Military history


The Battle for Berlin

At the beginning of February, just after Zhukov’s armies reached the Oder less than a hundred kilometres from Berlin, a row broke out. Chuikov, the commander of the 8th Guards Army, criticised Zhukov for failing to push on immediately to Berlin. In fact, Stalin had forbidden a rash advance, when tank units needed to refit and rearm, and the infantry was exhausted. The Stavka ordered Zhukov and Rokossovsky to clear their right flank, the Baltic coast of Pomerania. This operation, and the redeployment of armies later, meant that the final Berlin operation was delayed until mid-April.

Grossman, in the meantime, had returned to Moscow, but he was determined to be in Berlin for the kill. Fortunately, his fellow correspondents, including his old companion Troyanovsky, requested that he should be there and Krasnaya Zvezda duly sent him. Troyanovsky then recorded: ‘On 14 April, correspondents of Krasnaya Zvezda were summoned by General K.F. Telegin, member of the Military Council of the Front. “I would recommend you cross the Oder,” he said. “You can choose any army. The only thing I would ask you, please don’t all go to Chuikov.” Perhaps Marshal Zhukov did not want his chief critic to get all the publicity.

The operation was launched on 16 April with Zhukov’s 1st Belorussian Front attacking due westwards from the Oder opposite Berlin, while Marshal Konev’s 1st Ukrainian Front attacked futher south from the line of the River Neisse. Stalin gave Konev permission to swing north towards Berlin. He wanted to create an intense rivalry between the two marshals to accelerate the encirclement and capture of Berlin. Ever since the Americans took the bridge at Remagen on 7 March, Stalin was afraid that they might reach Berlin first.

Zhukov’s forces had a far tougher time than he had expected in storming the Seelow heights above the Oder flood plain, and they suffered many casualties as their commanders forced them on. Their artillery was not within range of Berlin until the evening of 20 April. But the real fight for the city did not begin until four days later. Chuikov’s 8th Guards Army and Katukov’s 1st Guards Tank Army fought in from the southeast, the 2nd Guards Tank Army and the 3rd Shock Army from the north, and the 5th Shock Army from the east. Konev’s troops, the 3rd Guards Tank Army and the 28th Army, had also reached the south of the city and neighbouring formations began to bombard each other. Grossman, meanwhile, was making his way back to Berlin from Moscow. He left the Soviet capital for his final journey as a war correspondent on 20 April, the day of Hitler’s last birthday. He later described in an article what he saw and thought on the way to Berlin.

A village that had been burned by the Germans. All that remains of it are low sandy hills of collapsed handmade brick, an abandoned well, and a few rusted metal constructions. Smoke was rising from a depression not far away, where former inhabitants of the village were living in earth bunkers dug by Red Army soldiers during the fighting. A white-haired woman, a mother whose sons had been killed in the war, brought us water in a can and said in a melancholy voice: ‘Will there be ressurrection for us?’ and she indicated the burned village with a movement of her head.

And further on, along all the great roads, leading to the Neva, and the Volkhov, and to the Terek, to the tall forests of Karelia, to the steppes and mountains of the Caucasus, there are hills and hillocks, burial mounds of soldiers’ graves.

Our dead children, the Red Army soldiers, sergeants, lieutenants, our good boys are asleep there for ever. Everywhere along the roads of our advance there are these kurgans, hills and hillocks, graves of our killed sons marked by plywood boards on sticks, tilted to one side, with washed-off inscriptions. The rain washed off the soldiers’ names when it was crying over the graves, and united them under the single name of the killed son.

The vehicle broke down close to the Polish border, and we had to spend many hours in a field. While [the Jeep] was being repaired, I visited a hamlet. It was Sunday, and the main resident of the hamlet and her children had gone to church. Only an old woman and a traveller, a soldier dismissed from the army because of his wounds, were at home. He told me he didn’t have to walk very far now: he was going to the Orel area. We began to talk. The traveller, whose name was Alexei Ivanovich, was over forty. He had served at the front since the first days of the war, and had been wounded three times. He had been in a mortar unit. His greatcoat was torn by shrapnel and covered in black stains, he was wearing a ushanka winter hat, foot bandages and heavy boots. This soldiers’ gear was something he could bring back home. He had been living at the hamlet for about two weeks, helping the woman to sow, in return for which she gave him three poods of rye. He would be given a lift to the station at dawn, with her horses. There he intended to board an empty train going back from the front and get closer to home. Alexei Ivanovich was very happy about having earned this grain. He even led me to the hall and smiled, watching me pat the fat dense sack.

He then told me how Germans had burned his village, and his family are living in an earth bunker. ‘It’s good that I’m not going back empty-handed,’ he said. ‘I’ll bring them some grain from the war, because I saw how hard it’d become for them when I went back on leave after I was wounded the second time. What sort of life is it under the earth? It’s dark and wet, and there are insects. It’s not so bad in the summer, but in winter it’s hard.’

Grossman also made notes of that last journey to the front.

In a Willys [Jeep] from Moscow. Fires. As far as Minsk, we saw people setting grass on fire, the tall weeds that have grown in the fields during the war.

The leaden sky and frightening, cold rain for three days. An iron spring after the iron years of war. A severe peace is coming after the severe war: camps are being built everywhere, wire stretched, towers erected for the guards and [German] prisoners urged on by their escorts. After the war ends they will be repairing the roads broken by the movement of troops.

The road to Brest and Warsaw is also badly damaged. But the further west [one goes], the dryer the road and the clearer the sky. The trees along the road – apple and cherry, are all in blossom. The dachas of Berliners. Everything is wallowing in flowers – tulips, lilac, decorative pink flowers, apple, cherry and apricot blossom. The birds are singing. Nature does not mourn the last days of fascism.

In the town of Landsberg near Berlin. Children are playing at war on the flat roof of a house. Our troops are finishing off German imperialism in Berlin this minute, but here the boys with wooden swords and lances, with long legs, with their hair cut short on the back of their heads, with blond fringes, are shouting in shrill voices, stabbing one another, jumping, leaping wildly. Here, birth is being given to a new war. It is eternal, undying.

The Berlin autobahn ring. Stories had of course greatly exaggerated its width.

The highway leading to Berlin. Crowds of liberated people. Hundreds of bearded Russian peasants are walking [past]. With them are women and a lot of children. Faces of uncles with light brown beards and those of proper elders express gloomy despair. They are starostas,1 and the [auxiliary] police riff-raff, who had run away as far as Berlin and have now been forced to vacate their jobs. People say that Vlasov has taken part in the last battles in Berlin with his men.2

The closer we get to Berlin, the more the surroundings look like the area around Moscow.

An old woman traveller is walking away from Berlin, wearing a shawl on her head. She looks exactly as if she were going on a pilgrimage – a pilgrim amid the expanses of Russia. She is holding an umbrella accross her shoulder. A huge aluminium casserole is hung by its ear on the umbrella’s handle.

Weissensee – a suburb of the city. I stop the car. Some city lads, daring and cheeky, beg for chocolate, [as they] peer at the map on my lap.

Contradicting the idea of Berlin as an army barracks, there are lots of gardens in blossom. The sky is filled with a grandiose thunder of artillery. In the pauses, one can hear birds.

28 April 1945. Talking to Germans whose houses have been destroyed.

Grossman had himself attached to the most popular of all Zhukov’s commanders, Colonel-General Berzarin.3 Marshal Zhukov, reviving the old tsarist tradition, had appointed Berzarin, the commander of the 5th Shock Army, as commandant of Berlin, because his troops had been the first into the city. In fact, it was an inspired choice. Berzarin did not even wait for the fighting to finish. He made every effort to have essential services restored as soon as possible – a huge task after the destruction – and to make sure that the population did not starve. Many Berliners worshipped him, and when he was killed a few weeks later in a motorcycle accident, rumours spread that the NKVD had assassinated him.

The commandant [General Berzarin] is having a conversation with the Bürgermeister. The Bürgermeister asks how much they are going to pay people mobilised for work on military objects. In fact, they have a precise notion of their rights here.

Colonel-General Berzarin – the commandant of Berlin – is fat, brown-eyed, arch, with white hair although he is young. He is clever, very calm and resourceful.

Schloss Treskow. Evening. Park. Half-dark rooms. A clock is chiming. China. Colonel Petrov has a bad toothache. Fireplace. Through the windows can be heard artillery fire and the howling of Katyushas. Suddenly, there is thunder from the skies. The sky is yellow and cloudy. It is warm, rainy, there is an odour of lilac. There’s an old pond in the park. The silhouettes of the statues are indistinct. I am sitting in an armchair by the fireplace. The clock is chiming, infinitely sad and melodic, like poetry itself.

I am holding an old book in my hands. Fine pages. Written in a trembling, apparently old man’s, hand is ‘von Treskow’. He must have been the owner.4

A German, sixty-one years old. His wife, thirty-five, a beautiful woman. He is a horse-trader. [They have a] bulldog [called] Dina, ‘Sie ist ein Fraulein.’ A story about soldiers taking their things away. She sobs and immediately afterwards tells us calmly about her mother and three sisters killed in Hanover by American bombs. She tells, with sheer delight, gossip about the intimate life of Goering, Himmler and Goebbels.

Morning. Trip with Berzarin and his chief of staff, Lieutenant General Bokov, to the centre of Berlin. This was where that we saw the [bombing] work done by the Americans and English. Hell!

We crossed the Spree. Thousands of encounters. Thousands of Berliners in the streets. A Jewish woman with her husband. An old man, a Jew, who burst into tears when he learned about the fate of those who went to Lublin.

A [German] lady in an astrakhan coat, who likes me very much, says: ‘But surely, you aren’t a Jewish commissar?’

In a rifle corps [headquarters].5 The commander [is] General Rosly. The corps is fighting in the centre of Berlin. Rosly has two dachshunds (amusing fellows), a parrot, a peacock, a guinea fowl. They are all travelling with him. There’s a cheerful excitement at Rosly’s headquarters. He says: ‘We fear our neighbours now, not the enemy.’ He says laughing: ‘I’ve given orders to place burned-out tanks on the way to the Reichstag and the Reichschancellery so as to block our neighbours. The greatest disappointment in Berlin is when you learn about your neighbour’s success.’

Grossman was fascinated by the behaviour of the defeated enemy – how ready they were to obey orders from the new authority, and how little partisan resistance there had been, unlike in the Soviet Union. His vignette below of the old German Communist was repeated frequently. These Party members emerged, expecting to be greeted as comrades by the Red Army, but instead were treated with disdain, if not contempt and even outright suspicion. Soviet citizens, having had no guidance from their own political leaders, could not understand why the working class in Germany had done so little to fight the Nazis. SMERSh and NKVD officers even arrested some German Communists as spies. In the Stalinist mindset, the fact that they had not fought the Nazis as partisans provided grounds for deep suspicion.

Colonel General Berzarin, the commandant of Berlin, receives German dignitaries.

A day in Berzarin’s office. The Creation of the World. Germans, Germans, Germans – Bürgermeisters, directors of Berlin’s electricity supply, Berlin water, sewerage, underground, trams, gas, factory owners, [and other] characters. They obtain new positions in this office. Vice-directors become directors, chiefs of regional enterprises become chiefs on a national scale. Shuffling of feet, greetings, whispers.

An old man, a house painter, produces his [Communist] Party identity card. He has been a member since 1920. This does not make a strong impression. He is invited to sit down.

Oh, how weak human nature is! All these big officials brought up by Hitler, successful and sleek, how quickly and passionately they have forsaken and cursed their regime, their leaders, their Party. They are all saying the same thing: ‘Sieg!’ – that’s their slogan today.

2 May. The Day of Berlin’s capitulation. It’s difficult to describe it. A monstrous concentration of impressions. Fire and fires, smoke, smoke, smoke. Enormous crowds of [German] prisoners. Their faces are full of drama. In many faces there’s sadness, not only personal suffering, but also the suffering of a citizen. This overcast, cold and rainy day is undoubtedly the day of Germany’s ruin. In smoke, among the ruins, in flames, amid hundreds of corpses in the streets.

Corpses squashed by tanks, squeezed out like tubes. Almost all of them are clutching grenades and sub-machine guns in their hands. They have been killed fighting. Most of the dead men are dressed in brown shirts. They were Party activists who defended the approaches to the Reichstag and the Reichschancellery.

Prisoners – policemen, officials, old men and next to them schoolboys, almost children. Many [of the prisoners] are walking with their wives, beautiful young women. Some of the women are laughing, trying to cheer up their husbands. A young soldier with two children, a boy and a girl. Another soldier falls down and can’t get up again, he is crying. Civilians are kind to them, there’s grief in their faces. They are giving prisoners water and shovel bread into their hands.

A dead old woman is half sitting on a mattress by a front door, leaning her head against the wall. There’s an expression of calm and sorrow on her face, she has died with this grief. A child’s little legs in shoes and stockings are lying in the mud. It was a shell, apparently, or else a tank has run over her. (This was a girl.)

In the streets that are already peaceful, the ruins have been tidied.

[German] women are sweeping sidewalks with brushes like those we use to sweep rooms.

The [enemy] offered to capitulate during the night over the radio. The general commanding the garrison gave the order. ‘Soldiers! Hitler, to whom you have given the oath, has committed suicide.’6

I’ve witnessed the last shots in Berlin. Groups of SS sitting in a building on the banks of the Spree, not far from the Reichstag, refused to surrender. Huge guns were blasting yellow, dagger-like fire at the building, and everything was swamped in stone dust and black smoke.

Reichstag. Huge, powerful. Soldiers are making bonfires in the hall. They rattle their mess tins and open cans of condensed milk with their bayonets.

A seemingly empty conversation has remained in my memory. It was with a middle-aged horse-driver, who had a moustache and a dark brown wrinkled face. He was standing beside his ponies at the corner of Leipzigerstrasse. I asked him about Berlin, and whether he likes the city.

‘Oh, you see,’ he said, ‘there was such a fuss yesterday in this Berlin. A battle was going on, in this very street. German shells were exploding all the time. I was standing by the horses, and my foot bandage had become loose. I bent down to redo it, and then a shell blew up! A horse got scared and ran off. This one. He’s young, but a bit naughty. And I was thinking, what should I do now, retie my foot bandage or run after the horse? Well, I ran after him, the foot bandage trailing after me, shells blowing up everywhere, my horse running, and me running after him. Well, I’ve taken a look at this Berlin! I was running for two hours in just one street, it had no end! I was running and thinking – well, that’s Berlin. It’s Berlin all right, but I did catch the horse!’

Just to the west of the Reichstag, Grossman wandered around the Tiergarten, the central park in Berlin where all the trees had been blasted to pieces in the battle and the ground was churned up by shell and bomb blast. The great victory column, the Siegessäule, was known to Soviet troops during the battle as the ‘tall lady’, because of the figure of winged victory on top, which Berliners called ‘Golden Elsa’. The ‘fortress’ he refers to below is the huge Zoo bunker, or flak tower, a vast concrete construction with anti-aircraft batteries on top and shelter inside for several thousand people. It had been Goebbels’s headquarters in his role as Reich’s Commissioner for Defence, but he did not die there. Goebbels and his wife Magda had shot themselves in the Reichschancellery garden after Magda had killed their six children with poison.

Memorials to victory. The Siegessäule, colossal buildings and concrete fortresses, sites of Berlin’s anti-aircraft defence. Here was the Defence HQ of Goebbels’s residence. People say he had given orders to poison his family and killed himself. Yesterday, he shot himself. His little scorched body is lying here, too: the artificial leg, white tie.

The enormity of victory. By the huge obelisk, a spontaneous celebration is going on. The armour of tanks has disappeared under heaps of flowers and red flags. Barrels are in blossom like trunks of spring trees. Everyone is dancing, laughing, singing. Hundreds of coloured rockets are shot into the air, everyone is saluting with bursts from sub-machine guns, rifle and pistol shots. (I learned later that many of those men celebrating were living corpses, having drunk a terrible poison from barrels containing an industrial chemical in the Tiergarten. This poison started to act on the third day after they drank it, and killed people mercilessly.)

The Brandenburg Gate is blocked with a wall of tree trunks and sand, two to three metres high. In the space [of the arch], like in a frame, one can see the startling panorama of Berlin burning. Even I have never seen such a picture, although I’ve seen thousands of fires.

Foreigners. [Forced labourers and prisoners of war.] Their suffering, their travelling, shouting, threats towards German soldiers. Top hats, whiskers. A young Frenchman said to me: ‘Monsieur, I love your army and that’s why it is painful for me to see its attitude to girls and women. This is going to be very harmful for your propaganda.’

Grossman in a Berlin street on 2 May 1945, the day of the surrender.

Looting: barrels, piles of fabric, boots, leather, wine, champagne, dresses – all this is being carried on carts and vehicles, or on shoulders.

Germans: some of them are exceptionally communicative and amiable, others turn away sullenly. There are many young women crying. Apparently, they have been made to suffer by our soldiers.

It was in Germany, particularly here in Berlin, that our soldiers really started to ask themselves why did the Germans attack us so suddenly? Why did the Germans need this terrible and unfair war? Millions of our men have now seen the rich farms in East Prussia, the highly organised agriculture, the concrete sheds for livestock, spacious rooms, carpets, wardrobes full of clothes.

Millions of our soldiers have seen the well-built roads running from one village to another and German autobahns . . . Our soldiers have seen the two-storey suburban houses with electricity, gas, bathrooms and beautifully tended gardens. Our people have seen the villas of the rich bourgeoisie in Berlin, the unbelievable luxury of castles, estates and mansions. And thousands of soldiers repeat these angry questions when they look around them in Germany: ‘But why did they come to us? What did they want?’

Most soldiers flocked to the Reichstag on this day of victory. Only a few, mainly officers, appear to have found the Reichschancellery. They were allowed to wander around on the ground floor, but SMERSh operatives, under the command of General Vadis, had sealed the cellars and the bunker. They were searching desperately for Hitler’s body. Grossman, who went with Efim Gekhman, collected souvenirs and Nazi memorabilia. According to Ortenberg, Grossman obtained the last souvenirs in his collection on 2 May 1945 in Berlin. Grossman and Gekhman entered Hitler’s office in the morning. Grossman opened a drawer of a desk, inside were stamps saying ‘The Führer has confirmed’, ‘The Führer has agreed’, etc. He took several of these stamps, and they are now in the same archive as his papers.

The new Reichschancellery. It’s a monstrous crash of the regime, ideology, plans, everything, everything. Hitler kaputt . . .

Hitler’s office. The reception hall. A huge foyer, in which a young Kazakh, with dark skin and broad cheekbones, is learning to ride a bicycle, falling off it now and then. Hitler’s armchair and table.

Grossman at the Brandenburg Gate.

A huge metal globe, crushed and crumpled, plaster, planks of wood, carpets. Everything is mixed up. It’s chaos. Souvenirs, books with dedicatory inscriptions to the Führer, stamps, etc.

In the south-west corner of the Tiergarten, Grossman also visited Berlin’s zoo.

Hungry tigers and lions . . . were trying to hunt sparrows and mice that scurried in their cages.

The Zoological Garden. There was fighting here. Broken cages. Corpses of marmosets, tropical birds, bears, the island for hamadryases, their babies are holding on to their mothers’ bellies with their tiny hands.

Conversation with an old man. He’s been looking after the monkeys for thirty-seven years. There was the corpse of a dead gorrilla in a cage.

‘Was she a fierce animal?’ I asked.

‘No. She only roared a good deal. People are angrier,’ he replied.

On a bench, a wounded German soldier is hugging a girl, a nurse. They see no one. When I pass them again an hour later, they are still sitting in the same position. The world does not exist for them, they are happy.

Grossman returned to Moscow and in early June escaped to a dacha. At first he could not write. He collapsed with nervous exhaustion, a reaction which had been postponed, like for so many who returned from the war. But then, with rest, fresh air, fishing and long walks, he felt ready to start his self-imposed task – to honour in his writing the heroism of the Red Army and the memory of the countless victims of the Nazi invasion.

1 Starostas, the village elders or mayors, appointed by the Germans, rightly feared the retribution of the NKVD and had fled to Germany in front of the advancing Red Army.

2 This rumour was wrong. General Vlasov and the bulk of his troops were in Czechoslovakia, where at the last minute they sided with the Czech uprising in Prague against the Germans, but this did nothing to temper their fate at the hands of a vengeful NKVD. Vlasov was captured by a Soviet tank unit and flown back to Moscow, where he is said to have been tortured to death.

3 Colonel-General Nikolai Erastovich Berzarin (1904–1945)

4 The Tresckows (with a ‘c’) were an old Prussian family, of whom the best-known member was Major-General Henning von Tresckow (1901–1944), who smuggled a bomb aboard Hitler’s plane on 13 March 1943, but it failed to go off. Tresckow committed suicide with a grenade on 21 July 1944. The Schloß Treskow in which Grossman was billeted was most probably Schloß Friedrichsfelde on the east side of Berlin, which belonged to the illegitimate, and much richer, branch of the family, spelt without a ‘c’. They had made their money by selling cavalry mounts all over Europe. Münthe von Treskow, whose book Grossman examined, was thrown out of his house by Soviet troops and is said by the family to have died of starvation.

5 This is the IX Rifle Corps commanded by Lieutenant General I.P. Rosly, which was part of the 5th Shock Army, commanded by Colonel-General Berzarin.

6 General Helmuth Weidling, the commander of LVI Panzer Corps, had been appointed commander of Berlin on 23 April by Hitler just after the Führer, due to a misunderstanding, had ordered his arrest for cowardice. Weidling, after his surrender at General Chuikov’s headquarters, prepared this announcement to encourage his men to lay down their arms and halt the bloodshed.

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