The Soviet offensive against Berlin

pic_S_O_Soviet offensive on Berlin in 1944




The Soviet offensive against Berlin began on 16 April. STAVKA had originally proposed an assault on Berlin for the second half of May, but the rapid advance of the Western Allies into central Germany in early April prompted an earlier than planned assault from the east. As Soviet forces were frantically redeploying for this offensive, Stalin advised the Western Allies that Berlin had lost its strategic significance and that only secondary forces would be allocated for the Berlin axis. On 14 April a preliminary attack against the Seelow Heights positions west of Kuestrin by five Soviet rifle divisions supported by 200 tanks failed to make any gains. By then it was clear to OKH that a major Soviet offensive against the capital was imminent, and on 15 April responsibility for the defence of the capital was transferred to Army Group Vistula.

Rokossovsky’s 2 Belorussian Front, having assumed responsibility for 100km of frontline from 1 Belorussian Front south of Kolberg, held the Oder front from the coast to the river east of Schwedt. Stalin had set the Front’s boundary line from Schwedt to Wittenberge on the Elbe. Zhukov’s 1 Belorussian Front held the line south to a point southeast of Guben, but Stalin set the Front’s boundary due west only as far as Luebben. This suggested that 1 Ukrainian Front, should it reach a point west of Luebben, could potentially strike northwest towards Berlin. Implicit though this was, Konev’s actual orders were to destroy IV Pz Army in the Cottbus area and to then drive west to the Elbe on the Spemberg – Belzig axis. Rokossovsky had 19 Army, 2 Shock Army, 65 Army, 70 Army and 49 Army, and he had 5 Gds Tank Army available to exploit the breakthrough. Zhukov had 61 Army, Polish 1 Army, 47 Army, 3 Shock Army, 5 Shock Army, 8 Gds Army, 69 Army, 33 Army, 2 Gds Tank Army, and 1 Gds Tank Army, with 3 Army in reserve. Konev had 3 Gds Army, 3 Gds Tank Army, 4 Gds Tank Army, 13 Army, 5 Gds Army, Polish 2 Army and 52 Army. In reserve Konev had 28 Army, and would acquire 31 Army later. The Soviet forces amounted to 2.5 million men, 41,600 guns and mortars and 6,000 armoured fighting vehicles.

In addition to the main attack out of the Kuestrin bridgehead, Zhukov planned two supporting attacks; in the north 61 Army and Polish 1 Army would attack on the right flank northwest through Liebenwalde; 69 Army and 33 Army would attack in the south from the Frankfurt area in the direction Fuerstenwalde – Potsdam in an offensive that would isolate IX Army from the city; while 47 Army, just north of the Kuestrin bridgehead, was to outflank Berlin from the northwest. For the offensive Zhukov organised artillery densities in the attack areas of more than 250 tubes per kilometre, the equivalent of four to five artillery regiments to every first-echelon rifle regiment, and he used them to open his offensive in darkness. After the massive halfhour long artillery bombardment of the German front lines, he sent his troops forward using searchlights reflecting off low cloud for illumination. Heinrici had anticipated the timing of the Soviet assault and had withdrawn IX Army from its frontline positions. Consequently the artillery barrage fell on empty trenches, and the Soviet searchlights meant that the advancing Soviet troops were visible to German observation posts on the Seelow Heights. The result was that Zhukov’s troops, despite the commitment of 1 Gds Tank Army to support 8 Gds Army, and of 2 Gds Tank Army to support the two shock armies, made little headway against the main German defence line on 16 April. Furious, Zhukov ordered the offensive to be continued throughout the night of 16/17 April. The next morning, after air attacks and a further artillery bombardment, Soviets forces continued the offensive. Despite German reinforcement of the defences with a further seven divisions, the Seelow defence line had been breached by evening. Nevertheless, after two days of the offensive the German lines had only been penetrated by 11km, less than this north and south of the Kuestrin bridgehead.

Zhukov’s troops resumed their offensive on 18 April and succeeded in levering IX Army off the Seelow Heights, but every step continued to be fiercely contested, the Germans bringing in further reserves. Zhukov’s forces were most successful on the right where, by the evening of 19 April, 3 Shock Army and 47 Army had advanced 30km and had seized a position from which they could either attack Berlin from the northeast or bypass it to the north; yet even in the south, by the evening of 19 April, 8 Gds Army and 1 Gds Tank Army had taken Muencheberg, midway between Berlin and the Oder. By the next day, Hitler’s birthday, 8 Gds Army and 5 Shock Army had penetrated the fourth and final German defensive line behind the Oder, 47 Army had taken Bernau, 3 Shock Army was through the third German defensive belt, 2 Gds Tank Army had reached open country northeast of Berlin, and in the late morning Soviet artillery began to shell the city. IX Army had been split into three parts by the four days of fighting; in the south were V SS Mtn Corps, the Frankfurt garrison and units of II SS Pz Corps transferred from VI SS Pz Army in Austria. These forces had been split off from Berlin by the advance of 33 Army and 69 Army. In the centre was LVI Pz Corps commanded by Weidling. In the north was CI Corps. Meanwhile, Konev’s forces had attacked the German third line at its weakest point between Cottbus and Spemberg using the two tank armies. On the morning of 18 April bridgeheads over the Spree had been secured north and south of Spemberg. During the day the two tank armies advanced more than 40km towards Berlin. By 20 April, with 3 Gds Tank Army 30km south of Berlin in the Zossen area, the Germans had committed all their reserves and two SS panzer grenadier divisions were transferred south from III Pz Army. Konev responded by reinforcing 3 Gds Tank Army with 28 Army in preparation for an attack on the outer defensive perimeter of Berlin.

These events on the ground meant that by the time Hitler’s muted birthday celebrations were underway on 20 April, OKH’s battle to save Berlin had been effectively lost. IX Army, having taken command of the left flank corps of IV Pz Army in the Cottbus area, had held the Soviet offensive from the Frankfurt bridgehead and had managed to prevent a significant breakthrough directly east of Berlin, holding 1 Belorussian Front’s penetration to Fuerstenwalde; but elements of 1 Belorussian Front had reached Bernau north of Berlin, Konev’s forces had reached to less than 20km from Zossen, and 2 Belorussian Front opened its offensive across the Oder from Schwedt to Stettin. By the next day elements of both 1 Belorussian Front and 1 Ukrainian Front had reached the outer defences of the capital. Heinrici pleaded for IX Army to be pulled back from the Oder to avoid the army’s complete encirclement, but Hitler was planning a counter-attack from the north using three divisions of a scratch force, Operational Group Steiner, and he refused permission for Busse to withdraw. Yet, of the forces assigned to Steiner, only two lightly armed SS police battalions were immediately available for the offensive. Nonetheless Steiner was given specific orders to attack the next day (22 April).

Increasingly Hitler’s orders bore no relationship to the reality of the battlefield and, when he learned on 22 April than Steiner had not attacked as ordered, he had something of a hysterical breakdown during which he articulated for the first time his belief that the war was lost. Yet soon afterwards he was issuing orders for Wenck, in command of the seven divisions of the recently formed XII Army (organised into XLI Pz Corps and XX Corps) to turn his army around and to attack east to relieve Berlin from the southwest. This relief effort, on which Hitler was subsequently to pin all his hopes, was to build on a minor German success on the Dresden axis. Niesky, 15km northwest of Goerlitz, had been taken by 1 Ukrainian Front but the Soviet forces approaching Bautzen had, on the night of 22 April, been pushed back several kilometres by the `Goerlitz Group’, a scratch force of two divisions supported by around a hundred tanks. This attack hit Konev’s forces where they were weakest and caused him some consternation for a couple of days until 52 Army, 5 Gds Army and Polish 2 Army could coordinate their actions to contain the German penetration towards Spemberg.

Prior to 20 April STAVKA had been concerned at Zhukov’s slow progress, and Rokossovsky, not scheduled to launch his offensive until 20 April, and with some of his forces still moving west from Pomerania, was issued with revised orders. He was to bypass Berlin from the north no later than 22 April. However, since by 20 April Zhukov’s advance had gained some momentum, these revised orders were rescinded and Rokossovsky was able to pursue his original operational plan. His objectives were to force the Oder north of Schwedt, destroy III Pz Army and to head west and northwest. For this Rokossovsky planned to use his three assault armies (65 Army, 70 Army and 49 Army) simultaneously along a 50km front from Altdamm to Schwedt, and to reinforce the areas of greatest success. Rokossovsky’s endeavours were to be aided by the transfer south of two of Manteuffel’s best divisions prior to the Soviet attack. By the end of the first day 65 Army and 70 Army had seized three bridgeheads over the Oder south of Stettin, and over the next three days Rokossovsky was able link these bridgeheads into a single lodgement. Attacking nearer to Schwedt, 49 Army was less successful. By late on 25 April, both 65 Army and 70 Army had broken out of their Oder bridgehead and had advanced to the Randow where the Germans were unable to put up a stable defence line and from where III Pz Army was cut off from Berlin.

By 22 April IX Army’s position was becoming desperate. It had lost Cottbus to 3 Gds Army, and Soviet forces had broken through south of Frankfurt. STAVKA had ordered Zhukov and Konev to complete the encirclement of the German forces still holding the Oder line between Frankfurt and Guben within the forests to the southeast of Berlin in order to prevent them from reinforcing the city’s defences. Late in the day, Busse was given permission to pull back to the Spree in the Beeskow area in order to free up forces for a link up with XII Army. On 23 April Hitler ordered Weidling to assume responsibility for the defence of the capital and to make his forces available for the defence of the eastern and south-eastern approaches, the rest of the city being defended by Hitler Youth, SS and Volkssturm formations. Busse had wanted to use Weidling’s corps to defend his own northern flank. Hitler’s decision meant that IX Army would almost certainly be surrounded, and the next day Zhukov’s 8 Gds Army and 1 Gds Tank Army linked up with Konev’s 28 Army and 3 Gds Tank Army at Bohnsdorf in the south-eastern suburbs of the capital, isolating 200,000 troops of Busse’s command west of Beeskow.

By the evening of 22 April, 1 Ukrainian Front’s 4 Gds Tank Army and 1 Belorussian Front’s 47 Army were well to the west of the city and only 40km apart; which left not only IX Army but most of IV Pz Army ripe for encirclement. North of the capital Soviet tank forces had reached the Havel below Oranienburg, while to the south, 4 Gds Tank Army had reached Beelitz, and 3 Gds Tank Army had reached Marienfeld and Lankwitz in the southern outskirts of Berlin astride the rear of IV Pz Army. On 25 April the encirclement of Berlin was completed when forces from 1 Belorussian Front and 1 Ukrainian Front met to the northwest of Potsdam. Also on that day elements of Konev’s 5 Gds Army crossed the Elbe at Torgau and linked up with US 1 Army, thereby cutting Germany in two.

Berlin was by this time invested on all sides; by 2 Gds Tank Army from the northwest; 3 Shock Army, incorporating 9 Tank Corps, from the northwest and north; 5 Shock Army, incorporating 11 Tank Corps, from the northeast and east; 8 Gds Army and 1 Gds Tank Army from the southeast; 28 Army from the south and 3 Gds Tank Army from the southwest. These forces were organised into mixed battle groups and assault detachments in preparation for the impending street fighting. Weidling, as the Berlin garrison commander, had orders to hold the city at all costs and Hitler, against the strong advice of his inner circle, made the decision to stay in Berlin. Henceforth the Wehrmacht’s absolute priority was to be the relief of the capital.

Having split the German armies involved in the defence of Berlin into three isolated groups, STAVKA planned to annihilate them. Zhukov and Konev strengthened their forces to the southeast of Berlin to prevent a breakout by the encircled German divisions of IX Army in the area of forests and lakes west of Beeskow. To deal with the Beeskow grouping Zhukov, on 25 April, committed his reserve 3 Army towards Storkow and Mittenwalde; 69 Army to push south and southeast from the Oder near Frankfurt to the bend of the Spree; and 33 Army to strike due west from Beeskow. Konev had a long and exposed right flank between Guben and Zossen, with only 3 Gds Army and part of 28 Army to secure it; though he did create a reserve from one of 13 Army’s rifle corps.


In late April 1945 the reduction of Berlin’s defences had begun. The defence of Berlin was a patchy affair. In some districts fanatical resistance was offered, but in many areas resistance was somewhat perfunctory. On 27 April Zhukov’s men alone cleared over 600 city blocks. The devastation of Berlin’s infrastructure owed more to months of aerial bombardment by the Western Allies than it did to the ground fighting. By the evening of 27 April, the German defenders had been squeezed into a narrow east-west belt 16 km long and less than 5 km wide; though on this day 4 Gds Tank Army, and in particular its 5 Gds Mech Corps, had difficulty in holding a determined attempt by XII Army to break into Berlin in the Brandenburg – Beelitz – Treuenbrietzen area. By 28 April the Berlin garrison had been pushed back into an area 15km long by a few kilometres wide, and during the course of the next day it was split into three parts. On 29 April, only in the XII Army area was the news less than catastrophic for OKW. XX Corps advanced 25km to edge of Lake Schwielow southwest of Potsdam, but its flanks were not secure and it was still more than 30km from Berlin. The assault on the Reichstag, a building viewed by most Russians as the symbolic heart of the `fascist beast’, began early on the morning of 30 April, and was undertaken without a pause by 3 Shock Army’s 79 Rifle Corps until the morning of 2 May. 19 Hitler committed suicide on 30 April after learning that XII Army would be unable to break through to the capital. In his `testament’, written in the early hours of the previous day, he had appointed Doenitz as his posthumous successor. The news of Hitler’s death did not become widely known until 1 May. That evening XX Corps, after gathering 30,000 survivors from IX Army, began to pull back from its forward positions. When Doenitz enquired whether Schoerner could withdraw his forces west, Schoerner advised that if he tried to move, his army group would disintegrate. A surrender delegation from Weidling was received at Chuikov’s headquarters in the early hours of 2 May. The Berlin garrison formally surrendered at 07:00. All resistance was supposed to cease by 15:00, but sporadic fighting continued for a further two days. In the `Berlin Strategic Offensive Operation’ the Red Army, including the Polish contingent, suffered more than 360,000 casualties, 81,000 of them fatalities.

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