By April much of Germany had been occupied by the Allied armies. Although their still remained strong pockets of resistance, the war was clearly drawing to an end. The German forces in the east however continued to fight on more bitterly to allow German refugees to escape westward.
From BERLIN The Downfall 1945 By ANTONY BEEVOR
As the Russian's closed in on the German capital, Hitler designated Berlin and impregnable fortress which must be defended to the last. Concentrated in the Berlin sector the German's could muster (1,000,000 men, 1,500 tanks, 10,400 artillery pieces and 3,300 aircraft, with the Berlin garrison itself amounting to 200,000 men).
Although this was a powerful force on paper, the reality of the situation was the German's were in fact scraping the bottom of the manpower barrel. Their front lines were formed by poor quality troops bolstering mainly Volksstrum units (German citizens pressed into service) ranging from sixteen year old boys to veterans of the First World War. Of the Berlin defenders 60,000 comprised Volksstrum personal.
While the soldiers were still occupied with their victims, Frau Petersohn made up her mind. 'They'll be back,' she murmured to the three of them under the table. She told them to follow her and led them rapidly upstairs to the bomb-damaged top floor, where an old woman still lived. Gerda spent the night huddled on the balcony, determined to jump to her death if the Russians came for them. But their immediate worry was how to keep her sister's baby from crying. Gerda suddenly remembered the Luftwaffe malt tablets.Whenever the baby became restless, they slipped a malt tablet in her mouth. When dawn came, they saw that the baby's face was smeared with brown, but the tactic had worked.
Mornings were safe, with Soviet soldiers either sleeping off their debauches or returned to the fighting, so they crept back down to their own apartment. There, in a grotesque version of Goldilocks, they found that their beds had been used by the soldiers for their activities. The sisters also discovered their brother's Wehrmacht uniform laid out carefully on the floor and defecated upon.Gerda sought out Carmen to try to offer some sort of sympathy, but also in the hope of discovering why she had screamed out her name again and again. The moment Carmen set eyes on her, Gerda saw a bitter hostility. Carmen's attitude immediately became clear.'Why me and why not you?' That was why she had yelled her name. The two never spoke to each other again.
A trainer explains to old men of the Volkssturm how to use a panzerfaust.
In response the Red Army could field a formidable force consisting of (2,500,000 men, 6,250 tanks, 41,000 artillery pieces and 7,500 aircraft). Unlike their foe these were veteran troops highly trained and well equipped with a blood lust to destroy the German capital and raze it to the ground.
On April 12th President Roosevelt died. Hitler by this time was severally delusional, not only did he believe the sudden death of the U.S leader would provoke the Allies to turn upon one another. Hitler was now positively sure that an oracle's recent telling of the Third Reich's future was completely accurate in that "It is written in the stars that the second half of April would be a turning point in the war for Germany."
On April 16th, Hitler's vain hopes were finally shattered as three Soviet fronts launched a massive assault against the German sectors to the north, east and south of Berlin which Outnumbered their foe 5:1 in men, 15:1 in artillery, 5:1 in tanks and 3:1 in aircraft.
. The rearguard would consist of a single reinforced division. The breakout should take place on the night of 28 April. When Weidling came to an end, Hitler shook his head. 'Your proposal is perfectly all right. But what is the point of it all? I have no intention of wandering around in the woods. I am staying here and I will fall at the head of my troops. You, for your part, will carry on with the defence.'
Despite the overwhelming odds against them the German's still managed to put up a stubborn defence inflicting thousands of casualties upon the enemy formations . After very bitter fighting however the Oder- Neisse defence line finally crumbled under the weight of the Soviet attack and Russian forces poured unopposed into the open countryside.
On April 20th Hitler celebrated his fifty sixth birthday. This was to be the last official ceremony of the Third Reich. Among the list of high ranking dignitaries in attendance were Goring, Himmler, Goebbels, Speer and Bormann. As the visitors lined the bunkers central corridor Hitler walked amongst them shaking their hands and expressing his gratitude for their services to the Third Reich.
On the morning of April 21st, Hitler ordered SS General Felix Steiner and his 3rd SS panzer army stationed north of Berlin to launch a major offensive and deny Zhukov the northern approaches to the capital. In reality Steiner's force was so under strength that it amounted to little more than remnants of various retreating formations scraped together from the highways, thus when the attack went forward it was repulsed that same day after gains of only a few kilometres.
On the evening of the 21st Soviet troops reached the small villages lining the outskirts of Berlin. The reports of rape, torture and murder by the fleeing villagers horrified the terrified Berliners. The defenders within the Reich capital knew of the terror that approached and felt they now had no choice but to resist the Russian's to the bitter end.
Then came the bitter hand-to-hand fighting
April 25th clearly signalled that an end to Hitler's madness was drawing near. Russian and U.S forces had meet at Torgau splitting Germany in two. The army groups of Marshall's Zhukov and Konev linked up to the west of Berlin completing the encirclement of the city and near the town of Stettin Marshall Rokossovsky's 2nd Belorussian front broke through the German defences and utterly destroyed the Third Panzer Army.
Despite the obvious hopelessness of the situation, Hitler still put his faith in General Wenck's 70,000 strong 12th army which had been recently withdrawn from the western front, to link up with General Busse's 40,000 men of the 9th army retreating from the Oder river line. Once this juncture was completed both commanders were to launch a counter offensive and relive Berlin.
Advancing from the south Marshall Konev's mobile reserve armies quickly caught up and overtook Busse's exhausted men, trapping them within the forests surrounding the small town of Halbe. Because these Russian forces were denied the honour of the historic assault on Berlin, their commanders choose to ignore all German requests of surrender and instead decided to annihilate their German foe.
Busse's men had little or no ammunition, armour, artillery and no air cover to call upon, they simply had nothing left to defend themselves. The subsequent Russian massacre of the German 9th army was simply horrific.
The Russian attack easily rolled over the hastily prepared German positions leaving no survivors. Konev's men simply left the wounded German's screaming by the roadside to die a slow death as they marched onward to inflict more destruction on the German countryside.
Upon hearing of 9th armies complete destruction, Wenck immediately ordered his forces to halt. In the midst of such a catastrophic event Hitler's frenzied orders to continue the operation took on a sinister almost nightmarish quality.
For a soldier who always adhered to the strict German code of discipline, Wenck decided for the first time in his military career to disobey his Fuhrer's orders, resolving instead to fall back and lead his men towards the American's so as to spare them the fate of being taken prisoner by the Russian's.
Unknown to Hitler all remaining German forces were not marching to relieve Berlin as ordered, but in fact were turning westward to surrender to the Allies. With no serious German opposition remaining within the Berlin sector, Konev
On April 26th as many as 500,000 Red Army troops swarmed into the city from all directions. Fierce and bloody battles now ensued as the fighting became street to street and house to house. Russia's vast tank superiority counted for little as they suffered heavy losses attempting to advance through the debris ridden streets of the city.
Night and day Russian artillery and Katyusha rocket batteries bombarded German defensive positions at point blank range, in some cases levelling entire city blocks. Despite the seemingly hopelessness of the situation, German defenders continued to contest every yard of rubble, putting up a fanatical resistance against the Soviet onslaught.
During this period of heavy fighting SS execution squads freely roamed the inner streets of the city with an increased urgency and cold fanaticism looking for deserters and shirkers. All able bodied males from the young to old which were caught not participating in the cities defence, were shot down mercilessly in cold blood.
By the end of March more and more Hitler Youths were being concentrated in clusters around Berlin, moved from places like Brandenburg an der Havel, Luckenwalde, and Oranienburg to locations inside the capital's suburbs, such as Spandau and Tegel in the North, and from there closer to the center. In mid-April nearly 6,000 of them were in the city, under the nominal command of Reich Youth Leader Axmann and his deputy, WE inspector Ernst Schlünder, awaiting the invasion of the Soviet troops. The youths were only supposed to assist regular Wehrmacht and Waffen-SS detachments, as well as firemen, police, and the old men of the Volkssturm. But as it turned out, when the Russians got inside Berlin on April 25, the older fighters, under town commandant General Helmuth Weidling, were sadly deficient and totally dependent on the reserves of Wenck, which were never to materialize.
Axmann himself was safe in the bunker, next to his Führer, "one of those devoted believers, a blind idealist," as Hitler's private secretary Traudl Junge remembers him. The young fighters, on the other hand, temporarily buoyed by prospects of fame and glory, took positions in dangerous places not immediately accessible to the invading Soviets, many of whom were relatively immobile in tanks and trucks. But they came, of course, in huge numbers. Armed mostly with bazookas, hand grenades, and some firearms, and now with only rudimentary training, the HJ bands proved to be flexible and fleet-footed. Especially for the younger ones, it was like playing cops and robbers, as they moved around in underground passageways and subway tunnels, hid behind ruins, and lay in wait in basements, cellars, and bombed-out shops. Their specialty was holding still until a tank was only a few yards away and then hurling their grenades. Some would lie on the sidewalk playing dead until a tank arrived, and then they would fire. As the Russians became more ubiquitous, engaging in house-to-house combat with soldiers, Hitler Youths jumped onto rooftops, sneaking up behind Red Army snipers and pushing them into the street.
For lack of regular troops, thousands of Hitler Youths were charged by Hitler's and Axmann's orders with securing strategic bridges, particularly those across the Havel River, to safeguard the Wenck Army's crossing. (For his part in this, the "incitement of youth for war," Axmann was later to be condemned by a West German denazification court.) About six hundred of them were at the Havel Pichelsdorf Bridge in Berlin-Spandau. Not only did Hitler expect Wenck in just that area, but high-placed Nazis themselves used that bridge to facilitate their escape from the capital. When the Russians took the bastion, however, almost all the Hitler Youths were killed. The same fate befell those holed up in the Olympia stadium and those sniping from bunkers in the Tiergarten, the large zoo in the middle of town. In the end, after Hitler had committed suicide on April 30, Axmann in the company of Bormann made his own getaway, passing hundreds of dead HJ boys as he did so. Bormann was killed by Soviet gunfire, but Axmann was able to reach safety in South Germany. He had abused mere children in order to save his own skin.
By this time Hitler had but one last German force remaining to throw at the Russian's, the 5,000 strong Hitler youth corps lead by Artur Axmann. Comprising eleven and twelve year old boys these children armed with little more than small arms and portable anti tank weaponry were ordered to hold the strategic Pichelsdorf bridges to the very last.
The commander of Berlin's defence General Reymann, steadfastly protested the order to occupy defensive positions with mere children, and was subsequently relived of his command by Hitler and replaced by a much younger Lieutenant General Weilding.
Despite two days of fanatical German resistance the Russian's had penetrated to within 600 meters of the Fuhrer bunker itself. The government district surrounding the Reichstag was now heavily garrisoned with the remnants of the cities defenders amounting to nearly 10,000 men.
The mixture of troops scraped together in this last great effort to resist the Russian's was truly astounding. Units representing the Kreigsmarine, Luftwaffe, Waffen SS, Volksstrum, Hitler youth and Foreign SS now comprised Hitler's final Praetorian Guard.
On the morning of April 29th Hitler received reports that Soviet troops were advancing through a subway tunnel under the river Spree. Hitler wasted no time in ordering Berlin's entire underground subway system to be flooded.
Not only did the subsequent flood engulf the Russian assault troops, it also drowned thousands of wounded German soldiers and civilians which were taking refuge from the fighting in the city streets above.
Later in the day news had reached Hitler of Benito Mussolini's execution by partisans and how the bodies of his Italian comrade and that of his mistress had been hanged upside down and mutilated in a town square by the populace of Milan.
During that evening confirmation had also been received from Field Marshall Keitel that no relief of the city could be expected, this coupled with General Weidling's report that the Russian's were now a mere 200 meters from the bunker and that resistance would collapse within the next twenty four hours, due to the lack of men and ammunition, cemented Hitler's resolve to end his life.
Just before midnight Hitler married his long time mistress Eva Braun giving her the one title she had dreamed of all these long years at the Fuhrer's side, that of Mrs Adolph Hitler. Throughout the remainder of the night Hitler dictated his last will and testament naming Grand Admiral Donitz as his successor and leaving all his worldly possessions to his beloved Nazi party..
On the morning of April 30th the atmosphere within the Fuhrer bunker was tense and emotional. Hitler appeared quite calm as he spent the morning silently roaming the bunker complex attempting little conversation. During the afternoon Hitler assembled the Nazi inner circle and made his final farewells and then retired to his room with his wife.
At 3.15 pm a single pistol shot was heard. Goebbels, Bormann and the recently arrived Axmann cautiously entered Hitler's sitting room. Both Hitler and Eva were slumped on the couch, Hitler with a single bullet wound to the head while Eva lay at his side, her lips puckered and blue from the poison she had ingested.
Goebbels reportedly stated to the gallery of shocked onlookers "The heart of Germany ceases to beat". Hitler's body with that of Eva's were then carried up the stairs to the Chancellery garden, drenched in petrol and set aflame.
Along with his wife Magda, Goebbels had decided to remain loyal to the Fuhrer to the very end. Accompanying them within the bunker were their six children ranging from three to twelve years of age. To spare them the wrath of the Soviets, Magda had given the unsuspecting children chocolate treats which were laced with poison. Once they were all dead Goebbels and Magda then walked up to the Chancellery garden where an SS guard shot them both and then burned their bodies.
The most desperate fighting within the city now raged over the Reichstag. Were the last of the Berlin defenders had assembled to make their final stand. The Russian's now brought up 205 mm howitzers to reduce the Reichstag to dust.
Comrade Stalin read the summary of the fall of Berlin carefully. The leader's face darkened somewhat. The Red Banner of Victory over the Reichstag was hoisted by two Soviet soldiers, but one of them was an Ingush, and the second - a Jew. This Stalin could not allow. According to him, the Ingush were traitors to the motherland. The Jews were to have a submissive role of accident victims who were rescued by brave Russian soldiers. "I can not approve the nomination" he said "Give me the names of two other men who took the Reichstag, and try to get one who is Russian, the other a Georgian"
Firing at point blank range the Russian heavy guns released a thunderous barrage which blasted huge holes in the Reichstag's superstructure but failed to bring down its walls. The Russian's were now forced to send in Soviet assault troops to capture the building. After two bloody days in which the fighting degenerated into savage hand to hand combat, the Reichstag was finally captured after fanatical resistance by the last of the SS troops which had fought on to the very last.
On May 1st the Red Flag was hoisted atop the statuary which rises above the columns of the main entrance to the Reichstag. That same day the Pichelsdorf bridges were finally captured after heavy Russian casualties with the surrender of the last 500 boy - soldiers of the Hitler youth corps still remaining alive.
On May 2nd General Weilding visited Marshall Chuikov's headquarters and signed the declaration for all remaining German forces still defending small pockets within the city, to lay down their arms.
Russian casualties in the eight day campaign for the German capital amounted to 80,000 dead and 275,000 wounded along with an astounding 2,000 tanks. German losses in Berlin's defence numbered 150,000 dead and 134,000 taken prisoner.
The worst mistake made by the German military authorities within Berlin was their refusal to destroy the cities vast quantities of alcohol stocks. This decision was based on the belief that a drunken enemy could not fight effectively.
Tragically for the female population this decision would prove disastrous as German women of all ages were assaulted as a part of the extended victory celebrations. Estimates from the Berlin hospitals deduced that out of approximately 100,000 women raped some 10,000 died as a result.
More On 'Battle Of Berlin'
Beevor is . . . a superb writer, a diligent researcher and a master of battlefield detail. -- The Chicago Tribune
The Race to Berlin relates the final collapse of the Third Reich literally in flames, as the cities of Germany are bombarded into annihilation, and the allies race the Russians to what had been the heart of Hitler s thousand year dream, Berlin.
Search Amazon.com for BATTLE OF BERLIN