Military history

Chapter 4

COLONEL GENERAL HEINRICI’S car moved slowly through the rubble of Berlin, making for the Reichskanzlei and the full-dress meeting ordered by Hitler nine days earlier. Sitting in back alongside his Operations Chief, Colonel Eismann, Heinrici stared silently out at the burned and blackened streets. In two years he had made only one other trip to the city. Now, the evidence of his own eyes overwhelmed him. He would never have recognized the place as Berlin.

In normal times the trip from his headquarters to the Reichskanzlei would have taken about ninety minutes, but they had been en route nearly twice that long. Again and again clogged streets forced them to make complicated detours. Even main thoroughfares were often impassable. Elsewhere, crazily canted buildings threatened to collapse at any moment, making every street a danger. Water gushed and gurgled from immense bomb holes; escaping gas flared from ruptured mains; and all over the city, areas were cordoned off and marked with signs that warned, “Achtung! Minen!” signifying the location of still-unexploded aerial mines. Heinrici, his voice bitter, said to Eismann. “So this is what we’ve finally come to—a sea of rubble.”

Although buildings on both sides of the Wilhelmstrasse were in ruins, apart from some splinter damage nothing about the Reichskanzlei appeared to have changed. Even the faultlessly dressed SS sentries just outside the entrance seemed the same. They snapped smartly to attention as Heinrici, Eismann behind him, entered the building. Despite the delays, the General was on time. The conference with Hitler was scheduled for 3 P.M., and Heinrici had given it much thought over the past few days. As bluntly and precisely as possible, he intended to tell Hitler and those around him the true facts of the situation confronting the Army Group Vistula. Heinrici knew perfectly well the danger of speaking out, but the possible consequences did not seem to bother him. Eismann, on the other hand, was greatly disturbed. “It looked to me,” he later said, “as if Heinrici was planning an all-out attack against Hitler and his advisors, and there were very few men who could do that and survive.”

In the main hall an SS officer, immaculate in a white tunic, black breeches and highly polished cavalry boots, greeted Heinrici and informed him that the meeting would take place in the Führerbunker. Heinrici had heard that a vast labyrinth of underground installations existed beneath the Chancellery, the adjoining buildings and the enclosed gardens at back, but he had never before been in any of them. Following a guide, he and Eismann walked down to the basement and out into the gardens. Though the facade of the Reichskanzlei was intact, the rear of the building showed severe damage. Once, magnificent gardens with a complex of fountains had been here. They were gone now, along with Hitler’s tea pavilion and the botanical greenhouses that had stood to one side of it.

To Heinrici the area resembled a battlefield, with “huge craters, lumps of concrete, smashed statuary and uprooted trees.” In the soot-stained walls of the Chancellery were “great black holes where windows used to be.” Eismann, looking at the desolation, was reminded of a line from “The Singer’s Curse,” by the 19th-century German balladier, Uhland. It went, “Only one high column tells of the vanished glory; this one can fall overnight.” Heinrici was more literal-minded. “Just think,” he murmured to Eismann. “Three years ago Hitler had Europe under his command, from the Volga to the Atlantic. Now he’s sitting in a hole under the earth.”

They crossed the garden to an oblong blockhouse guarded by two sentries. Their credentials were examined and then the guards opened a heavy steel door, allowing the officers to pass through. As the door clanged shut behind them, Heinrici was always to remember, “We stepped into an unbelievable underworld.” At the bottom of a winding concrete staircase two young SS officers received them in a brilliantly lighted foyer. Courteously their coats were taken and then, with equal courtesy, Heinrici and Eismann were searched. Eismann’s briefcase, in particular, received attention: it had been a briefcase containing explosives that had nearly ended Hitler’s life in July, 1944. Since then, the Führer’s elite guards had allowed no one near him without first subjecting them to a search. Heinrici, despite the apologies of the SS men, seethed at the indignity. Eismann felt “ashamed that a German general should be treated in this manner.” The search over, they were shown into a long narrow corridor, partitioned into two sections, the first of which had been converted into a comfortable lounge. Domed lights protruded from the ceiling, giving the light beige stucco walls a yellowish cast. An Oriental carpet on the floor had apparently been brought down from a larger Chancellery room, for its edges were folded under at each side. Although the room was comfortable, the furniture—like the carpet—seemed out of keeping. There were various chairs, some plain, some covered in rich upholstery. A narrow oak table was set against one wall and several large oil paintings, landscapes by the German architect and painter Schinkel, were hung about the room. To the right of the entrance an open door gave onto a small conference room set up for the meeting. Heinrici could only make a guess as to the size and depth of the Führerbunker. From what he could see, it appeared relatively spacious, with doors leading to rooms on either side of the corridor lounge and beyond. Because of its low ceiling, narrow metal doors and the absence of windows, this might have been the passageway in a small liner—except that, by Heinrici’s estimate, they were at least forty feet below ground.

Almost immediately a tall, elegantly dressed SS officer appeared. He was Hitler’s personal aide and bodyguard, Colonel Otto Günsche. Pleasantly he inquired about their trip and offered them refreshments; Heinrici accepted a cup of coffee. Soon, other conference members began to arrive. Hitler’s adjutant, General Wilhelm Burgdorf, came next. He greeted them, as Eismann remembers, “with some noises about success.” Then Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel, the OKW Chief of Staff, arrived, followed by Himmler, Admiral Karl Doenitz and the man reputed to be Hitler’s closest confidant, Martin Bormann. In Eismann’s words, “All greeted us loudly. Seeing them, I was really proud of my commander. With his familiar stiff posture, serious and measured, he was a soldier from head to toe among court asses.”

Eismann saw Heinrici tense as Himmler started across the room toward him. In an undertone the General growled, “That man is never going to set foot in my headquarters. If he ever announces a visit, tell me quickly so I can leave. He makes me vomit.” And, indeed, Eismann thought Heinrici looked pale as Himmler dragged him into conversation.

At that moment General Hans Krebs, Guderian’s successor, came into the room and, seeing Heinrici, came across to him immediately. Earlier in the day Heinrici had learned from Krebs of the transfer of his vital armored units to Schörner’s army group. Though he blamed Krebs for not vigorously protesting the decision, Heinrici now seemed almost cordial to the new Chief of the OKH. At least he did not have to continue talking with Himmler.

Krebs, as usual, was diplomatic and solicitous. He had no doubt that everything would work out all right at the conference, he assured Heinrici. Doenitz, Keitel and Bormann now joined them and listened as Heinrici mentioned some of his problems. All three promised their support when Heinrici made his presentation to Hitler. Turning to Eismann, Bormann asked, “What’s your opinion about the Army Group situation—since all this has a direct bearing on Berlin and Germany in general?” Eismann was dumbfounded. With the Russians only thirty-eight miles from the capital and the Allies racing across Germany from the west, the question seemed to border on madness. Bluntly he replied, “The situation is serious. That’s why we’re here.” Bormann patted him soothingly on the shoulder. “You shouldn’t worry so much,” he told Eismann. “The Führer is sure to grant you help. You’ll get all the forces you need.” Eismann stared. Where did Bormann think the forces were to come from? For a moment he had the uncomfortable feeling that he and Heinrici were the only sane people in the room.

More and more officers and staff were filing into the already crowded corridor. Hitler’s Operations Chief, General Alfred Jodl, aloof and composed, arrived with his deputy; the Luftwaffe’s Chief of Staff, General Karl Koller, and OKW’s Staff Chief in charge of supplies and reinforcements, Major General Walter Buhle, came in together. Nearly every man seemed to be followed by an aide, an orderly or a deputy. The resulting noise and confusion reminded Eismann of a swarm of bees.

In the packed corridor Heinrici now stood silent, listening impassively to the din of conversation. For the most part, it consisted of small talk, trivial and irrelevant. The bunker and its atmosphere were stifling and unreal. Heinrici had the disquieting feeling that the men around Hitler had retreated into a dream world in which they had convinced themselves that by some miracle catastrophe could be averted. Now, as they waited for the man who, they believed, would produce this miracle, there was a sudden movement in the corridor. General Burgdorf, hands high above his head, waved the group into silence. “Gentlemen, gentlemen,” he said, “the Führer is coming.”

“Gustav! Gustav!” Radios sputtered out the warning code for Tempelhof as the planes approached the district. In stationmasters’ offices along the route of the U-Bahn, loudspeakers blared out, “Danger 15!” Another city-wide saturation raid had begun.

Earth erupted. Glass ripped through the air. Chunks of concrete smashed down into the streets, and tornadoes of dust whirled up from a hundred places, covering the city in a dark gray, choking cloud. Men and women raced one another, stumbling and clawing their way into shelters. Ruth Diekermann, just before she reached safety, looked up and saw the bombers coming over in waves, “like an assembly line.” In the Krupp und Druckenmüller plant, French forced laborer Jacques Delaunay dropped the ghastly remnant of a human arm he had just recovered from the battle-scarred tank he was overhauling, and ran for shelter. In the Sieges Allee the marble statues of Brandenburg-Prussian rulers rocked and groaned on their pedestals; and the crucifix held aloft by the 12th-century leader, Margrave Albert the Bear, shattered against the bust of his eminent contemporary, Bishop Otho of Bamberg. Nearby in Skagerrak Square, police ran for cover, leaving the swaying body of a suicide still hanging from a tree.

A shower of incendiaries smashed through the roof of Wing B of the Lehrterstrasse Prison and set off a dozen flaring magnesium fires on the second floor. Frantic prisoners, turned loose to fight the flames, stumbled through the acrid smoke with buckets of sand. Two men suddenly stopped working. The prisoner from Cell 244 stared at the man from Cell 247. Then they embraced. The brothers Herbert and Kurt Kosney discovered they had been on the same floor for days.

In Pankow, in the Möhrings’ ground-floor two-room apartment where the Weltlinglers hid, Siegmund hugged his sobbing wife Margarete as they stood together in the kitchen. “If this keeps up,” he shouted over the din of anti-aircraft fire, “even Jews can go openly to the shelters. They’re all too scared of the bombs to turn us in now.”

Fourteen-year-old Rudolf Reschke had only time enough to see that the planes glinted like silver in the sky—too high for the dangerous game of tag he liked to play with strafing fighters. Then his mother, yelling and nearly hysterical, dragged him down into the cellar where his 9-year-old sister, Christa, sat shivering and crying. The whole shelter seemed to be shaking. Plaster fell from the ceiling and the walls; then the lights flickered and went out. Frau Reschke and Christa began to pray aloud, and after a minute Rudolf joined them in the “Our Father.” The noise of the bombing was getting worse and the shelter now seemed to be shuddering all the time. The Reschkes had been through many raids, but nothing like this. Frau Reschke, her arms about both children, began to sob. Rudolf had seldom heard his mother cry before, even though he knew that she was often worried, especially with his father at the front. Suddenly he was angry at the planes for making his mother frightened—and for the first time Rudolf felt frightened himself. With some embarrassment he discovered that he was crying, too.

Before his mother could detain him, Rudolf rushed out of the shelter. He ran up the stairs to the family’s ground-floor apartment; there he headed straight for his room and his collection of toy soldiers. He chose the most imposing figure among them, with distinct features painted on its china face. He went to the kitchen and took down his mother’s heavy meat cleaver. Oblivious now of the air raid, Rudolf went out into the apartment house courtyard, laid the doll on the ground, and with one stroke chopped off its head. “There!” he said, standing back. Tears still staining his face, he looked down without remorse upon the severed head of Adolf Hitler.


He came shuffling into the bunker corridor—half bent, dragging his left foot, the left arm shaking uncontrollably. Although he was 5 feet 8½ inches tall, now, with his head and body twisted to the left, he looked much smaller. The eves that admirers had called “magnetic” were feverish and red, as if he had not slept for days. His face was puffy, and its color was a blotchy, faded gray. A pair of pale green spectacles dangled from his right hand; bright light bothered him now. For a moment he gazed expressionlessly at his generals as their hands shot up and out to a chorus of “Heil Hitler.”*

The corridor was so crowded that Hitler had some difficulty getting past everyone to reach the small conference room. Eismann noticed that the others began talking again as soon as the Führer passed; there was not the respectful silence he had expected. As for Heinrici, he was shocked by the Führer’s appearance. Hitler, he thought, “looked like a man who had not more than twenty-four hours to live. He was a walking corpse.”

Slowly, as though in pain, Hitler scuffled to his place at the head of the table. To Eismann’s surprise, he seemed to crumple “like a sack into the armchair, not uttering a word, and held that prostrate condition, his arms propped up on the sides of the chair.” Krebs and Bormann moved in behind the Führer to sit on a bench against the wall. From there, Krebs informally presented Heinrici and Eismann. Hitler feebly shook hands with them both. Heinrici noted that he “could hardly feel the Führer’s hand, for there was no returning pressure.”

Because of the smallness of the room, not everyone could sit, and Heinrici stood on the Führer’s left, Eismann on his right. Keitel, Himmler and Doenitz took chairs on the opposite side of the table. The remainder of the group stayed outside in the corridor; to Heinrici’s amazement, they continued to talk, although their voices were now subdued. Krebs began the conference. “In order that the commander”—he looked at Heinrici—“can get back to his army group as soon as possible,” he said, “I propose that he give his report immediately.” Hitler nodded, put on his green glasses, and gestured to Heinrici to begin.

In his measured and precise manner, the General got straight to the point. Looking directly at each man around the table, then at Hitler, he said, “My Führer, I must tell you that the enemy is preparing an attack of unusual strength and unusual force. At this moment they are preparing in these areas—from south of Schwedt to south of Frankfurt.” On Hitler’s own map lying on the table, Heinrici slowly ran his finger down along the threatened section of the Oder front, a line roughly seventy-five miles long, touching briefly on the cities where he expected the heaviest blows—at Schwedt, in the Wriezen area, around the Küstrin bridgehead, and south of Frankfurt. He entertained no doubts., he said, that “the main attack will hit Busse’s Ninth Army” holding this central area; also, “it will strike the southern flank of Von Manteuffel’s Third Panzer Army around Schwedt.”

Carefully Heinrici described how he had juggled his forces to build up Busse’s Ninth Army against the expected Russian onslaught. But because of this need to strengthen Busse, Von Manteuffel had suffered. Part of the Third Panzer Army front was now being held by inferior troops: aged Home Guardsmen, a few Hungarian units and some divisions of Russian defectors—whose dependability was questionable—under General Andrei Vlasov. Then, said Heinrici flatly : “While the Ninth Army is now in better shape than it was, the Third Panzer Army is in no state to fight at all. The potential of Von Manteuffel’s troops, at least in the middle and northern sectors of his front, is low. They have no artillery whatsoever. Anti-aircraft guns cannot replace artillery and, in any case, there is insufficient ammunition even for these.”

Krebs hastily interrupted. “The Third Panzer Army,” he said emphatically, “will receive artillery shortly.”

Heinrici inclined his head but made no comment—he would believe Krebs when he actually saw the guns. Continuing as though there had been no interruption, he explained to Hitler that the Third Panzer owed its present safe situation to one thing only—the flooded Oder. “I must warn you, he said, “that we can accept the Third Panzer’s weak condition only as long as the Oder remains flooded.” Once the waters drop, Heinrici added, “the Russians will not fail to attack there, too.”

The men in the room listened attentively, if a little uneasily, to Heinrici’s presentation. Such directness at a Hitler conference was unusual; most officers presented the gains and skipped the drawbacks. Not since Guderian’s departure had anyone spoken so frankly—and it was clear that Heinrici was only beginning. Now he turned to the matter of the garrison holding out at Frankfurt-on-Oder. Hitler had declared the city a fortress, like the ill-fated Küstrin. Heinrici wanted Frankfurt abandoned. He felt the troops there were being sacrificed on the altar of Hitler’s “fortress” mania. They could be saved and used to advantage elsewhere. Guderian, who had shared the same opinion regarding Küstrin, had been broken for his views about that city. Heinrici might meet the same fate for his opposition now. But the Vistula commander saw the men of Frankfurt as his responsibility; whatever the consequences, he was not to be intimidated. He raised the issue.

“In the Ninth Army’s sector,” he began, “one of the weakest parts of the front is around Frankfurt. The garrison strength is very low, as is their ammunition. I believe we should abandon the defense of Frankfurt and bring the troops out.”

Suddenly Hitler looked up and uttered his first words since the meeting began. He said harshly, “I refuse to accept this.”

Up to this point Hitler had sat not only silent but unmoving, as though completely disinterested. Eismann had had the impression that he wasn’t even listening. Now, the Führer suddenly “came awake and began to take an intense interest.” He began asking about the garrison’s strength, supplies and ammunition, and even, for some incomprehensible reason, about the deployment of Frankfurt’s artillery. Heinrici had the answers. Step by step he built his case, taking reports and statistics from Eismann and placing them on the table before the Führer. Hitler looked at the papers as each was handed over and seemed impressed. Sensing his opportunity, Heinrici said quietly but emphatically, “My Führer, I honestly feel that giving up the defense of Frankfurt would be a wise and sound move.”

To the astonishment of most of those in the room, Hitler, turning to the Chief of OKH, said, “Krebs, I believe the General’s opinion on Frankfurt is sound. Make out the necessary orders for the Army Group and give them to me today.”

In the stunned silence that followed, the babble of voices in the corridor outside seemed unduly loud. Eismann sensed a sudden and new respect for Heinrici. “Heinrici himself seemed completely unmoved,” he remembered, “but he gave me a look which I interpreted as ‘Well, we’ve won.’” The victory, however, was short-lived.

At that moment there was a loud commotion in the corridor and the vast bulk of Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering filled the doorway of the little conference room. Pushing his way in, Goering heartily greeted those present, pumped Hitler’s hand vigorously and excused himself for being late. He squeezed in next to Doenitz, and there was an uncomfortable delay while Krebs brought him quickly up to date on Heinrici’s briefing. When Krebs had finished, Goering got up and, placing both hands on the map table, leaned toward Hitler as though to make some comment on the proceedings. Instead, smiling widely and with obvious good humor, he said, “I must tell you a story about one of my visits to the 9th Parachute Division …”

He got no further. Hitler sat suddenly bolt upright in his chair and then jerked himself to his feet. Words poured from his mouth in such a torrent that those present could scarcely understand him. “Before our eyes,” recalled Eismann, “he went into a volcanic rage.”

His fury had nothing to do with Goering. It was a diatribe against his advisors and generals for deliberately refusing to understand him on the tactical use of forts. “Again and again,” he yelled, “forts have fulfilled their purpose throughout the war. This was proven at Posen, Breslau and Schneidemühl. How many Russians were pinned down by them? And how difficult they were to capture! Every one of those forts was held to the very last man! History has proved me right and my order to defend a fort to the last man is right!” Then, looking squarely at Heinrici, he screamed, “That’s why Frankfurt is to retain its status as a fort!”

As suddenly as it had begun, the tirade ended. But Hitler, though slack with exhaustion, could no longer sit still. He seemed to Eismann to have lost all control of himself. “His entire body trembled,” he recalled. “His hands, in which he was holding some pencils, flew wildly up and down, the pencils beating on the arms of the chair in the process. He gave the impression of being mentally deranged. It was all so unreal—especially the thought that the fate of an entire people lay in the hands of this human ruin.”

Despite Hitler’s choleric outburst, and despite his mercurial change of mind about Frankfurt, Heinrici doggedly refused to give up. Quietly, patiently—almost as though the outburst had not occurred—he went over all the arguments again, underlining every conceivable reason for abandoning Frankfurt. Doenitz, Himmler and Goering supported him. But it was token support at best. The three most powerful generals in the room remained silent. Keitel and Jodl said nothing—and just as Heinrici had expected, Krebs offered no opinion one way or the other. Hitler, apparently spent, only made tired gestures with his hands as he dismissed each argument. Then, with renewed vitality he demanded to know the credentials of the commander of the Frankfurt garrison, Colonel Bieler. “He is a very reliable and experienced officer,” replied Heinrici, “who has proven himself time and again in battle.”

“Is he a Gneisenau?” snapped Hitler, referring to General Graf von Gneisenau, who had successfully defended the fortress of Kolberg against Napoleon in 1806.

Heinrici kept his composure. Evenly, he replied that “the battle for Frankfurt will prove whether he is a Gneisenau or not.” Hitler snapped back, “All right, send Bieler to see me tomorrow so that I can judge him. Then I shall decide what’s to be done about Frankfurt.” Heinrici had lost the first battle for Frankfurt and, he believed, the second, too, in all probability. Bieler was an unprepossessing man who wore thick-lensed glasses. He was not likely to make much of an impression on Hitler.

There now approached what Heinrici regarded as the crisis of the meeting. As he began to speak again, he regretted that he had no skill in diplomatic niceties. He knew only one way to express himself; now, as always, he spoke the unvarnished truth. “My Führer,” he said, “I do not believe that the forces on the Oder front will be able to resist the extremely heavy Russian attacks which will be made upon them.”

Hitler, still trembling, was silent. Heinrici described the lack of combat fitness among the hodgepodge of troops—the very scrapings of Germany’s manpower—that made up his forces. Most units in the line were untrained, inexperienced or so watered down by green reinforcements as to be unreliable. The same was true of many of the commanders. “For example,” explained Heinrici, “the 9th Parachute Division worries me. Its commanders and noncommissioned officers are nearly all former administration officers, both untrained and unaccustomed to lead fighting units.”

Goering suddenly bristled. “My paratroopers!” he said in a loud voice. “You are talking about my paratroopers! They are the best in existence! I won’t listen to such degrading remarks! I personally guarantee their fighting capabilities!”

“Your view, Herr Reichsmarschall,” remarked Heinrici icily, “is somewhat biased. I’m not saying anything against your troops, but experience has taught me that untrained units—especially those led by green officers—are often so terribly shocked by their first exposure to artillery bombardment that they are not much good for anything thereafter.”

Hitler spoke again, his voice now calm and rational. “Everything must be done to train these formations,” he declared. “There is certainly time to do this before the battle.”

Heinrici assured him that every effort would be made in the time still remaining, but he added, “Training will not give them combat experience, and that is what’s lacking.” Hitler dismissed this theory. “The right commanders will provide the experience, and anyway the Russians are fighting with substandard troops, too.” Stalin, claimed Hitler, is “nearing the end of his strength and about all he has left are slave soldiers whose capabilities are extremely limited.” Heinrici found Hitler’s misinformation incredible. Emphatically he disagreed. “My Führer,” he said, “the Russian forces are both capable and enormous.”

The time to hammer home the truths of the desperate situation had, to Heinrici’s mind, arrived. “I must tell you,” he said bluntly, “that since the transfer of the armored units to Schörner, all my troops—good and bad—must be used as front-line troops. There are no reserves. None. Will they resist the heavy shelling preceding the attack? Will they withstand the initial impact? For a time, perhaps, yes. But, against the kind of attack we expect, every one of our divisions will lose a battalion a day. This means that all along the battle front we will lose divisions themselves at the rate of one per week. We cannot sustain such losses. We have nothing to replace them with.” He paused, aware that all eyes were upon him. Then Heinrici plunged ahead. “My Führer, the fact is that, at best, we can hold out for just a few days.” He looked around the room. “Then,” he said, “it must all come to an end.”

There was dead silence. Heinrici knew that his figures were indisputable. The men gathered there were as familiar with casualty statistics as he. The difference was that they would not have spoken of them.

Goering was the first to break the paralyzing silence. “My Führer,” he announced, “I will place immediately at your disposal 100,000 Luftwaffe men. They will report to the Oder front in a few days.”

Himmler glanced owlishly up at Goering, his arch rival, then at Hitler, as if sampling the Führer’s reaction. Then he, too, made an announcement. “My Führer,” he said, in his high-pitched voice, “the SS has the honor to furnish 25,000 fighters for the Oder front.”

Doenitz was not to be outdone. He had already sent a division of marines to Heinrici; now he declared that he, too, would subscribe further forces. “My Führer,” he announced, “12,000 sailors will be released immediately from their ships and rushed to the Oder.”

Heinrici stared at them. They were volunteering untrained, unequipped, unqualified forces from their own private empires, spending lives instead of money in a sort of ghastly auction. They were bidding against one another, not to save Germany, but to impress Hitler. And suddenly the auction fever became contagious. A chorus of voices sounded as each man tried to suggest other forces that might be available. Someone asked for the reserve army figures and Hitler called out, “Buhle! Buhle!”

Outside in the corridor, where the crowd of waiting generals and orderlies had turned from coffee to brandy, the cry was taken up. “Buhle! Buhle! Where is Buhle?” There was a further commotion as Major General Walter Buhle, Staff Chief in charge of supplies and reinforcements, pushed through the crowd and entered the conference room. Heinrici looked at him, and then away in disgust. Buhle had been drinking and he smelled of it.* Nobody else seemed to notice or care—including Hitler. The Führer put a number of questions to Buhle—about reserves, supplies of rifles, small arms and ammunition. Buhle answered thickly and, Heinrici thought, stupidly, but the answers seemed to satisfy Hitler. According to what he made of Buhle’s replies, another 13,000 troops could be scraped up from the so-called reserve army.

Dismissing Buhle, Hitler turned to Heinrici. “There,” he said. “You have 150,000 men—about twelve divisions. There are your reserves.” The auction was over. Hitler apparently considered the Army Group’s problems settled. Yet all he had done was to buy, at most, twelve more days for the Third Reich—and probably at a tremendous cost in human lives.

Heinrici struggled to preserve his control. “These men,” he stated flatly, “are not combat-trained. They have been in rear areas and in offices or on ships, in maintenance work at Luftwaffe bases…. They have never fought at the front. They have never seen a Russian.” Goering cut in. “The forces I have presented are, for the most part, combat fliers. They are the best of the best. And also there are the troops who were at Monte Cassino—troops whose fame outshone all others.” Flushed and voluble, he hotly informed Heinrici, “These men have the will, the courage, and certainly the experience.”

Doenitz, too, was angry. “I tell you,” he snapped at Heinrici, “the crews of warships are every bit as good as your Wehrmacht troops.” For just a moment Heinrici himself flared. “Don’t you think there’s a big difference between fighting at sea and fighting on land?” he asked scathingly. “I tell you, all these men will be slaughtered at the front! Slaughtered!”

If Heinrici’s sudden outburst shocked Hitler, he did not show it. As the others fumed, Hitler seemed to have grown icily calm. “All right,” he said. “We will place these reserve troops in the second line about eight kilometers behind the first. The front line will absorb the shock of the Russian preparatory artillery fire. Meanwhile, the reserves will grow accustomed to battle and if the Russians break through, they will then fight. To throw back the Russians if they break through, you will have to use the panzer divisions.” And he gazed at Heinrici as though awaiting agreement on what was really a very simple matter.

Heinrici did not find it so. “You have taken away my most experienced and combat-ready armored units,” he said. “The Army Group has made a request for their return.” Enunciating each word clearly, Heinrici said: “I must have them back.”

There was a startled movement behind him and Hitler’s adjutant, Burgdorf, whispered angrily in Heinrici’s ear. “Finish!” he ordered Heinrici. “You must finish.” Heinrici stood his ground. “My Führer,” he repeated, ignoring Burgdorf, “I must have those armored units back.”

Hitler waved his hand almost apologetically. “I am very sorry,” he replied, “but I had to take them from you. Your panzers are needed much more by your southern neighbor. The main attack of the Russians is clearly not aimed at Berlin. There is a stronger concentration of enemy forces to the south of your front in Saxony.” Hitler waved his hand over the Russian positions on the Oder. “All of this,” he announced in an exhausted, bored voice, “is merely a support attack in order to confuse. The main thrust of the enemy will not be directed at Berlin—but there.” Dramatically, he placed a finger on Prague. “Consequently,” the Führer continued, “the Army Group Vistula should be well able to withstand the secondary attacks.”

Heinrici stared unbelievingly at Hitler.* Then he looked at Krebs; certainly all this must seem equally irrational to the Chief of OKH. Krebs spoke up. “Based on the information we have,” he explained, “there is nothing to indicate that the Führer’s assessment of the situation is wrong.”

Heinrici had done all he could. “My Führer,” he concluded, “I have completed everything possible to prepare for the attack. I cannot consider these 150,000 men as reserves. I also cannot do anything about the terrible losses we must surely sustain. It is my duty to make that absolutely clear. It is also my duty to tell you that I cannot guarantee that the attack can be repelled.”

Hitler came suddenly to life. Struggling to his feet, he pounded on the table. “Faith!” he yelled. “Faith and strong belief in success will make up for all these insufficiencies! Every commander must be filled with confidence! You!” he pointed a finger at Heinrici. “You must radiate this faith! You must instill this belief in your troops!”

Heinrici stared unflinchingly at Hitler. “My Führer,” he said, “I must repeat—it is my duty to repeat—that hope and faith alone will not win this battle.”

Behind him a voice whispered, “Finish! Finish!”

But Hitler was not even listening to Heinrici. “I tell you. Colonel General,” he yelled, “if you are conscious of the fact that this battle should be won, it will be won! If your troops are given the same belief—then you will achieve victory, and the greatest success of the war!”

In the tense silence which followed, Heinrici, white-faced, gathered his papers and handed them to Eismann. The two officers took their leave of the still-silent room. Outside, in the corridor lounge, they were told that an air raid was in progress. Numbly, both men stood waiting, each in a kind of stupor, almost unaware of the continuing chatter around them.

After a few minutes they were permitted to leave the bunker. They climbed the stairs and went out into the garden. There, for the first time since he left the conference room, Heinrici spoke. “It’s all of no use,” he said, wearily. “You might just as well try to bring the moon down to earth.” He looked up at the heavy smoke palls over the city and repeated softly to himself, “It’s all for nothing. All for nothing.”*

The blue waters of the Chiem See, like a series of moving mirrors, reflected the great stands of pine that blanketed the foothills all the way up to the snow line. Leaning heavily on his stick, Walther Wenck gazed across the lake and beyond to the vast panoramic tumble of mountains around Berchtesgaden a few miles away. It was a scene of extraordinary beauty and peace.

Everywhere the early flowers were out; the snow caps had begun to disappear from the high ranges and, although it was only April 6, even the air was redolent of spring. The peacefulness of his surroundings had done much to speed the convalesence of Guderian’s former Chief of Staff, at 45, the Wehrmacht’s youngest general.

Here, in the heart of the Bavarian Alps, the war seemed a thousand miles away. Except for men recuperating from war wounds or, as in Wenck’s case, accidents, there was hardly a soldier to be seen in the entire area.

Although still weak, Wenck was on the mend. Considering the seriousness of the accident, he was lucky to be alive. He had sustained head wounds and multiple fractures in a car wreck on February 13, and had been hospitalized for nearly six weeks. So many ribs had been smashed that he was still encased in a surgical corset from chest to thighs. The war seemed over for him, and in any case its outcome was sadly clear. He did not believe the Third Reich could survive more than a few weeks longer.

Although Germany’s future seemed bleak, Wenck had much to be thankful for: his wife, Irmgard, and their 15-year-old twins, son Helmuth and daughter Sigried were safe, and staying with him in Bavaria. With painful slowness Wenck walked back to the picturesque little inn where they were living. As he entered the foyer, Irmgard met him with a message. Wenck was to ring Berlin immediately.

Hitler’s adjutant, General Burgdorf, came on the line. Wenck, Burgdorf said, was to report to Hitler in Berlin the following day. “The Führer,” said Burgdorf, “has named you commander of the Twelfth Army.” Wenck was both surprised and puzzled. “The Twelfth Army?” he asked. “Which one is that?”

“You’ll learn all about that when you get here,” Burgdorf replied.

Wenck was still not satisfied. “I’ve never heard of a Twelfth Army,” he pressed. “The Twelfth Army,” Burgdorf said irritably, as though explaining everything, “is being organized now.” Then he hung up.

Hours later, in uniform once more, Wenck said good-bye to his distressed wife. “Whatever you do,” he warned her, “stay in Bavaria. It’s the safest place.” Then, totally ignorant of his assignment, he set out for Berlin. Within the next twenty-one days the name of this virtually unknown general would become synonymous with hope in the mind of almost every Berliner.

The staff was accustomed to seeing an occasional outburst of temper, but nobody had ever seen Heinrici quite like this before. The commander of the Army Group Vistula was in a towering rage. He had just received a report from Bieler, the officer in charge of the “fortress” at Frankfurt, on the young colonel’s visit to Hitler. As Heinrici had feared, the bespectacled, thin-faced officer had not measured up to Hitler’s idea of a Nordic hero. After a few inconsequential remarks, during which Frankfurt was not even mentioned, Hitler shook hands and dismissed the young officer. As soon as Bieler had left the bunker, Hitler ordered a change in the Frankfurt command. “Get someone else,” the Führer told Krebs, “Bieler is certainly no Gneisenau!”

General Busse, whose Ninth Army included the Frankfurt garrison, had heard from Krebs of the impending change and had promptly informed Heinrici. Now, as Bieler stood beside Heinrici’s desk, the blazing Giftzwerg put in a call to Krebs. His staff watched silently. They had learned to tell the measure of Heinrici’s temper by the way he drummed on the table top with his fingers. Now his right hand was beating out a violent tattoo. Krebs came on the phone. “Krebs,” barked Heinrici, “Colonel Bieler is here in my office. I want you to listen carefully. Bieler is to be reinstated as commander of the Frankfurt garrison. I have told this to Burgdorf and now I’m telling you. I refuse to accept any other officer. Do you understand that?” He did not wait for an answer. “Something else. Where is Bieler’s Iron Cross? He has been waiting for that decoration for months. Now he is to get it. Do you understand that?” Still Heinrici did not pause. “And now listen to me, Krebs,” he said. “If Bieler does not get his Iron Cross, if Bieler is not reinstated as commander of Frankfurt, I shall lay down my command! Do you understand that?” Heinrici, still drumming furiously, pressed on. “I expect your confirmation on this matter today! Is that clear?” And he slammed down the phone. Krebs had not uttered a word.

On the afternoon of April 7, Colonel Eismann later recalled, “the Army Group received two teletype messages from the Führer’s headquarters. In the first, Bieler was confirmed as commander of Frankfurt; in the second the Iron Cross was bestowed upon him.”

General Alfred Jodl, Hitler’s Chief of Operations, sat in his Dahlem office awaiting the arrival of General Wenck. The new Twelfth Army commander had just left Hitler and now it was Jodl’s job to brief Wenck on the situation on the western front. On Jodl’s desk was a sheaf of reports from Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, Commander-in-Chief, West. They painted a picture that was growing darker almost hourly. Everywhere the Anglo-Americans were breaking through.

In theory, the Twelfth Army was to be the western shield before Berlin, holding about 125 miles of the lower Elbe and Mulde rivers to prevent an Anglo-American drive on the city. Wenck, Hitler had decided, would command an army of ten divisions, composed of panzer training corps officers, Home Guardsmen, cadet forces, various splinter groups, and the remnants of the shattered Eleventh Army in the Harz Mountains. Even if such a force could be organized in time, Jodl was skeptical that it could have much, if any, effect. And on the Elbe it might never get into action at all—although he had no intention of telling Wenck this. In his office safe, Jodl still held the captured Eclipse plan—the document detailing the moves the Anglo-Americans would make in the event of a German surrender or collapse—and the attached maps showing the agreed zones each Ally would occupy at war’s end. Jodl remained convinced that the Americans and British would halt on the Elbe—roughly the dividing line between the Anglo-American and Russian post-hostility zones of occupation. It seemed perfectly clear to him that Eisenhower was going to leave Berlin to the Russians.


“Naturally,” ran the last paragraph of General Eisenhower’s latest cable to Churchill, “if at any moment ‘Eclipse’ conditions [a German collapse or surrender] should come about anywhere along the front we would rush forward … and Berlin would be included in our important targets.” It was as much of a commitment as the Supreme Commander was willing to make. It did not satisfy the British, and their Chiefs of Staff continued to press for a clear-cut decision. They messaged Washington urging a meeting to discuss Eisenhower’s strategy. Stalin’s cable had roused their suspicions. While the Generalissimo had stated that he planned to begin his offensive in the middle of May, said the British Chiefs, he had not indicated when he intended to launch his “secondary forces” in the direction of Berlin. Thus it still seemed to them that Berlin should be captured as soon as possible. Further, they believed it would be “appropriate for the Combined Chiefs of Staff to give Eisenhower guidance on the matter.”

The reply from General Marshall firmly and decisively ended the discussion. “Such psychological and political advantages as would result from the possible capture of Berlin ahead of the Russians,” he said, “should not override the imperative military consideration, which in our opinion is the destruction and dismembering of the German armed forces.”

Marshall did not entirely close the door on the possibility of taking Berlin for, “as a matter of fact, it is within the center of the impact of the main thrust.” But there was no time for the Combined Chiefs of Staff to give the problem any lengthy consideration. The speed of the Allied advance into Germany was now so fast, he said, that it outstripped the possibility of “review of operational matters by this or any other form of committee action.” And Marshall ended with an unequivocal endorsement of the Supreme Commander: “Only Eisenhower is in a position to know how to fight his battle and to exploit to the full the changing situation.”

The harassed Eisenhower, for his part, had declared himself willing to change his plans but only if ordered to do so. On April 7 he wired Marshall, “At any time that we can seize Berlin at little cost we should, of course, do so.” But because the Russians were so close to the capital, he regarded it “as militarily unsound at this stage of the proceedings to make Berlin a major objective.” He was the first, said Eisenhower, “to admit that war is waged in pursuance of political aims, and if the Combined Chiefs of Staff should decide that the Allied effort to take Berlin outweighs purely military considerations in this theater, I would cheerfully re-adjust my plans and thinking so as to carry out such an operation.” He stressed his belief, however, that “the capture of Berlin should be left as something that we should do if feasible and practicable as we proceed on the general plan of (A) dividing the German forces … (B) anchoring our left firmly in the Lübeck area, and (C) attempting to disrupt any German effort to establish a fortress in the southern mountains.”

He gave almost the same answer to Montgomery the following day. Monty had picked up the cudgels where Churchill and the British Chiefs left off. He asked Eisenhower for ten extra divisions to attack toward Lübeck and Berlin. Eisenhower turned him down. “As regards Berlin,” declared the Supreme Commander, “I am quite ready to admit that it has political and psychological significance, but of far greater importance will be the location of the remaining German forces in relation to Berlin. It is on them that I am going to concentrate my attention. Naturally if I can get a chance to take Berlin cheaply, I shall do so.”

At this point Churchill decided to end the controversy before there was further deterioration of the Allied relationship. He informed President Roosevelt that he considered the affair closed. “To prove my sincerity,” he cabled the President, “I will use one of my very few Latin quotations : Amantium irae amoris integratio est.” Translated, it meant, Lovers’ quarrels are a renewal of love.

But while the controversy over SCAF 252 and the Anglo-American objectives had been taking place behind the scenes, the men of the Anglo-American forces had been driving deeper by the hour into Germany. Nobody had told them that Berlin was no longer a major military objective.

*Contrary to generally accepted belief, the deterioration of Hitler’s health was not the result of injuries sustained during the attempted bomb plot on his life in 1944, though it seems to have marked the beginning of a rapid debilitation. After the war, U.S. counterintelligence teams interrogated nearly every doctor who had attended Hitler. The author has read all their reports and, while none of them give a specific cause for Hitler’s palsied condition, the general opinion is that, in origin, it was partly psychogenic, and partly caused by the manner in which he lived. Hitler hardly ever slept; night and day had little distinction for him. In addition, there is abundant evidence that he was slowly being poisoned by the indiscriminate use of drugs administered to him in massive injections by his favorite physician, Professor Theodor Morell. These ranged from prescriptions containing morphia, arsenic and strychnine to various artificial stimulants and mysterious “miracle drugs” which the doctor himself compounded.

*As Heinrici put it in an interview with the author, “Buhle was waving a large brandy flag in front of him.”

*Heinrici was later to say: “Hitler’s statement killed me completely. I could hardly argue against it, for I did not know what the situation opposite Schöner’s group was. I did know that Hitler was completely wrong. All I could think of was, ‘How can anyone delude themselves to this extent?’ I realized that they were all living in a cloud-cuckoo-land (Wolkenkuckucksheim).”

*The research for Hitler’s conference comes principally from Heinrici’s diaries, supplemented by a long (186-page) memoir from Colonel Eismann. Heinrici kept meticulous notes of everything that happened, including the exact words Hitler used. There are some differences between Heinrici’s account and that of Eismann’s but these variations were resolved by a long series of interviews with Heinrici over a three-month period in 1963.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!