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Battle of Berlin

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Battle of Berlin, Reichstag 1945

A soldier raising the Soviet flag atop Reichstag

The Battle of Berlin was the last major battle of the Eastern Front.

BackgroundEdit

In February 1945, Hitler declared Berlin to be a Festung (fortress) to be defended to the last man. The commander of the Berlin garrison, General Hellmuth Reymann had about 60,000 Volksstrum troops in 92 battalions. Reymann organized a construction labour force of about 70,000 civilians to create defensive positions and antitank obstacles in the weeks before the battle.

All the anti-aircraft artillery batteries stationed in and around the city belonged to the 1st Berlin Flak Division under General Otto Sydow, a well equipped Luftwaffe division with 249 20mm/37mm guns, 270 88mm guns and 72 105/128 mm guns.

The Wehrmacht (with about 1 million soldiers) and reinforcements in the form of the Deutscher Volkssturm (People's militia) that consisted of boys twelve to sixteen years old from the Hitler Youth and middle-aged and older males, fought in defence of Berlin for two weeks against approximately 2,500,000 Soviet soldiers. The primary offensive weapon of the People's militia was the deadly panzerfaust, a one-shot weapon that could quickly destroy a Russian T-34 tank, but that was lethal to the operator if used incorrectly.

It was debated as to who was going to be the ones to lead the battle of Berlin. It was originally a "race" to Berlin between the Western allies and the Soviets although eventually the Soviets would be given the objective, as Berlin was to be in the designated soviet controlled zone after the war ended. The battle started on April 14, 1945, and ended May 2, 1945.

Russian forces Edit

For the offensive, the Russian Army massed Marshal Georgy Zhukov's 1st Belorussian Front to the east of Berlin with Marshal Konstantin Rokossovky's 2nd Belorussian Front to the north and Marshal Ivan Konev's 1st Ukrainian Front to the south.

On 16 April, the Russian Army commenced the operation to capture the German capital, assaulting the Seelow Heights, the last significant German defence line east of Berlin. The fighting was fierce, the Russians suffering heavy casualties, but by the 19th they had broken through and there was now no longer a proper defence position left to protect Berlin.

On 25 April, the 1st Belorussian Front and 1st Ukrainian Front completed the encirclement of the German capital, linking up in the southwest suburbs of Berlin.

By 26 April, the Russian Army had reached the Alexanderplatz in Berlin and seized the Wedding Metro Station in the north, while Russian vanguards had almost reached the Rhine in the west and and were also making rapid progress in the south, near the Hallesches Tor.

By April 30, Russian tanks were within firing range of the Reichstag and the Führerbunker, with Russian infantry units clearing the Interior Ministry only 400 metres away.

German forces Edit

Opposing the Russian invaders was General Gotthard Heinrici's Army Group Vistula supported by Army Group Centre to the south. One of Germany's best defensive generals, Heinrici elected not to defend along the Oder River and instead heavily fortified the Seelow Heights east of Berlin. This position was supported by successive lines of defenses extending back to the city as well as by inundating the Oder's flood plain by opening reservoirs. Defense of the capital proper was tasked to General Helmuth Reymann. Though their forces looked strong on paper, Heinrici and Reymann's divisions were badly depleted.

The 541st Volksgrenadier Division (comprising the Dorn and Pirat Jagdpanzer (Tank-Hunting) Brigades and the equivalent of another anti-tank brigade), was expected to bear the brunt of the Russian attack, was allocated most of the anti-tank weaponry and modern small-arms available.

Air support was provided by the 6th Air Fleet, commanded by General Robert Ritter von Greim, who was based in Munich.

Berlin's civilian population of 4.5 million had fallen to about 2.5 million by the end of 1944, but a wave of refugees from the east increased the population to 3-3.5 million by April 1945. The German Army wanted to evacuate all women, children and the elderly, but Goebbels refused to approve the evacuations.

On 11 April, US forces had crossed the River Elbe placing them only 100 kilometres west of Berlin. On 18 April, Army Group B (the last major German formation west of Berlin) was surrounded and surrendered with the loss of 325,000 men.

25 April, Berlin was cut off by land but transport aircraft continued operations right up to the end. By 28 April, German-held Berlin was a strip 5 kilometres wide and 15 kilometres long.

Course of the BattleEdit

On 16 April 1945, the Russians, whose gunners had to keep their mouths open when they fired, in order to stop their eardrums from bursting, used 22,000 guns and mortars to fire enough shells to fill 2,450 frieght cars, while simultanously blinding the defenders with searchlights.[1]

Moving forward on April 16, Zhukov's men assaulted the Seelow Heights. In one of the last major pitched battles of the conflict, the Soviets captured the strongpoint after four days of fighting, but sustained over 30,000 killed. To the south, Konev's command captured Forst and broke into open country southof Berlin. While part of his forces swung north towards Berlin, another pressed west to unite with advancing American troops. These breakthroughs saw Russian troops nearly envelop the German 9th Army. Pushing westward, 1st Belorussian Front approached Berlin from the east and northeast. On April 21, its artillery began shelling the city.

The 56th Panzer Corps under General Helmuth Weidling was deployed in the Seelow-Wolkow area, in the main path of the Russian offensive. Soon after the start of the Russian attacks, General Weidling reported rapid Russian gains on the left and right flanks and rear of the 5th Panzer Corps. He also admitted losing communications with supporting units, but Weidling's panzer corps managed to withdraw in good order to new positions on the outskirts of Berlin.

Although the route to Berlin lay open at last, the battle for the city was only just beginning. Amongst the rubble of the city centre, Hitler along with Dr. Goebbels and Generals Krebs and Burgdorf were holding out in the Führerbunker, cut off from the reality of the street-fighting above.

On 20 April, in Hitler's last public appearance (on his 56th birthday) on the grounds of the ruined Reich Chancellery, he decorated with the Iron Cross several Hitler Youth members, the youngest only twelve.

During a staff conference on 24 April, Hitler ordered a counteroffensive. "After the report of the Chief of the General Staff, the Führer ordered the 12th Army to attack from the district between Magdeburg and Brandenburg through Postsdam towards Berlin, and the 9th Army to attack from Luckenwalde. Simultaneously, the 'Steiner' group should advance from the area to the north of Oranienburg," General Wilhem Monhke remembers.

On 25 April, the 1st Belorussian Front and 1st Ukrainian Front completed the encirclement of Berlin, linking up in the southwest suburbs of the German capital.

That day, German reinforcements in the form of an SS armoured combat group with 14 tanks and 38mm anti-aircraft guns and supporting infantry, arrived from Furstenberg but had to be deployed elsewhere in efforts to contain the Russian penetrations in and around Wedding Railway Station. The next day, a naval infantry battalion from Rostock arrived in transport aircraft to help the Berlin defenders, taking up positions near the Reich Chancellery.

On 26 April, Lieutenant General Vasily Chuikov's 8th Guards Army advanced from the south and attacked Tempelhof Airport. By the next day, Soviet forces were pushing into the city along multiple lines from the south, southeast, and north. Advancing from the south, Marshall Konev's forces cut off and surrounded the Werhmacht's 9th Army in the forest south of Berlin, near the town of Halbe.

Meanwhile, a battalion of about 600 Hitler Youth teenagers was desperately holding the Wannsee bridgehead on the river  Havel awaiting the arrival of General Wenck's 12th Army, by this time a decimated force that never reached the besieged German capital.

On the morning of 29 April, Hitler asked General Wilhelm Mohnke how long he could resist. Mohnke replied that unless his men received sufficient anti-tank guns and munition, he could only hold out for another 2-3 days at the most.[2]

That day, Russian forces moving up Alt-Moabit street, passed the Lehrter Stadtbahnhof and crossed the Moltke Bridge and advanced up the road to the Reichstag, fighting building by building, where the vicious fighting took a turn for the worse for the defenders of the German Parliament building. Russian artillery, 152 and 207mm guns, opened up a barrage of fire before the troops attempted to capture the building. The next day, two Russian senior NCOs (Sergeants Mikhail Yegorov and Meliton Kantaria) raised the Soviet flag on the second story of the building, signaling the end of the fighting and that the seige had been victorious.

On the night of 29/30 April, the remnants of the German SS Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler Division defeated all Russian attacks, although suffering heavy casualties in the process.[3]

On 30 April, Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun committed suicide, only hours after they were married. Hitler had given strict orders for their bodies to be burned, so that his enemies wouldn't do what Communist partisans had done to the bodies of Benito Mussolini and Clara Petacci, who were beaten and mutilated while hanging upside down from a metal girder from the Esso petrol station in Milan square.

With Hitler's death, Admiral Karl Doenitz became president while Joseph Goebbels became chancellor. Though General Hans Krebs, Chief of the General Staff, wanted to open surrender talks with the Russian generals, he was hampered by Goebbels wish to continue fighting. This ceased to be an issue later in the day when Goebbels committed suicide. 

That day, there was fierce fighting for the Anhalter Train Station and surrounding buildings. There was equally fierce fighting in the area of Spittelmarkt.

By 2 May, the Reichstag, the old German parliament, had fallen. General Weidling together with suriviving units from the 56th Panzer Corps surrendered to General Vasily Chuikov. Under the cover of darkness, the German defenders had attempted to escape along three different routes, but only those retreating through the Tiergarten had fought their way through the Soviet lines.

On 8 May 1945, 23:01 hours, Field Marshal Keitel, Admiral H. G. von Friedeburg and Hans-Jurgen Stumpff signed the unconditional surrender documents, ending the war in Europe.

After the battle, more than 100,000 German soldiers were marched to prisoner of war camps in the Soviet Union.

In the fighting for Berlin, the Russians admit losing 81,116 killed/missing and 280,251 wounded.

Marshal Ivan Konjew, wrote in his memoirs that the Russian Army lost 800 tanks in the Battle of Berlin, the equivalent of four or five armoured cavalry divisions. 

ReferencesEdit

  1. Roberts, Andrew. The Storm of War - A new history of the Second World War. Penguin Books. ISBN 978 0 141 02928 3. (2010). Page 552
  2. "As early as the morning of 29 April, the Führeri, in the presence of General Krebs, Dr Goebbels and Borman asked me how long I could hold out. I replied that unless I received heavy weapons, principally anti-tank weapons, and sufficient ammunition, I could only hold out for another 2-3 days at most." Hitler's Death: Russia's Last Greet Secret from the Files of the KGB, V. K. Vinogradov, J. F. Pogonyi, N. V. Teptzov, p. 178, Chaucer Press, 2005
  3. "In heavy fighting on the night of 29/30 April and on 30 April I managed to repel all Russian attacks, although suffering heavy losses." Hitler's Death: Russia's Last Greet Secret from the Files of the KGB, V. K. Vinogradov, J. F. Pogonyi, N. V. Teptzov, p. 178, Chaucer Press, 2005

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