Military history

Chapter 3
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THE THOUSAND-MILE FLIGHT to Moscow from the eastern front had been long and tiring. Marshal Georgi Zhukov sat wearily back in his field-gray staff car as it joggled up the cobblestone hill and into the vastness of Red Square. The car sped past the Cathedral of St. Basil the Blessed with its multihued, candy-striped cupolas, swung left and entered the Kremlin’s fortress walls through the western gate. Immediately behind Zhukov, in another army sedan, was Marshal Ivan Koniev. On the clockface of the great Savior’s Tower guarding the entrance, the gilt hands showed almost 5 P.M.

Crossing the windswept interior courtyards, the two staff cars advanced into the architectural thicket of frescoed palaces, golden-domed cathedrals and massive yellow-fronted government buildings, once the domain of Russian czars and princes, and headed for the center of the Kremlin compound. Near the monumental 17th-century white brick bell tower of Ivan the Great, the cars slowed, rolled past a line of ancient cannon and came to a stop outside a long, three-story, sand-colored building. Moments later the two men, in well-cut dun-colored uniforms with heavy gold epaulettes bearing the one-inch-wide single star of a Soviet field marshal, were in the elevator headed for Stalin’s second-floor offices. In those brief moments, surrounded by aides and escorting officers, the two men chatted affably together. A casual observer might have thought them close friends. In truth, they were bitter rivals.

Both Zhukov and Koniev had reached the peak of their profession. Each was a tough, pragmatic perfectionist, and throughout the officer corps it was considered both an honor and an awesome responsibility to serve under them. The short, stocky, mild-looking Zhukov was the better known, idolized by the public and Russian enlisted men as the Soviet Union’s greatest soldier. Yet there were those among the commissioned ranks who saw him as a monster.

Zhukov was a professional who had begun his career as a private in the Czar’s Imperial Dragoons. When the Russian Revolution began in 1917 he had joined the revolutionaries; as a Soviet cavalryman, he had fought the anti-Bolsheviks with such courage and ferocity that in the post-civil war Red Army he was rewarded with a commission. Although he was gifted with a brilliant imagination and a natural flair for command, he might have remained a relatively unknown officer but for Stalin’s brutal purging of the Red Army’s generals in the thirties. Most of those purged were veterans of the Revolution, but Zhukov, possibly because he was more “Army” than “Party,” escaped. The ruthless removal of the old guard speeded up his promotion. By 1941 he had risen to the highest military job in the U.S.S.R.: Chief of the Soviet General Staff.

Zhukov was known as “the soldier’s soldier.” Perhaps because he had once been a private himself, he had a reputation for leniency with enlisted men. So long as his troops fought well, he considered the spoils of war no more than their just deserts. But with his officers he was a harsh disciplinarian. Senior commanders who failed to measure up were often fired on the spot and then punished for failing. The punishment usually took one of two forms: the officer either was sent to join a penal battalion or was ordered to serve on the most exposed part of the front line—as a private. Sometimes he was given a choice.

Once during the Polish campaign of 1944 Zhukov had stood with Marshal Konstantin Rokossovskii and General Pavel Batov, Commander of the Sixty-fifth Army, watching the troops advance. Suddenly Zhukov, viewing the scene through binoculars, yelled at Batov: “The corps commander and the commander of the 44th Rifle Division—penal battalion!” Both Rokossovskii and Batov began to plead for the two generals. Rokossovskii was able to save the corps commander. But Zhukov remained firm regarding the second officer. The general was immediately reduced in rank, sent to the front lines, and ordered to lead a suicidal attack. He was killed almost instantly. Zhukov thereupon recommended Russia’s highest military award, Hero of the Soviet Union, for the fallen officer.

Zhukov himself was a Hero of the Soviet Union thrice over—as was his arch competitor, Koniev. Honors had been heaped on both marshals, but while Zhukov’s fame had spread throughout the U.S.S.R., Koniev remained virtually unknown—and the anonymity rankled.

Koniev was a tall, gruff, vigorous man with a shrewd twinkle in his blue eyes. He was 48 years old, a year younger than Zhukov, and in some respects his career had paralleled the other man’s. He, too, had fought for the Czar, crossed over to the revolutionaries and continued to serve with the Soviet forces. But there was one difference, and to men like Zhukov it was a big one. Koniev had come into the Red Army as a political commissar and, although he switched to the command side in 1926 and became a regular officer, to other soldiers his background was forever tainted. Political officers had always been heartily disliked by the regular military. So powerful were they that a commander could not issue an order unless it was countersigned by the ranking commissar. Zhukov, though a loyal Party man, had never regarded former commissars as true army professionals. It had been a constant irritant to him that in the pre-war years he and Koniev had commanded in the same theaters and had been promoted at about the same pace. Stalin, who had handpicked them both for his cadre of young generals in the thirties, was cannily aware of the intense rivalry between the men: he had made it a point to play one off against the other.

Koniev, despite his rough, outspoken manner, was generally regarded by the military as the more thoughtful and better educated of the two. A voracious reader, he kept a small library at his headquarters and occasionally surprised his staff by quoting passages from Turgenev and Pushkin. The rank and file of his armies knew him as a stern disciplinarian. But unlike Zhukov, he was considerate of his officers, reserving his wrath for the enemy. On the battlefield he could be barbarous. During one phase of the Dnieper campaign, after his troops had surrounded several German divisions, Koniev demanded their immediate surrender. When the Germans refused he ordered his saber-wielding Cossacks to attack. “We let the Cossacks cut for as long as they wished,” he told Milovan Djilas, head of the Yugoslav Military Mission to Moscow, in 1944. “They even hacked off the hands of those who raised them to surrender.” In this respect at least, Zhukov and Koniev saw eye to eye: they could not forgive Nazi atrocities. For Germans, they had neither mercy nor remorse.

Now, as the two marshals walked along the second-floor corridor toward Stalin’s suite of offices, both were reasonably certain that the matter to be discussed was Berlin. Tentative plans called for Zhukov’s First Belorussian group of armies, in the center, to take the city. Marshal Rokossovskii’s Second Belorussian forces to the north and Koniev’s First Ukrainian Army Group on the south could be called in to help. But Zhukov was determined to take Berlin by himself. He had no intention of asking for assistance—especially not from Koniev. Koniev, however, had been giving Berlin a lot of thought himself. Zhukov’s forces could be held up by terrain—especially in the heavily defended Seelow Heights region lying just beyond the western banks of the Oder. If that happened, Koniev thought he saw a chance to steal Zhukov’s thunder. He even had a rough scheme of action in mind. Of course, everything would depend on Stalin but this time Koniev fervently hoped to beat out Zhukov and reap a long-awaited glory. If the opportunity presented itself, Koniev thought that he just might race his rival for Berlin.

Midway along the red-carpeted corridor, the escorting officers ushered Zhukov and Koniev into a conference room. It was high-ceilinged, narrow and almost filled by a long, massive, highly polished mahogany table surrounded by chairs. Two heavy chandeliers with clear, unfrosted bulbs blazed over the table. At an angle in one corner was a small desk and leather chair and on the wall nearby hung a large picture of Lenin. The windows were draped and there were no flags or insignia in the room. There were, however, chrome-lithographs, in identical dark frames, of two of Russia’s most famous military technicians: Catherine II’s brilliant Field Marshal Aleksandr Suvorov, and General Mikhail Kutuzov, who had destroyed Napoleon’s armies in 1812. At one end of the room double doors led to Stalin’s private office.

The marshals were not unfamiliar with the surroundings. Zhukov had worked down the hall when he was Chief of Staff in 1941; and both men had met here with Stalin many times before. But this conference was not to be a small private session. Within minutes after the two marshals entered the room, they were followed by the seven most important men, after Stalin, in the wartime U.S.S.R.—the members of the State Defense Committee, the all-powerful decision-making body of the Soviet war machine.

Without formality or deference to rank, the Soviet leaders filed into the room: Foreign Minister Vyacheslav M. Molotov, the committee’s Deputy Chairman; Lavrenti P. Beria, the thickset, myopic Chief of the Secret Police and one of the most feared men in Russia; Georgi M. Malenkov, the rotund Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party and Military Procurement Administrator; Anastas I. Mikoyan, thin-faced and hawk-nosed, the Production Coordinator; Marshal Nikolai A. Bulganin, the distinguished-looking, goateed Supreme Headquarters Representative to the Soviet fronts; stolid, mustachioed Lazar M. Kaganovich, Transportation Specialist and the lone Jew on the committee; and Nikolai A. Voznesenskii, the Economic Planner and Administrator. Representing the operational side of the military were the Chief of the General Staff, General A. A. Antonov and the Operations Chief, General S. M. Shtemenko. As the top Soviet leaders took chairs, the doors to the Premier’s office opened and the short, stocky figure of Stalin appeared.

He was simply dressed in a mustard-colored uniform, without epaulettes or rank insignia; his trousers, each seamed with a thin red stripe, were tucked into soft black, knee-length boots. On the left side of his tunic, he wore a single decoration: the red-ribboned gold star of a Hero of the Soviet Union. Clamped in his teeth was one of his favorite pipes: a British Dunhill. He wasted little time in formalities. As Koniev was later to recall, “We barely managed to greet each other before Stalin began to talk.”*

Stalin asked Zhukov and Koniev a few questions about conditions on the front. Then abruptly he got to the point. In his low voice, characterized by the peculiar singsong accent of Georgia, he said quietly and with great effect: “The little allies (soyuznichki) intend to get to Berlin ahead of the Red Army.”

He waited a moment before continuing. He had received information about Anglo-American plans, Stalin said, and it was clear that “their intentions are less than ‘allied.’” He did not mention Eisenhower’s message of the night before, nor did he give any other source for his information. Turning to General Shtemenko he said: “Read the report.”

Shtemenko stood up. Eisenhower’s forces planned to surround and destroy the Ruhr concentrations of the enemy, he announced, then advance to Leipzig and Dresden. But just “on the way” they intended to take Berlin. All of this, said the General, “will look like helping the Red Army.” But it was known that taking Berlin before the arrival of Soviet troops was “Eisenhower’s main aim.” Furthermore, he intoned, it had been learned by the Stavka (Stalin’s Supreme Headquarters ) that “two Allied airborne divisions are being rapidly readied for a drop on Berlin.”*

Koniev, in his version of the meeting, was later to remember that the Allied plan, as described by Shtemenko, also included a drive by Montgomery north of the Ruhr “along the shortest route separating Berlin from the basic groupings of the British forces.” Shtemenko finished, Koniev recalled, “by saying that ‘according to all the data and information, this plan—to take Berlin earlier than the Soviet Army—is looked upon at the Anglo-American headquarters as fully realistic and that preparation for its fullfillment is in full swing.’”*

As Shtemenko ended the military evaluation, Stalin turned to his two marshals. “So,” he said softly. “Who will take Berlin? We or the Allies?”

Koniev later remembered proudly that he was the first to answer. “We will,” he said, “and before the Anglo-Americans.”

Stalin looked at him, a slight smile flickering over his face. “So,” he said again softly. With ponderous humor, he added, “Is that the sort of fellow you are?” Then, in an instant, as Koniev remembers, Stalin was once more cold and businesslike, stabbing out questions. Exactly how was Koniev, on the south, prepared to capture Berlin in time? “Wouldn’t a great regrouping of your forces be necessary?” he asked. Too late Koniev saw the trap. Stalin was up to his old tricks again, pitting one man against the other, but by the time he realized this Koniev had already begun to answer. “Comrade Stalin,” he said, “all the measures needed will be carried out. We shall regroup in time to take Berlin.”

It was the moment Zhukov had waited for. “May I speak?” he asked quietly, almost condescendingly. He did not wait for an answer. “With due consideration,” he said, nodding to Koniev, “the men of the First Belorussian Front need no regrouping. They are ready now. We are aimed directly at Berlin. We are the shortest distance from Berlin. We will take Berlin.”

Stalin looked at the two men in silence. Once again a smile showed briefly. “Very well,” he said mildly. “You will both stay in Moscow and, with the General Staff, prepare your plans. I expect them ready within forty-eight hours. Then you can return to the front with everything approved.”

Both men were shocked by the brief time period allotted for the preparation of their plans. Up to now they had understood that the target date for attacking Berlin was early May. Now Stalin obviously expected them to attack weeks earlier. To Koniev, in particular, this was a sobering thought. Although he had a tentative plan which he believed would get him into Berlin before Zhukov, he had nothing on paper. The meeting now made him desperately aware of immense logistical problems that he must solve quickly. All kinds of equipment and supplies would now have to be rushed to the front. Worse, Koniev was short of troops. After the fighting in Upper Silesia, a considerable part of his forces was still spread out to the south. Some were miles from Berlin. These would have to be transferred immediately, posing a major transportation problem.

Zhukov, listening to Stalin speak, was equally worried. Although his staff officers had been preparing for the attack, he was far from ready. His armies were in position but he, too, was still bringing up supplies and rushing replacements to the front to fill out his badly depleted forces. Some of his divisions, usually 9,000 to 12,000 men strong, were down to 3,500. Zhukov believed the Berlin operations would be enormously difficult and he wanted to be ready for every eventuality. His intelligence had reported that “the city itself and its environs have been carefully prepared for stubborn defense. Each street, square, crossroad, house, canal and bridge is a component part of the overall defense….” Now, everything would have to be speeded up if he was to beat the Western forces to Berlin. How soon could he attack? That was the question Stalin wanted answered—and quickly.

As the meeting broke up Stalin spoke once again. There was no warmth in his voice. To the two marshals he said, with great emphasis: “I must tell you that the dates of the beginning of your operations will attract our special attention.”

The rivalry between the two commanders, never far beneath the surface, was being exploited once again. With a brief nod to the men around him, Stalin turned and left the room.

Now, having set his plans in motion, the Soviet Premier still faced one important task: the careful detailing of an answer to Eisenhower’s cable. Stalin began work on the prepared draft. By 8 P.M. his reply was finished and dispatched. “I have received your telegram of March 28,” Stalin wired Eisenhower. “Your plan to cut the German forces by joining … [with] Soviet Forces entirely coincides with the plan of the Soviet High Command.” Stalin fully agreed that the link-up should be in the Leipzig-Dresden area, for the “main blow of the Soviet Forces” would be made “in that direction.” The date of the Red Army’s attack? Stalin gave that particular notice. It would be “approximately the second half of May.”

The most important part of his message came in the third paragraph. There he implanted the impression that he had no interest in Germany’s capital. “Berlin,” he stated, “has lost its former strategic importance.” In fact, Stalin said, it had become so unimportant that “the Soviet High Command therefore plans to allot secondary forces in the direction of Berlin.”

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Winston Churchill had conferred with the British Chiefs of Staff nearly all afternoon. He was feeling embarrassed and upset. His embarrassment stemmed from an Eisenhower message that had been garbled in transmission. One sentence in the cable Churchill received had read: “Montgomery will be responsible on patrol tasks….” Sharply, Churchill had replied that he thought His Majesty’s forces were being “relegated … to an unexpected restricted sphere.” The bewildered Eisenhower had wired back: “I am disturbed, if not hurt … Nothing is further from my mind and I think my record … should eliminate any such idea.” It turned out that Eisenhower had never used the words “on patrol tasks.” He had said, “on these tasks,” and somehow the expression had been transmitted wrong. Churchill was chagrined by the incident which, trivial though it was, had compounded the mounting confusion.

Far from trivial, in the Prime Minister’s eyes, was the continuing American apathy toward Berlin. With the tenacity that had characterized him all his life he now took on both problems—Allied relations and Berlin—at once. In a long telegram to the ailing Roosevelt—his first to FDR since the beginning of the SCAF 252 controversy—the Prime Minister first recorded at length his complete confidence in Eisenhower. Then, “having disposed of these misunderstandings between the truest friends and allies that have ever fought side by side,” Churchill hammered away at the urgency of taking the German capital. „Nothing will exert a psychological effect of despair upon German forces … equal to that of the fall of Berlin,” he argued. “It will be the supreme signal of defeat … If the [Russians] take Berlin, will not their impression that they have been the overwhelming contributor to the common victory be unduly imprinted in their minds, and may this not lead them into a mood which will raise grave and formidable difficulties in the future? I therefore consider that from a political standpoint … should Berlin be in our grasp we should certainly take it …”

The following day Churchill’s concern deepened still more when he received a copy of Stalin’s message to Eisenhower. Its contents, the Prime Minister believed, were highly suspicious. At ten forty-five that night he cabled Eisenhower, “I am all the more impressed with the importance of entering Berlin which may well be open to us by the reply from Moscow to you which in paragraph three says ‘Berlin has lost its former strategic importance.’ This should be read in the light of what I mentioned of the political aspects.” Churchill added fervently that he now deemed it “highly important that we should shake hands with the Russians as far to the east as possible …”

Despite everything, Churchill’s determination to win Berlin had not flagged. He was still optimistic. He ended his message to Eisenhower: “Much may happen in the West, before the date of Stalin’s main offensive.” His great hope now was that the momentum and enthusiasm of the Allied drive would carry the troops forward into Berlin well ahead of Stalin’s target date.

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At Stalin’s headquarters, Marshals Zhukov and Koniev had worked around the clock. By Tuesday, April 3, within the 48-hour deadline, their plans were ready. Once again they saw Stalin.

Zhukov gave his presentation first. He had been considering the attack for months and the projected moves of his massive First Belorussian group of armies were at his fingertips. His main attack would take place in the pre-dawn, he said, from the 44-kilometer-long bridgehead over the Oder west of Küstrin-directly opposite Berlin. Additional attacks on the north and south would support this stroke.

The logistics of the Zhukov plan were staggering. No less than four field and two tank armies would be thrown into his main thrust and two armies each would be employed for the supporting assaults. Including secondary forces coming up behind, he would have 768,100 men. Leaving nothing to chance, Zhukov hoped to secure for the Küstrin bridgehead a minimum of 250 artillery pieces for each kilometer—approximately one cannon for every thirteen feet of front! He planned to open his assault with a stupefying barrage from some 11,000 guns, not counting smaller caliber mortars.

Now he came to his favorite part of the plan. Zhukov had devised an unorthodox and bizarre stratagem to befuddle the enemy. He would launch his offensive in the hours of darkness. At the very instant of attack he intended to blind and demoralize the Germans by turning upon them the fierce glare of 140 high-powered antiaircraft searchlights beamed directly at their positions. He fully expected his plan to result in massacre.

Koniev’s plan was equally monumental and, fed by his burning ambition, more complex and difficult. As he was later to say: “Berlin for us was the object of such ardent desire that everyone, from soldier to general, wanted to see Berlin with their own eyes, to capture it by force of arms. This too was my ardent desire … I was overflowing with it.”

But the fact was that at their closest point Koniev’s forces were more than seventy-five miles from the city. Koniev was counting on speed to see him through. Craftily he had massed his tank armies on the right so that when a breakthrough was achieved he could wheel northwest and strike out for Berlin, perhaps slipping into the city ahead of Zhukov. This was the idea he had been nurturing for weeks. Now, in light of Zhukov’s presentation, he hesitated to tip his hand. Instead, for the moment he stuck to operational details. His plans called for a dawn attack across the Neisse, under the protection of a heavy smoke screen laid down by low-flying squadrons of fighter planes. Into the assault he planned to hurl five field and two tank armies—511,700 men. Remarkably, he was requesting the same almost incredible artillery density as Zhukov—250 guns per kilometer of front—and he meant to get even greater use from them. “Unlike my neighbor,” Koniev recalled, “I planned to saturate the enemy positions with artillery fire for two hours and thirty-five minutes.”

But Koniev badly needed reinforcements. Whereas Zhukov had eight armies along the Oder, Koniev, on the Neisse, had a total of only five. To put his plan into effect he needed two more. After some discussion Stalin agreed to give him the Twenty-eighth and Thirty-first armies, because “the fronts have been reduced in the Baltic and East Prussia.” But much time might elapse before these armies would reach the First Ukrainian Front, Stalin pointed out. Transport was at a premium. Koniev decided to gamble. He could begin the attack while the reinforcements were still en route, he told Stalin, then commit them the moment they arrived.

Having listened to the two propositions, Stalin now approved them both. But to Zhukov went the responsibility of capturing Berlin. Afterward, he was to head for the line of the Elbe. Koniev was to attack on the same day as Zhukov, destroy the enemy along the southern fringes of Berlin and then let his armies flood west for a meeting with the Americans. The third Soviet army group, Marshal Rokossovskii’s Second Belorussians, massing along the lower Oder and all the way to the coast north of Zhukov, would not be involved in the Berlin assault. Rokossovskii, with 314,000 men, would attack later, driving across northern Germany for a link-up with the British. Together, the three Russian army groups would have a total of 1,593,800 men.

It appeared that Koniev had been relegated to a supporting role in the Berlin attack. But then, leaning over the map on the table, Stalin drew a dividing line between Zhukov’s and Koniev’s army groups. It was a curious boundary. It began east of the Russian front, crossed the river and ran straight to the 16th-century town of Lübben on the Spree, approximately sixty-five miles southeast of Berlin. There, Stalin suddenly stopped drawing. Had he continued the line right across Germany, thereby marking a boundary that Koniev was not to cross, the First Ukrainian armies would clearly have been denied any participation in the Berlin attack. Now Koniev was elated. Although “Stalin did not say anything …” he recalled later, “the possibility of a show of initiative on the part of the command of the front was tacitly assumed.” Without a word being spoken the green light to Berlin had been given Koniev’s forces—if he could make it. To Koniev, it was as though Stalin had read his mind. With what he was to term this “secret call to competition … on the part of Stalin,” the meeting ended.

Immediately the marshals’ plans were incorporated into formal directives. The next morning the rival commanders, orders in hand, drove out in a swirling fog to Moscow airport, each eager to reach his headquarters. Their orders called for them to mount the offensive a full month earlier than the date Stalin had given Eisenhower. For security reasons, the written directives were undated, but Zhukov and Koniev had been given the word by Stalin himself. The attack on Berlin would begin on Monday, April 16.

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Even as Zhukov and Koniev began feverishly preparing to hurl thirteen armies with more than a million men at Berlin, Adolf Hitler had another of his famous intuitive flashes. The massing of the Russian armies at Küstrin, directly opposite the capital, was nothing more than a mighty feint, he concluded. The main Soviet offensive would be aimed at Prague in the south—not at Berlin. Only one of Hitler’s generals was gifted with the same insight. Colonel General Ferdinand Schörner, now commander of Army Group Center on Heinrici’s southern flank, had also seen through the Russian hoax. “My Führer,” warned Schörner, “it is written in history. Remember Bismarck’s words, ‘Whoever holds Prague holds Europe.’” Hitler agreed. The brutal Schörner, a Führer favorite and among the least talented of the German generals, was promptly promoted to Field Marshal. At the same time, Hitler issued a fateful directive. On the night of April 5 he ordered the transfer south of four of Heinrici’s veteran panzer units—the very force Heinrici had been depending on to blunt the Russian drive.

*Russian quotes not otherwise attributed, like other Soviet material used throughout the book, were obtained during a research trip to Moscow, in April, 1963. The Soviet Government allowed the author, assisted by Professor John Erickson of the University of Manchester, to interview participants—from marshals to privates—in the battle for Berlin (for a full list of names, see the appendix). The only Soviet marshal the author was prohibited from interviewing was Zhukov. The others—Koniev, Sokolovskii, Rokossovskii and Chuikov—each contributed an average of three hours of private conversations. In addition, the author was given access to military archives and allowed to copy and take out of Russia voluminous documentation, including battle maps, after-action reports, monographs, photographs and military histories hitherto circulated only within Soviet government circles.

*As, of course, they were.

*Stalin’s crucial conference with his marshals is well known to the upper echelon of the Soviet military, although it has never before been published in the West. A number of versions have appeared in Russian military histories and journals. One such is Zhukov’s account of the meeting to his staff officers, as recorded by the Russian historian, Lieutenant General N. N. Popiel. Marshal Koniev explained the background of the conference to the author and supplied details hitherto unknown. He also recounts part of the details in the first part of his memoirs, published in Moscow in 1965. There are some differences, between his version and Zhukov’s. For example, Zhukov did not mention Montgomery’s drive on Berlin; Koniev makes no reference to a proposed Anglo-American airborne drop on the city.

The source material for the report read by General Shtemenko has never been revealed. In the author’s judgment it was a grossly exaggerated military evaluation of Eisenhower’s message of the night before—an evaluation based partly on suspicion of Eisenhower’s motives, partly as a concoction intended to furnish a rationale for Stalin’s own aims.

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