Battleground Berlin

A Soviet T-34/85 tank in Berlin, 17 June 1953.

View from the West: Soviet Tanks in East Berlin (June 17, 1953)

When Nazi Germany fell at the end of World War II, its capital Berlin quickly became a point of contention between the Soviets and the Western Allies of the United States, Britain, and France. At the Yalta Conference, these allies finalized their agreement to divide Germany into zones of occupation. The Americans, British, and French occupied what would be known as West Germany, while the Soviets occupied the East. Deep inside the Soviet-occupied zone, Berlin was also divided into four zones. Soviet leader Joseph Stalin immediately began to put pressure on the Western powers to force them from the city. He directed his occupation forces to blockade routes into the city in 1948, but that gambit failed after the Allies mounted a massive 300-day airlift of supplies. Although Stalin thereafter recognized the Four-Power occupation of Berlin, it was clear that the Soviets and their new ally, the GDR, would never make the occupation easy.

Directly contributing to the GDR’s problems, the Federal Republic of Germany had begun its revitalization under the Marshall Plan while East Germany’s economy stagnated under Soviet occupation. Many Germans abandoned the Soviet sector in a mass exodus for the western sectors to find jobs and a better life, further hampering progress in the East.

In 1952, following the rejection by the US, UK, and France of Stalin’s offer to reunify Germany as a neutral, unarmed state, the GDR government under Walter Ulbricht began a full Sovietization of the country. This meant a crash program of socialization that hit the middle class with high taxes and an emphasis on heavy industry, which led to shortages of personal goods. By April 1953, the collectivization of farms, pressure on churches and opposition parties, and a resulting overall lower standard of living began to cause discontent and resistance. The ruling Socialist Unity Party then decided to increase work requirements by ten percent. With increasing arrests and detentions and signs of impending social unrest apparent, it was clear even in Moscow that a crisis was brewing. Under Soviet instructions to temporarily reverse the socialization measures to avoid a clash, the GDR leadership announced a “New Course” that suspended earlier, unpopular measures. This surprised and shocked the GDR’s Communist party faithful and emboldened the populace, who perceived the announcement as government weakness, to demand more.35 On June 17, 1953, a protest started by East German construction workers the previous day exploded into strikes and unrest that spread to 400 cities, towns and villages across the country.

Berlin—June 16, 1953

The East German construction workers were euphoric but apprehensive as they lay down their tools and descended from their scaffolds. The hardships they had endured in the years following the end of World War II and the empty rhetoric from their masters promising a better life had led to this moment. Nearly spontaneously the workers declared themselves to be free of the yoke of Communism and went on strike, but it was a strike without organization or a plan.

Discontent had been rife in the Soviet-occupied zone of East Germany since early spring that year and even more so after the government announced measures to “accelerate” the move to socialism. But East Germany was already in the grip of an economic downturn that had greatly affected workers and the proposed “New Course” would worsen things even further. The government’s announcement was the last straw for workers who saw their quality of life being steadily degraded.

As the workers marched downtown from the city’s outskirts, they were joined by hundreds of metal workers from the factories and women from the shops; they were almost exclusively blue-collar workers. First they went to the Alexander Platz and then on to the government buildings at Leipziger Straße. There the mass reached 20,000 men and women, as they demanded the government be abolished. Across East Germany, a spontaneous wave of strikes began and by the next day 500,000 people were protesting. The participants were confident of success, but their confidence was based on a misplaced premise. They thought that because Berlin was occupied by the Allies as well as the Soviets, no military force would be used against them. They believed the West would come to their aid if force was used against them. They shouted slogans but had little idea of what to do next.

The East German government also had no idea how to respond. Their failure to act only exacerbated the situation and further convinced the strikers that the regime was about to fall. But Soviet High Commissioner Vladimir Semyonov and General Andrei Grechko, commander of Soviet Forces in Germany, were not about to let that happen. After consultations with Moscow, they declared a state of emergency.

On June 18, Grechko sent in his forces. Soviet T-34 tanks and troops rolled into the city to crush the unrest, and troops fired tear gas and live ammunition to clear the streets. It was the beginning of the end for the protestors. By early August, all vestiges of the revolt had been erased and the government was again in control.

Although American officials had actively encouraged disaffection with the regime, they had avoided the subject of rebellion and the suddenness of the uprising surprised intelligence officials. The United States’ policy had induced many East Germans to believe it would help them. But the Americans did not have the means to support the revolt or any other liberation movement. The message that Radio Free Europe (RFE) and Radio in the American Sector (RIAS) had transmitted was propaganda without teeth. The military had shed its unconventional warfare capabilities after World War II and was only beginning to rebuild them. In Europe, that capability didn’t exist at all. In the aftermath of the uprising, the commander of US Forces in Europe wondered why. So did many others.

The United States and its allies were not ready to believe that the GDR was in mortal danger of collapse and never contemplated military or covert action to further destabilize the regime. They were ready, however, to plan for the future and the possibility that war would again visit the European landscape. In 1952, the Psychological Strategy Board (PSB) had called for “controlled preparation for more active resistance” inside the Soviet-controlled zone. This plan was further expanded upon in NSC Report 158. In peacetime, these activities would primarily be the purview of the CIA. Efforts had already begun to organize and support passive resistance movements that would become active in time of war. In order to support these groups should war begin, the Army would need the 10th SFG and, in the early fall of 1953, the unit was ordered to deploy to Germany for permanent basing. On November 11, Colonel Bank and his command set sail for Europe. By the beginning of 1954, they were ensconced at their new home in the Bavarian town of Bad Tölz with a wartime mission to support resistance movements and organize guerrilla forces in the Soviet-dominated Eastern European satellite countries.

The JCS now saw SF as a valuable tool in their plans to defend Western Europe from a Soviet attack. SF’s task would be to build a guerrilla capability in Eastern Europe to help “retard” a Soviet invasion. The intent was for SF to make contact with existing underground or resistance organizations, some of which were supported by the CIA, in much the same fashion as the OSS had during WWII and then create havoc in the enemy’s backyard.

The future battleground was clear. The eastern borders of the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) and Austria would be the line of departure for Warsaw Pact forces. NATO expected a spearhead assault of at least 24 Russian army divisions, along with 30 divisions of the satellite states including GDR, Poland and the Czech Republic, to attack through the Fulda Gap. The Soviets could also quickly deploy an additional 38 divisions from its western regions. Supporting attacks were also expected against Norway, Finland, Denmark and through Switzerland, as were raids by Russian “Spetsnaz” special operations forces to disrupt NATO’s command and control points in the rear areas as the Soviets advanced. NATO also thought the Soviets could expand their forces through mobilization of an additional 145 divisions within 30 days. Soviet planners expected their forces could reach the Pyrenees within a month.

Against this juggernaut, NATO could field approximately 75 divisions. The Soviet superiority in naval and air assets was even more pronounced. The Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE), NATO’s military command, planned that arresting a Soviet advance would be a key priority. Nuclear weapons were envisioned for early use. Another key aspect of the defense plan would be to cause disruption in the enemy’s rear areas. This is where Special Forces would play their role.

All NATO countries planned for the commitment of special operations forces to take on strategic targets. Most were limited in their ability to deploy units behind the Soviet forces and would rely on keeping them ready for stay-behind roles in their own countries. A stay-behind mission required designated units to remain hidden in place while the enemy pressed forward, emerging only after the Soviets had passed to attack in the rear areas. Even the United States, which planned on parachuting SF far behind Soviet lines, realized that penetration of the enemy airspace by American aircraft would be difficult given the air defenses they would face.


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