THE RACE WAS ON. Never in the history of warfare had so many men moved so fast. The speed of the Anglo-American offensive was contagious, and all along the front the drive was taking on the proportions of a giant contest. As the armies concentrated on gaining the banks of the Elbe, to secure the bridgeheads for the last victorious dash that would end the war, every division along the north and center of the western front was determined to reach the river first. Beyond, Berlin, as always, was the final goal.
In the British zone, the 7th Armored Division—the famed Desert Rats—had hardly paused since leaving the Rhine. Once across. Major General Louis Lyne, the 7th’s commander, had emphasized that “for all ranks, your eyes should now be firmly fixed on theriver Elbe. Once we get started I do not propose to stop by day or by night till we get there … Good hunting on the next lap.” Now, even against heavy opposition, the Desert Rats were averaging upward of twenty miles a day.
Squadron Sergeant Major Charles Hennell thought it “right and proper for the 7th to take the capital as a reward for our long and arduous efforts in the war from the Western Desert onwards.” Hennell had been with the Desert Rats since El Alamein. Sergeant Major Eric Cole had an even more compelling reason to reach Berlin. A veteran of Dunkirk, he had been driven into the sea by the Germans in 1940. Now Cole was grimly preparing to even the score. He constantly badgered the armored crews to get their mechanized equipment in tiptop running condition. Cole planned to drive the Germans in front of the 7th Armored tanks all the way back to Berlin.
The men of the British 6th Airborne Division had led their countrymen into Normandy on D-Day; they were determined to lead them on to the end. Sergeant Hugh McWhinnie had heard from German prisoners that the moment the British crossed the Elbe, the enemy would “open the door and let them through to Berlin.” He doubted it. The 6th was used to fighting for every mile. Captain Wilfred Davison of the 13th Parachute Battalion was certain that there would be a race for the city but, like most of the division, he had no doubt that “the 6th was in the running to lead the way.” But at division headquarters, Captain John L. Shearer was becoming a little anxious. He had heard a rumor that “Berlin was being left to the Americans.”
U.S. Airborne divisions had heard the same rumor. The trouble was that it made no mention of paratroopers. At General James Gavin’s 82nd Airborne staging area, where chutists had been training for days, it was now all too clear that a fighting drop on Berlin was out. Apparently an airborne operation would result only if a sudden enemy collapse put the Eclipse plan into action, making it necessary for the troopers to go to Berlin on a policing mission. But this seemed remote. SHAEF had already instructed General Lewis Brereton’s First Airborne Army that it would soon be making relief drops on Allied POW camps, under the code name “Operation Jubilant.” Much as they wanted POWs freed, the prospect of a rescue operation instead of a fighting assignment filled the men of the airborne army with something less than jubilance.
Similar frustration characterized other airborne groups. General Maxwell Taylor’s “Screaming Eagles” of the 101st Airborne Division were once more fighting as foot soldiers, this time in the Ruhr. One regiment of Gavin’s 82nd had been ordered there, too. The 82nd had also been alerted to help Montgomery’s Twenty-first Army Group in a later operation across the Elbe.
It was Private Arthur “Dutch” Schultz of the 505th Parachute Regiment who perhaps best summed up the feelings of the men of the airborne divisions. Climbing aboard a truck headed for the Ruhr, he cynically told his pal, Private Joe Tallett, “So. I lead ’em into Normandy, yes? Into Holland, yes? Look at me, kid. I’m a blue-blooded American and the country’s got only one of me. They want to get their money’s worth. They ain’t gonna waste me on Berlin. Hell, no! They’re saving me up! They’re gonna drop me on Tokyo!”
But if the airborne divisions were dispirited, the land armies were brimming over with anticipation.
In the center, U.S. forces were going all out and their strength was enormous. With the return of Simpson’s massive Ninth Army from Montgomery’s Twenty-first Army Group, Bradley had become the first general in American history to command four field armies. Besides the Ninth, his forces included the First, Third and Fifteenth—close to a million men.
On April 2, just nine days after crossing the Rhine, his troops had finished springing the trap encircling the Ruhr. Caught in the 4,000-square-mile pocket was Field Marshal Walter Model’s Army Group B, numbering no fewer than 325,000 men. With Model contained, the western front was wide open and Bradley swept boldly on, leaving part of the Ninth and First armies to mop up the pocket. Now his forces were in full cry. With the British in the north and General Devers’ U.S. Sixth Army Group in the south holding the flanks, Bradley was driving furiously through Germany’s center, toward Leipzig and Dresden. In the north-to-south line-up of U.S. armies the Ninth was the shortest distance from the Elbe, and it looked to commanders as if Bradley had given Simpson the go-ahead for the dash that, by its very momentum, should take U.S. forces to Berlin.
The day the encirclement of the Ruhr was completed, Eisenhower issued orders to his forces. Bradley’s group was to “mop up the … Ruhr “ launch a thrust with its main axis: Kassel-Leipzig … seize any opportunity to capture a bridgehead over the River Elbe and be prepared to conduct operations beyond the Elbe.” On April 4, the day the Ninth was returned to him, Bradley himself gave new commands to his armies. In the Twelfth Army Group’s “Letter of Instructions, No. 20,” the Ninth was directed, first, to drive for a line roughly south of Hanover with the army center in the approximate area of the town of Hildesheim—about seventy miles from the Elbe. Then, “on order,” the second phase would begin. It was this vital paragraph that spelled out the role of the Ninth Army and, to its commander, left no doubt as to the destination of his forces. It read: “Phase 2. Advance on order to the east … exploit any opportunity for seizing a bridgehead over the Elbe and be prepared to continue the advance on BERLIN or to the northeast.” Phase 1—the drive toward Hildesheim—seemed to be simply a directional order. No one expected to be held there. But Phase 2 was the starting flag that every division in the Ninth Army had been awaiting, none more eagerly than the commander, Lieutenant General William “Big Simp” Simpson.*
“My people were keyed up,” General Simpson was to recall later. “We’d been the first to the Rhine and now we were going to be the first to Berlin. All along we thought of just one thing—capturing Berlin, going through and meeting the Russians on the other side.” From the time the Letter of Instructions came down from the Army Group, Simpson had not wasted a minute. He expected to reach the Hildesheim phase line in a matter of days. After that, Simpson told his staff officers, he planned “to get an armored and an infantry division set up on the autobahn running just above Magdeburg on the Elbe to Potsdam, where we’ll be ready to close in on Berlin.” Then Simpson intended to commit the rest of the Ninth “as fast as we can … if we get the bridgehead and they turn us loose.” Jubilantly he told his staff, “Damn, I want to get to Berlin and all you people, right down to the last private, I think, want it, too.”
Major General Isaac D. White, the determined, wiry commander of the 2nd Armored “Hell on Wheels” Division, was a good step ahead of Simpson: his plan to take Berlin had been ready even before his men crossed the Rhine. White’s Operations Chief, Colonel Briard P. Johnson, had plotted the drive on the capital weeks before. So thorough was his plan that detailed orders and map overlays were ready by March 25.
The 2nd’s assault plan was somewhat similar to Simpson’s own concept. It, too, followed the autobahn from Magdeburg on the Elbe. Proposed day-by-day advances were drawn on the map overlays and each stage was given a code name. The last dash of about sixty miles from Magdeburg carried phase lines with the names: “Silver,” “Silk,” “Satin,” “Daisy,” “Pansy,” “Jug,” and finally, imposed on a huge blue swastika covering Berlin, the code word “Goal.” At the rate the 2nd was moving, against only spotty opposition, often achieving upward of thirty-five miles a day, White was confident of grabbing the capital. If his men could secure a bridgehead at Magdeburg, now only eighty miles away, White expected to dash into Berlin within forty-eight hours.
Now, along the Ninth Army’s fifty-odd miles of front, White’s 2nd Armored was spearheading the drive. The division was one of the largest formations on the western front. With its tanks, self-propelled guns, armored cars, bulldozers, trucks, jeeps and artillery, it formed a stream more than seventy-two miles long. To create maximum fighting effectiveness, the force had been broken into three armored units—Combat Commands A, B and R, the latter held in reserve. Even so, the division, moving in tandem and averaging about two miles an hour, took nearly twelve hours to pass a given point. This ponderous armored force was running ahead of every other unit of the Ninth Army—with one notable exception.
On its right flank, tenaciously pacing the 2nd mile for mile and fighting all the way, was a wildly assorted collection of vehicles crammed with troops. From the air it bore no resemblance to either an armored or an infantry division. In fact, but for a number of U.S. Army trucks interspersed among its columns, it might easily have been mistaken for a German convoy. Major General Robert C. Macon’s highly individualistic 83rd Infantry Division, the “Rag-Tag Circus,” was going hell-for-leather toward the Elbe in its captured booty. Every enemy unit or town that surrendered or was captured subscribed its quota of rolling stock for the division, usually at gunpoint. Every newly acquired vehicle got a quick coat of olive-green paint and a U.S. star slapped on its side; then it joined the 83rd. The men of the Rag-Tag Circus had even managed to liberate a German airplane and, harder, had found someone to fly it, and it was spreading consternation all over the front. First Sergeant William G. Presnell of the 30th Infantry Division, who had fought all the way from Omaha Beach, knew the silhouette of every Luftwaffe fighter. So when he saw what was obviously a German plane heading in his direction, he yelled “ME-109!” and dived for cover. Puzzled when there was no burst of machine gun fire, he raised his head and stared as the fighter sped away. The plane was painted a blotchy olive-green. On the undersides of the wings were the words “83rd Inf. Div.”
If their compatriots were confused by the 83rd’s vehicles, the Germans were even more so. As the division rushed pell mell toward the Elbe, Major Haley Kohler heard the insistent blowing of a car horn. “This Mercedes came up behind us,” he recalled, “and then began passing everything on the road.” Captain John J. Devenney saw it, too. “The car weaved in and out of our column, going in our direction,” he remembered. As it passed, Devenney was astounded to see that it was a chauffeur-driven German staff car with a full load of officers. A burst of machine gun fire stopped the vehicle, and the bewildered Germans were taken prisoner in the middle of what they had supposed to be one of their own columns. The Mercedes, in top condition, received the usual hurried paint job and was immediately put to use.
This map shows the U.S. Ninth Army’s plan for the advance to Berlin.
General Macon was determined that the 83rd would be the first infantry division to cross the Elbe and advance to Berlin. The rivalry between the 83rd and the 2nd Armored was now so intense that when leading units of the two divisions reached the Weser River at the same time on April 5 “there was considerable argument,” as Macon put it, “as to who was to cross the river first.” Eventually a compromise was reached: the divisions crossed together, by sandwiching their units. Back at 83rd headquarters rumor had it that General White was furious with the Rag-Tag Circus. “No damned infantry division,” the 2nd’s commander was quoted as saying, “is going to beat my outfit to the Elbe.”
The 2nd was running into other competition, too. The 5th Armored “Victory Division” was rolling almost as fast as White’s columns, and its men had plans of their own for taking the capital. “The only big question at the time was who was going to get Berlin first,” remembers Colonel Gilbert Farrand, the 5th’s Chief of Staff. “We planned to cross the Elbe at Tangermünde, Sandau, Arneburg and Werben. We heard that the Russians were ready to go, so we made every possible preparation.” The division was on the move so continuously that, as Farrand remembers it, no one slept more than four or five hours a night—and often no one slept at all. Because of the steadiness of the advance, Farrand’s own half-track was now the division’s headquarters. The 5th’s progress was greatly helped by the spottiness of the opposition. “The advance was really nothing more,” Farrand recalls, “than cracking rear guard actions.” But these could be deadly, as Farrand discovered when a shell plowed through his half-track.
Among the infantry divisions, the 84th, 30th and 102nd had their eyes on Berlin, too. Everywhere in the Ninth, tired and dirty men, eating on the move, were hoping to be in on the kill. The very momentum of the drive was exhilarating. Still, despite the absence of a general pattern of German defense, there was fighting—and at times it was heavy.
In some areas diehards put up fierce resistance before surrendering. Lieutenant Colonel Roland Kolb of the 84th “Railsplitters” Division noticed that the worst fighting came from scattered SS units that hid in the woods and harassed the advancing troops. The armored columns usually bypassed these fanatic remnants and left them to the infantry to mop up. Desperate encounters often took place in small towns. At one point in the advance, Kolb was shocked to find children of twelve and under manning artillery pieces. “Rather than surrender,” he remembers, “the boys fought until killed.”
Other men also experienced moments of horror. Near the wooded ridges of the Teutoburger Wald, Major James F. Hollingsworth, leading the 2nd Armored’s advance guard, found himself suddenly surrounded by German tanks. His column had run directly into a panzer training ground. Luckily for Hollingsworth, the tanks were relics from which the engines had been long since removed. But their guns were in place for use in training recruits, and the Germans quickly opened fire, Staff Sergeant Clyde W. Cooley, a veteran of North Africa and the gunner on Hollingsworth’s tank, swung into action. Revolving his turret, he knocked out a German tank at 1,500 yards. Turning again, he blasted another 75 yards away. “All hell broke loose as everyone opened up,” recalls Hollingsworth. Then just as the fight ended, a German truck filled with soldiers came barreling down the road toward the 2nd Armored’s column. Hollingsworth hastily ordered his men to wait until the truck was in range. At 75 yards, he gave the order to open fire. The truck, riddled by .50 caliber machine gun bullets, blazed, turned over and threw its uniformed occupants out onto the road. Most were dead by the time they hit the ground, but a few were still alive and screaming horribly. It was only when he came up to inspect the torn and riddled bodies that Hollingsworth discovered the soldiers were uniformed German women—the equivalent of U.S. WACs.
The opposition was completely unpredictable. Many areas capitulated without firing a shot. In some towns and cities burgomasters surrendered while the withdrawing German troops were still moving through the populated areas, often no more than a block away from American tanks and infantry. At Detmold, where one of Germany’s largest armament works was located, a civilian met the lead tank of Lieutenant Colonel Wheeler G. Merriam’s 82nd Reconnaissance Battalion, scouting ahead of the 2nd Armored. The German representative announced that the superintendent of the factory wished to surrender. “Shells were falling all about us as we drove in,” Merriam recalls. “Lined up outside the factory were the superintendent, the factory manager and the workers. The superintendent made a little speech of surrender and then presented me with a beautifully chromed Mauser pistol.” A few blocks farther on, Merriam took the surrender of an entire German paymaster company—complete with vast quantities of bank notes. But a few hours later, U.S. infantry coming up behind Merriam fought a bitter and prolonged battle to clean out the same town. Detmold, as it turned out, was in the center of an SS training area.
Similar incidents occurred everywhere. In some small cities the silence of surrender in one area would be suddenly shattered by the din of fierce fighting a few blocks away. On the main street of one such city. General Macon, the 83rd’s commander, remembers “walking quite safely through the front entrance of my headquarters, but when I tried to leave by the back door, I almost had to fight my way out.” On the outskirts of one town, troops of the 30th Infantry were met by German soldiers with white handkerchiefs tied to their rifles. As the Germans tried to surrender to the Americans, they were machine gunned in the back by SS stragglers who still fought on.
Some men developed new techniques for securing surrenders. Captain Francis Schommer of the 83rd Division, who spoke fluent German, several times conducted capitulations by telephone—bolstered by a Colt .45. Schommer, his pistol pointed at a newly captured burgomaster, would inform the mayor that “it might be wise for you to telephone the burgomaster of the next town and inform him that, if he wants the place to remain standing, he better surrender it right now. Tell him to get the people to hang sheets from their windows—or else.” The frightened burgomaster “would usually pour it on, telling his neighbor that the Americans in his town had hundreds of tanks and artillery pieces, and thousands upon thousands of troops. The ruse worked again and again.”
As the great drive gathered momentum, the roads became jammed with motorized troops and armored columns pushing east past thousands of German prisoners going west. There was not even time to take charge of the prisoners. Exhausted and unshaven, Wehrmacht officers and privates trudged back toward the Rhine unaccompanied. Some of them still carried weapons. Chaplain Ben L. Rose of the 113th Mechanized Cavalry Group recalls the hopeless look of two officers who, in full dress uniform, walked alongside his column “trying to get someone to notice them long enough to surrender their side arms.” But the troopers, intent on piling up mileage, simply thumbed them west.
Cities and towns fell to the onrushing forces one after another. Few men had heard their names before and, in any case, no one stayed long enough to remember them. Places like Minden, Bückeburg, Tündern and Stadthagen were merely checkpoints on the way to the Elbe. But the troops of the 30th Division encountered a familiar name—so familiar that most men remember being surprised that it actually existed. The town was Hamelin, of Pied Piper fame. Suicidal opposition from a few SS strongpoints by-passed earlier by the 2nd Armored, and heavy retaliatory shelling by the 30th, reduced the storybook city of gingerbread houses and cobblestoned streets to a burned and blasted rubble by April 5. “This time,” said Colonel Walter M. Johnson of the 117th Regiment, “we got the rats out with a slightly different kind of flute.”
By April 8, the 84th Division had reached the outskirts of 15th-century Hanover. On the long drive from the Rhine, Hanover, with a population of 400,000, was the largest city to fall to any division of the Ninth Army. Major General Alexander R. Bolling, commander of the 84th, had expected to bypass the city, but instructions came down to capture it instead. Bolling was less than happy. To commit his troops at Hanover would lose him precious time in his race against other infantry divisions for the Elbe. The battle was fierce; yet within forty-eight hours resistance had been reduced to small isolated actions. Bolling, proud of the 84th’s prowess, yet chafing to get on with the advance, was both surprised and pleased to be visited in Hanover by the Supreme Commander, his Chief of Staff, General Smith, and the Ninth Army’s General Simpson. At the end of their formal meeting, Bolling remembered, “Ike said to me, ‘Alex, where are you going next?’ I replied, ‘General, we’re going to push on ahead, we have a clear go to Berlin and nothing can stop us.’”
Eisenhower, according to Boiling, “put his hand on my arm and said, ‘Alex, keep going. I wish you all the luck in the world and don’t let anybody stop you.’” When Eisenhower left Hanover, Bolling believed that he had a “clear verbal acknowledgement from the Supreme Commander that the 84th was going to Berlin.”
On that same Sunday, April 8, the 2nd Armored Division, slightly ahead of the 83rd for the moment, pulled up at the first phase line, Hildesheim. Now the 2nd must await orders for the opening of the second stage of the attack. General White was glad of the pause. With the division traveling at such speed, maintenance had become a problem and White needed at least forty-eight hours for repairs. The temporary halt, he understood, would also enable other units to come abreast. But the majority of soldiers, after the frenzied speed of the last few days, wondered why they were being held. Men chafed at the delay; in the past, such stand-downs had given the enemy a chance to reorganize and consolidate. With the end so close no one wanted to push his luck. First Sergeant George Petcoff, a Normandy veteran, was worried about “the fight for Berlin, because I was beginning to think my number was up.” Chaplain Rose remembers that one tanker was so superstitious about the future that he climbed out of his tank, looked at the words “Fearless Joe” painted on the front and painstakingly proceeded to scratch out the word “Fearless.” “From now on,” he announced, “it’s just plain Joe!”
If the men were anxious and fearful of delay, their commanders —including General White’s immediate superiors at 19th Corps headquarters—were even more concerned. Major General Raymond S. McLain, the Corps Commander, hoped nothing would upset his plans. Despite the speed, he was not worried about supplies. The strength of his corps, totaling well over 120,000 men, was now greater than the Union Army’s at Gettysburg, and he had 1,000 armored vehicles. With all this power, McLain, as he later expressed it, had “absolutely no doubt that six days after crossing the Elbe” the entire 19th Corps would be in Berlin.
McLain had heard from Simpson’s headquarters that the pause was only temporary—and that the reason for the delay was both tactical and political. As it turned out, his information was right on both counts. Ahead lay the future frontier of the Soviet zone of occupation, and the halt gave SHAEF time to consider the situation. No geographic “stop line” had yet been decided upon for either the Anglo-American or the Russian forces. Thus, the danger of head-on collision still existed. In the absence of any concentrated German opposition, higher headquarters had no intention of stopping the attack, yet one serious consideration had to be taken into account: once the Soviet occupation line was crossed, every mile captured would, sooner or later, have to be handed back to the Russians.
At the closest point of advance, Berlin was now only 125 miles away, and all along the Ninth Army front, men waited to go, oblivious of the delicate problem that faced the High Command. They had all sorts of reasons for being eager. P.F.C. Carroll Stewart was looking forward to his first glimpse of the German capital because he had heard that, of all the cities in Europe, Berlin could not be matched for its scenic views.
RAF Warrant Officer James “Dixie” Deans stamped to attention before the desk and smartly saluted the German colonel. Hermann Ostmann, commandant of Stalag 357, the Allied prisoner-of-war camp near Fallingbostel, north of Hanover, returned the salute with equal briskness. It was just one of a series of military formalities that Prisoner-of-War Deans and Captor Ostmann played out whenever they met. Each, as always, was a model of correctness.
Between the two men there existed a grudging and wary respect. Deans regarded the commandant—a middle-aged World War I officer whose palsied arm disqualified him from more active service—as a fair-minded warden, doing a job he disliked. For his part, Ostmann knew that the 29-year-old Deans, elected by the prisoners as their spokesman, was an obstinate, determined bargainer who could, and often did, make Ostmann’s life miserable. The Colonel was always aware that the real control of Stalag 357 lay in the slender Deans’s firm handling of the prisoners, and in their unswerving loyalty to him.
Deans was a legend. A navigator who had been shot down over Berlin in 1940, he had been in POW camps ever since. In each, he had learned something more about how to obtain maximum privileges for himself and his fellow inmates. He had also learned much about dealing with prison commandants. According to Deans, the procedure was basic: “You simply give the blighters hell all the time.”
Now, Deans stared down at the aging colonel, waiting to learn the reason for his latest summons to the commandant’s office.
“I have here some orders,” said Ostmann, holding up some forms. “And I am afraid that we must move you and your men.”
Deans was immediately on guard. “Where to, Colonel?” he asked.
“Northeast of here,” said Ostmann. “Exactly where I do not know, but I’ll get instructions along the way.” Then he added, “Of course you understand we are doing this for your own protection.” He paused and smiled weakly. “Your armies are getting a little close.”
Deans had been aware of that for days. “Recreational” activities in the camp had resulted in the production of two highly functional and secret radios. One lay hidden in an old-fashioned, constantly used gramophone. The other, a tiny battery-operated receiver, made the rounds of Stalag 357 broadcasting the latest news from its owner’s mess kit. From these precious sources, Deans knew that Eisenhower’s armies were over the Rhine and fighting in the Ruhr. The extent of the Anglo-American advance was still unknown to the prisoners—but the troops must be near if the Germans were moving the camp.
“How will the transfer be made, Colonel?” Deans asked, knowing full well that the Germans almost always moved POWs one way only—on foot.
“They’ll march in columns,” said Ostmann. Then, with one of his courteous gestures, he offered Deans a special privilege. “You can drive with me if you like.” With equal courtesy, Deans declined.
“How about the sick?” he asked. “There are many men here who can hardly walk.”
“They’ll be left behind with whatever help we can give them. And some of your men can stay with them, too.”
Now Deans wanted to know how soon the prisoners were leaving. There were times when Ostmann suspected that Deans knew almost as much of the war situation as the commandant himself—but there was one thing he was certain Deans could not have heard. According to headquarters information, the British were advancing in the general direction of Fallingbostel and were now only about fifty to sixty miles away, while the Americans, by all reports, were already in Hanover fifty miles to the south.
“You go immediately,” he informed Deans. “Those are my orders.”
As he left the commandant’s office, Deans knew there was little he could do to prepare the men for the march. Food was short and almost all the prisoners were weak and emaciated from malnutrition. A prolonged, arduous journey was almost certain to finish off many of them. But as he returned to barracks to pass the word of the march around camp, he made himself a solemn vow: using every ruse he could think of, from slow-ups to sit-downs to minor mutinies, Dixie Deans somehow intended to reach the Allied lines with all twelve thousand men of Stalag 357.
The whereabouts of the headquarters of the newly organized Twelfth Army had so far eluded the commanding officer, General Walther Wenck. The command post was supposed to be in the area north of the Harz Mountains, about seventy to eighty miles from Berlin, but Wenck had been driving about for hours. The roads were black with refugees and vehicles heading in both directions. Some refugees were milling east, away from the advancing Americans; others, fearful of the Russians, were hurrying to the west. Convoys carrying soldiers seemed equally aimless. Dorn, Wenck’s driver, pressed down the horn again and again as he edged the car along. As they drove deeper, heading south by west, conditions bordered on the chaotic. Wenck was becoming ever more uneasy and restless. What, he wondered, would he find when headquarters was finally reached?
Wenck was taking a roundabout way to reach his command post. He had decided to make a wide swing which would take him first to the city of Weimar, lying southwest of Leipzig, before he headed up to headquarters somewhere near Bad Blankenburg. Though the diversion was adding almost a hundred miles to his journey, Wenck had a reason for the detour. In a Weimar bank were his life savings, some ten thousand marks, and he intended to withdraw the entire sum. But as his car approached the city, the roads became strangely empty and the crack of gunfire sounded in the distance. A few kilometers further, the car was halted and Wehrmacht military police informed the General that tanks of Patton’s U.S. Third Army were already on the outskirts. Wenck felt both shocked and deceived. The situation was much worse than he had been told at Hitler’s headquarters. He could not believe that the Allies had advanced so fast—or that so much of Germany was already overrun. It was also hard to concede that, in all probability, his ten thousand marks were gone, too.*
From local headquarters Wehrmacht officers told Wenck that the entire Harz region was endangered, troops were retreating and areas were being outflanked. Obviously, his headquarters had already pulled out of the area. Wenck headed back toward Dessau, where some of his army was supposedly gathering. Near Rosslau, about eight miles north of Dessau, he discovered his headquarters in a former Wehrmacht engineering school. There, too, Wenck discovered the truth about the Twelfth Army.
Its front ran along the Elbe and its tributary, the Mulde, for a distance of about 125 miles—roughly from Wittenberge on the Elbe to the north, then south to a point just below and east of Leipzig on the Mulde. On the northern flank, facing the British, were the forces of Field Marshal Ernst Busch, Commander-in-Chief, North West. On the south were the badly mauled units of Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, Commander-in-Chief, West. Wenck had little information about the strength of these forces. In his section, between the two, the Twelfth Army existed mainly on paper. Other than troops holding scattered positions along the Elbe he had little but the scant remains of ghost divisions. Other groups, he found, were not yet operational, and there were even shadow units still to be formed. The bulk of his artillery was immobile, set in fixed positions around such towns as Magdeburg, Wittenberge, and near bridge or crossing sites along the Elbe. There were some self-propelled guns, a group of armored cars, and some forty small jeeplike Volkswagen troop carriers. But Wenck’s Twelfth Army at this moment had at best only about a dozen tanks.
Although presumably the scattered and splinter troops would eventually bring his forces up to about 100,000 men, right now he had nowhere near the ten divisions he had been promised. Amid the remnants of units with impressive names—“Clausewitz,” “Potsdam,” “Scharnhorst,” “Ulrich von Hutten,” “Friedrich Ludwig Jahn,” “Theodor Körner”—there remained at most five and a half divisions, about 55,000 men.
Apart from forces already committed to set positions or in actual combat, the bulk of the new Twelfth Army was made up of eager cadets and training officers. Neither Wenck nor his Chief of Staff, Colonel Günther Reichhelm, had any doubt about the eventual outcome of the battles ahead. But Wenck refused to give in to disillusionment. Young and eager himself, he saw what many an older general might have missed: what the Twelfth lacked in strength it might well make up by the fierceness and dedication of young officers and cadets.
Wenck thought he saw a way to use his green but enthusiastic forces as mobile shock troops, rushing them from area to area as needed—at least until his other forces were regrouped and in position. Wenck believed in this fashion his energetic youngsters might buy Germany precious time. Almost his first move as commander was to order his strongest and best-equipped formations into central positions for use on either the Elbe or Mulde rivers. Looking at his map, Wenck circled the areas of probable action—Bitterfeld, Dessau, Belzig, Wittenberge. There was one other site, he thought, where the Americans would surely try to cross the Elbe. Lying within three arms of the river, devastated during the Thirty Years’ War and almost wholly destroyed, the town of Magdeburg had risen again. Now, the great fortress with its island citadel and 11th-century cathedral stood like a beacon in the path of the American armies. Around this area—particularly south of Magdeburg—Wenck assigned the best-equipped of his “Scharnhorst,” “Potsdam” and “Von Hutten” units to stand off the U.S. assault as well as they could.
His defenses were planned down to the last detail, his tactics committed to memory by his officers. Now, at Army Group Vistula headquarters, approximately 120 miles northeast of Wenck, Gotthard Heinrici was ready for the battle.
Behind his first Hauptkampflinie—the main line of resistance—Heinrici had developed a second line. Just before the expected Russian artillery barrage, Heinrici had told his commanders, he would order the evacuation of the front line. Immediately all troops would retreat to the second Hauptkampflinie. It was Heinrici’s old Moscow trick of letting the Russians “hit an empty bag.” As quickly as the Russian bombardment lifted, the troops were to move forward and take up their front-line positions again. The ruse had worked in the past and Heinrici was counting on its success again. The trick, as always, was to determine the exact moment of attack.
There had been several feints already. In Von Manteuffel’s Third Panzer Army sector north of Berlin, General Martin Gareis, commanding the weak 46th Panzer Corps, was convinced that the attack would take place on April 8. The heavy forward movement of vehicles and the deepening concentration of artillery directly in front of Gareis’ area seemed to indicate an imminent assault—and captured Russian soldiers had even boasted of the date. Heinrici did not believe the reports. His own intelligence, plus his old habit of trusting his instinct, told him the date was too early. As it turned out, he was right. All along the Oder front, April 8 was quiet and uneventful.
Yet Heinrici’s vigilance was now unceasing. Each day he flew over the Russian lines in a small reconnaissance plane, observing troop and artillery dispositions. Each night he painstakingly studied late intelligence reports and prisoner interrogations, searching always for the clue that might pinpoint the time of attack.
It was during this tense and critical period that Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering summoned Heinrici to his castle for lunch. Though Heinrici was desperately weary and loath to be gone from his headquarters even for a few hours, he could not refuse. Karinhall, the Reichsmarschall’s huge estate, lay only a few miles from the Vistula headquarters at Birkenhain. The grounds were so vast that Goering even had his own private zoo. As they approached, Heinrici and his aide, Captain von Bila, were amazed by the magnificence of Goering’s parklike holdings, with the vistas of lakes, gardens, landscaped terraces and tree-lined drives. Lining the road from the main gates to the castle itself were units of sprucely uniformed Luftwaffe paratroopers—Goering’s personal defense force.
The castle, like Goering himself, was both massive and opulent. The reception hall reminded Heinrici of “a church so large, so huge, that one’s eye automatically traveled up to the roof beams.̶ Goering, resplendent in a white hunting jacket, greeted Heinrici coolly. His attitude was a portent of what was to come, for the luncheon was a disaster.
The Reichsmarschall and the General disliked each other intensely. Heinrici had always blamed Goering for the loss of Stalingrad where, despite all his promises, the Luftwaffe had been unable to supply the cut-off troops of Von Paulus’ Sixth Army. But Heinrici would have disliked the Reichsmarschall in any case for his arrogance and pomposity. For his part, Goering found Heinrici dangerously insubordinate. He had never forgiven the General for leaving Smolensk unscorched, and in the past few days, his distaste for Heinrici had greatly increased. Heinrici’s remarks about the 9th Paratroopers at the Führer’s conference had rankled deeply. The day following that meeting, Goering had telephoned Vistula headquarters and had spoken to Colonel Eismann. “It is inconceivable to me,” said the Reichsmarschall angrily, “that Heinrici would talk about my paratroopers the way he did. It was a personal insult! I still have the 2nd Parachute Division and you can tell your commander from me that he’s not getting them. No! I’m giving them to Schörner. There’s a real soldier! A true soldier!”
Now, at the luncheon, Goering turned his attack directly on Heinrici. He began by sharply criticizing the troops he had seen during recent trips along the Vistula front. Sitting back in a huge thronelike chair and waving a large silver beaker of beer, Goering accused Heinrici of poor discipline throughout his command. “I’ve driven all over your armies,” he said, “and in one sector after another I found men doing nothing! I saw some in foxholes playing cards! I found men from the labor organization who didn’t even have spades to do their jobs. In some places, I found men without field kitchens! In other sections almost nothing has been done to build defenses. Everywhere I found your people loafing, doing nothing.” Taking a great swallow of beer, Goering said menacingly, “I intend to bring all this to the attention of the Führer.”
Heinrici saw no point in arguing. All he wanted to do was get away. Keeping his temper in check, Heinrici somehow got through the meal. But, as Goering saw his two visitors to the door, Heinrici paused, looking slowly around the magnificent grounds and the impressive castle with its turrets and wings. “I can only hope,” he said, “that my loafers can save this beautiful place of yours from the battles that lie ahead.” Goering stared icily for a moment, then turned on his heel and walked back inside.
Goering would not have Karinhall much longer, Heinrici thought as he drove away. He was beginning to reach a conclusion about the timing of the Russian attack, based on intelligence reports, aerial observations, the steadily dropping flood waters of the Oder and that intuition which had never yet betrayed him. Heinrici believed the attack would begin within the week—somewhere around the fifteenth or sixteenth of April.
Pulling back the covering sheet on the table, Marshal Georgi Zhukov exposed the huge relief map of Berlin. It was more a model than a map, with miniature government buildings, bridges and railroad stations showing in exact replica against the principal streets, canals and airfields. Expected defensive positions, flak towers and bunkers were all neatly marked, and small green tags, each with a number, flagged principal objectives. The Reichstag was labeled 105, the Reichskanzlei 106; 107-8 were the offices of the Ministries of Internal and Foreign Affairs.
The Marshal turned to his officers. “Look at Objective 105,” he said. “Who is going to be the first to reach the Reichstag? Chuikov and his 8th Guards? Katukov and his tanks? Berzarin and his Fifth Shock Army? Or maybe Bogdanov with his 2nd Guards? Who will it be?”
Zhukov was deliberately baiting his officers. Each was in a frenzy to reach the city first and, in particular, to capture the Reichstag. As General Nikolai Popiel later remembered the scene, Katukov, presumably already there in his mind’s eye, said suddenly, “Just think. If I reach 107 and 108, I might grab Himmler and Ribbentrop together!”
All day the briefings had been in progress; along the front preparations for the attacks were nearly complete. Guns and ammunition were positioned in the forests; tanks were moving up so their guns could supplement the artillery when the bombardment began. A vast store of supplies, bridging materials, rubber boats and rafts was ready in the attack areas, and convoy after convoy jammed the roads bringing divisions up to the assembly areas. So frantic were demands for troops that the Russians for the first time were airlifting men from rear areas. It was obvious to Russian soldiers everywhere that the attack would come soon, yet no one below headquarters level had been given the date.
Captain Sergei Ivanovich Golbov, the Red Army correspondent, drove along Zhukov’s front watching the massive preparations. Golbov had tapped all his sources in an effort to find out the date of the attack, but without success. Never before had he witnessed activity such as this prior to an attack and he was convinced that the Germans must be watching every move. But, he commented long afterward, “No one seemed to give a damn what the Germans saw.”
One aspect of the preparations puzzled Golbov. For days now, anti-aircraft searchlights of all sizes and shapes had been arriving at the front. The crews were women. Moreover, these units were being held well back from the front and carefully hidden beneath camouflage netting. Golbov had never seen so many searchlights before. He wondered what they could possibly have to do with the attack.
At the Berlin Reichspostzentralamt, the Postal Services Administration building in Tempelhof, Reich Postal Minister Wilhelm Ohnesorge leaned over the brilliantly colored sheets of stamps on his desk. They were the first run, and Ohnesorge was inordinately pleased by them. The artist had done a fine job and the Führer was certain to be gratified by the results. With delight he examined two of the stamps more closely. One showed an SS soldier with a Schmeisser machine pistol at his shoulder; the other depicted a uniformed Nazi Party leader, a torch upraised in his right hand. Ohnesorge thought the special commemorative issues did justice to the occasion. They would be on sale on Hitler’s birthday, April 20.
STAMPS—COURTESY OF COLONEL HANS REFIOR
A special date was also uppermost in Erich Bayer’s mind. The Wilmersdorf accountant had been worrying for weeks about what he would do on Tuesday, April 10—tomorrow. The payment had to be made by then; otherwise all sorts of trouble and red tape could result. Bayer had the money; that was not his problem. But did it matter now? Would the army that captured Berlin—American or Russian—insist on payment? And what if neither got the city? Bayer considered the matter from all sides. Then he went to his bank and withdrew fourteen hundred marks. Entering the office nearby, he made the required down payment on his income tax for 1945.
It happened so fast that everyone was taken by surprise. On the western front, at his Ninth Army headquarters, General Simpson immediately passed the word down to his two corps commanders, Major General Raymond S. McLain of the 19th and the 13th’s Major General Alvan Gillem. Official orders would follow, Simpson said, but the word was “Go.” Phase 2 was on. It was official. The divisions were to jump off for the Elbe—and beyond. At the 2nd Armored Division headquarters, General White got the news and promptly sent for Colonel Paul A. Disney, commanding the 67th Armored Regiment, the 2nd’s lead unit. Upon arrival, Disney remembered, “I barely had time to say ‘hello’ when White said, ‘Take off for the east.’” For just a moment Disney was taken aback. The stand-down had lasted a bare twenty-four hours. Still confused, he asked, “What’s the objective?” White answered with just one word: “Berlin!”
*Simpson had every reason to believe he had been given the go-ahead. In the same Twelfth Army Group order, the U.S. First and Third armies were instructed in the second phase to seize bridgeheads on the Elbe and be prepared to drive east—in the case of Patton’s Third, the expression used was “east or southeast.” But only in Ninth Army’s order were the words “on Berlin” included.
*The persistent Wenck tried to lay claim to his money after the war but by then Weimar was in the Soviet zone and under the administration of Ulbricht’s East German Government. Curiously, the bank continued to send Wenck monthly statements up to July 4, 1947. He acknowledged the statements repeatedly, asking that the money be transferred to his own bank in West Germany. No action was taken until October 23, 1954, when the Weimar bank informed Wenck that he must take up the matter with the Ministry of Internal Affairs, District of Weimar. “We have annulled your very old account.” the bank’s letter said, “along with the interest accrued….”
IN FIVE GREAT columns, the men of the 2nd Armored Division sped toward the Elbe and Berlin. They passed lighted German headquarters without slowing their pace. They swept through towns where aged Home Guardsmen, guns in their hands, stood helpless in the streets, too shocked to take action. They raced past German motorized columns moving out in the same direction. Guns blazed but nobody stopped on either side. GIs riding on tanks took potshots at Germans on motorcycles. Where enemy troops tried to make a stand from dug-in positions, some U.S. commanders used their armor-like cavalry. Major James F. Hollíngsworth, coming upon one such situation, lined up thirty-four tanks and gave a command rarely heard in modern warfare: “Charge!” Guns roaring, Hollingsworth’s tanks raced down toward the enemy positions, and the Germans broke and ran. Everywhere tanks chewed through enemy positions and across enemy terrain. By Wednesday evening, April 11, in an unparalleled armored dash, the Shermans had covered fifty-seven miles—seventy-three road miles—in just under twenty-four hours. Shortly after 8 P.M., Colonel Paul Disney flashed headquarters a laconic message: “We’re on the Elbe.”
One small group of armored vehicles had reached the outskirts of Magdeburg even earlier. In the afternoon Lieutenant Colonel Wheeler Merriam’s reconnaissance scout cars, traveling at speeds up to fifty-five miles per hour, had dashed into a suburban area on the western bank of the Elbe. There the cars were stopped, not by German defenses, but by civilian traffic and shoppers. The platoon let loose a high burst of machine gun fire in order to clear the streets. The result was chaos. Women fainted. Shoppers huddled in fearful groups or threw themselves flat on the ground. German soldiers ran helter-skelter, firing wildly. Merriam’s group lacked the strength to hold the area, but scout cars did manage to disentangle themselves from the mess and get to the airport which had been their objective. As they drove along the edge of the field, planes were landing and taking off. American guns began spraying everything in sight, including a squadron of fighters ready to take to the air. Then the defenses rallied and the platoon of scout cars was pinned down under heavy fire. The vehicles got out with the loss of only one armored car, but their appearance had alerted Magdeburg’s defenders. Now, as one American unit after another reached the Elbe on either side of the city, they began to encounter increasingly stiffening resistance. Merriam’s scouts, as they pulled back, had reported one vital piece of information: the Autobahn bridge to the north of the city was still standing. This immediately became the division’s prime objective, for it could carry the 2nd to Berlin. But from the gunfire that met the Americans it was clear that the bridge could not be taken on the run. Magdeburg’s defenders were determined to fight. Meanwhile there were other bridges to the north and south. If any one of these could be grabbed before the enemy destroyed it, the 2nd would be on its way.
Seven miles to the south, at Schönebeck, another bridge crossed the Elbe. It was the objective of Major Hollingsworth of the 67th Armored Regiment. All through Wednesday afternoon, Hollingsworth’s tanks raced unimpeded through town after town until they reached a place called Osterwieck. There, a regiment of Home Guard units forced a halt in the advance. Hollingsworth was puzzled. Many of the elderly Germans seemed ready to surrender—some had even tied handkerchiefs to their rifles and had raised them above their foxholes—yet there was no letup in the fighting. A prisoner, taken within the first few minutes, explained: eleven SS soldiers in the town were forcing the Home Guardsmen to fight. Angrily, Hollingsworth swung into action.
Calling for his jeep, and taking along an extra sergeant and a radio operator as well as the driver, the major circled the area and entered the town along a cow path. He cut a strange figure. Twin Colt automatics were strapped low on his hips, Western style; for added measure, he earned a tommy gun. Hollingsworth was a deadly shot who had personally killed over 150 Germans. Grabbing a passing civilian, he demanded to know where the SS troops were quartered. The terrified man immediately pointed to a large house and barn nearby, surrounded by a high fence. Noting a doorway in the fence, Hollingsworth and his men leaped from the car and, from a running start, smashed the door with their shoulders, ripping it off its hinges. As they crashed into the yard, an SS man rushed toward them, machine pistol raised; Hollingsworth riddled the man with his tommy gun. The other three Americans began throwing grenades into the windows. Looking quickly about, the major spotted another SS man in the open hayloft doors of the barn and beat him to the draw with his .45. Inside the buildings they found the bodies of six grenade victims; the three other SS men surrendered. Hollingsworth rushed back to his column. He had been held up for forty-five precious minutes.
Three hours later, Hollingsworth’s tanks breasted the high ground overlooking the towns of Schönebeck and Bad Salzelmen. Beyond, glittering in the early evening light, lay the Elbe, at this point almost five hundred feet wide. As he surveyed the area through binoculars, Hollingsworth saw that the highway bridge was still standing—and with good reason. German armored vehicles were using it to flee east across the river. How, Hollingsworth wondered, with enemy armor all around could he grab the bridge before it was blown?
As he watched, a plan began to form. Calling two of his company commanders, Captain James W. Starr and Captain Jack A. Knight, Hollingsworth outlined his idea. “They are moving along this north-to-south road running into Bad Salzelmen,” he said. “Then they swing east at the road junction, head into Schönebeck and cross the bridge. Our only hope is to charge into Bad Salzelmen and grab the junction. Now, here’s what we’ll do. When we get to the junction, your company, Starr, will peel off and block the road, holding the Germans coming up from the south. Ill join onto the rear of the German column that has already swung east into Schönebeck and follow it across the bridge. Knight, you come up behind. We’ve got to get that bridge and, by God, we’re going to do it.”
Hollingsworth knew that the plan would work only if they could move fast enough. The light was fading; with luck, the German tanks would never know they had company behind them as they crossed the bridge.
Within moments, Hollingsworth’s tanks were on their way. Hatches buttoned up, they charged into Bad Salzelmen; before the Germans were aware of what was happening, Starr’s vehicles had blocked the road from the south and were engaging the line of panzers. The German tanks leading the column had already made the turn, heading for the bridge. Apparently hearing the sound of firing behind, they began to speed up. At that moment Hollingsworth’s tanks filled the gap in their column and followed along at the same speed.
But then they were spotted. Artillery mounted on flat cars in the nearby railway yard opened fire on the rear of the U.S. column. As Hollingsworth’s Shermans turned into Schönebeck, a German Mark V tank, its turret revolving, drew a bead on the lead American. Staff Sergeant Cooley, Hollingsworth’s gunner, opened fire and blew up the Mark V. Slewing sideways, the panzer smashed into a wall and began burning furiously. There was barely room for Hollingsworth’s tank to get by, but weaving ponderously it edged through, followed by the rest of the column. Firing at the rear of each enemy vehicle and squeezing by the burning panzers, the American tanks charged through the town. By the time they reached its center, as Hollingsworth remembered, “everyone was firing at everyone else. It was the damnedest mess. Germans were hanging out of windows, either shooting at us with their Panzerfäuste or just dangling in death.”
Hollingsworth’s tank had not been hit and he was now only three or four blocks from the bridge. But the last stretch was the worst. As the remaining tanks pressed on, enemy fire seemed to come from everywhere. Buildings were blazing and, although by now it was 11 P.M., the scene was so brightly lit that it might still have been day.
Ahead lay the approach to the bridge. The tanks rushed forward. The entrance, blocked from Hollingsworth’s earlier view from the heights, was a maze of stone walls jutting out at irregular intervals from either side of the road; the vehicles had to slow and make sharp left and right maneuvers before reaching the center span. Jumping from his tank, Hollingsworth reconnoitered to see if he could both lead the way and direct his gunner’s fire via the telephone hooked to the back of the tank. At that instant an anti-tank shell exploded fifteen yards ahead of Hollingsworth. Cobblestone fragments flew through the air and suddenly the major found his face was a mass of blood.
A .45 in one hand and the tank telephone in the other, he doggedly moved toward the bridge. His tank collided with a jeep and Hollingsworth called for infantrymen. Leading them onto the approach, he began working his way through the roadblocks, exchanging steady fire with the Germans who were fiercely defending the way. A bullet struck him in the left knee but he kept the lead, urging the infantry on. At last, staggering and half-blinded by his own blood, Hollingsworth was stopped. A rain of fire was coming from the German positions and Hollingsworth was forced to order a withdrawal. He had come to within forty feet of the bridge. When Colonel Disney, his commanding officer, arrived on the scene he found the major “unable to walk and bleeding all over the place. I ordered him back to the rear.” Hollingsworth had missed taking the bridge by minutes. Had he succeeded, he believed he could have reached Berlin within eleven hours.
At dawn on April 12, as infantry and engineers tried once again to seize the Schönebeck bridge, the Germans blew it up in their faces.
High above the Ninth Army front Lieutenant Duane Francies put the unarmed spotting plane, the Piper Cub Miss Me, into a wide turn. Riding behind Francies was his artillery observer, Lieutenant William S. Martin. The two men had scouted for the 5th Armored all the way from the Rhine, locating strongpoints and radioing the positions to the oncoming tanks. It was not all routine work; more than once Francies and Martin had buzzed enemy troops, taking potshots at columns with their Colt .45’s.
Off to the east the clouds had opened and the fliers could see chimney stacks faint in the distance. “Berlin!” Francies shouted, pointing ahead. “The factories at Spandau.” Each day now, as the 5th advanced steadily, Francies searched for different city landmarks from his lofty vantage point. When the Miss Me led the tanks into Berlin, the young pilot wanted to be able to recognize instantly the main roads and buildings so as to inform the tankers about them. He intended to give “the boys” the full tour treatment as they approached Berlin.
Francies was almost ready to head back to a pasture near the lead columns when he suddenly pushed the stick forward. He had spotted a motorcyclist with a sidecar speeding out of a road close by some of the 5th’s tanks. As he began a dive to check out the vehicle, he glanced to his right and stiffened in amazement. Flying only a few hundred feet above the trees and almost indistinguishable was a Fieseler Storch, a German artillery-spotting plane. As the Miss Me drew closer, the white crosses on fuselage and wings showed prominently against the Storch’s gray-black body. Like the Cub, this was a fabric-covered, high-wing monoplane, but it was larger than Miss Me and, as Francies knew, at least a good thirty miles an hour faster. The American, however, had the advantage of altitude. Even as Francies yelled, “Let’s get him!” he heard Martin urging the same thing.
By radio Martin reported that they had spotted a German plane and announced calmly “we are about to give combat.” On the ground, astounded 5th Armored tankers, hearing Martin’s call, craned their necks skyward searching out the impending dogfight.
Martin got the side doors open as Francies dived. Swinging the Cub into a tight circle over the German plane, both men blasted away with their .45’s. Francies hoped the fire would force the German over the waiting tanks where machine gunners could easily bring it down. But the pilot of the enemy plane, though obviously confused by the unexpected attack, was not that obliging. Violently sideslipping, the Storch began circling wildly. Above it, Francies and Martin, like frontier stagecoach guards, were leaning out of their own plane emptying their automatics as fast as they could pull the triggers. To Francies’ amazement, there was no answering fire from the German. Even as the Americans reloaded, the Storch pilot, instead of putting distance between them, kept on circling. Later, Francies could only surmise that the pilot was still trying to figure out what was happening to him.
Now, dropping to within twenty feet of the enemy plane, the two Americans put bullet after bullet into the German’s windshield. They were so close that Francies saw the pilot “staring at us, his eyeballs as big as eggs.” Then suddenly the German maneuvered wildly and spun in. Martin, who had been giving a rapid running account of the fight on the radio, yelled, “We got him! We got him!” His voice was so blurred with excitement that Lieutenant Colonel Israel Washburn, sitting in his half-track, thought Martin said “We got hit!”
The Storch spiraled down, its right wing hit the ground, snapped off, and the plane cartwheeled and came to rest in the middle of a pasture. Francies set the Miss Me down in the next field and ran across to the downed plane. The German pilot and his observer were already out, but the observer had been hit in the foot and fell to the ground. The pilot dived behind a huge pile of sugar beets until a warning shot from Martin brought him out, hands in the air. As Martin covered the pilot with his gun, Francies examined the wounded observer. When he removed the German’s boot, a .45 slug fell out. As he bandaged the superficial wound, the German kept repeating, “Danke. Danke. Danke.”
Later that day, Francies and Martin posed happily beside their captured prize. They had fought what was probably the last World War II dogfight in the European theater and they were undoubtedly the only airmen in this war to bring down a German plane with a pistol. For Francies “it was a day of pure joy.” The only thing that could top this experience would be guiding the 5th Armored into Berlin. Francies believed he would have only a day or two to wait before the order came.*
As the platoon of tanks led by Lieutenant Robert E. Nicodemus approached Tangermünde at noon, they were met by an ominous silence. The objective of this unit of the 5th Armored Division was the bridge in the picturesque little city, which was some forty miles northeast of Magdeburg. Now that the bridge at Schönebeck was gone, the Tangermünde bridge was the most important one in the war, to the Ninth Army at least.
Nicodemus’ tank rolled down the main street of Tangermünde and into the square. The streets here, as elsewhere in the city, were deserted. Then, as the tanks pulled up in the square, air raid sirens began to wail and, Nicodemus said later, “everything happened at once. All hell broke loose.”
From windows, doorways and rooftops that had seemed empty moments earlier, Germans opened fire with bazooka-like anti-tank guns. The Americans answered back. At one moment Sergeant Charles Householder stood in the turret of his tank, blasting away with his tommy gun fire until the tank was hit and he had to jump out. Sergeant Leonard Haymaker’s tank, just behind Householder’s, was also hit; it burst into flames. Haymaker leaped to safety, but his crewmen were pinned inside by enemy fire. Crouching low and revolving in a slow circle, Haymaker fired short bursts from his tommy gun, covering his men as they escaped.
At the height of the battle, an American soldier jumped on the back of Nicodemus’ tank and, shouting above the din, identified himself as an escaped prisoner of war. About five hundred prisoners were being held in the town, he said, in two separate compounds. Nicodemus found himself in a dilemma. He had been about to call for artillery support, but he could hardly shell a town full of American prisoners. He decided to try breaking into the nearest compound to get the prisoners out of the line of fire.
Led by the POW, Nicodemus made his way through buildings and backyards and over fences to an enclosure down by the river. The instant the American prisoners in the compound saw the approaching officer they jumped their guards. The skirmish was brief. As soon as the guards had been disarmed, Nicodemus led the prisoners out. As the group approached the last enemy-held street and saw American tanks beyond, one GI turned to Nicodemus and exulted: “I’m a free man now. They can’t kill me.” He walked into the middle of the street and a German sniper shot him through the head.
While Nicodemus had been freeing the prisoners, desperate house-to-house fighting had been taking place throughout the city. At last, when the bridge was almost in sight, representatives of the German garrison met the U.S. advance guard and announced their wish to surrender. As the negotiations got under way, there was a tremendous explosion. A huge cloud of dust billowed up and rubble stormed down on the city. German engineers had blown the bridge. The Victory Division, closest American unit to the capital, had been stopped a tantalizing fifty-three miles from Berlin.
Anxiety began to spread through the Ninth Army Command. Up to mid-afternoon of April 12 there had been every reason for confidence. The 5th Armored had traveled a phenomenal 200 miles in just thirteen days; the 2nd had advanced the same distance in just one day more. Altogether, Simpson’s army had raced nearly 226 miles since leaving the Rhine. Ninth Army divisions were charging up to the Elbe all along the front.
But no bridges had yet been seized, no bridgeheads established on the river’s eastern bank. Many men had hoped for a repetition of the famous capture of the Rhine bridge at Remagen, which in early March had changed Anglo-American strategy overnight. But there had been no such luck. Now, at 2nd Armored headquarters a decision was reached: the river must be forced. Troops would make an amphibious assault on the Elbe’s eastern bank to secure a bridgehead. Then a pontoon bridge would be built across the river.
At his headquarters, Brigadier General Sidney R. Hinds, commander of the 2nd’s Combat Command B, laid his plans. The operation would take place south of Magdeburg, at a small town called Westerhüsen. At best, the plan was a gamble. Enemy artillery fire might destroy the bridge before its completion or, worse, prevent bridging operations altogether. But the longer Hinds waited, the more concentrated the enemy’s defenses might become. And with each hour of delay, the chance of beating the Russians into Berlin grew slimmer.
At 8 P.M. on April 12, two battalions of armored infantry were quietly ferried across to the eastern bank in the amphibious vehicles known as DUKWs. The crossing was unopposed. By midnight the two battalions were over and by first light a third had joined them. On the eastern bank, troops quickly deployed, digging defensive positions in a tight semicircle about the selected pontoon site. Jubilantly, General White put in a telephone call to the Ninth Army commander, General Simpson: “We’re across!”
The Germans learned of the crossing almost as soon as Simpson. At Magdeburg, the combat commander, a veteran of Normandy, immediately got word to General Wenck at Twelfth Army headquarters.
The Magdeburg officer, an expert artilleryman, had long ago learned not to underestimate the enemy. Early on the morning of June 6, 1944, he had looked out from his forward artillery post and had seen the Allied invasion fleet. Then, as now, he had promptly informed his superiors of the situation. “It’s the invasion,” he had said. “There must be ten thousand ships out there.” His incredible message was not believed. “What way are these ships headed?” he was asked. His reply was stark and simple: “Right for me.”
Now Major Werner Pluskat, the man who had directed the German fire from the center of Omaha Beach, prepared to make a stand on the Elbe. His gunners along the river, north and south of Magdeburg, would hold back the Americans as long as they could. But Pluskat had been around too long to have any doubts about the outcome.
However, the young cadets on whom General Wenck was depending had no pessimistic thoughts. Eager and fresh, they were looking forward to the battles ahead. Now mobile combat units of the Potsdam, Scharnhorst and Von Hutten divisions were rushing into position, preparing to erase the American bridgehead on the eastern bank of the Elbe.
On the west bank of the Elbe, engineers worked frantically. Searchlights, hurriedly positioned, were pointed straight up to refleet off the clouds, and in this artificial moonlight the first pontoons were secured and pushed into the river. One after another, the floating units were locked in place.
Standing close by, Colonel Paul A. Disney, the 67th Armored Regiment commander, watched the bridging operation with growing impatience. Suddenly shells screamed in. As they exploded about the first few pontoons, fountains of water shot up in the air. The fire pattern was unusual: the shells did not land in salvos; they came in singly, apparently from several widely positioned guns. Disney, certain that the fire was being directed by an artillery observer hidden nearby, ordered an immediate search of the rundown four-story apartment houses overlooking the river. The search yielded nothing; the fire continued, accurate and deadly.
Ripped pontoons sank, and the shrapnel lashing the water repeatedly forced the bridge-builders to take cover. Wounded men were dragged to the safety of the river bank; others took their places. All through the night the firing went on, nullifying the grim persistence of the American engineers. The one thing Hinds had feared most had happened. Grimly he ordered an infantry unit on a forced march south. Its instructions: find another site.
The following morning the rest of the bridge was destroyed by German gunfire. When the last shells screamed in and demolished the twisted and battered span, the bridge was only seventy-five yards from the eastern shore. Hinds, set-faced and weary, ordered the site abandoned. As the men assembled with their wounded, a message arrived : infantry on the eastern bank had found a suitable bridging area farther down the river.
By the afternoon of Friday the thirteenth, DUKWs were towing a heavy cable across the river to the newest bridgehead. The cable was intended as a stopgap. Once in place it would haul a string of pontoons back and forth across the river, bearing vehicles, tanks and guns. Although this system was desperately slow it would have to serve until bridging materials could be brought up.
The matter of greatest concern to Hinds now was the fate of the three battalions on the east bank of the river. With their backs to the Elbe, the troops were manning a rough semicircle in the area of the twin villages of Elbenau and Grünewalde. It was a small beachhead, and they had no armor support or artillery except for the batteries on the western banks. If the three battalions were hit by any attack in strength, the situation could become perilous. Hinds now ordered Colonel Disney across the Elbe in a DUKW to take command of the infantry.
Disney found the first of the three battalion command posts, headed by Captain John Finnell, in a patch of woods. Finnell was worried. German pressure was building up. “If we don’t get tanks over here real quick,” he said, “there’s going to be bad trouble.”
After briefing Hinds on the situation by radio, Disney set out to find the second battalion. As he moved down near the river, shells began to land all around him. Disney dived into a ditch, but the shells came closer, so he climbed out and started for another one. This time luck was against him. He felt a rain of shrapnel, then another. A third burst knocked him down. Disney lay there, barely conscious and severely wounded. His left upper arm was gouged and riddled and a large piece of shrapnel had torn away the upper part of his right thigh.
Within thirty-six hours, Hollingsworth and Disney, two of the men most fiercely dedicated to leading American forces to Berlin, had been put out of action.
At 1:15 P.M. on April 12, at about the time lead tanks of the 5th Armored Division were rolling into Tangermünde, President Franklin D. Roosevelt died at his desk in Warm Springs.
An artist was working on a portrait of him when suddenly the President put a hand to his head and complained of a headache. A short while later he was dead. On his desk lay a copy of the Atlanta Constitution. The headline read: 9TH—57 MILES FROM BERLIN.
It was nearly twenty-four hours later before news of the President’s death began filtering down to the front-line troops. Major Alcee Peters of the 84th Division heard the news from a German. At a railroad crossing near Wahrenholz an aging flagman came up to offer him sympathy because “the news is so terrible.” Peters felt shock and disbelief but before he fully absorbed what he had heard, his column moved out again, heading for the Elbe, and he had other matters to think about. Lieutenant Colonel Norman Carnes, commanding a battalion of the 333rd Infantry Regiment, was traveling through a bombed-out oil field north of Brunswick when he learned of FDR’s death. He felt regret, but his mind, too, was on his work. “It was just another crisis,” he later said. “My next objective was Wittingen and I was busy thinking about that. Roosevelt, dead or alive, couldn’t help me now.” Chaplain Ben Rose wrote to his wife Anne: “All of us were sorry … but we’ve seen so many men die that most of us know that even Roosevelt is not indispensable…. I was surprised how calmly we heard the news and talked about it.”
Joseph Goebbels could scarcely contain himself. The moment he heard the news he telephoned Hitler in the Führerbunker. “My Führer, I congratulate you! Roosevelt is dead!“ he exulted. “It is written in the stars. The last half of April will be the turning point for us. This is Friday, April 13. It is the turning point!”
Sometime earlier Goebbels had passed along two astrological predictions to Count Schwerin von Krosigk, Reichsminister of Finance. One had been prepared for Hitler the day he took power, January 30, 1933. The other, dated November 9, 1918, had dealt with the future of the Weimar Republic. Krosigk noted in his diary: “An amazing fact had become evident. Both horoscopes predicted the outbreak of war in 1939, the victories until 1941, and the subsequent series of reversals—with the hardest blows during the first months of 1945, especially in the first half of April. Then, there was to be an overwhelming victory in the second half of April, stagnation until August, and peace the same month. For the following three years Germany would have a difficult time, but starting in 1948 she would rise again.”
Goebbels also had been reading Thomas Carlyle’s History of Friedrich II of Prussia, and it had given him further cause for delight. One chapter told of the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763) when Prussia had stood alone against a coalition of forces that included France, Austria and Russia. In the sixth year of this struggle, Frederick had told his advisors that if by February 15 there was no change in his fortunes, he would commit suicide. Then on January 5, 1762, Czarina Elizabeth died and Russia withdrew from the conflict. “The miracle of the House of Brandenburg,” wrote Carlyle, “had come to pass.” The whole character of the war had changed for the better. Now, in the sixth year of World War II, Roosevelt was dead. The parallel was inescapable.
The Propaganda Minister was in ecstasy. At the Ministry of Propaganda he ordered champagne for everyone.
“Get across! Get across! And keep moving!” Colonel Edwin “Buckshot” Crabill of the 83rd Division stalked up and down the river bank, pushing men into assault boats and, here and there, helping slow starters with the toe of his boot.
“Don’t waste this opportunity,” he yelled at another boatload. “You’re on your way to Berlin!” As other men began to move across in DUKWs, the short, peppery Crabill admonished them, “Don’t wait to organize! Don’t wait for someone to tell you what to do! Get over there in any shape you can! If you move now, you can make it without a shot being fired!”
Crabill was right. At the town of Barby, fifteen miles southeast of Magdeburg and just below the spot where their arch rivals, the 2nd Armored, were desperately trying to make use of their cable ferry, the men of the 83rd were crossing the river in droves, unopposed. They had entered the town to find that the bridge had been blown but, without waiting for orders from the 83rd’s commanding officer, Crabill had ordered an immediate crossing. Assault boats had been rushed up and in a matter of hours a fullbattalion had been put across. Now another was en route. Simultaneously, artillery was being floated over on pontoons and engineers were building a treadway bridge that should be finished by nightfall. Even Crabill was impressed by the frenetic activity his orders had set off. As he dashed from group to group urging more speed, he kept repeating triumphantly to the other officers, “They’ll never believe this back at Fort Benning!”
Watching the feverish scene in silence was an audience of Germans, standing on a balcony below the clock tower of the town hall. For hours, as Lieutenant Colonel Granville Sharpe, commanding an infantry battalion, cleaned up what little resistance there was in the town, he had been aware of the audience, and he had grown increasingly annoyed. “My men were being shot at, but there stood the Germans watching the fighting and the river assault with intense interest,” he recalled. Now Sharpe had had enough. Going up to a tank, he told the gunner. “Put one round through the clock face at, say, about five o’clock.” The tanker obliged, scoring a clean bull’s-eye on the number five. The gallery suddenly dispersed.
In any case, the show was over. The 83rd was across. The first solid bridgehead had been established on the east bank of the Elbe.
By the evening of the thirteenth, engineers had finished their task and, thorough to the end, had put up a sign on the approach to the bridge. In honor of the new President and, with the division’s customary high morale and keen appreciation for the value of advertising, it read: TRUMAN BRIDGE. GATEWAY TO BERLIN. COURTESY OF THE 83RD INFANTRY DIVISION.
The news was flashed back to General Simpson and from there to General Bradley. He immediately telephoned Eisenhower. Suddenly the 83rd’s bridgehead was uppermost in everybody’s thoughts. The Supreme Commander listened carefully to the news. Then, at the end of the report, he put a question to Bradley. As Bradley later reconstructed the conversation, Eisenhower asked: “Brad, what do you think it might cost us to break through from the Elbe and take Berlin?”
Bradley had been considering that same question for days. Like Eisenhower, he did not now see Berlin as a military objective, but if it could be taken easily he was for its capture. Still, Bradley, like his chief, was concerned about too deep a penetration into the future Soviet zone and about the casualties that would occur as U.S. troops moved forward into areas from which, eventually, they would have to withdraw. He did not believe losses on the way to Berlin would be too high, but it might be a different story in the city itself. Taking Berlin might be costly.
Now he answered the Supreme Commander, “I estimate that it might cost us 100,000 men.”
There was a pause. Then Bradley added, “It would be a pretty stiff price to pay for a prestige objective, especially when we know that we’ve got to pull back and let the other fellow take over.”*
There the conversation ended. The Supreme Commander did not reveal his intentions. But Bradley had made his own opinion unmistakably clear: U.S. lives were more important than mere prestige or the temporary occupation of meaningless real estate.
At headquarters of the 19th Corps, General McLain stood before his map studying the situation. In his opinion the enemy line on the eastern bank of the Elbe was a hard crust, nothing more. Once his divisions got across and broke through it, nothing would stop them from rolling into Berlin. Colonel George B. Sloan, McLain’s Operations Officer, believed the Americans would hit the same sort of opposition they had encountered en route from the Rhine—pockets of last-ditch resistance that could be bypassed by fast-moving forces. He had every confidence that within forty-eight hours of resuming the attack, leading elements of U. S. armored units would enter Berlin.
McLain made a few quick decisions. The surprising accomplishment of the Rag-Tag Circus in grabbing a bridgehead, rushing troops across and then straddling the Elbe with a bridge, all within a few hours, had changed the whole river picture. The men of the 83rd were not merely expanding the beachhead on the eastern bank; they were advancing out of it. McLain was sure that the 83rd’s bridgehead was permanent. He was not so sure that the 2nd Armored’s puny cable ferry operation would survive the shelling. Still, the 2nd had three battalions across and they were holding. Arrangements had been made for part of the 2nd Armored to begin crossing the 83rd’s “Truman Bridge.” McLain, therefore, saw no reason for the 30th Division, now moving into position, to attack Magdeburg and go for the Autobahn bridge. At the rate the troops were moving now, the 83rd’s bridgehead could be quickly expanded to link with the cut-off battalions opposite the and’s cable ferry site. From this vastly enlarged bridgehead, the drive could continue. McLain decided to bypass Magdeburg entirely. The Truman Bridge, as the 83rd had anticipated, would be the gateway to Berlin.
At dawn, Saturday, April 14, at the 2nd Armored’s cable ferry, General Hinds waited for the three pontoons to be strapped together. They would form the ferry platform which the cable would pull back and forth pending construction of a bridge. Shells were still falling about both banks of the bridgehead and troops on the eastern side were involved in heavy fighting. They could hold out for some time against opposing infantry, but Hinds’s great fear was of a panzer attack. The Americans on the east bank were still without supporting artillery or armor.
The first vehicle to roll onto the pontoon ferry was a bulldozer; the eastern bank of the river had to be scraped and graded before tanks and heavy weapons could climb it. A DUKW would tow the platform, speeding the ferry by helping the cable move faster. Hinds watched anxiously. Two cables had been damaged and washed downstream. He had only one left; and his last outsized pontoons had gone to make the ferry.
The cumbersome operation began. As men watched, the ferry moved slowly out into the middle of the Elbe. Then, as it neared the eastern shore, the unbelievable happened. A single shell screamed in and, in a million-to-one shot, severed the cable. Hinds stood frozen in shock as cable, ferry and bulldozer disappeared down the river. Bitterly he said, “There it goes to hell!”
As though the incredible bull’s-eye had been a signal for total disaster, word now came that the troops on the eastern bank were being attacked by armored vehicles.
On the eastern side of the Elbe, through the wisps of morning haze and the smoke from artillery fire, Lieutenant Colonel Arthur Anderson watched the German armor smashing through his infantry defense lines. There were seven or eight armored vehicles, among them a couple of tanks. Through his glasses Anderson saw the group, well out of range of his own anti-tank bazookas, firing methodically into the American foxholes. Even as he watched, one of his companies holding positions on the far right of his command post was overrun. Troops dashed from their foxholes, making for the safety of the woods. Now the Germans were working over the positions of Anderson’s other two companies, blasting the foxholes one by one. Frantically Anderson radioed the batteries on the Elbe’s western bank for help. But the attack had taken place so fast that even as the 2nd Armored’s shells came screaming in, Anderson knew they were too late.
Farther along the bridgehead, Lieutenant Bill Parkins, commanding I Company, suddenly heard his machine guns open up and then the answering fire of German burp guns. A platoon runner dashed up. Three German vehicles with infantry, he reported, were coming down along the line, “cleaning out everything as they go.” Parkins sent back word to the troops to remain in position and to keep firing. Then he dashed out of his command post to find out for himself what was happening. “I saw three Mark V tanks about a hundred yards away, approaching from the east,” he later reported, “and each one appeared to have a platoon of infantry with it. They had American prisoners marching in front. Their guns were firing right through them.” Some of Parkins’ men returned the fire with their bazookas, but the range was too great; those projectiles that hit merely ricocheted off the tanks. His men were being chewed up. Parkins ordered them to pull back, before they were all captured or killed.
From north, east and south of the bridgehead German vehicles came in fast. Staff Sergeant Wilfred Kramer, in charge of an infantry platoon, saw a German tank about 220 yards away. Infantry was fanned out about it and coming up behind. Kramer ordered his men to wait. Then, when the Germans were about forty yards away, he yelled to open fire. “We were doing all right and holding our own,” he later explained. “But then the tank opened up. The first round landed about ten yards from our machine gun. Then Jerry went right down the line. He could see where every one of our holes was. It was point-blank fire.” Kramer held out for as long as he dared; then he, too, ordered his men back.
The fighting was so fierce around Grünewalde that Lieutenant Colonel Carlton E. Stewart, commanding a battalion, got a call for artillery from one of his companies and was told to “throw it right on our positions as our men are in the cellars of the houses.” Everyone was asking for air strikes to knock out the tanks, but only a few planes showed up during the entire dawn-to-noon battle. In the dash to the Elbe, fighter strips had been left so far behind that the planes had to carry extra gasoline wing tanks to keep up with the ground advance and that meant they couldn’t carry bombs.
By noon General Hinds had ordered all infantry on the east bank to withdraw back across the Elbe. Although casualties were at first thought to be high, men kept trickling in for days. Total cast bank casualties were ultimately set at 304; one battalion lost 7 officers and 146 enlisted men killed, wounded or missing. The fight ended the last hope of getting a 2nd Armored bridge or bridgehead across the Elbe. Now General White, the 2nd’s commander, had no choice but to use the 83rd’s bridge at Barby. The Germans had halted successfully, and with lightning speed, the great momentum that the 2nd Armored had built up.
The erasing of the bridgehead had been so sudden and the lighting so fierce that American commanders did not even know what units had attacked them. In fact, they were scarcely units at all. As General Wenck had foreseen, his fledgling cadets and training officers had served him well. Ambitious and eager for glory, they had pushed themselves and their meager equipment to the limit, buying the time Wenck needed. In throwing back the 2nd Armored Division these mobile shock troops had accomplished something no other German unit had managed in thirty months of combat. Had the division been able to secure either a bridge or a bridgehead across the Elbe, the 2nd might have roared right on to Berlin without ever waiting for orders.
The Supreme Commander’s plan of attack on Germany had unfolded brilliantly; indeed, the speed of the great Anglo-American advance had clearly surprised even him. In the north Montgomery’s Twenty-first Army Group was moving steadily. The Canadians, closing on Arnhem, were ready to begin clearing out the big enemy pocket that remained in northeast Holland. The British Second Army had crossed the river Leine, captured the town of Celle and were on the outskirts of Bremen. In the center of the Reich the surrounded Ruhr was almost reduced and, most important, Simpson’s Ninth Army, along with the U.S. First and Third armies, had almost cut Germany in two. The First was advancing on Leipzig. Patton’s Third was nearing the Czech border.
But these whirlwind gains had taken a toll: they had stretched Eisenhower’s supply lines almost to the limit. Apart from truck convoys, there was virtually no land transport available to Bradley’s forces; only one railroad bridge was still in operation over the Rhine. The fighting forces remained well supplied, but SHAEF staff officers were disturbed by the total picture. To serve the farflung armies, hundreds of Troop Carrier Command planes had been ordered to fly around the clock, bringing up supplies. On April 5 alone, a flying train of C-47S had carried more than 3,500 tons of ammunition and supplies and almost 750,000 gallons of gasoline to the front.
In addition, as the Allies pushed deeper and deeper into Germany, they had to supply increasing thousands of noncombatants. Hundreds of thousands of German prisoners of war had to be fed. Forced laborers from a score of countries and liberated British and American POWs had to be given shelter, food and medical services. Hospitals, ambulance convoys and medical supplies were only now moving up. And although these medical facilities were vast, an unforeseen demand was suddenly thrust upon them.
In recent days, what would prove to be the greatest hidden horror of the Third Reich had begun to be uncovered. All along the front in this tremendous week of advance, men had recoiled in shock and revulsion as they encountered Hitler’s concentration camps, their hundreds of thousands of inmates, and the evidence of their millions of dead.
Battle-hardened soldiers could scarcely believe what they were seeing as scores of camps and prisons fell into their hands. Twenty years later men would remember those scenes with grim anger: the emaciated walking skeletons who tottered toward them, their will to survive the only possession they had saved from the Nazi regime; the mass graves, pits and trenches; the lines of crematoriums filled with charred bones, mute and awful testimony to the systematic mass extermination of “political prisoners”—who had been put to death, as one Buchenwald guard explained, because “they were only Jews.”
Troops found gas chambers, set up like shower rooms except that cyanide gas instead of water sprayed from the nozzles. In the Buchenwald commandant’s home there were lampshades made from human skin. The commandant’s wife, Ilse Koch, had book covers and gloves made from the flesh of inmates; two human heads, shrunken and stuffed, were displayed on small wooden stands. There were warehouses full of shoes, clothing, artificial limbs, dentures and eyeglasses—sorted and numbered with detached and methodical efficiency. Gold had been removed from the dentures and forwarded to the Reich finance ministry.
How many had been exterminated? In the first shock of discovery no one could even estimate. But it was clear as reports came in from all along the front that the total would be astronomical. As to who the victims were, that was only too obvious. They were, by the Third Reich’s definition, the “non-Aryans,” the “culture-tainting inferiors,” peoples of a dozen nations and of a dozen faiths, but predominantly Jews. Among them were Poles, Frenchmen, Czechs, Dutchmen, Norwegians, Russians, Germans. In history’s most diabolical mass murder, they had been slain in a variety of unnatural ways. Some were used as guinea pigs in laboratory experiments. Thousands were shot, poisoned, hanged or gassed; others were simply allowed to starve to death.
In the camp at Ohrdruf, overrun by the U.S. Third Army on April 12, General George S. Patton, one of the U.S. Army’s most hard-bitten officers, walked through the death houses, then turned away, his face wet with tears, and was uncontrollably ill. The nextday Patton ordered the population of a nearby village, whose inhabitants claimed ignorance of the situation within the camp, to view it for themselves; those who hung back were escorted at rifle point. The following morning the mayor of the village and his wife hanged themselves.
Along the British route of advance, the discoveries were equally terrible. Brigadier Hugh Glyn Hughes, the British Second Army’s Senior Medical Officer, had been worrying for days about the possibility of infectious diseases in a camp he had been warned about at a place called Belsen. Upon arrival there, Hughes discovered that typhus and typhoid were the least of his worries. “No photograph, no description could bring home the horrors I saw,” he said, years later. “There were 56,000 people still alive in the camp. They were living in 45 huts. There were anywhere from 600 to 1,000 people living in accommodations which could take barely 100. The huts overflowed with inmates in every state of emaciation and disease. They were suffering from starvation, gastroenteritis, typhus, typhoid, tuberculosis. There were dead everywhere, some in the same bunks as the living. Lying in the compounds, in uncovered mass graves, in trenches, in the gutters, by the side of the barbed wire surrounding the camp and by the huts, were some 10,000 more. In my thirty years as a doctor, I had never seen anything like it.”
To save those still living, armies all along the front had to get immediate medical help. In some instances military needs had to take second place. “I do not believe,” Hughes later said, “that anyone realized what we were going to be faced with or the demands that would be made on the medical services.” Doctors, nurses, hospital beds and thousands of tons of medical stores and equipment were urgently needed. Brigadier Hughes alone required a 14,000-bed hospital—even though he knew that, no matter what steps were taken, at least 500 inmates would die each day until the situation could be brought under control.
General Eisenhower made a personal tour of a camp near Gotha. Ashen-faced, his teeth clenched, he walked through every part of the camp. “Up to that moment,” he later recalled, “I had known about it only generally or through secondary sources…. I have never at any other time experienced an equal sense of shock.”
The psychological effect of the camps on officers and men was beyond assessment. On the Ninth Army front in a village near Magdeburg, Major Julius Rock, a medical officer with the 30th Infantry, came up to inspect a freight train which the 30th had stopped. It was loaded with concentration camp inmates. Rock, horrified, immediately unloaded the train. Over the local burgomaster’s vehement protests, Rock billeted the inmates in German homes—but not until his battalion commander had given a crisp command to the complaining burgomaster. “If you refuse,” he said simply, “I’ll take hostages and shoot them.”
A cold determination to win and win quickly was replacing every other emotion in the men who had seen concentration camps. The Supreme Commander felt much the same way. On his return to SHAEF from Gotha he wired Washington and London urging that editors and legislators be sent immediately to Germany to see the horror camps at first hand so that the evidence could be “placed before the American and British publics in a fashion that would leave no room for cynical doubt.”
But before Eisenhower could press on to end the war, he had to consolidate his farflung forces. On the night of the fourteenth, from his office in Reims, Eisenhower cabled Washington of his future plans.
Having successfully completed his thrust in the center, Eisenhower said, he was confronted by two main tasks: “the further sub-division of the enemy’s remaining forces; and the capture of those areas where he might form a last stand effectively.” Those latter places, Eisenhower thought, would be Norway and the National Redoubt of Bavaria. In the north, he planned to throw Montgomery’s forces forward across the Elbe, to secure Hamburg and drive for Lübeck and Kiel. In the south, he planned to send General Devers’ Sixth Army Group toward the Salzburg area.
“Operations in the winter,” Eisenhower stated, “would be extremely difficult in the National Redoubt…. The National Redoubt could remain in being even after we join the Russians … so we must move rapidly before the Germans have the opportunity to thoroughly prepare its defenses with men and material.”
As for the German capital, Eisenhower thought it would also be “most desirable to make a thrust to Berlin as the enemy may group forces around his capital and, in any event, its fall would greatly affect the morale of the enemy and that of our own peoples.” But, said the Supreme Commander, that operation “must take a low priority in point of time unless operations to clear our flanks proceed with unexpected rapidity.”
In brief, then, his plan was:
(1) “to hold a firm front in the central area on the Elbe”
(2) to begin operations toward Lübeck and Denmark;
and (3) to initiate a powerful thrust” to meet Soviet troops in the Danube valley and break up the National Redoubt. “Since the thrust on Berlin must await the outcome of the first three above,” Eisenhower said, “I do not include it as a part of my plan.”
On the Elbe, all through the night of the fourteenth, men of the Rag-Tag Circus and the 2nd Armored moved across the 83rd’s bridges at Barby. Although a second bridge had been built near the first, the movement across remained slow. General White’s armored column, however, planned to begin the Berlin drive again the moment it reassembled on the western bank. Among the troops of the 83rd the story was going the rounds that Colonel Crabill had offered to lend the 2nd Armored a large, newly confiscated red bus, capable of holding fifty soldiers, which he had liberated in Barby. The 83rd had every reason to feel triumphant. Already its patrols were north of the town of Zerbst, less than forty-eight miles from Berlin.
Early Sunday morning, April 15, the Ninth Army commander, General Simpson, got a call from General Bradley. Simpson was to fly immediately to the Twelfth Army Group headquarters at Wiesbaden. “I’ve something very important to tell you,” Bradley said, “and I don’t want to say it on the phone.”
Bradley was waiting for his commander at the airfield. “We shook hands,” Simpson recalled, “and there and then he told me the news. Brad said, ‘You must stop on the Elbe. You are not to advance any farther in the direction of Berlin. I’m sorry, Simp, but there it is.’”
“Where in the hell did you get this?” Simpson demanded.
“From Ike,” Bradley said.
Simpson was so stunned he could not “even remember half of the things Brad said from then on. All I remember is that I was heartbroken and I got back on the plane in a kind of a daze. All I could think of was, How am I going to tell my staff, my corps commanders and my troops? Above all, how am I going to tell my troops?”
From his headquarters Simpson passed the word along to his corps commanders; then he left immediately for the Elbe. General Hinds encountered Simpson at the 2nd’s headquarters and seeing him became worried. “I thought,” Hinds recalled, “that maybe the old man didn’t like the way we were crossing the river. He asked how I was getting along.” Hinds answered, “I guess we’re all right now, General. We had two good withdrawals. There was no excitement and no panic and our Barby crossings are going good.”
“Fine,” said Simpson. “Keep some of your men on the east bank if you want to. But they’re not to go any farther.” He looked at Hinds. “Sid,” he said, “this is as far as we’re going.” Hinds was shocked into insubordination. “No, sir,” he said promptly. “That’s not right. We’re going to Berlin.” Simpson seemed to struggle to control his emotions. There was a moment of uneasy silence. Then Simpson said in a flat, dead voice, “We’re not going to Berlin, Sid. This is the end of the war for us.”
Between Barleben and Magdeburg where elements of the 30th Division troops were still advancing toward the river, the news spread quickly. Men gathered in groups, gesturing and talking both angrily and excitedly. P.F.C. Alexander Korolevich of the 120th Regiment, Company D, took no part in the conversation. He wasn’t sure if he was sad or happy, but he simply sat down and cried.
Heinrici recognized all the signs. At one part of the front the Russians had laid down a short artillery barrage; in another section they had launched a small attack. These were feints and Heinrici knew it. He had learned all the Russian ruses years before. These small actions were the prelude to the main attack. Now, his main concern was how soon he should order his men back to the second line of defense.
While he was pondering the question, Reichsminister Albert Speer, the Armament and Production Chief, arrived. This was one day Heinrici did not want visitors—especially someone as nervous and obviously harassed as Speer. In the confines of Heinrici’s office, Speer explained the nature of his visit. He wanted the General’s support. Heinrici must not follow Hitler’s “scorched-earth” orders to destroy German industry, power plants, bridges and the like. “Why,” Speer asked, “should everything be destroyed with Germany even now defeated? The German people must survive.”
Heinrici heard him out. He agreed that the Hitler order was “vicious,” he told Speer, and he would do everything in his power to help. “But,” cautioned Heinrici, “all I can do right now is to try and fight this battle as well as I can.”
Suddenly Speer pulled a pistol out of his pocket. “The only way to stop Hitler,” he said suddenly, “is with something like this.”
Heinrici looked at the gun, his eyebrows raised.
“Well,” he said coldly, “I must tell you that I was not born to murder.”
Speer paced the office. He seemed not even to have heard Heinrici. “It is absolutely impossible to make it clear to Hitler that he should give up,” he said. “I have tried three times, in October, 1944, in January and in March of this year. Hitler’s reply to me on the last occasion was this: ‘If a soldier had talked to me this way I would consider he had lost his nerve and I would order him shot.’ Then he said, ‘In this serious crisis leaders must not lose their nerves. If they do they should be done away with.’ It is impossible to persuade him that everything is lost. Impossible.”
Speer put the pistol back in his pocket. “It would be impossible to kill him anyway,” he said in a calmer voice. He did not tell Heinrici that for months he had been thinking of assassinating Hitler and his entire court. He had even thought up a scheme to introduce gas into the ventilating system of the Führerbunker, but it had proved impossible: a twelve-foot-high chimney had been built around the air intake pipe. Now Speer said: “I could kill him if I thought I could help the German people, but I can’t.” He looked at Heinrici. “Hitler has always believed in me,” he said. Then he added, “Anyway it would somehow be indecent.”
Heinrici did not like the tone of the conversation. He was also worried about Speer’s manner and inconsistencies. If it ever became known that Speer had talked to him this way, everyone at his headquarters would probably be shot. Heinrici deftly brought the conversation back to the original subject, the protection of Germany from the scorched-earth policy. “All I can do,” the Vistula commander reiterated, “is to perform my duty as a soldier as well as I can. The rest lies in the hands of God. I will assure you of this. Berlin will not become a Stalingrad. I will not let that happen.”
The fighting in Stalingrad had been street by street, block by block. Heinrici had no intention of letting his troops fall back to Berlin under Russian pressure and there fight a similar kind of battle. As for Hitler’s instructions to destroy vital installations, throughout his army group area Heinrici had already privately countermanded that order. He told Speer that he expected the Berlin Commandant, General Reymann, momentarily. He had invited Reymann, Heinrici said, to discuss these very matters and to explain personally why it was impossible to take the Berlin garrison under the Vistula command. A few moments later Reymann arrived. With him was Heinrici’s Chief of Operations, Colonel Eismann. Speer remained throughout the military conference.
Heinrici told Reymann, as Eismann was later to note, “not to depend on the Vistula Army Group for support.” Reymann looked as though his last hope was gone. “I do not know, then,” he said, “how I can defend Berlin.” Heinrici expressed the hope that his forces could bypass Berlin. “Of course,” he added, “I may be ordered to send units into Berlin, but you should not depend on it.”
Reymann told Heinrici that he had received orders from Hitler to destroy bridges and certain buildings in the city. Heinrici replied angrily, “Any demolition of bridges or anything else in Berlin will merely paralyze the city. If by any chance I am ordered to include Berlin in my command I will forbid such demolitions.”
Speer added his weight to the discussion, begging Reymann not to carry out the orders. In such a case, he said, most of the city would be cut off from water and electric supplies. As Eismann recalled Speer’s words, he said, “If you destroy these supply lines, the city will be paralyzed for at least a year. It will lead to epidemic and hunger for millions. It’s your duty to prevent this catastrophe! It’s your responsibility not to carry out these orders!”
The atmosphere, as Eismann remembered, was charged with tension. “A hard struggle was going on within Reymann,” he said. “Finally he answered in a hoarse voice that he had done his duty as an officer in an honorable manner; his son had fallen at the front; his home and possessions were gone; all he had left was his honor. He reminded us of what had happened to the officer who failed to blow up the Remagen bridge: he had been executed like a common criminal. The same, Reymann thought, would happen to him if he did not carry out his orders.”
Both Heinrici and Speer tried to dissuade him, but they could not change his mind. At last Reymann took his leave. Shortly thereafter Speer drove away, too. Finally Heinrici was alone—to concentrate on the one thing uppermost in his mind: the timing of the Russian attack.
The latest batch of intelligence reports had arrived at the headquarters and they seemed to point to an immediate assault. General Reinhard Gehlen, OKH Chief of Intelligence, had even included the most recent prisoner interrogations. One report told of a Red Army soldier from the 49th Rifle Division who “stated that the major offensive operation will begin in about five to ten days.” There was talk, the prisoner had said, “among Soviet soldiers that Russia will not allow the U.S. and England to claim the conquest of Berlin.” A second report was similar and contained even more speculation. A prisoner of the 79th Corps taken earlier in the day near Küstrin said that when the attack began, its main purpose would be “to get to Berlin ahead of the Americans.” According to the soldier, “brushes were expected with the Americans” who would be “covered ‘by mistake’ with artillery fire so that they will feel the force of Russian artillery.”
In Moscow on this same day, Sunday, April 15, Ambassador Averell Harriman met with Stalin to discuss the war in the Far East. Prior to the meeting, General Deane of the U. S. Military Mission had drawn Harriman’s attention to German radio reports which stated that the Russians were expected to attack Berlin at any moment. Harriman, as the conference with Stalin ended, casually brought up the matter. Was it true, he asked, that the Red Army was about to renew its offensive on Berlin? The Marshal’s answer, as General Deane was to cable Washington that evening, was: “Stalin said there was indeed going to be an offensive and that he did not know if it would be successful. However the main blow of this attack would be aimed toward Dresden, not Berlin, as he had already told Eisenhower.”
THE FUHRER’S COURT
Hitler with his personal pilot, Baur. Between them is the famous portrait of Frederick the Great, which hung in the Führerbunker and which Hitler gave to Baur as a parting gift.
Hitler and Eva Braun, in happier days.
Hitler with Erich Kempka, his Chauffeur.
Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering.
Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler.
Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels.
All photographs on this page are from the Imperial War Museum. London.
Frau Goebbels and five of her six children by Goebbels. The older boy, a child by her previous marriage, survived the war.
From left to right:
Albert Speer, Admiral Doenitz, Colonel General Jodl, seen here after their capture.
The dining hall in Hitler’s Reichskanzlei, with the shattered Chandeliers hanging to the floor.
The Reichskanzlei in ruins.
The entrance to Hitler’s bunker. On the left is the area in which the bodies of Hitler and Eva Braun were drenched in gasoline and set alight.
All through the remainder of the afternoon, Heinrici went over intelligence reports and talked with his staff and army officers on the telephone. Then, a little after 8 P.M., he made a decision. He had analyzed all the reports from the field; he had assessed and evaluated every nuance of his old enemy’s moves. Now, as he walked the length of his office, hands clasped behind his back, his head bowed in concentration, he paused; to an intently watching aide “it was as though he had suddenly sniffed the very air.” He turned to his staff. “I believe,” he said quietly, “the attack will take place in the early hours, tomorrow.” Beckoning to his Chief of Staff, he issued a one-line order to General Busse, commanding the German Ninth Army. It read: “Move back and take up positions on the second line of defense.” The time was now 8:45 P.M. In exactly seven hours and fifteen minutes, on Monday, April 16, the Giftzwerg would begin to fight Germany’s last battle.
*Francies’ extraordinary feat, unequaled in World War II, has never been acknowledged by the U. S. Defense Department. He was recommended for a Distinguished Flying Cross, but never received it. Curiously Martin, though not a flyer, was awarded the Air Medal for his part in the action.
*Bradley’s estimate has given rise to much confusion, both as to when he gave it to Eisenhower and as to how he arrived at the figure. The incident was first revealed by Bradley himself in his memoir, A Soldier’s Story. No date was given. Thus, as Bradley has told the author, he is partly responsible for the uncertainty that resulted. One version that has seen print depicts Bradley as telling Eisenhower at SHAEF as early as January, 1945, that the Berlin casualty figure would reach 100,000. Bradley himself says: “I gave the estimate to Ike on the phone immediately after we got the Elbe bridgehead. Certainly I did not expect to suffer 100,000 casualties driving from there to Berlin. But I was convinced that the Germans would fight hard for their capital. It was in Berlin, as I saw it, that we would have suffered the greatest losses.”