious and jealous Stalin. His eminence and popularity did at least allow him to escape the fate of 135,056 other Red Army soldiers and officers, who were condemned by military tribunals for ‘counter-revolutionary crimes’. A further 1.5 million Soviet soldiers who had surrendered to the Germans were transported to the Gulag or labor battalions in Siberia.

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.

For Britain, the victory brought near-bankruptcy, national exhaustion and years of grinding austerity. The British Empire, for which Churchill himself had explicitly fought, had to be dissolved. India was granted independence exactly two years after the end of the war against Japan.

The war did not add any territorial acquisitions to the United States, which wished for none. Yet the war left the USSR battered but militarily supreme, in control not only of the whole of her pre-war territory, but also that of Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, Romania, and the eastern half of Germany. Yugoslavia and Finland were effectively client states. A Communist insurgency in Greece might easily have turned that country into one too.

When Stalin visited the tomb of King Frederick the Great of Prussia during the Potsdam Conference of July 1945, well inside the Russian zone of control, it was pointed out to him that no tsar had ever extended the Russian Empire so far westwards. His gruff reply: ‘Alexander I rode through Paris.’

Germany, a nation that had unleashed no fewer than five wars of aggression in the seventy-five years after 1864, needed to have the warlike instinct burnt out of her soul. Only the horrors and humiliations of 1945 – Germany’s ‘Year Zero’ – could achieve that. The macabre final scenes had to be played out, with Goebbels reading Thomas Carlyle’s ‘Frederick the Great’ to Hitler in the bunker as the Red Army closed in.

Some 40 per cent of German males born between 1920 and 1925 were dead or missing when the war ended. Eleven million Wehrmacht soldiers were in POW camps. Some of those in Russia were not destined to return for up to twelve years. 14.16 million ethnic Germans were forced out of their homes in eastern and central Europe, with 1.71 million dying in the process.

In some major German cities, over half the housing stock had been rendered uninhabitable. Hunger hit a population that until the autumn of 1944 had not wanted for food. Hitler would not have cared about any of this, of course, as the German people had by their very defeat shown themselves unworthy of his leadership. Had he not warned them in his recorded radio address of 24 February 1945: ‘Providence shows no mercy to weak nations, but recognizes the right of existence only to sound and strong nations’?

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.

Karl Renner was Chancellor of Austria for a few months after the war. Afterwards he became President, a position he held until his death on New Year’s Eve in 1950.

Austria regained its full independence through the signing of the Austrian State Treaty. The treaty was signed between the United States, United Kingdom, France, the Soviet Union and Austria. The treaty prohibits any political union with Germany, and Nazi and fascist organizations were also banned. Because of the treaty, the Austrian parliament adopted a Declaration of Neutrality in the period when the Cold War was escalating. After the treaty was signed, Allied troops left Austria.

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 Third Reich had come to an end, and with it the German state founded by Otto von Bismarck less than three-quarters of a century earlier.

One of the most important issues Truman would be called upon to decide early in his administration was one on which Roosevelt had most reluctantly accepted a British proposal: the occupation zones in Germany. However, Prime Minister Churchill had now changed his mind concerning this issue, half a year after finally obtaining American agreement to his earlier position. Roosevelt's first preference had been to draw no lines at all until the Allies arrived in Germany.

The British government had drawn a map with the Americans in the southwest and Berlin deep inside the Soviet zone, and obtained quick Soviet agreement to it. Roosevelt had grudgingly accepted this proposal, subject to special access rights and a port enclave (Bremen and Bremerhaven) in the British zone for the Americans.

In the course of the fighting of the spring of 1945, American troops had advanced far beyond the zonal borders of the British map in central Germany and also a smaller distance beyond the line as part of 21st Army Group in the north.

American forces withdrew from the two-fifths of the Soviet zone they had occupied — after moving out German scientists, records, and other materials — and the zonal and sector issues for Germany and Austria, for Berlin and Vienna, were resolved.

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.

The election results showed a decisive victory for Labour, primarily because a majority of the people wanted a new government in the post-war world. It had been ten years since the last election in the United Kingdom, and people had bad memories of the Conservative governments of the years after World War I.

Churchill had led Britain to victory in Europe from a time of terrifying peril to the largest wartime surrender ever of German soldiers to Montgomery's 21st Army Group.

In the last months of his years as Prime Minister and Minister of Defence, he had become increasingly alarmed over the implications in Eastern Europe of Stalin's insistence on absolute Soviet control of Poland, as well as other signs of deterioration in the grand alliance which had seemed to have been restored at Yalta.

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.

Instead of exaggerating the numbers in order to excite the sympathy of the West, as might be expected of someone so well attuned to the use of propaganda, Stalin in fact minimized them in order to hide Soviet post-war weakness and his own gross profligacy with human life, especially after making such monstrous errors in the early stages of the struggle.

As part of his de-Stalinization programme, Nikita Khrushchev admitted in the 1960s to a number ‘in excess of twenty million’. A General Staff commission in 1988–9 reported that the ‘irrecoverable losses’ of the Red Army alone – that is, those who died in action or from wounds, illness or accidents or were killed as POWs or shot for cowardice – numbered 8,668,400, with a further eighteen million medical casualties from wounds, illness, frostbite and so on. Yet even this figure has been called into question by the leading scholar of the Russian war, John Erickson, over ‘methodology, the genuineness and objectivity of data, the manner of its interpretation and much else’.

Figures compiled by General G. F. Krivosheev in 1997 seem to be much more reliable. These indicate that the Soviet Union mobilized 34.476 million people in the years 1941–5, including those already under arms in June 1941. Of that vast figure, 11.444 million were killed by the Germans. In the chaos of June 1941, many were slaughtered, but few records were kept. The local military commissariats could not keep their card-indexes up to date. With unregistered partisan activity, multiple counting and many people dying of their wounds soon after the end of hostilities, it is next to impossible to arrive at an accurate final figure so long after the event.

Historian Richard Overy gave the number of eleven million military losses, eighteen million other casualties and civilian losses of around sixteen million killed, which are probably estimates as good as any and better than most. The aggregate figure of around twenty-seven million Russians killed is therefore probably most accurate. In a conflict that claimed the lives of fifty million people, this means that the USSR lost more than the whole of the rest of the world put together.

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.

Preferring summary execution without trial for senior Nazis, Cripps argued that either the Allies would be criticized for not according Hitler a real trial, or they would ‘give him a chance to harangue’ with the result being ‘neither proper trial nor political act’ but the ‘worst of both worlds’.

The Home Secretary, Herbert Morrison, believed that ‘This mock trial is objectionable. It really is a political act: better to declare that we shall put them to death.’ Churchill agreed, insisting that ‘The trial will be a farce.’ Turning to the wording of the indictments, and the defendants’ right to be given access to defence barristers, the Prime Minister argued: ‘All sorts of complications ensue as soon as you admit a fair trial. I agree with the Home Secretary that they should be treated as outlaws. We should however seek agreement of our Allies… I would take no responsibility for a trial – even though the United States wants to do it. Execute the principal criminals as outlaws – if no Ally wants them.’

Field Marshal Smuts thought that Hitler’s summary execution might ‘set a dangerous precedent’ and that there was an ‘Act of State needed to legalise Hitler’s execution’. Churchill added that allowing Hitler the right to make judicial arguments against his own execution ‘apes judicial procedure but brings it into contempt’, upon which Morrison interjected, ‘And makes certain that he will be a martyr in Germany.’

The Secretary for War, P. J. Grigg, pointed to the ‘very large numbers, hundreds of thousands’ of suspected war criminals who had fallen into British hands. Churchill suggested a ‘Trial of [the] Gestapo as a body first. Then proceedings against selected members,’ adding that it was ‘not proposed to arraign them all.’

The Lord Chancellor, Lord Simon, then said that Roosevelt’s Special Counsel, Samuel Rosenman, had made it clear that the US ‘won’t agree to penalties without trial’, prompting Churchill to say, ‘And Stalin insists on trial.’ The historian in Churchill was unconvinced, however, and advanced the idea of a ‘Bill of Attainder not an impeachment’, such as that used to execute Charles I’s adviser the Earl of Strafford in 1640 without the need for a trial.

Lord Simon pointed out that, as the Americans and Russians wanted a trial, ‘We must therefore compromise or proceed unilaterally.’ By that stage of the war, the latter option was almost unthinkable. Yet he proposed publishing a document that put the British case against Hitler and then executing him ‘without opportunity of reply’. This would be based upon the Allied pronouncement of 1815 that had declared Napoleon beyond the law, which he recalled having taken place after the battle of Waterloo rather than three months before it.

Churchill then stated that he ‘Will not agree to [a] trial which can only be a mock trial’. The Secretary of State for Air, Sir Archibald Sinclair, asked whether ‘If Hitler is a soldier, we can refuse to give him quarter?’ Churchill concluded the discussion by saying that Simon should liaise with the Americans and Russians ‘to establish a list of grand criminals and get them to agree that these may be shot when taken in the field.’

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.

The best-known of the Nuremberg trials was the Trial of Major War Criminals. The format of the trial was a mix of legal traditions. There were prosecutors and defence attorneys according to British and American law. The decisions and sentences were imposed by a tribunal (panel of judges) rather than a single judge and a jury. The chief American prosecutor was Robert H. Jackson, an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. Each of the four Allied powers supplied two judges–a main judge and an alternate.

Twenty-four individuals were indicted, along with six Nazi organizations determined to be criminal (such as the Gestapo). The defendants were allowed to choose their own lawyers. The most common defence strategy was that the crimes defined in the London Charter were examples of ex post facto law; that is, they were laws that criminalized actions committed before the laws were drafted. Another defence was that the trial was a form of victor’s justice – the Allies were applying a harsh standard to crimes committed by Germans, and leniency to crimes committed by their own soldiers.

The international tribunal found all but three of the defendants guilty. Twelve were sentenced to death, one in absentia, and the rest were given prison sentences ranging from 10 years to life behind bars. Ten of the condemned were executed by hanging on October 16, 1946. Hermann Göring, Hitler’s designated successor and head of the Luftwaffe, committed suicide the night before his execution with a cyanide capsule he had hidden in a jar of skin medication.

Among those executed were: Hans Frank, Governor General of occupied Poland; General Alfred Jodl; SS General Ernst Kaltenbrunner; Wilhelm Keitel, the head of the German High Command; Joachim von Ribbentrop, Nazi Germany’s Foreign Minister; and Alfred Rosenberg, Minister of the Eastern Occupied Territories.

Admiral Karl Dönitz received a penalty of 10 years imprisonment. Walther Funk, Hitler’s Economics Minister, Nazi leader Rudolf Hess and Admiral Erich Raeder received life imprisonment. Funk and Raeder were released during the mid 50’s. Albert Speer, Hitler’s architect and Minister of Armaments, received 20 years. He also expressed penitence.

Following the Trial of Major War Criminals, there were 12 additional trials held at Nuremberg. They differed from the first trial in that they were conducted before U.S. military tribunals. The reason for the change was that growing differences among the four Allied powers had made other joint trials impossible. The subsequent trials were held in the same location at the Palace of Justice in Nuremberg.

The subsequent proceedings included the Doctors’ Trial, in which 23 defendants were accused of crimes against humanity, including medical experiments on prisoners of war. In the Judge's Trial, 16 lawyers and judges were charged with furthering the Nazi plan for racial purity by implementing the eugenics laws of the Third Reich. Other trials dealt with German industrialists accused of using slave labor, high-ranking army officers accused of atrocities against prisoners of war, and SS officers accused of violence against concentration camp inmates. Of the 185 people indicted, 12 defendants received death sentences, 8 others were given life in prison and 77 people received prison terms of varying lengths.