ALONG THE FIRST Belorussian Front, in the deep darkness of the forests, there was complete silence. Beneath the pines and camouflage netting the guns were lined up for mile after mile and stepped back caliber by caliber. The mortars were in front. Behind them were tanks, their long rifles elevated. Next came self-propelled guns and, following these, batteries of light and heavy artillery. Along the rear were four hundered Katushkas—multi-barreled rocket launchers capable of firing sixteen projectiles simultaneously. And massed in the Küstrin bridgehead on the Oder’s western bank were the searchlights. Everywhere now in these last few minutes before the attack the men of Marshal Georgi Zhukov’s armies waited for zero hour—4 A.M.
Captain Sergei Golbov’s mouth was dry. With each passing moment it seemed to him that the stillness was becoming more intense. He was with troops north of Küstrin on the eastern bank of the Oder, at a point where the flooded river was almost five hundred yards wide. Around him, he would later relate, were “swarms of assault troops, lines of tanks, platoons of engineers with sections of pontoon bridges and rubber boats. Everywhere the bank of the river was jammed with men and equipment and yet there was complete silence.” Golbov could sense “the soldiers almost trembling with excitement—like horses trembling before the hunt.” He kept telling himself that “somehow I had to survive this day, for there was so much I had to write.” Over and over he kept repeating, “This is no time to die.”
In the center, troops were jammed into the bridgehead on the river’s western bank. This key lodgment—it was now thirty miles long and ten miles deep—which the Russians had wrested from General Busse in late March, was to be the springboard for Zhukov’s drive on Berlin. From here the men of the crack Eighth Guards Army would launch the assault. Once they seized the critical Seelow Heights directly ahead and slightly to the west, the armor would follow. Guards Lieutenant Vladimir Rozanov, 21-year-old leader of an artillery reconnaissance section, stood on the west bank near the Bed Army girls who would operate the searchlights. Rozanov was sure that the lights would drive the Germans mad; he could hardly wait for the girls to switch them on.
In one respect, however, Rozanov was unusually concerned about the forthcoming attack. His father was with Marshal Koniev’s forces to the south. The young officer was angry with his father; the older man had not written the family in two years. Nevertheless, he had high hopes that they might meet in Berlin—and perhaps go home together after the battle. Although he was fed up with the war, Rozanov was glad to be on hand for the last great assault. But the waiting was almost unbearable.
Farther along the bridgehead, Gun Crew Chief Sergeant Nikolai Svishchev stood by his battery. A veteran of many artillery barrages, he knew what to expect. At the moment the firing began, he had warned his crew, “roar at the top of your voices to equalize the pressure, for the noise will be terrific.” Now, gun lanyard in hand, Svishchev awaited the signal to open fire.
South of Küstrin, in the bridgehead around Frankfurt, Sergeant Nikolai Novikov of a rifle regiment was reading the slogans scrawled on the sides of nearby tanks. “Moscow to Berlin,” read one. Another said: “50 kilometers to the lair of the Fascist Beast.” Novikov was in a frenzy of excitement. His enthusiasm had been whetted by a morale-building speech given by one of the regiment’s political officers. The impassioned and optimistic pep talk had so stirred Novikov that he had promptly signed an application to join the Communist Party.*
In a bunker built into a hill overlooking the Küstrin bridgehead, Marshal Zhukov stood gazing impassively into the darkness. With him was Colonel General Chuikov, the defender of Stalingrad and commander of the spearhead Eighth Guards Army. Ever since Stalingrad, Chuikov had suffered from eczema. The rash had particularly affected his hands; to protect them, he wore black gloves. Now, as he waited impatiently for the offensive to begin, he nervously rubbed one gloved hand against the other. “Vasili Ivanovich,” Zhukov suddenly asked, “are all your battalions in position?” Chuikov’s answer was quick and assured. “For the last forty-eight hours, Comrade Marshal,” he said. “Everything you have ordered, I have done.”
Zhukov looked at his watch. Settling himself at the bunker’s aperture, he tilted back his cap, rested both elbows on the concrete ledge and carefully adjusted his field glasses. Chuikov turned up the collar of his greatcoat and, pulling the flaps of his fur cap over his ears to muffle the sound of the bombardment, took up a position beside Zhukov and sighted his own binoculars. Staff officers clustered behind them or left the bunker to watch from the hill outside. Now everyone gazed silently into the darkness. Zhukov glanced once more at his watch and again looked through the glasses. The seconds ticked away. Then Zhukov said quietly, “Now, Comrades. Now.” It was 4 A.M.
Three red flares soared up suddenly into the night sky. For one interminable moment the lights hung in midair, bathing the Oder in a garish crimson. Then, in the Küstrin bridgehead Zhukov’s phalanx of searchlights flashed on. With blinding intensity the 140 huge anti-aircraft lights, supplemented by the lights of tanks, trucks and other vehicles, focused directly ahead on the German positions. The dazzling glare reminded war correspondent Lieutenant Colonel Pavel Troyanoskii of “a thousand suns joined together.” Colonel General Mikhail Katukov, Commander of the First Guards Tank Army, was taken completely by surprise. “Where the hell did we get all the searchlights?” he asked Lieutenant General N. N. Popiel of Zhukov’s staff. “The devil only knows,” Popiel replied, “hut I think they stripped the entire Moscow anti-aircraft defense zone.” For just a moment there was silence as the searchlights illuminated the area ahead of Küstrin. Then three green flares soared into the heavens and Zhukov’s guns spoke.
With an earsplitting, earthshaking roar the front erupted in flame. In a bombardment that had never been equaled on the eastern front, more than twenty thousand guns of all calibers poured a storm of fire onto the German positions. Pinned in the merciless glare of the searchlights, the German countryside beyond the western Küstrin bridgehead seemed to disappear before a rolling wall of bursting shells. Whole villages disintegrated. Earth, concrete, steel, parts of trees spewed into the air and in the distance forests began to blaze. To the north and south of Küstrin thousands of gun flashes stabbed the darkness. Pinpoints of light, like deadly firecrackers, winked in rapid succession as tons of shells slammed into targets. The hurricane of explosives was so intense that an atmospheric disturbance was created. Years later German survivors would vividly recall the strange hot wind that suddenly sprang up and howled through the forests, bending saplings and whipping dust and debris into the air. And men on both sides of the line would never forget the violent thunder of the guns. They created a concussion so tremendous that troops and equipment alike shook uncontrollably from the shock.
The storm of sound was stupefying. At Sergeant Svishchev’s battery the gunners yelled at the tops of their voices but the concussion of their guns was so great that blood ran from their ears. The most fearsome sound of all came from the Katushkas or “Stalin Organs,” as the troops called them. The rocket projectiles whooshed off the launchers in fiery batches and screeched through the night, leaving long white trails behind them. The terrifying noise they made reminded Captain Golbov of huge blocks of steel grinding together. Despite the terrible racket, Golbov found the bombardment exhilarating. All around him he saw “troops cheering as though they were fighting the Germans hand-to-hand and everywhere men were firing whatever weapon they had even though they could see no target.” As he watched the guns belching flames, he remembered some words his grandmother had once uttered about the end of the world, “when the earth would burn and the bad ones would be devoured by fire.”
Amid the tumult of the bombardment Zhukov’s troops began to move out. Chuikov’s well-disciplined Eighth Guards led the way from the Küstrin bridgehead on the Oder’s western banks. As they surged forward, the artillery barrage remained always in front of them, carpeting the area ahead. North and south of Küstrin, where assault crossings had to be made across the flooded river, engineers were in the water laying pontoons and fitting together prefabricated sections of wooden bridges. All around them waves of shock troops were crossing the Oder without waiting for the bridges, tossing and bobbing in a variety of assault boats.
In the ranks were troops who had stood at Leningrad, Smolensk, Stalingrad and before Moscow, men who had fought their way across half a continent to reach the Oder. There were soldiers who had seen their villages and towns obliterated by German guns, their crops burned, their families slain by German soldiers. For all these the assault had special meaning. They had lived for this moment of revenge. The Germans had left them nothing at home to return to; they had nowhere to go but forward. Now they attacked savagely. Equally avid were the thousands of recently released prisoners of war: reinforcements had been so urgently needed by the Red Army that the newly freed prisoners—tattered, emaciated, many still showing the effects of brutal treatment—had been given arms. Now they, too, rushed forward, seeking a terrible vengeance.
Cheering and yelling like wild tribesmen, the Russian troops advanced on the Oder’s eastern hanks. Caught up in a kind of frenzy, they found it impossible to wait for boats or bridges. Golbov watched in amazement as soldiers dived in, fully equipped, and began swimming the river. Others floated across clutching empty gasoline cans, planks, blocks of wood, tree trunks—anything that would float. It was a fantastic spectacle. It reminded Golbov of “a huge army of ants, floating across the water on leaves and twigs. The Oder was swarming with boatloads of men, rafts full of supplies, log floats supporting guns. Everywhere were the bobbing heads of men as they floated or swam across.” At one point Golbov saw his friend, the regimental doctor, “a huge man named Nicolaieff, running down the river bank dragging behind him a ridiculously small boat.” Golbov knew that Nicolaieff was “supposed to stay behind the lines at the field hospital, but there he was in this tiny boat, rowing like hell.” It seemed to Golbov that no power on earth could stop this onslaught.
Abruptly the bombardment ended, leaving a stunning silence. The cannonade had lasted a full thirty-five minutes. In Zhukov’s command bunker, staff officers suddenly became aware that the phones were ringing. How long the sound had been going on, no one could say; all were suffering from some degree of deafness. Officers began taking the calls. Chuikov’s commanders were making their first reports. “So far everything is going as planned,” Chuikov told Zhukov. A few moments later he had even better news. “The first objectives have been taken,” he announced proudly. Zhukov, a tense figure since the opening of the attack, became suddenly expansive. As General Popiel recalled, Zhukov “seized Chuikov by the hand and said, ‘Excellent! Excellent! Very good indeed!’” But pleased as he was, Zhukov had too much experience to underestimate his enemy. The stocky Marshal would feel better when the vital Seelow Heights near Küstrin was seized. Then, he felt, success would be assured. Still, that should not take long. Apart from everything else, Russian bombers were now airborne and beginning to pound the areas ahead. More than 6,500 planes were scheduled to support his and Koniev’s attacks. But Zhukov believed that the artillery bombardment alone must certainly have demoralized the enemy.
In the operations room of his advance command post in the Schönewalde forest north of Berlin, Colonel General Gotthard Heinrici paced the floor, hands behind his back. Around him telephones shrilled and staff officers took reports, carefully transcribing the information onto the war map lying on a table in the center of the room. Every now and then Heinrici paused in his pacing to glance at the map or to read a message handed him by Colonel Eismann. He was not surprised by the way the Russian offensive was being carried out, although most of his officers were awestruck by the massiveness of the bombardment. General Busse of the Ninth Army described it as “the worst ever,” and Colonel Eismann, basing his opinion on early reports, believed the “annihilating fire had practically destroyed our front-line fortifications.”
Under darkness on the night of the fifteenth, the majority of the Vistula troops had swung back to the second line of positions as Heinrici had ordered. But there had been difficulties. Some officers had bitterly resented giving up their front-line positions. It looked to them as though they were retreating. Several commanders had complained to Heinrici. “Has it ever occurred to you,” he inquired icily of one protesting general, “that nothing will be left of your nice front-line fortifications or of your men after the Russians open fire? If you’re in a steel mill you don’t put your head under a trip hammer, do you? You pull it back in time. That is precisely what we’re doing.”
The difficult stratagem had taken most of the night. From all reports, in the areas where troops had been withdrawn the maneuver had proved successful. Now in the second line the men waited for the advancing Russians. On one part of the front Heinrici had the advantage: west of Küstrin was the sandy, horseshoe-shaped plateau of the Seelow Heights. It ranged in height from one hundred to two hundred feet and it overlooked a spongy valley known, for the streams veining through it, as the Oder Bruch. The Russians would have to cross this valley in their advance from the Oder, and all along the crescent-shaped plateau Heinrici’s guns were trained on the lines of approach.
Here, on these critical heights, lay Heinrici’s only chance to blunt Zhukov’s attack, and Heinrici knew Zhukov would undoubtedly have given this fact great consideration in his planning. The Russian would need to seize the plateau quickly, before Heinrici’s guns could shell the Red Army’s Oder bridges and create havoc among the troops advancing across the low-lying, marshy terrain. Obviously Zhukov had hoped to knock out almost all resistance with his massive bombardment, making the capture of the Heights that much easier. But because of the German withdrawal from the front lines, the majority of Heinrici’s army and artillery were intact and in position. The defensive plan had gone well. There was only one thing wrong: Heinrici did not have enough of either men or guns. Without Luftwaffe help in the air and without reserves in men, guns, panzers, ammunition or fuel, Heinrici could only delay Zhukov’s offensive. Eventually his enemy must break through.
Along the entire front Heinrici’s two armies had fewer than 700 operable tanks and self-propelled guns. These had been dispersed among the various units of the Ninth and Third armies. The heaviest division, the 25th Panzer, had seventy-nine such vehicles; the smallest unit had two. In contrast to Zhukov’s artillery strength—20,000 guns of all calibers*—Heinrici had 744 guns, plus 600 antiaircraft guns being used as artillery. Ammunition and fuel supplies were equally critical. Apart from shells stored at battery sites, the Ninth Army had reserves sufficient for only two and a half days.
Heinrici could not hold the Russians for any appreciable length of time—nor could he counterattack, because he had dispersed what little armor and artillery there was to give each unit a fighting chance. He could do only what he had known was possible all along: he could buy a little time. As Heinrici looked at the map and the thick red arrows marking the Russian advances, he thought bitterly of the panzers that had been transferred to Field Marshal Schorner’s southern army group to stem the Russian attack which Hitler and Schörner had insisted was heading for Prague. Those armored units would have given Heinrici seven panzer divisions in all. “If I had them,” he told Eismann sourly, “the Russians wouldn’t be having much fun now.”
Bad as matters were, the crisis still lay ahead. Zhukov’s attack was only the beginning. There were Rokossovskii’s forces in the north to reckon with. How soon would they attack Von Manteuffel’s Third Army? And when would Koniev launch his offensive in the south?
Heinrici did not have to wait long to learn of Koniev’s intentions. The Russians’ second blow came along the extreme southern edge of the line held by Busse’s army, and into Field Marshal Ferdinand Schorner’s sector. At exactly 6 A.M. the troops of Koniev’s First Ukrainian Front attacked across the river Neisse.
In tight V-formations, the Red fighter planes banked and headed for the river through bursts of bright pink flak and streams of red, yellow and white tracer bullets. Then with dense clouds of white smoke pouring out behind them they screamed up the valley, less than fifty feet above the metallic-gray river Neisse. Again and again the fighters bored through the anti-aircraft barrage, laying a thick, fluffy blanket of smoke that obscured not only the river but the eastern and western banks as well. Marshal Ivan Koniev, watching from an observation post on a high point directly above the river, was well pleased. Turning to General N. P. Pukhov, whose Thirteenth Army would soon join in the assault, Koniev said, “Our neighbors use searchlights, for they want more 0light. I tell you, Nikolai Pavlovich, we need more darkness.”
Although Koniev was attacking on a front of about fifty miles, he had ordered the smoke screen laid over a distance almost four times as long to confuse the Germans. Now watching through artillery glasses mounted on a tripod, Koniev noted that the smoke was holding. The wind velocity had been figured at only half a meter a second—no more than a mile an hour. With satisfaction he announced that the screen was “the right thickness and density, and exactly the correct height.” Then, as the planes continued to lay smoke, Koniev’s massed artillery opened up with a tremendous roar.
His bombardment was as merciless as Zhukov’s had been, but Koniev was using his artillery strength more selectively. Prior to the attack Koniev’s artillery commanders, knowing their observers would be blinded by the smoke screen, had pinpointed every known defense line and enemy strongpoint on topographical maps and had then zeroed in their guns. Besides hitting these preselected targets, the First Ukrainian guns were deliberately blasting out avenues running west from the Neisse for the assault troops and tanks that would follow. Rolling barrages, like fiery scythes, methodically chopped paths several hundred yards wide through the German positions. As they did, forests began blazing as they had in Zhukov’s area, and seas of flame stretched away from the river for miles ahead.
Koniev was leaving nothing to chance. He was driven not only by his ambition to reach Berlin before Zhukov but by another even more important reason: the unexpected speed of the Western Allies, who were now only forty miles from the city. Koniev thought one or both of two things might happen: Eisenhower’s forces might try to reach the capital before the Red Army—and the Germans probably would attempt to make a separate peace with the Western Allies. As Koniev was later to put it: “We did not want tobelieve that our Allies would enter into any sort of separate agreement with the Germans. However in the atmosphere … which abounded in both fact and rumor, we as military men had no right to exclude the possibility…. This gave the Berlin operation special urgency. We had to consider the possibility that … the Fascist leaders would prefer to surrender Berlin to the Americans and British rather than to us. The Germans would open the way for them, but with us they would fight fiercely and to the last soldier.”* In his planning Koniev had “soberly considered the prospect.” In order to beat either Marshal Zhukov or the Western Allies to Berlin, Koniev knew that he had to overwhelm the enemy within the first few hours of his attack. Unlike Zhukov, Koniev had no infantry-filled bridgehead on the Neisse’s western bank. He had to hurdle the river in force, and it was a formidable obstacle.
The Neisse was an icy, swift-flowing river. In places it was 150 yards wide, and although the eastern banks were relatively flat, the western shore sloped up steeply. The Germans had taken full advantage of these natural defenses; they were now entrenched in a number of heavily fortified concrete bunkers overlooking the river and its eastern approaches. Koniev had to overwhelm the enemy quickly if he was to avoid being pinned down by fire from these bunkers. His plan called for armored divisions to be thrown into the attack the moment footholds were secured on the western banks. But that meant building bridges across the river even before the protective smoke screen dissipated and, if the bombardment had not knocked out the enemy, it might have to be done under heavy fire. He intended to make his main crossing in the area of Buchholz and Triebel. But there would also be others. Koniev, convinced that he must achieve the complete and rapid smothering of the enemy, had ordered an enormous river assault, with crossings at more than 150 places. At each site, his engineers had vowed to have bridges or ferries available in one to three hours.
At 6:55 A.M. the second stage of Koniev’s plan unfolded. All along the eastern bank first-wave troops emerged from the forests under cover of the continuing artillery fire and, in a miscellaneous collection of boats, headed across the Neisse. Immediately behind them came a second wave of men and behind them a third. In the Buchholz-Triebel area, shock troops of Pukhov’s Thirteenth Army swarmed across the choppy waters, dragging sections of pontoon bridges. Leading the way was the 6th Guards Rifle Division, commanded by Major General Georgi Ivanov, a tough 44-year-old Cossack. Ivanov had put everything that would float into the water. Besides pontoons, he used empty aviation fuel tanks and large German fertilizer bins which he had ordered welded to make them airtight; these were manhandled into position as bridging supports. In the water were hundreds of engineers; as fast as prefabricated wooden bridge sections were pushed off the eastern bank the engineers bolted them together. Scores of men stood neck-deep in the icy Neisse holding heavy bridging beams above their heads, while others drove wooden supports into the river bed. Special teams of engineers hauled cables across the Neisse in boats equipped with hand-operated winches. On the western bank they set up ferry heads and then manually wound in the cables, pulling floats with guns and tanks across the river. At some places engineers got guns across without the ferry-floats: they simply dragged them along the river bed on the end of the cables. The operations were moving steadily forward despite enemy fire nearly everywhere along the line. To protect the crossings Ivanov used shore batteries which fired directly above the heads of his troops and into the German defenses on the western bank. Hesupported these batteries with a hail of fire from no less than two hundred machine guns, “just to keep their heads down.”
At 7:15 A.M. Koniev got good news: the first bridgehead had been seized on the western bank. One hour later he learned that tanks and self-propelled guns had been ferried across and were already engaging the enemy. By 8:35, A.M., at the end of a two hour and thirty-five minute bombardment, Koniev knew with absolute certainty that his troops were well established west of the Neisse. They had so far secured 133 of the 150 crossings. Units of Pukhov’s Thirteenth Army, together with forces of the Third Guards Tank Army, had already punched through the center in the assault area at Triebel, and by all accounts the enemy in front of them seemed to have cracked. The armor of the Fourth Guards Tank Army was now moving across in the same sector, and to the south men of the Fifth Guards Army were over the river. It looked to Koniev as if his tanks might achieve a breakthrough at any moment.
Once that was accomplished, Koniev planned to dash for the cities of Spremberg and Cottbus. Past Cottbus he would head out on the roadnet for Lübben. That area held special interest for Koniev. It was the terminal point of the boundary line laid down by Stalin, separating Zhukov’s First Belorussian Front and his own First Ukrainian Front. If Koniev got there fast enough, he planned to ask Stalin immediately for permission to swing north and head for Berlin. Confident of the go-ahead, Koniev had already sent written orders to Colonel General Pavel Semenovich Rybalko of the Third Guards Tank Army “to be prepared to break into Berlin from the south with a tank corps reinforced with a rifle division from the Third Guards Army.” It looked to Koniev as though he might just beat Zhukov to the city. He was so engrossed in the progress of his attack that he did not realize how lucky he was to be alive. In the first moments of the assault a sniper’s bullet had drilled a neat hole through the tripod of his artillery glasses, inches away from Koniev’s head.*
On the eastern fringes of Berlin the hammering of the guns, less than thirty-five miles away, was like the sullen thunder of a far-off storm. In small villages and towns nearer the Oder there were some strange concussion effects. In the police station at mahlsdorf books fell off their shelves and telephones rang for no reason. Lights dimmed and flickered in many areas. In Dahlwitz-Hoppegarten an air raid siren suddenly went berserk and no one could switch it off. Pictures fell from walls, windows and mirrors shattered. A cross hurtled down from the steeple of a church in muncheberg, and everywhere dogs began to howl.
In the eastern districts of Berlin the muffled sound echoed and re-echoed in the skeletal, fire-blackened ruins. The fragrant smell of burning pines wafted across the fringes of Köpenick. Along the edges of Weissensee and Lichtenberg a sudden wind caused curtains to whip and flap with ghostly abandon, and in Erkner some inhabitants of air raid shelters were jolted out of sleep, not by noise but by a sickening vibration of the earth.
Many Berliners knew the sound for what it was. In the möhrings’ Pankow apartment where the Weltlingers were hiding, Siegmund, who had been a World War I artilleryman, instantly recognized the far-off sound as that of a massive artillery bombardment; he woke his wife margarete to tell her about it. At least one Berliner claimed to have actually seen Zhukov’s rolling barrage. Shortly after 4 A.M. 16-year-old Horst Römling climbed a seven-story tower on the western edge of Weissensee and stared eastward through field glasses. Horst quickly informed the neighbors he had seen the “flash and glare of Russian guns,” but few believed him—he was considered a wild, fanciful boy at best.
The sound did not penetrate the central districts, although here and there some Berliners claimed they heard something unusual. Most thought it was probably anti-aircraft fire, or the detonation of unexploded bombs dropped during the night’s two hour andtwenty-five minute air raid, or perhaps the sudden collapse of a bomb-blasted building.
One small group of civilians learned almost immediately that the Russian offensive had started. They were the operators in the main post office telephone building on Winterfeldtstrasse in Schöneberg. Within minutes of the opening barrage, long-distance and trunk-line sections of the exchange were jammed with calls. Nervous Nazi Party officials in areas near the Oder and Neisse called administrative heads in Berlin. Fire brigade chiefs asked whether they should try to put out the forest fires or move their equipment out of the areas. Police chiefs phoned their superiors and everybody tried to get through to relatives. As operators were to recall years later, nearly all those completing calls began their conversations with two words: “It’s begun!” Switchboard supervisor Elisabeth milbrand, a devout Catholic, took out her beads and silently said the Rosary.
By 8 A.M. on April 16, most of Berlin had heard on the radio that “heavy Russian attacks continue on the Oder front.” The news announcements were guarded, but the average Berliner needed no elaboration. By word of mouth or from relatives outside the city, people learned that the moment they had dreaded had finally arrived. Curiously, at this time the man in the street knew more than Hitler. In the Führerbunker the leader was still sleeping. He had retired a little before 3 A.M. and General Burgdorf, his adjutant, had given strict instructions that the Führer was not to be awakened.
The strange subterranean world of the bunker had an almost cheerful look this morning: there were vases of bright tulips in the little anteroom, the corridor lounge and the small conference room. Earlier one of the Reichskanzlei gardeners had cut them from the few flowerbeds that still remained in the bomb-pitted gardens. It had seemed a good idea to Burgdorf because Eva Braun loved tulips. The Reich’s unwed first lady had arrived the night before. With her she had brought some presents for the Führer from old friends in Munich. One was a book sent by Baroness Baidur von Schirach, wife of the former Reich Youth Leader. The novel’s hero bore every misfortune without losing hope. “Optimism,” he was made to say “is a mania for maintaining that all is well when things are going badly.” The Baroness had thought the book a most appropriate choice. It was Voltaire’s Candide.
At first Zhukov did not believe the news. Standing in the Küstrin command post surrounded by his staff, he stared incredulously at Chuikov and then spluttered in rage. “What the hell do you mean—your troops are pinned down?” he yelled at the Eighth Guards Army commander, and this time there was no friendly use of the General’s given names. Chuikov had seen Zhukov angry before and he remained perfectly calm. “Comrade marshal,” he said, “whether we are pinned down temporarily or not, the offensive will most certainly succeed. But resistance has stiffened for the moment and is holding us up.”
Heavy artillery fire from the Seelow Heights had hit the troops and supporting tank units as they advanced, Chuikov explained. Also the terrain through which they were moving was proving extremely difficult for armor. In the marshes and irrigation canals of the Oder Bruch self-propelled guns and tanks were thrashing and churning helplessly. A number of mired tanks had been hit, one after another, and had gone up in flames. Up to now, said Chuikov, his Eighth Guards had advanced only fifteen hundred yards. Zhukov, according to General Popiel, gave vent to his fury with “a stream of extremely forceful expressions.”
What had happened to the supposedly irresistible offensive? There were a variety of opinions, as General Popiel quickly discovered when he checked Zhukov’s senior officers. General mikhail Shalin, a corps commander of the First Guards Army, told Popiel he was certain “the Germans had been pulled out of the front lines before the attack and placed in a second defensive line along the Seelow Heights. Therefore,” said Shalin, “the majority of our shells fell in open country.” General Vasili Kuznetsov, commander of the Third Shock Army, was bitterly critical of the First Belorussian plan. “As usual,” he told Popiel, “we stuck to the book and by now the Germans know our methods. They pulled back their troops a good eight kilometers. Our artillery fire hit everything but the enemy.” General Andreya Getman, a ranking tank expert and corps commander in Katukov’s First Guards Tank Army was both critical and angry, particularly about the searchlights. “They didn’t blind the main forces of the enemy,” he said. “But I’ll tell you what they did do—they absolutely spotlighted our tanks and infantry for the German gunners.”
Zhukov had never expected the attack to be easy, but although he had anticipated heavy casualties he had deemed it virtually impossible for the Germans to halt his advance. As he later put it, he had counted on “a rapid reduction of the enemy’s defenses”; instead, he added in a massive understatement, “the blow by the front’s first echelon had proved to be inadequate.” He had no doubt that by sheer weight of armies alone he could overwhelm the enemy, but he was bothered by “the danger which now arose that the offensive might be slowed.” Zhukov decided to change his tactics. Quickly he rapped out a series of orders. His bomber fleets were to concentrate on the enemy gun positions; at the same time, artillery was to begin pounding the Heights. Then Zhukov took one more step. Although originally his tank armies were not to be committed until after the Seelow Heights had been seized, Zhukov now decided to throw them in immediately. General Katukov, Commander of the First Guards Tank Army, who happened to be in the bunker, got his orders direct. Zhukov left no doubt as to what he wanted: the Heights was to be captured, whatever the cost. Zhukov was going to bludgeon the enemy into submission and, if necessary, bulldoze his way to Berlin. Then, followed by his staff, the stocky marshal left the command post, his anger over the delay still evident. Zhukov had no intention of being slowed up by a few well-placed enemy guns—nor did he intend to be beaten into Berlin by Koniev. On his way out of the bunker, as officersstood aside respectfully to let him pass, he suddenly turned to Katukov and snapped, “Well! Get moving!”
The Führer’s Order of the Day reached General Theodor Busse’s Ninth Army headquarters a little after midday. It was dated April 15 but apparently had been held until Hitler’s staff was certain that the main Russian offensive had begun. Commanders were ordered to disseminate the paper at once, down to company level, but on no account was it to be published in the public newspapers.
“Soldiers of the German Eastern Front,” it read. “For the last time the deadly Jewish Bolshevist enemy is going over to the attack with his hordes. He is trying to smash Germany and exterminate our people. You soldiers in the East already know the fate which threatens … German women, girls and children. The old men and children will be murdered; women and girls will be reduced to army camp whores. The remainder will go to Siberia.
“We have expected this attack, and since January everything has been done to build up a strong front. The enemy is confronted by a tremendous amount of artillery. Losses in our infantry have been filled in with countless new units. Alarm units, newly organized units and the Volkssturm are reinforcing our front. This time the Bolshevist will experience the old fate of Asia: he must and shall fall before the capital city of the German Reich.
“Whoever does not do his duty at this moment is a traitor to our people. Any regiment or division which leaves its position acts so disgracefully that it must be ashamed before the women and children who are withstanding the bomb terror in our cities. Take heed especially of the few traitorous officers and soldiers who, in order to save their miserable lives, will fight against us for Russian pay, perhaps even wearing German uniforms. Anyone ordering you to retreat, unless you know him well, is to be taken prisoner at once and if necessary killed on the spot, no matter what his rank may be. If every soldier at the Eastern Front does his duty in the coming days and weeks, the last onrush of Asia will be broken, exactly as in the end the penetration of our enemy in the West will fail in spite of everything.
“Berlin will remain German, Vienna* will be German once more and Europe will never be Russian.
“Swear a solemn oath to defend, not the empty concept of a Fatherland but your homes, your wives, your children and thus, our future.
“In these hours the whole German people look to you, my warriors in the East, and only hope that thanks to your constancy, your fanaticism, your weapons, and your leadership the Bolshevist onrush will be smothered in its own blood. At the moment when fate has removed the greatest war criminal* of all time from the earth, the turning point of this war will be decided.”
Busse did not need an Order of the Day to tell him that the Russians had to be stopped. Months ago he had told Hitler that if the Russians broke through the Oder line Berlin and the remainder of Germany would fall. But he was angry to read the talk of a strong front; of an enemy confronted by “a tremendous amount of artillery” and “countless new units.” Bold words would not stop the Russians. Hitler’s Order of the Day was, for the most part, fiction. On one point, however, it was crystal clear: Hitler intended German soldiers to fight to the death—against both West and East.
Busse had harbored a secret hope, so guarded that he had never voiced it aloud to anyone except Heinrici and certain of his closest commanders. He had wanted to stand fast on the Oder long enough for the Americans to arrive. As he put it to Heinrici, “If we can hold until the Americans get here we will have fulfilled our mission before our people, our country and history.” Heinrici had responded tartly. “Don’t you know about Eclipse?” he asked. Busse had never heard of it. Heinrici told him of the captured plan showing the Allied lines of demarcation and projected zones of occupation. “I doubt,” said Heinrici, “that the Americans will even cross the Elbe.” Despite all, Busse had continued for a time to cling to the idea. Now he finally abandoned it. Even if Elsenhower’s forces were to cross the Elbe and drive for Berlin, it was probably too late. Among other things, Hitler was obviously prepared to contest bitterly every mile of an American advance; he was making no distinction between the democracies and the Communists. Germany’s position was hopeless; so, Busse believed, was the Ninth Army’s, but as long as Hitler continued the war and refused to capitulate Busse could only try to hold the Russians, as he was doing, up to the very last moment.
The Ninth had taken the full brunt of the Russian attacks; it could not take much more. Yet Busse’s forces were still holding nearly everywhere. At Frankfurt, they had actually thrown the Russians back. The guns and troops on the Seelow Heights, though mercilessly bombed and shelled, had doggedly persisted, and had pinned the enemy down. But although Busse’s men were stopping the Russians nearly everywhere, it was at terrible cost. In some areas officers reported that they were outnumbered at least ten to one. “They come at us in hordes, in wave after wave, without regard to loss of life,” one division commander had telephoned. “We fire our machine guns, often at point-blank range, until they turn red hot. My men are fighting until they run out of ammunition. Then they are simply wiped out or completely overrun. How long this can continue I don’t know.” Nearly every message was alike. There were frantic calls for reinforcements: guns, tanks and, above all, ammunition and gasoline were needed. One item was irreplaceable: troops. Busse’s few reserves were either already committed or were moving up. Most of them were being hurriedly thrown into battle in the crucial Seelow region.
Holding this central area of the Ninth Army was the 56th Panzer Corps. It bore a famous name, but that was about all. The 56th had been shattered and reconstituted many times. Now, once more, it was undergoing a rebuilding process. About all that remained of the original corps was a group of key staff members. But despite all, the corps had one definite asset—a highly experienced, much decorated commander, Lieutenant General Karl Weidling, a rough-spoken officer known to his friends as “Smasher Karl.”
Busse had placed the miscellaneous units in the vital Seelow region under Weidling’s command. At the moment Weidling had three divisions: Goering’s skittish and unreliable 9th Parachute, the badly mauled 20th Panzer Grenadiers and the understrength Müncheberg Division. Supported by a corps on either side—the 101st on the left, the 11th SS on the right—Weidling’s 56th Corps was opposing the Russians’ main thrust on Berlin. Although Weidling had arrived only a few days before and was fighting in unfamiliar terrain with weak and often inexperienced forces, the 60-year-old veteran had so far repulsed all attacks.
But he badly needed the remainder of his units and as yet, on this April 16 morning, they had not arrived. Weidling’s problems were only beginning. Before the week was out he would be facing crises far greater than any he had ever encountered on a battlefield. Smasher Karl was shortly destined to be condemned to death both by Busse and Hitler—and then, in a strange quirk of fate, in Germany’s last hours he would become the defender of Berlin.
On the western front General Walther Wenck, commander of the Twelfth Army, was both pleased and puzzled. The success of his young and inexperienced units in throwing back the enemy and wiping out their bridgehead south of magdeburg was a greater achievement than Wenck had dared hope for. The bridgehead at Barby, however, was a different story. Wenck’s men had tried everything they could think of to destroy the Barby bridges, from floating mines down the river to using frogmen. Some of the last remaining Luftwaffe planes in the area had also made a bombing attack; that, too, had failed. The bridgehead was well established by now and American troops and armor had been pouring across the river for more than forty-eight hours. What puzzled Wenck was that, although the Americans were strengthening and consolidating their hold on the Elbe’s eastern bank, they were making no effort whatever to drive toward Berlin. Wenck could not understand it.
The furious assault by the Americans between April 12 and 15 had given Wenck every reason to believe he would be forced to fight a bloody defensive battle in the west. Yet now the Americans gave every appearance of having come to a halt. “Frankly, I’m astonished,” Wenck told Colonel Reichhelm, his Chief of Staff. “maybe they’ve outrun their supplies and need to reorganize.” Whatever the reason, Wenck was glad of the respite. His forces were widely scattered and in many places were still being organized. He needed all the time he could get to whip his army into shape and to reinforce his troops with whatever armor he could lay his hands on. Some tanks and self-propelled guns had arrived, but Wenck had little hope of getting more. Nor did he have any illusions that he would receive the full complement of divisions he had been promised. Wenck suspected that there was simply nothing left to send him. One thing was certain: the Twelfth Army, spread thinly along the Elbe before Berlin, could not hold any sort of onslaught for long. “If the Americans launch a major attack they’ll crack our positions with ease,” he told Reichhelm. “After that, what’s to stop them? There’s nothing between here and Berlin.”
The news was like a blow to Carl Wiberg. He stared incredulously at his boss, Hennings Jessen-Schmidt, the head of the OSS Berlin unit. “Are you sure?” Wiberg asked. “Are you quite sure?”
Jessen-Schmidt nodded. “That’s the information I’ve received,” he said, “and I’ve no reason to doubt it.” The two men looked at each other in silence. For months they had been sustained by the conviction that Eisenhower’s forces would capture Berlin. But thenews that had brought Jessen-Schmidt across town to Wiberg’s apartment had dashed all their hopes. A network courier had just arrived from Sweden with a message of prime importance from London. It warned them not to expect the Anglo-Americans.
In all the long months that he had led his double life in Berlin, Wiberg had considered almost every possibility but this. Even now he could not quite believe it. The change in plan would not affect their jobs, at least for the time being: they were to continue sending out information, and Wiberg, in his role as “storekeeper,” would still distribute supplies to operatives when and if the order came. But as far as Wiberg knew, few, if any, of the trained specialists and saboteurs who were supposed to use the equipment had arrived in the city. Jessen-Schmidt had been waiting for weeks for just one man—a radio technician who was to assemble the transmitter and receiver that still lay hidden beneath a pile of coal in Wiberg’s cellar. With sinking heart Wiberg wondered if anybody would come now or if the equipment could ever be put to use. That cache of supplies was dangerous. The Germans might yet find it. Worse, the Russians might. Wiberg hoped London had told the Eastern allies about the little group of spies in Berlin. If not, the large store of military material was going to be difficult to explain.
Wiberg also had a personal reason to be anxious. After his long years as a widower he had recently met a young woman named Inge Müller. They planned to marry when the war ended. Now Wiberg wondered how safe Inge would be if the Russians arrived. It seemed to him that the little group of conspirators was doomed in the fiery cauldron that Berlin would soon become. He tried to put aside his fears but he had never felt such dejection. They had been abandoned.
The commander of the First Guards Tank Army, Colonel General mikhail Katukov, slammed down the field phone and, whirling around, violently kicked the door of his headquarters. He had just received a report from the officer leading the 65th Guards Tank Brigade on the Seelow Heights front. The Russians were getting nowhere. “We are standing on the heels of the infantry,” General Ivan Yushchuk had told Katukov. “We are stuck on our noses!”
His anger somewhat appeased, Katukov turned from the door to face his staff. Hands on his hips, he shook his head in disbelief. “Those Hitlerite devils!” he said. “I have never seen such resistance in the whole course of the war.” Then Katukov announced that he was going to find out for himself “what the hell is holding things up.” No matter what, he must take the Heights by morning, so Zhukov’s breakout could begin.
To the south. Marshal Koniev’s forces had smashed through the German defenses on an eighteen-mile front west of the Neisse. His troops were pouring across the river. They now had in operation twenty tank-carrying bridges (some capable of supporting sixty tons), twenty-one ferry and troop-crossing sites and seventeen light assault bridges. With “Stormovik” dive bombers blasting a path, Koniev’s tankers had driven more than ten miles through the enemy defenses in less than eight hours of battle. Now Koniev was just twenty-one miles from Lübben, the point at which Stalin had terminated the boundary between his forces and Zhukov’s. There, Koniev’s tankers would veer northwest and head for the main road leading through Zossen and into Berlin. On the maps this route was labeled Reichsstrasse 96—the highway that Field marshal Gerd von Rundstedt had called “Der Weg zur Ewigkeit”—the road to eternity.
It almost seemed as if the authorities were not prepared to face the fact that Berlin was endangered. Although the Red Army was now barely thirty-two miles away, no alarm had been given and no official announcement had been made. Berliners knew very wellthat the Russians had attacked. The muffled thunder of artillery had been the first clue; now from refugees, by telephone, by word of mouth, the news had spread. But it was still fragmentary and contradictory, and in the absence of any real information there was wild speculation and rumor. Some people said the Russians were fewer than ten miles away, others heard that they were already in the eastern suburbs. No one knew precisely what the situation was, but most Berliners now believed that the city’s days were numbered, that its death throes had begun.
And yet, astonishingly, people still went about their business. They were nervous, and it was increasingly difficult to preserve the outward appearance of normality, but everyone tried.
At every stop, milkman Richard Poganowska was besieged with questions. His customers seemed to expect him to know more than anyone else. The usually cheerful Poganowska could not provide any answers. He was as fearful as those he served. On the Kreuznacherstrasse the portrait of Adolf Hitler still hung in the living room of the Nazi postal official, but even that no longer seemed reassuring to Poganowska.
He was happy to see his young friend, 13-year-old Dodo marquardt, waiting patiently for him on a corner in Friedenau. She often rode with him for a block or two, and she helped immeasurably to keep up his morale. Now, sitting next to his dog Poldi, Dodo chattered happily. But Poganowska found it difficult to listen to her this morning. Some newly painted slogans had appeared on the half-demolished walls in the area, and he eyed them without enthusiasm. “Berlin will remain German,” one announced. Others read: “Victory or Slavery,” “Vienna Will Be German Again,” and “Who Believes in Hitler Believes in Victory.” At Dodo’s usual stop, Poganowska lifted her down from the wagon. With a little smile she said, “Until tomorrow, Mr. Milkman.” Poganowska replied, “Until tomorrow, Dodo.” As he climbed back on the wagon Richard Poganowska wondered just how many tomorrows there were left.
Pastor Arthur Leckscheidt, presiding over a burial service in the cemetery near his wrecked church, did not think the suffering that lay ahead could be any worse than it was right now. It seemed an eternity since his beautiful Melanchthon Church had been destroyed. During the past few weeks so many had been killed in the raids that his parish clerk no longer registered the deaths. Leckscheidt stood at the edge of a mass grave in which lay the bodies of forty victims killed during the night’s air raids. Only a few persons were present as he said the funeral service. As he finished, most of them moved away but one young girl remained behind. She told Leckscheidt that her brother was one of the dead. Then tearfully she said: “He belonged to the SS. He was not a member of the church.” She hesitated. “Will you pray for him?” she asked. Leckscheidt nodded. Much as he disagreed with the Nazis and the SS, in death, he told her, he “could deny no man the words of God.” Bowing his head he said, “Lord, do not hide your face from me … my days have gone like a shadow … my life is like nothing before you … my time lies in your hands….” On a wall nearby, during the night somebody had scrawled the words “Germany is Victorious.”
Mother Superior Cunegundes longed for the end of it all. Even though Haus Dahlem, the convent and maternity home run by the mission Sisters of the Sacred Heart in Wilmersdorf, was almost a little island in its religious seclusion, the short, round, energetic mother Superior was not without outside sources of information. The Dahlem Press Club, in the villa of Foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop directly across from the convent, had closed down the night before. From newspaper friends who had come to say good-bye she had heard that the end was near and that the battle for the city would take place within a few days. The resolute mother Superior hoped the fighting would not be prolonged. What with an allied plane crashing in her orchard and the roof of her convent being blown off a few days before, the danger was coming much too close. It was long past time for this foolish and terrible war to end. In the meantime, she had more than two hundred people to care for: 107 newborn babies (of whom 91 were illegitimate), 32 mothers, and 60 nuns and lay sisters.
As though the Sisters did not have enough to do, mother Superior had piled even more work upon them. With the janitor’s help, some of the nuns had painted huge white circles surmounted by bright red crosses on the sides of the building and on the new tar paper roof which covered the entire second floor (the third floor had disappeared with the roof). Realist that she was, mother Superior had set her student nurses to converting the dining hall and recreation rooms into first-aid stations. The nurses’ dining hall had become the chapel, illuminated by candles night and day; the basement was now partitioned into nurseries and a series of smaller rooms for confinement cases. Mother Superior had even seen to it that all windows in this area were cemented, bricked up and sandbagged from the outside. She was as ready for what might come as she would ever be. But there was one thing she simply did not know how to prepare for: she shared the anxiety of their confessor and mentor, Father Bernhard Happich, that the women might be molested by the occupying forces. Father Happich had arranged to speak to the Sisters about this matter on April 23. Now, in the light of the news her journalist friends had brought, mother Superior Cunegundes hoped they hadn’t waited too long. It looked to her as if the Russians might arrive at any time.
As people waited for news, they hid their anxiety in grim humor. A new greeting swept the city. Total strangers shook hands and urged each other “Bleib übrig”—Survive. Many Berliners were burlesquing Goebbels’ broadcast of ten days before. Insisting that Germany’s fortune would undergo a sudden change, he had said: “The Führer knows the exact hour of its arrival. Destiny has sent us this man so that we, in this time of great external and internal stress, shall testify to the miracle.” Now those words were being repeated everywhere, usually in a derisive imitation of the Propaganda minister’s spellbinding style. One other saying was going the rounds. “We’ve got nothing at all to worry about,” people solemnly assured one another. “Gröfaz will save us.” Gröfaz had long been the Berliner’s nickname for Hitler. It was the abbreviation of “Grösster Feldherr aller Zeiten”—the greatest general of all time.
Even with the city almost under the Russian guns, the vast majority of Berlin’s industrial concerns were still producing. Shells and ammunition were being rushed to the front as fast as factories in Spandau could make them. Electrical equipment was being turned out at the Siemens plant in Siemensstadt; vast quantities of ballbearings and machine tools were being made in factories at Marienfelde, Weissensee and Erkner; gun barrels and mounts rolled out of the Rheinmetall-Borsig factory at Tegel; tanks, lorries and self-propelled guns rumbled off the assembly lines at Alkett in Ruhleben; and as fast as tanks were repaired at the Krupp und Druckenmüller plant in Tempelhof, workers delivered them directly to the armies. So great was the urgency that the management had even asked foreign workers to volunteer as emergency drivers. French forced laborer Jacques Delaunay was one who flatly refused. “You were very wise,” a tank driver who returned to the plant that afternoon told Delaunay. “Do you know where we took those tanks? Right up to the front lines.”
Not only industrial plants but services and utilities continued to function. At the main meteorological station in Potsdam, weathermen noted routinely that the noontime temperature was 65 degrees with an expected drop to about 40 by nightfall. The sky was clear with occasional scattered clouds and there was a mild southwest wind which would swing southeast by evening. A change was predicted for the seventeenth—overcast skies with the possibility of thundershowers.
Partly because of the fine weather, streets were crowded. Housewives, not knowing what the future might hold, shopped for unrationed commodities wherever they could. Every shop seemed to have its own long queue. In Köpenick, Robert and Hanna Schultze spent three hours in a line for bread. Who knew when they would be able to buy more? Like thousands of other Berliners, the Schultzes had tried to find some way to forget their worries. On this day, braving the now capricious transportation system, they changed buses and trams six times to get to their Charlottenburg destination—a movie theater. It was their third such venture in a week. In various districts they had seen pictures called Ein Mann wie Maximilian (A man Like Maximilian); Engel mit dem Saitenspiel (Angel with a Lyre) and Die Grosse Nummer (The Big Number). Die Grosse Nummer was a circus picture, and Robert thought it the best of the week’s film fare by far.
French POW Raymond Legathière saw that there was so much confusion at the military headquarters on Bendlerstrasse that his presence would not be missed and he calmly took the afternoon off. These days, the guards did not seem to care anyway. Legathière had managed to wrangle a ticket for a movie theater near the Potsdamer Platz that was reserved for German soldiers. Now he relaxed in the darkness as the picture, specially reissued by Goebbels’ Propaganda ministry, came on. It was a historical full-color epic called Kolberg, and it dealt with Graf von Gneisenau’s heroic defense of the Pomeranian city during the Napoleonic Wars. During the movie Legathière was as fascinated by the behavior of the soldiers around him as he was by the picture. They were enthralled. Cheering, clapping, exclaiming to one another, they were almost transported by this saga of one of Germany’s legendary military figures. It occured to Legathière that before too long some of these soldiers might get a chance to become heroes themselves.
The signal came without warning. In his office in the Philharmonic, the complex of buildings that housed the concert halls and practice studios of the Berlin Philharmonic, Dr. Gerhart von Westermann, the orchestra’s manager, received a message fromReichsminister Albert Speer: the Philharmonic would play its last concert that evening.
Von Westermann had always known that the news would come like this—suddenly and within just a few hours of a concert. Speer’s instructions were that all the musicians who would leave were to do so immediately after the performance. They were to end their journey in the Kulmbach-Bayreuth region, about 240 miles southwest of Berlin—the same area to which Speer had earlier sent most of the Philharmonic’s prized instruments. According to the Reichsminister, the Americans would overrun the Bayreuth area in a matter of hours.
There was just one trouble. Speer’s original design had been to spirit away the entire Philharmonic; this plan had collapsed. To begin with, fearing that the plan might reach Goebbels’ ear, Von Westermann had sounded out only certain trusted members of the orchestra. To his amazement the great majority, because of family, sentimental or other ties with the city, were reluctant to leave. When the plan was put to a vote it was turned down. Gerhard Taschner, the young violin virtuoso and concertmaster, was asked to inform Speer. The Reichsminister had taken the news philosophically, but the offer was left open: Speer’s own car and driver would be waiting on the final night to take those who wanted to go. Taschner, his wife and two children, along with the daughter of fellow musician Georg Diburtz, were definitely leaving. But they were the only ones. Even Von Westermann, in view of the vote, felt that he must stay.
But if there were any wavering Philharmonic members, they would have to be told that this was their last chance. There was still a possibility that those who were in on the secret might change their minds and decide to leave. So, with the evening’s performance barely three hours away, Von Westermann revised the program. It was too late even to schedule a rehearsal, and the musicians who knew nothing of the evacuation plan would be startled by the change. But for the knowing and unknowing alike, the music Speer had picked as the signal marking the last concert would have a dark and moving significance. The scores that Von Westermann now ordered placed on the musicians’ stands bore the label, Die Götterdämmerung—Wagner’s climactic and tragic music of the death of the gods.
By now it was fast becoming clear to all Berliners that “Fortress Berlin” was a myth; even the least knowledgeable could see how ill-prepared the city was to withstand an attack. The main roads and highways were still open. There were few guns or armored vehicles in evidence, and apart from aged Home Guardsmen, some in uniform, others with only armbands sewn on the sleeves of their jackets, there were virtually no troops to be seen.
To be sure, there were roadblocks and crude defense barriers everywhere. In side streets, courtyards, around government buildings and in parks, large stockpiles of fortification materials had been collected. There were occasional rolls of barbed wire, masses of steel anti-tank obstacles and old trucks and disused tram cars filled with stones. These were to be used to block main thoroughfares when the city came under attack. But would barricades such as these stop the Bussians? “It will take the Reds at least two hours and fifteen minutes to break through,” a current joke went: “Two hours laughing their heads off and fifteen minutes smashing the barricades.” Defense lines—trenches, anti-tank ditches, barricades and gun positions—were apparent only on the outskirts, and even these, as Berliners could plainly see, were far from completion.
One man, driving out of the city this day, found the defense preparations “utterly futile, ridiculous!” He was an expert on fortifications. General max Pemsel had been the Chief of Staff of the Seventh Army defending Normandy on D-Day. Because his forces had failed to stop the invasion, Pemsel, along with others, had been in disgrace with Hitler ever since. He had been put in command of an obscure division fighting in the north and had resigned himself to this “dead command.”
Then on April 2 a surprised Pemsel had received instructions from General Jodl to fly to Berlin. Bad weather had delayed his planes everywhere and he had not reached the capital until April 12. Jodl had admonished him for his tardiness. “You know, Pemsel,” he said, “you were supposed to be appointed commander of Berlin, but you’ve arrived too late.” As he heard these words, Pemsel said later, “a large stone fell off my heart.”
Now, instead of taking over the Berlin command, Pemsel was en route to the Italian front: Jodl had appointed him Chief of Staff to marshal Rodolfo Graziani’s Italian Army. Pemsel found the situation almost dreamlike. He considered it doubtful that Graziani’s force still existed; nevertheless, Jodl had briefed him on his duties as thoroughly as though the war were proving a brilliant success and were destined to go on for years. “Your job,” he cautioned Pemsel, “will be very difficult because it demands not only great military knowledge but diplomatic skills.” Unrealistic as Jodl’s outlook was, Pemsel was pleased to be going to Italy. On the way he would pass through Bavaria, and for the first time in two years he would see his wife and family. By the time he reached Italy, perhaps the war would be over.
As Pemsel left Berlin, he felt that fate and the weather had been exceptionally kind to him. It was clear that the city could not be defended. Passing a hodgepodge of tree trunks, steel spikes and cone-shaped concrete blocks that would be used as anti-tank obstacles, he shook his head in disbelief. Still farther along, the car sped by elderly Home Guardsmen slowly digging trenches. As he left the city behind, Pemsel later recounted, “I thanked God for allowing this bitter chalice to pass from me.”
At his headquarters on the Hohenzollerndamm, the city’s Commandant, General Reymann, stood before a huge wall map of Berlin looking at the defense lines marked on it and wondering, as he afterward put it, “what in God’s name I was supposed to do.” Reymann had hardly slept for the past three days and he was bone-weary. Since morning he had taken countless telephone calls, attended several meetings, visited sections of the perimeter defense lines and issued a batch of orders?most of which, he privately believed, stood little chance of being completed before the Russians reached the city.
Earlier in the day, Goebbels, Berlin’s Gauleiter and self-appointed defender, had held his usual weekly “war council.” To Reymann, these meetings seemed almost farcical now. In the afternoon he described this latest one to his Chief of Staff, Colonel Refior. “He told me the same old thing. He said, ‘If the battle for Berlin was on right now you would have at your disposal all sorts of tanks and field pieces of different calibers, several thousand light and heavy machine guns, and several hundred mortars, in addition to large quantities of corresponding ammunition.’ ” Reymann paused. “According to Goebbels,” he told Refior, “we’ll get everything we want—if Berlin is encircled.”
Then Goebbels had suddenly switched the conversation. “Once the battle for Berlin begins, where do you intend to set up your headquarters?” he had asked. Goebbels himself planned to go to the Zoo Bunker. He suggested that Reymann operate from there also. Reymann thought he saw immediately what the Gauleiter had in mind; Goebbels intended to keep Reymann and the defense of Berlin completely under his own thumb. As tactfully as he could, Reymann had sidestepped the offer. “I would like to refrain from that,” he said, “since both the military and political could be eliminated at the same time by a freakish hit.” Goebbels had dropped the subject but Reymann noticed an immediate coolness in the Gauleiter’s manner. Goebbels was well aware that it would be almost impossible for the massive Zoo Bunker to be destroyed by even a score of large bombs.
Reymann knew the Reichsminister would not forget that his invitation had been turned down. But at the moment, while he was faced with the almost hopeless task of trying to prepare a defense for the city, the last person Reymann wanted in close proximity was Goebbels. He placed no stock in either the Gauleiter’s pronouncements or in his promises. Only a few days earlier, again discussing supplies, Goebbels had said that the Berlin defense would be bolstered with “at least one hundred tanks.” Reymann had asked for a written list of the promised supplies. When he finally got the information, the hundred tanks turned out to be “twenty-five tanks completed, seventy-five now being built.” No matter how many there were, Reymann knew he would see no part of any of them. The Oder front would have priority on all such vital weapons.
In Reymann’s view, only one Cabinet member really understood what lay ahead for Berlin. That was Reichsminister Albert Speer, and even he had his blind spot. Immediately after the Gauleiter’s war council, Reymann had been ordered to present himself before Speer. At the former French Embassy on the Pariser Platz where Hitler’s wartime production chief now had his offices, the usually urbane Speer was furious. Pointing to the great highway running across a map of the city, Speer demanded to know what Reymann “was up to on the East-West Axis.” Reymann looked at him in amazement. “I’m building a landing strip between the Brandenburg Gate and the Victory Column,” he answered. “Why?”
“Why?” exploded Speer. “Why? You are chopping down my lamp posts—that’s why! And you cannot do it!”
Reymann had thought Speer knew all about the plan. In the battles for Breslau and Königsberg, the Russians had grabbed the airports on the outskirts of both cities almost immediately. To circumvent a similar situation in Berlin should one occur, it had been decided to build a landing strip almost in the very center of the government district, along the East-West Axis where it passed through the Tiergarten. “For this reason,” Reymann said later, “in agreement with the Luftwaffe, the strip between the Brandenburg Gate and the Victory Column was chosen. It meant that the ornamental bronze lamp posts would have to be removed, and the trees, for a depth of 30 meters [about 100 feet] on either side, would have to come down. When I mentioned this plan to Hitler, he said that the lamp posts could go but the trees had to remain. I did my utmost to persuade him to change his mind, but Hitler would not hear of the trees being cut. Even though I explained that if the trees were not taken out only small planes would be able to take off and land, he still would not change his mind. What his reasons were I do not know, but the removal of a few trees would hardly have ruined the city’s beauty at this late date.” And now Speer was objecting to the removal of the lamp posts.
Reymann explained the situation to Speer, pointing out in conclusion that he had the Führer’s permission to remove the posts. But that made no impression on the Reichsminister. “You cannot take down those lamp posts,” he insisted. “I object to that.” Then Speer added, “You do not seem to realize that I am responsible for the reconstruction of Berlin.”
In vain Reymann tried to persuade Speer to change his mind. “It is vital that we keep an airstrip open, especially in this location,” he argued. The Reichsminister would hear no more. As Reymann remembered it, “the conversation ended with Speer expressing his intention of taking up the whole matter with the Führer. Meanwhile his lamp posts remained, and the work on the strip was to stop—even though the Russians were advancing steadily toward us.”
Just before the meeting ended, Speer brought up the matter of Berlin’s bridges. Again he argued with Reymann, as he had at Heinrici’s headquarters the day before, that to destroy the bridges was futile, that water, power and gas mains were carried over many of them and that the “severing of these lifelines would paralyze large parts of the city and make my task of reconstruction that much more difficult.” Reymann knew that Speer’s influence with Hitler was great: he had already received a direct order from the Reichskanzlei to strike off his list several of those bridges slated for destruction. Now, Speer was insisting that they all be saved. Reymann turned as stubborn as Speer. Unless counter orders were received from Hitler, Reymann intended to carry out his instructions and blow up the remaining bridges. He did not like the idea any more than Speer, but he had no intention of risking his own life and career to save them.
From Speer’s office Reymann made a quick visit to one of the defense sectors on Berlin’s outskirts. Each of these inspections only served to deepen Reymann’s conviction that Berlin’s defenses were an illusion. In the strutting, triumphant years, the Nazis had never considered the possibility that one day a last stand would be made in the capital. They had built fortifications everywhere else—the Gustav Line in Italy, the Atlantic Wall along the European coast, the Siegfried Line at Germany’s western borders—but not even a trench had been built around Berlin. Not even when the Russians drove with titanic force across eastern Europe and invaded the Fatherland did Hitler and his military advisors act to fortify the city.
It was only when the Red Army reached the Oder early in 1945 that the Germans began to strengthen Berlin’s defenses. Slowly a few trenches and anti-tank obstacles appeared on the eastern outskirts of the city. Then, incredibly, when the Red Army pulled up before the frozen river to wait for the spring thaws, the preparations for the capital’s protection stopped, too. Not until March was the defense of Berlin given any serious consideration—and by then it was too late. There were no longer the forces, the supplies, or the equipment to set up the necessary fortifications.
In two grueling months of frenetic activity, a makeshift series of defense lines had been thrown together. Sometime in late February, an “obstacle belt” had been hurriedly established in a broken ring twenty to thirty miles outside the capital. This line ran through wooded areas and marshes and along lakes, rivers and canals, mostly north, south and east of the city. Before Reymann took command, orders had been issued declaring the obstacle areas “fortified places.” In keeping with Hitler’s fortress mania, local Home Guard contingents were told that they would be expected to stand fast at these locations and fight to the last man. To turn such localities into a solid zone of resistance, staggering quantities of men, guns and materials would have been needed, for the obstacle belt girdled nearly 150 miles of territory around Greater Berlin.
As Reymann soon discovered, except where the obstacle zone came under direct army supervision, the so-called fortified places were often nothing more than a few trenches covering main roads, some scattered gun positions, or a few concrete-reinforced structures hurriedly converted into blockhouses with bricked-up windows and slits for machine guns. These feeble positions, most of them not even manned, were marked on Reichskanzlei defense maps as major strongpoints.
The main line of resistance lay in the city itself. Three concentric rings made up the inner defense pattern. The first, sixty miles in circumference, ran around the outskirts. In the absence of proper fortifications, everything and anything had been used to create barriers: ancient railroad cars and wagons, ruined buildings, massive concrete-block walls, converted air raid bunkers and, nature’s contribution, Berlin’s lakes and rivers. Now, gangs of men were working night and day to tie these natural and manmade devices into a continuous defense line and anti-tank barrier. The work was being done by hand. There was no power equipment. Most heavy earth-moving machines had long since been sent east to work on the Oder front fortifications. The use of the few remaining machines was restricted because of the shortage of fuel—every available gallon had gone to the panzer divisions.
There were supposed to be 100,000 laborers working on the fortification rings. In fact there were never more than 30,000. There was even a shortage of hand tools; appeals through the newspapers for picks and shovels had brought little results. As Colonel Refior put it, “Berlin gardeners apparently consider the digging of their potato plots more important than the digging of tank traps.” To Reymann, it was all futile anyhow. The perimeter ring would never be finished in time. It was a hopeless job, hopelessly far from completion.
The second or middle ring could be a formidable obstacle, if manned by veteran troops amply supplied with weapons. It had a circumference of about twenty-five miles and its barriers had long been in place. The Berlin railway system had been converted into a deadly trap. In some places there were deep track cuttings and sidings, some of them one hundred to two hundred yards wide, which made perfect anti-tank ditches. From fortified houses overlooking the tracks, gunners could pick off tanks caught in the gullies. Along other stretches the line followed the elevated railway (S-Bahn), giving defenders the advantage of high rampartlike embankments.
If even these defenses gave way, there still remained the third or inner ring, in the city’s center. Called the Citadel, this lastditch area lay within the arms of the Landwehr Canal and the Spree River, in the Mitte district. Nearly all the major buildings of the government crowded this last island of defense. In great structures linked together by barricades and concrete block walls, the last defenders would hold out—in Goering’s immense Air Ministry (Reichsluftfahrtministerium), in the huge Bendler Block military headquarters, and in the empty, echoing hulks of the Reichskanzlei and the Reichstag.
Radiating out from the Citadel through all three of the defense rings were eight pie-shaped sectors, each with its own commander. Beginning with the Weissensee district on the east, the sectors were labeled clockwise from A through H. The inner ring itself was Z. Supporting the rings, six formidable bombproof flak towers were spotted about the city—at Humboldthain, Friedrichshain, and in the grounds of the Berlin Zoo.
But many vital links were missing in Festung Berlin. The most crucial one was manpower. Even under ideal conditions, Reymann believed, 200,000 fully trained and combat-seasoned soldiers would have been needed to defend the city. Instead, what he had to hold Berlin’s 321 square miles, an area almost equal to that of New York City, was a miscellaneous collection of troops ranging from 15-year-old Hitler Youths to men in their seventies. He had policemen, engineering units and flak battery crews, but his only infantry consisted of 60,000 untrained Home Guardsmen. These tired old men of the Volkssturm now digging trenches or moving slowly into positions along the approaches to Berlin, would have to assume the largest burden of the city’s defense. The Volkssturm occupied a kind of nether world among the military. Although they were expected to fight alongside the Wehrmacht in times of emergency, they were not considered part of the army. They, like the Hitler Youth, were the responsibility of the local party officials; Reymann would not even assume command of their forces until after the battle began. Even the Volkssturm equipment was the responsibility of the party. The Home Guardsmen had no vehicles, field kitchens or communications of their own.
In all, one third of Reymann’s men were unarmed. The remainder might as well have been. “Their weapons,” he was to relate, “came from every country that Germany had fought with or against. Besides our own issues, there were Italian, Russian, French, Czechoslovakian, Belgian, Dutch, Norwegian and English guns.” There were no less than fifteen different types of rifles and ten kinds of machine guns. Finding ammunition for this hodgepodge of arms was almost hopeless. Battalions equipped with Italian rifles were luckier than most: there was a maximum of twenty bullets apiece for them. Belgian guns, it was discovered, would accept a certain type of Czech bullet, but Belgian ammunition was useless in Czech rifles. There were few Greek arms, but for some reason there were vast quantities of Greek munitions. So desperate was the shortage that a way was found to remachine Greek bullets so that they could be fired in Italian rifles. But such frantic improvisations hardly alleviated the overall problem. On this opening day of the Russian attack, the average ammunition supply of each Home Guardsman was about five rounds per rifle.
Now, as Reymann toured positions along the eastern outskirts, he felt certain that the Russians would simply roll over the German positions. Too many defense necessities were missing. There were almost no mines available, so the belts of minefields that wereessential to a defensive position hardly existed. One of the most ancient and effective of all defense items, barbed wire, had become almost impossible to obtain. Reymann’s artillery consisted of some mobile flak guns, a few tanks dug in up to the turrets so that their guns covered avenues of an approach, and the massive flak tower guns. Powerful as they were, these high-angled batteries had limited usefulness. Because of their fixed positions they could not be deflected toward the ground to stave off close-range infantry and tank attacks.
Reymann knew his own situation was hopeless. He was almost equally pessimistic about the outlook elsewhere. He did not believe that the Oder front would hold, nor did he expect help from troops falling back on the city. Colonel Refior had discussed the possibility of obtaining aid with officers at General Busse’s headquarters. He got a blunt answer: “Don’t expect us,” said Busse’s Chief of Staff, Colonel Artur Hölz. “The Ninth Army stays and will stay on the Oder. If necessary we will fall there, but we will not retreat.”
Reymann kept thinking of an exchange he’d had with a Volkssturm official in one sector. “What would you do right now,” Reymann had asked, “if you suddenly saw Russian tanks in the far distance? How do you let us know? Let’s assume that tanks are heading this way. Show me what you would do.”
To his amazement the man turned abruptly and ran back to the village just behind the positions. A few minutes later he returned, breathless and dejected. “I couldn’t get to the telephone,” he explained sheepishly. “I forgot. The post office is closed between one and two.”
As he headed back into the city, Reymann stared unseeing out the car window. He felt that an awful doom was gathering and that in its blackness Berlin might disappear forever.
The line was cracking slowly but surely under the massive enemy pressure. Heinrici had been at the front all day, going from headquarters to headquarters, visiting field positions, talking to commanders. He marveled that Busse’s soldiers had done so well against such terrible odds. First the Ninth Army had stood off three days of heavy preliminary attacks; now, for more than twenty-four hours, they had been taking the full force of the main Russian offensive. Busse’s troops had fought back ferociously. In the Seelow area alone, they had knocked out more than 150 tanks and had shot down 132 planes. But they were weakening.
As he drove in darkness back to his headquarters, Heinrici found himself slowed by crowds of refugees. He had seen them everywhere this day—some carrying bundles, some pulling hand carts filled with their last possessions, some in farm wagons drawn by horses or oxen. In many places their numbers were posing almost as great a problem to Heinrici’s troops as the Russians.
At his command post, anxious staff officers gathered to hear the General’s firsthand impression of the situation. Gravely Heinrici summed up what he had seen. “They cannot last much longer,” he said. “The men are so exhausted that their tongues are hanging out. Still,” he continued, “we are holding. It is something Schörner couldn’t do. That great soldier has not been able to hold Koniev even for one day.”
A short time later, the OKH Chief, General Hans Krebs, rang up. “Well, we all have good reason to feel satisfied,” he told Heinrici smoothly. Heinrici conceded the point. “Considering the size of the attack we have not lost much ground,” he said. Krebs would have preferred a more optimistic response, and he said as much, but Heinrici did not make it. “I have learned,” he told Krebs dryly, “never to praise the day until the twilight comes.”
In the darkness, Private Willy Feldheim grasped his bulky Panzerfaust more firmly. He did not know for certain where he was, but he had heard that this line of foxholes covering the three roads in the Klosterdorf area was about eighteen miles from the front.
A little while ago, waiting for the Russian tanks to come up the road, Willy had felt a sense of great adventure. He had thought about what it would be like when he saw the first tank and could finally fire the anti-tank gun for the first time. The three companies holding the crossroads had been told to let the tanks get as close as possible before firing. Willy’s instructor had said that a sixty-yard range was about right. He wondered how soon they would come.
Crouched in the damp foxhole, Willy thought about the days when he was a bugler. He remembered in particular one brilliant, sunshiny day in 1943 when Hitler spoke in Olympic Stadium and Willy had been among the massed buglers who had sounded the fanfare at the Führer’s entrance. He would never forget the leader’s words to the assembled Hitler Youth: “You are the guarantee of the future….” And the crowds had yelled “Führer Befiehl! Führer Befiehl!” It had been the most memorable day of Willy’s life. On that afternoon he had known beyond doubt that the Reich had the best army, the best weapons, the best generals and, above all, the greatest leader in the world.
The dream was gone in the sudden flash that illuminated the night sky. Willy peered out toward the front and now he heard again the low rumbling of the guns he had momentarily forgotten, and he felt the cold. His stomach began to ache and he wanted to cry. Fifteen-year-old Willy Feldheim was badly scared, and all the noble aims and the stirring words could not help him now.
The drum beat was almost imperceptible. Softly the tubas answered. The muffled drum roll came again. Low and ominously the tubas replied. Then the massed basses came alive and the awesome grandeur of Die Götterdämmerung rolled out from the Berlin Philharmonic. The mood in the darkness of Beethoven Hall seemed as tragic as the music. The only illumination came from the lights on the orchestra’s music stands. It was cold in the hall and people were wearing overcoats. Dr. Von Westermann sat in a box with his wife and brother. Nearby was the sister of the conductor Robert Heger, with three friends. And in his usual seat in the orchestra section was Reichsminister Albert Speer.
Immediately after playing the Beethoven Violin Concerto, Taschner, his family and the daughter of Georg Diburtz had left the hall. They were now on their way to safety—but they were the only ones. Speer had kept his promise. His car was waiting. He had even sent his adjutant to escort the little group safely to their destination. Now the architect of Hitler’s monstrous war-making industrial machine listened to the tempest of music as it told of the evildoing of the gods, of Siegfried on his funeral bed of fire, of Brünnhilde on horseback ascending the pyre to join him in death. Then, with cymbals crashing and drums rolling, the orchestra thundered to its climax: the terrible holocaust that destroyed Valhalla. And as the mournful majestic music filled the auditorium, those who listened felt a sorrow too deep for tears.*
*Many soldiers joined the Party on the Oder, for reasons which were not always political. Unlike American or British forces, the Red Army had no system of registration of identification discs or “dog tags”; families of Red Army men killed or wounded in action were rarely officially informed. But if a Communist soldier became a casualty, the Party notified his family or next of kin.
*Zhukov told General Eisenhower and the press in June, 1945, that he opened the attack with 22,000 guns of all calibers. His original plan called for 11,000 cannon, but whether he had acquired that many by the time of the attack is not known. While Russian accounts give a variety of figures, ranging from twenty to forty thousand guns, most military experts believe that Zhukov had at least seven to eight thousand field pieces and probably the same again in guns of lesser caliber.
*Ϭ Koniev was echoing Stalin’s own suspicions. In early April Stalin had cabled Roosevelt that an agreement had been reached at Berne with the Germans whereby they would “open the front to the Anglo-American troops and let them move east, while the British and Americans have promised, in exchange, to ease the armistice terms for the Germans…. The Germans on the Western Front have in fact ceased the war … [while] … they continue the war against Russia, the Ally of Britain and the U.S.A. …” Roosevelt answered that he was astonished at the allegation “that I have entered into an agreement with the enemy without first obtaining your full agreement…. Frankly I cannot avoid a feeling of bitter resentment toward your informers, whoever they are, for such vile misrepresentations of my actions or those of my trusted subordinates.” Stalin and his marshals remained unconvinced. Even today, the latest U.S.S.R. Ministry of Defense history, The Great Fatherland War of the Soviet Union 1941-45, says that “to avoid permitting the Red Army from seizing Berlin … the Hitlerites … were prepared to surrender the capital to the Americans or to the English. Our Allies also counted on seizing … [it] … in spite of existing agreements … consigning Berlin to the operational zone of the Soviet Army….” The fact is, of course, that no such agreement ever existed.
** Koniev did not learn about the incident until twenty years later when he read of it in General Pukhov’s memoirs.
*Vienna was captured by the Red Army on April 13.
*Hitler was obviously referring to President Roosevelt.
*There are probably as many accounts of the last concert as there are survivors of the orchestra. Some tell one story, others another. There are differences of opinion about the date, the program and even the performers. Those who knew nothing of Speer’s plan refuse to believe that any such scheme existed. The version which appears here is based on Dr. Von Westennann’s account and records, with subsidiary information from Gerhard Taschner.