It began with what a German colonel called “a dull, continuous roar of thunder from the east.” The Soviet bombardment was so immense in Berlin’s eastern suburbs, houses shook, pictures fell from walls, and telephones rang. Berlin civilians heard the rumbling, saw the shaking buildings, and knew the hour had come. On ration queues, women and girls listened “in dread to the distant sounds of the front,” and asked each other if the Americans would get to Berlin ahead of the Soviets.
It was April 16, 1945. The rumbling was the sound of 8,983 Soviet artillery pieces, up to 270 guns every kilometer, hurling a stockpile of seven million shells (1.2 million on the first day alone) at the German defenses on the Oder-Neisse River line. The last and most consequential battle of World War II in Europe was starting—the battle for Berlin.
“Who Will Take Berlin? Us or the Allies?”
After a breather to finish off the “Oder balcony” in East Prussia and to bring up supplies, the Soviet Army was finally ready to attack Berlin and end the war. To Russia’s tyrannical and paranoid ruler, Josef Stalin, nothing mattered more than beating the British and American forces to Berlin. Not only did his prestige demand it, so did vengeance for the bloody trail of atrocities and destruction sown by the Germans all the way to Moscow and Stalingrad.
“Who will take Berlin? Us or the Allies?” Stalin asked his two top commanders, Marshal Georgi K. Zhukov, commander of the 1st Belorussian Front, and Marshal Ivan Koniev, head of the 1st Ukrainian Front, who faced Berlin, in a Moscow conference on April 1.
“We will, and before the Allies,” answered Koniev.
“So that’s the sort of men you are,” responded Stalin, who promptly gave them their orders—Zhukov would drive on Berlin from the center and north, while Koniev hit Berlin from the south, enveloping the immense German capital in a gigantic pincer movement. To achieve this victory, Stalin was massing 2.5 million men, 41,600 guns, 6,250 tanks, and 7,500 aircraft.
The Soviet Army was by 1945 a well-oiled war machine, lavishly equipped with powerful T-34 and JS tanks, superior to most of their German counterparts and fairly easy for the mechanically challenged Soviet tank crews to operate and maintain. Artillery was still Russia’s “God of War.” Infantry and tanks cooperated with skill, resolution, and aggressiveness. The Soviets understood the importance of surprise, maneuver, and commitment of reserves. They did not rely on numbers alone to win battles.
But the Soviets had weaknesses. While ammunition was plentiful, food, spare parts, and even uniforms were in short supply. Soviet troops were often lean and hungry, expected to live off the land. Much of their rations and transport were American Lend-Lease.
Most importantly, the Army was poorly disciplined. Despite the toughness of Soviet political officers, Soviet troops in all echelons had a fondness for theft and rape, which was inspired by the harsh propaganda of Stalin’s political writers, who hammered down the idea that the invasion of Germany would be the wreaking of Soviet vengeance—Germany was not to be defeated, but despoiled.
Nothing Left to Lose
Zhukov’s assault on Berlin was the centerpiece of the attack, and the general who “never lost a battle” planned this one poorly. He showed little of his usual verve and flexibility. Facing German troops dug in against him on the Seelow Heights, he deployed 143 searchlights to blind the defenders, one every 200 meters. When the searchlights snapped on, the Germans shelled them, killing many of the lights’ female operators.
The German defense was headed by one of that nation’s sharpest minds, Col. Gen. Gotthard Heinrici, son of a Lutheran pastor, married to a “mischlinge,” a half-Jew. Only Heinrici’s ability as a defensive specialist kept him on the Wehrmacht’s payroll, as boss of Army Group Vistula, which was actually defending the Oder.
Heinrici planned his defense with great care. He had close to a million men to defend against the Soviets, counting training units, Hitler Youth, police, and Volkssturm, equipped with 10,400 tanks, 1,500 guns, and 3,300 aircraft. The Soviets outnumbered him badly. Worse, the German war machine had been ground down by years of defeat and retreat. Tanks were short of fuel, artillery short of shells, and many soldiers had gone unpaid for months. Their morale was worn out by the stream of defeats, refugees clogging roads, letters (when mail came) from home that their houses had been destroyed or hometowns occupied by Allied forces.
Yet they fought on. Some did so with the courage of desperate and fanatical men who believed in Hitler. Others were members of SS foreign contingents, like the tough Nordland Division, made up of Scandinavian Nazis—Swedes, Danes, and Norwegian renegades—who had thrown in their lot with Hitler. Another such outfit was the SS Charlemagne Division, composed of Frenchmen. They fought with the courage of men who had nothing left to lose. Capture meant a treason trial back in their homeland, and escape was impossible. So these mercenaries and opportunists—including a scattering of renegade Britons from the 50-strong British Free Corps—also fought on.
The Germans also had some of their usual strengths: mobility, quick-thinking field commanders, an astonishing ability to regroup under pressure, and immense Tiger tanks that hurled 88mm shells and could withstand heavy bombardment.
There were other incentives for Germans to fight this last battle with determination. Josef Goebbels’s propaganda continued to promise miracle weapons to turn the tide of battle. German troops feared the destruction that would rain down upon their homes if the Soviets conquered their Fatherland. SS flying “courts-martial” and the military police effectively patrolled the rear areas. Anyone suspected of being a deserter would get a quick drumhead court-martial, inevitably followed by a hanging.
The picture was bleak. The German divisions that stood on Heinrici’s main line of resistance on the Neisse River and the Seelow Heights were not the goose-stepping legions that had terrorized Europe in 1940. There were contingents of German naval personnel drawn from immobile surface ships and bases, Luftwaffe ground crews and pilots without planes, personnel from Army training schools, and the scores of poorly equipped Volkssturm units, made up of locally drawn old men and Hitler Youth, often armed only with one-shot disposable Panzerfaust antitank rocket launchers instead of rifles. Many had no uniforms and no weapons, and less training.
A Typical “Morning Concert”
With this, Gotthard Heinrici faced Zhukov’s attack. At first, things went well for the Germans. Beyond shooting the lights out, the searchlights themselves were ineffective because their dazzle reflected back off the smoke and dust of the Soviet bombardment. Order and counterorder to turn them on and off soon followed. Overcast skies and rain hampered both sides.
Even so, the bombardment was horrific. The Hitler Youth and trainee youngsters at first thought it was a typical “Morning Concert,” but the old hands soon recognized that this was the long-awaited big offensive. Gerd Wagner of the 27th Parachute Regiment said, “In a few seconds, all my 10 comrades were dead.” Wagner himself regained consciousness in a smoking shell crater and was barely able to escape. Farther back, an SS panzer battalion commander peered through his pericscope and saw “in the field of view the eastern sky was in flames.”
The Soviet bombardment churned up the Seelow Heights, leaving both physical and moral destruction in its wake. An SS war correspondent found a dazed soldier wandering in a wood, having tossed his rifle. This was his first experience of the Eastern Front, he said. He had spent the war as a barber in an officers’ hotel in Paris.
Still, Zhukov had trouble. He sent his men storming across the Oder in American amphibious DUKWs, driven by female soldiers. Behind the Lend-Lease vehicles came all kinds of ordinary boats, many of which leaked. Under heavy fire, the boats came ashore and the Soviets advanced through minefields, making little progress. By midday, the troops were wallowing in heavy mud and German shelling.
The Germans were not doing well either. Joseph Goebbels made a passionate speech on the German radio that the new storm of Mongols would break itself against the Oder walls, but Berliners, who could read maps, got into longer lines at food shops to fill their larders as quickly as possible. Heinrici wanted to counterattack, but Adolf Hitler, in a typically loony decision, had taken away three of his panzer divisions and sent them to Czechoslovakia. At the German Army’s “holy of holies,” the command bunkers at Zossen, Chief of Staff General Hans Krebs kept going on shots of vermouth from a bottle he kept in his office safe, struggling with broken communications to the front and desperate requests for information from the rear.