“The Prestige Objective” Part I

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The interaction between strategic ends and means is no more obscure when cities are concerned than in any other form of warfare. Sometimes, this interaction is much faster, more intense, and more immediate than it might be if a city were not involved. The battle for Berlin in early 1945 illustrates this interaction as few other city battles could.

Some questioned whether there should be a battle for Berlin at all. The British were interested in taking the city and were not timid about saying so. Prime Minister Churchill pressed General Eisenhower and anyone else who would listen about Berlin’s importance as a prize. General Montgomery did the same. The Soviets, too, wanted the city badly, but were not about to reveal their intentions too soon—even to the point of lying about it. On 1 April, Stalin cabled Eisenhower that the Soviet Union was not particularly interested in Berlin and considered the city a secondary target for his advancing armies. Eisenhower was happy to let the Soviets have the “honor” of taking Berlin, if they wanted it; he did not see in a US effort to reduce the city any value that would outweigh the 100,000 casualties that it was estimated such an operation would incur. The British and the Soviets saw the taking of Berlin as the consummating act of the European war, while the Americans thought the destruction of the German armed forces would lead to the ultimate surrender of Berlin and every other city not yet occupied by the Allies. To the Americans, Berlin was a “prestige objective,” not a military one. To the British, Berlin was a prestige objective, too, but worth the effort to seize before the Soviets did. Eisenhower, however, would not agree with Montgomery’s request for extra divisions so the British field marshal could try his hand against the city. Allowing for troops to be taken from the present lines to be used against Berlin might weaken the advance and place American troops at risk. The Soviets—in the person of Joseph Stalin—were not interested in being conservative where Germans were concerned, then or later. On the day when he denied being much interested in Berlin, the Soviet dictator ordered the date for the attack on Berlin: 16 April. Inside Berlin, the code name for commencement of this inevitable Soviet attack was “Clausewitz.”

When 1945 began, Berlin’s population was estimated at 2.5 million people. Between the first of the year and March, however, the city suffered through no fewer than eleven massive air raids, driving perhaps as many as 200,000 people out. But to where? Soviet army advances were driving ever-larger streams of refugees toward Berlin and other western cities so that during the time when so many Berliners were supposed to have left, another half a million arrived in the city. About two million of Berlin’s population, it was said, were women.

The city proper covered 321 square miles and was bisected by the river Spree, which intercepted the river Havel in the western districts. From the southeast to the northwest, central precincts of the city were further divided by canals. The most important of the canals at the time, the Teltow, bypassed the center of the city and connected the Havel and the Spree. The canal formed a natural line of defense in the southern half of the city. The Tiergarten was the physical epicenter of the city, a great park laid on an east-west axis, fed into by the great Unter den Linden avenue, which was itself fronted by most of the important political and military headquarters. This district was the lair of the beast, as one Soviet officer put it. Only here could the beast be killed.

The lair was unprotected until late. Hitler would not countenance talk of fortifying Berlin until February, when the Soviets crossed the Oder-Neisse River line. For the next three months, the rhetoric of denial clashed with ever-more insistent realities. The illustrated weekly Das Reich had taken to referring to Berlin as Festung Berlin, or “Hedgehog Berlin.” When the newly appointed military commander of Berlin, Major General Hellmuth Reymann, took command on 6 March, he found little had been done to render Berlin defensible.

Of course, in a manner of speaking, Berlin was defensible, and had been so since 1941. That was when, in response to Allied bombing attacks, the first of six so-called Flak Towers had been erected. Berlin was not, and never really was, a fortress city. These towers represented the only form of defense it was believed Berlin required in the modern age, and why not? The city was last taken by foreign troops during the Seven Years’ War. At Humboldthain, Friedrichshain, and on the grounds of the Berlin Zoo, these leviathans were essentially antiaircraft forts, perfect expressions of Nazi tendencies toward gigantism and grandiosity .At the Zoo, at the southwest corner near the bird sanctuary, stood the most formidable of the Flak Towers. Two rooftop towers, L tower for communications, and G tower for main guns, dominated the structure, 132 feet high, covering a city block. Its walls of reinforced concrete were eight feet thick, and protecting its windows and firing embrasures were shutters of three- to four-inch-thick steel plates. Each corner of the tower was a gun tower in its own right, with multiple antiaircraft cannon. An ammunition elevator shuttled shells from a ground-floor magazine to the emplacements. Each tower served as an air raid shelter on the two lowest floors, a ninety-five-bed hospital, and warehouse. One of the floors at the Zoo Tower had been used to store art treasures from the Berlin museum, and another had been set aside for the headquarters of the Deutschlandsender, the national radio broadcasting system. The ordinary garrison was set at 100 men, but the Zoo Tower could hold 15,000 in an emergency. The garrison believed the Zoo Tower could hold out for a year, no matter what happened outside.

Stalin did not give the Soviet Army a year to take Berlin. He gave it two weeks. For this task, he authorized the use of three Soviet Fronts—the Second Belorussian, the First Belorussian, and the First Ukranian. The last two of these were commanded by marshals of the Soviet Union—Zhukov and Koniev—who were as much in competition with one another as with their duly authorized enemies. The three Fronts disposed more than 1.5 million men. Including other supports, the force dedicated to taking Berlin numbered 2.5 million men.

The precise strength of German forces defending Berlin, either from behind the Oder-Niesse line or from behind the fringe of Berlin itself, cannot be determined, even today. Judging from later reports of military casualties or military prisoners, the number could have been as much as 500,000 in all, but between these numbers lay a great variance of soldierly skills, from the hardened veteran to the Hitlerjugend with their panzerfausts, or as the Russians called them, the faustniki.

Whenever military skills are at a premium, some physical additive is always called for, and here that meant field fortifications. By April, Soviet aerial reconnaissance photographs showed that Berlin had been encircled by three great defensive belts. The first of these was sixty miles around and roughly followed the city edge. The second belt was much less broken than the first and integrated dominant buildings, railway cuttings, canals, bridges, and other urban terrain features, as well as the elevated railway system’s lines. The final belt enclosed “the Citadel,” which lay between the Spree River and the Landwehr Canal and was tied into the several Flak Towers. Inside the Citadel lay the Reichstag, the Ministry of the Interior, the Reichskanzlei, and Hitler’s own bunker as well. From the center of the Citadel, designated sector “Z,” eight other defense sectors radiated outward, each assigned a letter. The second ring was the place for soldiers to be if they had a choice; the Citadel was the place for the fanatical last stand.

The Citadel was some seventy-five miles from the nearest Soviet forces and the point where they would begin to execute their plan. The Soviets’ concept—written on the quick by Zhukov and Koniev over a twenty-four-hour period—was straightforward: beginning on 16 April, they would fight to encircle the city; penetrate it from the northeast, east, and southeast; and pass forward as many forces as possible to join with advancing Allied forces as they crossed the Elbe River to the west. This operation was not to be a leisurely siege: Stalin wanted it concluded by the end of the month. And that, in effect, is what happened.

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