The attack literally bogged down, the tanks finding the marshy ground almost too soft for their tracks. Slowed, they made tempting targets—almost sitting ducks—for the well-served German artillery, particularly the rightly feared 88, one of the best antitank guns of the war. Tank after tank was knocked out, but the Russian infantrymen pressed forward shouting their distinctive “Urrah!” cheers. Any T-34s that survived the 88s were taken out by fire from the panzerfaust—the German bazooka.
The Russian advance stalled, much to Zhukov’s embarrassment and chagrin. There was nothing left to do but press on, even at the cost of more and more casualties. Zhukov was even more upset by the realization that his rival Konev’s First Ukrainian Front was making good progress in the south. In fact, by the 17th Stalin was more than happy to give Konev the green light to swing around and take Berlin from the south. Even Rokossovsky’s Second White Russian Front, which was protecting Zhukov’s northern flank and taking on General von Manteuffel’s Third Panzer Army, was making slow, if steady, progress.
Manteuffel had his hands full but managed to fight on until April 25, when the Russians finally broke through. The fighting was so intense that some Russian soldiers found their way into Manteuffel’s headquarters where they managed to kill four of his staff and wounded four more. The general personally shot one Russian and dispatched another with a trench knife. Small but gutsy, von Manteuffel also risked his life doing reconnaissance flights in a Storch light airplane.
In the end nothing could stop Rokossovsky’s drive north. Manteuffel and what remained of his Third Panzer Army retreated to Mecklenburg to avoid annihilation. They later surrendered to the Americans.
Meanwhile, Konev’s advance in the south was so rapid it threatened the OKH command center in Zossen. General Hans Krebs, chief of the Army General Staff, was ordered to move the command center to a Luftwaffe air base not far from Potsdam. It was just in the nick of time because, not long after the German staff left, the Russians roared in on their tanks.
The “Ivans” could scarcely believe their eyes—there were two huge camouflaged complexes, Maybach I and Maybach II, with elaborate banks of telephones and teleprinters that could send and receive messages from far-flung Wehrmacht commands. This was the nerve center, the “brain” of the German Army and even as the Russians were shown around by an accommodating caretaker messages were coming in. The phone rang, and a Russian soldier answered it. On the other end of the line was a German general who asked, “What is happening there?” Bemused, the Russian said, “Ivan is here—go to Hell!”
Busse’s Ninth Army held out as long as it could, but it, too, had to give way. A portion of it fell back into Berlin, while the rest was surrounded and sealed off in a pocket in the Spree Forest; some soldiers managed to break out and surrender to the Americans. Once organized resistance was broken outside Berlin, it was only a matter of time before the Russians took the German capital.
The Seelow Heights defenders managed to hold for another two days, much to Zhukov’s frustration. The Russians, furious at the delays, attacked again and again with suicidal abandon. One German officer reported, “They come at us in hordes, in wave after wave, without regard to loss of life. We fire our machine guns often at point-blank range until they turn red hot. My men are fighting until they simply run out of ammunition. Then they are simply wiped out or completely overrun.”
There was nothing subtle about this kind of warfare. The Russians simply overwhelmed the defense by sheer weight of numbers. The Seelow Heights were finally taken on April 19, but not before the Russians lost an estimated 30,000 men and well over 700 tanks. But to Zhukov, it was worth it. There were a few scattered German units here and there, but essentially the road to Berlin was now wide open.
On April 20, Zhukov reported that the “long-range artillery of the 79th Rifle Corps of the 3rd Shock Army opened fire on Berlin. The guns were firing at extreme range and only the suburbs were hit.” The next day the 3rd Shock Army, 2nd Guards Tank Army, and 47th Army—all Zhukov formations—reached the outskirts of the city. The 1st and 2nd Guards Armies were given the “historic task to break into Berlin first and to raise the banner of victory.”
In essence two giant pincers—one from Zhukov, the other from Konev—were enveloping Berlin. Soon the pincers would become jaws, crushing and grinding the city between them. Hitler, still fantasizing, envisioned a counterattack that would involve SS Gruppenführer Felix Steiner and his Operational Group Steiner. In theory, Steiner and some other units would attack the northern pincers, but it came to nothing when Steiner reported that he simply did not have the men or equipment for such an attack.