Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Battle of Berlin, April-May 1945

The capital of Germany, Berlin had a powerful political appeal as a target and objective in the final phases of the war in Europe. While it was certainly a major Germany city, it was in many ways throughout the war no longer the functioning capital, since Adolf Hitler spent most of his time at Berchtesgaden and at various field headquarters. The Supreme Allied Commander, Dwight D. Eisenhower, did not consider Berlin a key military objective and made the decision to allow the city to fall to the Soviet Red Army while the forces of the western Allies turned south into Bavaria. (Eisenhower’s decision was also motivated by his understanding of the diplomatic situation; at the Yalta Conference, Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt had promised Joseph Stalin that, all other things being equal, Berlin would be a Red Army objective.) Yet it is undeniably true that Berlin was a moral and symbolic prize of enormous importance, both to the Nazi regime and the victorious Allies. It is also true that Hitler had returned to Berlin from his western front headquarters on January 15, 1945, only to find himself held hostage by relentless bombing raids, which drove him into his massively fortified bunker beneath the Reich chancellery building. Thus, an advance on Berlin was an advance directly against Adolf Hitler.

The First Belorussian Front (“front” was the Soviet equivalent of an Allied “army group”), under Marshal Georgi Konstantinovich Zhukov, and the First Ukrainian Front, under Marshal Ivan Konev, advanced on the Oder River, about 35 miles east of Berlin early in February 1945. Zhukov reached Küstrin, on the Oder, first, and he favored an immediate advance against Berlin. Stalin ordered a delay, however, preferring to attack with overwhelming numbers. This was a mistake, because at the time, the forces defending this approach to Berlin were badly depleted, nothing more than the remnants of the Third Panzer Army and the Ninth Army now cobbled together in Army Group Vistula. The delay, however, was hardly fatal to the Soviet offensive since Germany could no longer muster a sufficient force to exploit it. Moreover, Konev began an advance across the Oder to the Neisse River, targeting the Fourth Panzer Army positions there and creating a new threat to Berlin, this one from the south. That the German situation was indeed hopeless did not, however, deter Hitler from ordering that Berlin would be defended “to the last man and the last shot.” He deployed troops, including at this point overaged men and underaged boys, in four concentric rings around the city. The first was about 20 miles from central Berlin; the second some 10 miles from the center; the third positioned along the S-Bahn, the city’s suburban rail system; and the fourth, called the Z-ring (Z for Zitadelle, Citadel), within the center of the city itself, surrounding the government buildings and the Füherbunker beneath the chancellery.

What finally moved Stalin to order the Zhukov- Konev advance renewed was not the German situation, but the speed with which the Americans and British were advancing from the west. On March 31, Stalin informed Zhukov that he would have the honor of taking Berlin, and he accordingly ordered him to regroup and immediately resume his advance. His advance would be in concert with Konev, who would protect and support Zhukov’s left flank as well as advance against Dresden. A third Red Army group, the Second Belorussian Front, under Marshal Konstantin Rokossovsky, was sent to the lower Oder River, where it would support Zhukov’s right flank. Taken together, these three army groups mustered 2.5 million men, 6,250 tanks and other armored vehicles, and 7,500 aircraft, most of them attack planes well suited for close air support.

Depleted and exhausted as the German army was, it resisted the attack on Berlin with great determination. Zhukov began his assault at dawn on April 16, concentrating his attack at Seelow Heights, west of the Oder. In an effort to confuse and blind the defenders, Zhukov massed concentrations of antiaircraft searchlights, directing these into the German positions. The effect, however, was also to reduce visibility for the Russians. Chaos ensued among the attackers, and the assault proved abortive. Zhukov regrouped and launched a new assault with six armies (including two armies consisting solely of armor) on April 17. These troops also were forced to withdraw. The next day brought a new assault, which pushed the German lines back but created no breakthrough, whereupon Stalin personally intervened with an order to break off the attack from the east and wheel around to the north, resuming the assault from there. Simultaneously, Konev, having crossed the River Neisse on April 16, was ordered to advance his two tank armies against Berlin from the south. Rokossovsky, already positioned to the northeast with his Second Belorussian Front, was assigned to assist Zhukov in his southbound attack. The German capital lay now within the jaws of a great pincer.

As for Hitler, he was within the grasp of a desperate delusion. Ordering the Ninth German Army to stand fast on the Oder in the belief that he might somehow win this battle and counterattack, he took the pressure off Konev and effectively invited the marshal into the capital. On April 20, Adolf Hitler’s birthday, Konev’s armor reached Jüterbog, the German army’s major ammunition depot. After taking this objective, Konev advanced to the communications center at Zossen. In the meantime, in the Füherbunker, Hitler gave to all those of the Nazi inner circle permission to leave Berlin as best they could before the last roads were closed. He told them that he would remain in the city to the end.

On April 21, Zhukov reached the outermost defensive ring. By April 25, Zhukov had linked up with Konev, and the Red Army now completely encircled the German capital. Hitler scrambled to organize a relief force, but the Ninth German Army, itself separately encircled, was in the last extremity, and the Twelfth German Army, approaching Berlin from the west, was a shell of its former self, far too depleted to make any difference in the battle. The troops that now manned the city’s inner defensive rings were a mixture of veterans who had fallen back from the attack on the outermost ring and a collection of Hitler Youth and old men, some not even armed. Nevertheless, fighting progressed from street to street. On April 29, Lt. Gen. Karl Weidling, commandant of the capital’s defenses, reported that all ammunition would be exhausted by the next day. With no relief from the outside possible, the city fell. On April 30, Red Army troops stormed the Reichstag, seat of German government. Unknown to them, inside the Füherbunker, Adolf Hitler and his new bride, Eva Braun, took their own lives.

Still, the street fighting continued. On May 1, Lt. Gen. Hans Krebs, chief of the German general staff, fruitlessly—and foolishly—bargained for surrender terms. The Soviets would accept nothing less than unconditional surrender. Lt. Gen. Weidling gave them precisely that on May 2.

No accurate casualty figures exist for the Battle of Berlin. Estimates vary widely. Red Army losses are put at anywhere from some 78,000 killed in action to 305,000 killed. Most authorities believe German losses were approximately 325,000 killed, including soldiers and civilians. There are no estimates of wounded.

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