By April 25, the trap was closed; Berlin was completely encircled by Zhukov and Konev. With the city cut off from the rest of the world, all pretense of normal life was abandoned. Postal service stopped, and the few remaining policemen were told to report to military units. Food became even scarcer, and most of the water mains were broken, creating acute shortages. Several million Berliners crowded into cellars or into the flak towers, where conditions went from bad to appalling, and waited for the end.
Sanitation became a problem when there was little or no water to be had. When the flush toilets became inoperable, the people crowded into the dank cellars used buckets. The stench from these makeshift chamber pots was unbearable, but to go outside was to risk death. There was no water to wash, so people wore the same dirty, sweaty clothes for days. Some people committed suicide in despair, and sometimes in all the chaos the bodies were not immediately removed.
Yet Berlin women once again showed an inner strength that was nothing short of amazing. As Russian shells began to hit the city, women in the food lines stubbornly refused to take cover. Food meant life, so it was worth the risk. It was said that a shell made a direct hit on a line of women while they patiently waited for rations. Those not immediately killed or wounded simply wiped the blood off their ration cards and reformed the shattered queue.
Fanatical SS units prowled for deserters, shooting or hanging suspects to provide an object lesson for others. As the Russians entered the suburbs and started encroaching on the city proper, the long-dreaded looting and rape began. German women tried to disguise themselves as men or purposely make their faces ugly, all to no avail. Young women and teens were special targets, but after a while virtually all women, even the elderly, were raped. Russian revenge would be complete.
Berlin was a city of broad avenues lined with 19th- and 20th-century apartment blocks. The German did have strongpoints, including turned-over trolley trams that were filled with rocks. Berliners didn’t think much of such defenses. They joked that it would take the Russians 21/2 hours to take the city—two hours of laughing their heads off and a half hour to break down the barriers.
In some respects the German defense was much more subtle. Snipers and machine guns were placed on upper floors because Russian tanks could not elevate their cannons high enough. Panzerfaust men were stationed in cellars to ambush unwary Soviet T-34s. At first Russian tanks went boldly down the centers of streets, but soon found they were sitting ducks if they used this method. They soon learned to hug the sides of the streets.
Colonel General Chuikov of the Eighth Guards Army wrote out some general assault guidelines that proved to be very effective. Small assault groups of seven or eight men armed with grenades, submachine guns, daggers, and sharpened spades would be the first to move forward. They would be backed up by reinforcement units that were heavily armed with machine guns and antitank weapons.
Since fighting was often from house to house and room to room, Russian sappers were on hand with pick axes and explosives to blast or bore though walls if necessary. German defenders often countered by throwing grenades into newly opened holes in the walls. Russian artillery was also employed to pound resisting buildings into rubble. The fighting was brutal and bloody, and many civilians were killed as they cowered in cellars, attics, and other hiding places.
On April 25, Hitler appointed General Helmuth Weidling as the new commander of “Fortress Berlin.” Weidling’s 56th Panzer Corps had been part of Army Group Vistula, and the general took what remained of his men back to Berlin after the Russian breakthrough. Initially, Hitler thought of executing Weidling because he had retreated in the face of the enemy but then relented and gave the surprised general his new command.
Weidling accepted the assignment, but an inspection tour was anything but encouraging. As he remarked, “The Potsdamer Platz and Leipzigerstrasse were under strong artillery fire. The dust from the rubble hung in the air like a thick fog … shells burst all around us. We were covered with bits of broken stones. The roads were riddled with shell craters and piles of brick rubble.”
The general devised a plan for Hitler to break out of Berlin before it was too late, but the Führer rejected it out of hand. “I don’t want to be wandering in the woods,” an irate Hitler told his new commander. He intended to stay “at the head of his men” and die in Berlin. The general was cautioned, however, to continue the defense as vigorously as possible.