Military history

Chapter 3

NOW GUDERIAN CALLED FOR MAPS. In the anteroom outside, one of the aides peeled several from the top of the prepared pile, brought them into the office and spread them on the map table before the two Generals.

This was Heinrici’s first look at the overall situation. More than one third of Germany was gone—swallowed by the advancing Allies from the west and east. All that remained lay between two great water barriers: on the west, the Rhine; on the east, the Oder and its linking river, the Neisse. And Heinrici knew the great industrial areas of the Reich that had not yet been captured were being bombed night and day.

In the west, Eisenhower’s armies, as Heinrici had heard, were indeed on the Rhine, Germany’s great natural defense line. The Anglo-American forces stretched for nearly five hundred miles along the western bank—roughly from the North Sea to the Swiss border. At one point the Rhine had even been breached. On March 7, the Americans had seized a bridge at Remagen, south of Bonn, before it could be completely destroyed. Now a bridgehead twenty miles wide and five miles deep sprawled along the eastern bank. Other crossings were expected momentarily.

In the east the Soviets had swarmed across eastern Europe and held a front of more than eight hundred miles—from the Baltic to the Adriatic. In Germany itself they stood along the Oder-Neisse river lines all the way to the Czechoslovakian border. Now, Guderian told Heinrici, they were feverishly preparing to resume their offensive. Reconnaissance planes had spotted reinforcements pouring toward the front. Every railhead was disgorging guns and equipment. Every road was clogged with tanks, motor- and horse-drawn convoys, and marching troops. What the Red Army’s strength might be at the time of attack nobody could even estimate, but three army groups had been identified in Germany—concentrated for the most part directly opposite Army Group Vistula’s positions.

Looking at the front he had inherited, Heinrici saw for the first time what he would later describe as “the whole shocking truth.”

On the map the thin wavering red line marking the Vistula’s positions ran for 175 miles—from the Baltic coast to the juncture of the Oder and Neisse in Silesia, where it linked with the forces of Colonel General Schörner. Most of the front lay on the western bank of the Oder, but there were three major bridgeheads still on the eastern bank: in the north, Stettin, the 13th-century capital of Pomerania; in the south, the town of Küstrin and the old university city of Frankfurt-on-Oder—both in the vital sector directly opposite Berlin.

To prevent the Russians from capturing the capital and driving into the very heart of Germany, he had only two armies, Heinrici discovered. Holding the front’s northern wing was the Third Panzer Army under the command of the diminutive General Hasso von Manteuffel—after Guderian and Rommel probably the greatest panzer tactician in the Wehrmacht. He held positions extending about 95 miles—from north of Stettin to the juncture of the Hohenzollern Canal and the Oder, roughly 28 miles northeast of Berlin. Below that, to the confluence of the Neisse 80 miles away, the defense was in the hands of the bespectacled 47-year-old General Theodor Busse and his Ninth Army.

Depressed as he was by the overall picture, Heinrici was not unduly surprised by the huge forces arrayed against him. On the eastern front it was customary to fight without air cover, with a minimum of tanks, and while outnumbered by at least nine or ten to one. But everything, Heinrici knew, depended on the caliber of the troops. What alarmed him now was the makeup of these two armies.

To the experienced Heinrici the name of a division and its commander usually served as an indication of its history and fighting abilities. Now, examining the map, he found that there were few regular divisions in the east that he even recognized. Instead of the usual identifying numbers, most of them had odd names such as “Gruppe Kassen,” “Döberitz,” “Nederland,” “Kurmark,” “Berlin” and “Müncheberg.” Heinrici wondered about the composition of these units. Were they splinter troops—the remnants of divisions simply thrown together? Guderian’s map did not give him a very clear picture. He would have to see for himself, but he had a dawning suspicion that these were divisions in name only. Heinrici did not comment on his suspicions, for Guderian had other, more immediate problems to discuss—in particular, Küstrin.

Heinrici’s biggest army was Busse’s Ninth, the defense shield directly before Berlin. From the rash of red marks on the map it was clear that Busse faced pressing problems. The Russians, Guderian said, were concentrating opposite the Ninth Army. They were making a mighty effort to wipe out the two German-held bridgeheads on the eastern banks at Küstrin and in the area of Frankfurt. The situation at Küstrin was the more dangerous.

In that sector during the preceding weeks, the Red Army had succeeded in crossing the Oder several times and gaining footholds on the western bank. Most of these attempts had been thrown back, but despite every defense effort the Russians still held on around Küstrin. They had secured sizable bridgeheads on either side of the town. Between these pincer-like lodgments, a single corridor remained, linking the defenders of Küstrin with the Ninth Army. Once these pincers snapped shut, Küstrin would fall and the linking of the two bridgeheads would provide the Russians with a major springboard on the western bank for their drive on Berlin.

And now Guderian tossed Heinrici another bombshell. “Hitler,” he said, “has decided to launch an attack to wipe out the bridgehead south of Küstrin, and General Busse has been preparing. I believe it’s to take place within forty-eight hours.”

The plan, as Guderian outlined it, called for the attack to be launched from Frankfurt, thirteen miles below Küstrin. Five Panzer Grenadier divisions were to cross the river into the German bridgehead and from there attack along the eastern bank and hit the Russian bridgehead south of Küstrin from the rear.

Heinrici studied the map. Frankfurt-on-Oder straddles the river, with its greatest bulk on the western bank. A single bridge connects the two sections of the city. To the new commander of the Army Group Vistula two facts were starkly clear: the hilly terrain on the eastern bank offered ideal conditions for Russian artillery—from the heights they could stop the Germans dead in their tracks. But worse, the bridgehead across the river was too small for the assembly of five motorized divisions.

For a long moment Heinrici pored over the map. There was no doubt in his mind that the assembling German divisions would be instantly detected, and first pulverized by artillery, then hit by planes. Looking at Guderian, he said simply, “It’s quite impossible.”

Guderian agreed. Angrily he told Heinrici that the only way the divisions could assemble was “to roll over the bridge, one after the other—making a column of men and tanks about fifteen miles long.” But Hitler had insisted on the attack. “It will succeed,” he had told Guderian, “because the Russians won’t expect such a daring and unorthodox operation.”

Heinrici, still examining the map, saw that the sector between Küstrin and Frankfurt was jammed with Russian troops. Even if the attack could be launched from the bridgehead, the Russians were so strong that the German divisions would never reach Küstrin. Solemnly Heinrici warned: “Our troops will be pinned with their backs to the Oder. It will be a disaster.”

Guderian made no comment—there was nothing to say. Suddenly he glanced at his watch, and said irritably, “Oh, God, I’ve got to get back to Berlin for the Führer’s conference at three.” The mere thought of it set off another furious outburst. “It’s impossible to work,” Guderian spluttered. “Twice a day I stand for hours listening to that group around Hitler talking nonsense—discussing nothing! I can’t get anything done! I spend all of my time either on the road or in Berlin listening to drivel!”

Guderian’s rage was so violent that it alarmed Heinrici. The Chief of Staff’s face had turned beet red, and for a moment Heinrici feared Guderian would drop dead on the spot from a heart attack. There was an anxious silence as Guderian fought for control. Then he said: “Hitler is going to discuss the Küstrin attack. Perhaps you’d better come with me.”

Heinrici declined. “If I’m supposed to launch this insane attack the day after tomorrow,” he said, “I’d better get to my headquarters as soon as possible.” Then stubbornly he added: “Hitler can wait a few days to see me.”

In the anteroom, Heinrich von Bila was timing the meeting by the diminishing pile of maps and charts as they were taken into Guderian’s office. There were only one or two left, so the briefing, he thought, must be almost over. He wandered over to the table and looked idly at the top map. It showed the whole of Germany but the lines on it seemed somehow different. Von Bila was about to turn away when something caught his eye. He looked closer. The map was different from all the others. It was the lettering that now caught his attention—it was in English. He bent down and began to study it carefully.

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