End of Nazi Germany II

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It was extraordinary, considering that the war’s outcome had not been in doubt since the destruction of Army Group Centre in the summer of 1944, that the Wehrmacht continued to operate as an efficient, disciplined fighting force well into the spring of 1945. As many as 400,000 Germans were killed in the first five months of 1945 – entirely unnecessarily, as the chances of Germany winning the war were negligible for the whole of that time. General Schörner’s newly re-created Army Group Centre, for example, was still fighting around the town of Küstrin on the Oder in April 1945. Similarly the 203,000 men representing the remnants of Army Group North, renamed Army Group Kurland, kept fighting into May, showing astonishing resilience in the face of utter hopelessness and retaining military cohesion until the moment that they were marched off into a ten-year captivity spent rebuilding the infrastructure of the Soviet Union that they had destroyed. If one visits the railway stations of Kursk, Volgograd and other Russian towns and ‘hero-cities’ today, one can still see their handiwork.

The Sixth Panzer Army halted the Russian advance down the Hungarian valleys into Austria for as long as its fuel could last out during March 1945, but finally Vienna fell to Malinovsky’s 2nd Ukrainian Front on 13 April. Hitler’s headquarters had by then adopted a policy of lying to army group commanders, as General Dr Lothar Rendulic, the last commander of Army Group South (a term revived the previous September), discovered when he received orders on 6 April to hold Vienna at all costs. Rendulic was given to telling his troops: ‘When things look blackest and you don’t know what to do, beat your chest and say: “I’m a National Socialist; that moves mountains!” ’ Since that wasn’t working on this occasion, he asked OKW ‘how the continuation or termination of the war was envisaged’, only to ‘receive the answer that the war was to be ended by political measures’. This was clearly untrue, and Rendulic surrendered near Vienna in May. (Further to illustrate how much Hitler moved his senior officers around, in the first five months of 1945 Rendulic commanded Army Group North in East Prussia in January, Army Group Centre the same month, Army Group Kurland in March and Army Group South in Austria in April.)

In the north on the Baltic coast, the Germans were in a dire situation because of Hitler’s refusal to countenance Guderian’s pleas to rescue Army Group Centre in East Prussia and Army Group Kurland (formerly Army Group North) in Latvia. Yet with both Zhukov and Rokossovsky bearing down on more than 500,000 trapped Germans after 16 February 1945, the German Navy – at tremendous cost – pulled off an evacuation that was far larger even than that of Dunkirk in 1940. No fewer than four army divisions and 1.5 million civilian refugees were taken from the Baltic ports of Danzig, Gotenhafen, Königsberg, Pillau and Kolberg by the Kriegsmarine, and brought back to Germany. Under constant air attack, which claimed every major ship except the cruisers Prinz Eugen and Nürnberg, the German Navy had pulled off a tremendous coup. The Soviet Navy was surprisingly enough a grave disappointment throughout the Second World War, but one of its submarines, the S-13, sank the German liner MV Wilhelm Gustloff in the Baltic Sea on 31 January 1945, and around 9,000 people – almost half of them children – perished, representing the greatest loss of life on one ship in maritime history.

Taking overall command of the great final offensive against Berlin itself, Marshal Zhukov gave up his 1st Belorussian Front to Vasily Sokolovsky, and took over an army group combining both that and Konev’s front, reaching Berlin on 22 April 1945 and encircling it three days later. On Wednesday, 25 April, units from the US First Army, part of Bradley’s 12th Army Group, and from the 1st Ukrainian Front met up at Torgau on the Elbe. With the lines of demarcation between the Allies having been agreed even before the Yalta Conference, but reconfirmed there, it fell to the Russians to fight the battle of Berlin. It is perfectly possible that Simpson’s US Ninth Army, which was on the Elbe only 60 miles west of Berlin on 11 April, eleven days before the Russians reached it, could have attacked the city first. It had crossed 120 miles in the previous ten days, and the Germans were not putting up the level of resistance in the west that they were in the east. But, for all the theorizing after the war – and Montgomery’s and Patton’s complaints during it – that the Western Allies should have taken Berlin instead of the Russians, the British, Americans, Canadians and French did not have to suffer such a vast number of casualties in that final desperate struggle (although had it come to it they would have fought the engagement in a less costly way).

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, although these figures could probably have been smaller – not least through fewer friendly-fire incidents – if Stalin had not been in such a hurry to capture the capital as soon as possible, regardless of the human cost involved, and it also encompasses all the fighting from the Baltic to the Czech border including the crossings of the Oder and Neisse rivers. 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, where they hoped to find scientists, equipment, many litres of heavy water and several tonnes of uranium oxide.76 Stalin therefore promoted an ill-concealed race between the rivals Zhukov and Konev as to who would take south-west Berlin first.

Berliners love black jokes and during the terribly deprived and dangerous Christmas of 1944 their Yuletide advice was ‘Be practical: give a coffin’; another was ‘Enjoy the war while you can, the peace will be terrible.’ The constant Allied air raids were bad, 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 their city as the ultimate goal. This was significantly larger than the army with which Hitler had invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, an awesome achievement of the Stavka, albeit greatly aided by the United States’ Lend-Lease scheme, under which more than 5,000 aircraft, 7,000 tanks, many thousands of lorries, 15 million pairs of boots and prodigious quantities of food, supplies, arms and ammunition were shipped to the Soviet Union. Valued at $10 billion in total and representing 7 per cent of the USSR’s total output, this allowed the Russians to concentrate production on areas where they were most efficient. (The debt was finally repaid in 1990.) So, when they wished one another Prosit Neujahr! (Happy New Year!) for 1945, few Berliners clinked glasses. The irony was not lost on them that, before the war, their 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 on 20 November 1944 and since 16 January had been 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 50 feet below street level were chosen as they were deemed safer.) Once there, Hitler indulged himself in fantasies about the Allies falling out with each other once their armies met. Although 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, and even that depended on a balloon suspended over the Old Chancellery. Officers were reduced to telephoning numbers taken at random from the Berlin telephone directory, the Soviet advance being plotted by how many times the calls were answered in Russian rather than German.

‘What troops and subordinate commanders appreciate is that a general should be constantly in personal contact with them,’ Wavell wrote in his book Generals and Generalship in 1941, ‘and should not see everything simply through the eyes of his staff. The less time a general spends in his office and the more with his troops the better.’ Although of course Hitler was a head of state rather than merely a general, for 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 rather than he them, in contrast to Churchill and Brooke who regularly flew out to talk with Allied commanders. 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. 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. One of these children, Arnim Lehmann, 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 an exhortation such as ‘Well done’, ‘Good’ and ‘Brave boy’ for most of the fighters, who look as if they were barely in their teens.

‘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, and on Monday, 16 April 1945 around 22,000 guns and mortars rained 2,450 freight-car loads of shells at the German lines, which were also blinded by a mass of searchlights shone at them. The Russian gunners had to keep their mouths open when they fired, in order to stop their eardrums bursting. Within six days the Red Army was inside Berlin, but the desperate fighting in the streets and rubble there cut down their advantages, and increased the Germans’. The Wehrmacht’s lack of tanks mattered less in the built-up areas, and hundreds of Soviet tanks were destroyed in close fighting by the Panzerfaust, an anti-tank gun that was very accurate at short range. 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.

The last direct order to be personally signed by Hitler in the bunker was transmitted to Field Marshal Ferdinand Schörner at 04.50 on 24 April. Now in private hands, the original reads:

I shall remain in Berlin, so as to play a part, in honourable 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 signature, in red pencil, looks remarkably normal, considering the circumstances. Four days earlier, Hitler’s birthday had found Schörner – who was admired by Hitler as ‘a political soldier’ – speechifying to a group of officers at his command HQ in a Czech hotel called Masarykov Düm near Königgrätz, about how they needed to live up to the Führer’s great trust. Schörner, who had 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. In all about 30,000 death sentences for cowardice and desertion were handed down by the Germans on the Eastern Front in the last year of the war, two-thirds of which were carried out.

The Red Army had long been shooting anyone captured in SS uniform, and those SS men who had discarded it nonetheless could not escape the fact that their blood group was tattooed on their left arms, one inch below the armpit. 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’. Spreading defeatism was also 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 – the same as the number of women who died (often by suicide) after having been raped by the Red Army there.

Because of this horror, the Germans fought on with an efficiency that was utterly remarkable given the hopelessness of the situation. Yet 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 of over forty-five and children under seventeen. Many of the 3,000 Hitler Youth who fought were as young as fourteen, and some were unable to see the enemy from under their adult-sized coal-scuttle helmets.

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