Berlin Strategic Offensive Operation

This was a Soviet strategic operation by two fronts attacking from the east and south to capture Berlin while a third front overran the German forces in the area to the north of Berlin (16 April/8 May 1945).

Otherwise called the Battle of Berlin, this was one of the bloodiest battles in history. Before the end of the battle the German dictator, Adolf Hitler, and many of his followers committed suicide. The city’s defence capitulated on 2 May, but the fighting continued to the north-west, west and south-west of the city until the end of the war in Europe on 8 May as German units tried to fight their way west so that they could surrender to the Western Allies rather than to the Soviets.

On 12 January 1945 the Soviet forces started their ‘Vistula-Oder Strategic Offensive Operation’ across the Narew river and also from Warsaw. This was a three-day operation fought on a broad front by four Soviet fronts. On the fourth day the Soviets broke through the German defences and started moving west at the rate of 18.5 to 25 miles (30 to 40 km) per day. The Soviet forces seized the Baltic states, Gdańsk (Danzig in German), East Prussia and Poznań (Posen), before halting on a line 37 miles (60 km) to the east of Berlin along the line of the Oder river.

The newly created Heeresgruppe ‘Weichsel’, under the nominal command of Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler, attempted its ‘Sonnenwende’ counter-offensive, but this impossible undertaking had failed by 18 February. The Soviet forces then drove forward into Pomerania, and cleared the right bank of the Oder river, thereby moving deep into Silesia. In the south there raged the Battle of Budapest, three German attempts to relieve the encircled Hungarian capital failing before Budapest fell to the Soviet forces on 13 February. Again the Germans counterattacked, Hitler insisting on the impossible task of regaining of the Danube river: by 16 March this ‘Frühlingserwachen’ in the Lake Balaton area had failed, and within one day a Soviet counter-offensive had retaken all that the Germans had gained in 10 days. On 30 March the Soviet forces entered Austria and, during their ‘Vienna Offensive Operation’, captured the Austrian capital on 13 April.

By this time, it was clear that the final defeat of the Third Reich was only a few weeks distant. The German forces had less than 10% of the fuel they needed to operate effectively, and both the production numbers and the quality of fighter aircraft and tanks had deteriorated considerably from their peaks in 1944. However, it was also known that the fighting would be as fierce as it had been at any other time in the war. The Germans fought bitterly, because of national pride and the Allied insistence on unconditional surrender, and also to buy the time for as much as possible of the German civil population to escape from the Soviet forces.

Hitler decided to remain in Berlin, although his advisers urged him to leave. On 12 April Hitler learned that President Franklin D. Roosevelt of the USA had died, and this briefly raised the hope that there might yet be a falling out among the Allies.

Mindful of the unexpected German collapse at the end of World War I in October and November 1918, the Western Allies had made tentative plan to drop airborne forces to occupy Berlin in the event of any sudden German collapse so that important prisoners and documents could be captured, but had formulated no plans for an overland advance to seize the city. General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander, Europe, saw no need for the Western Allies to suffer casualties in attacking a city which, it had already been agreed at the 'Argonaut' conference at Yalta of 4/11 February 1945, would be in the Soviet sphere of influence after the war. Eisenhower was also concerned about Western Allied troops colliding with Soviet troops, raising the possibility of ‘friendly fire’ casualties. Since the Soviet forces were, at the time this decision was made late in March, much closer to Berlin than the armies of the Western Allies, the battle for Berlin was left to the Soviets.

The major Western Allied contribution to the battle was the strategic bombing of Berlin during 1945. During 1945 the unimpeded heavy bomber formations of the USAAF launched a number of very large daytime raids on Berlin and for 36 nights in succession scores of RAF de Havilland Mosquito light bombers attacked the German capital, ending on the night of 20/21 April just before the Soviet forces entered the city.

The Soviet offensive into central Germany had two objectives. Firstly, Stalin did not believe the Western Allies would hand over territory occupied by them for incorporation into the post-war Soviet zone, and therefore had his armies began the offensive on a broad front to advance rapidly to meet the Western Allies and thus come to a halt as far to the west as possible. Secondly, Stalin’s overriding objective was the capture of Berlin. The two were complementary because possession of the zone could not be won quickly unless Berlin was taken. Another consideration was that Berlin itself held useful post-war strategic assets, including Hitler (if he could be taken alive) and, the Soviets believed, the German atomic bomb programme.

On 6 March Hitler appointed Generalleutnant Hellmuth Reymann as the commander of the Verteidigungsbereich ‘Berlin’ (Berlin Defence Area), later the Armeegruppe ‘Spree’, otherwise Korpsgruppe ‘Spree’ and Armeeabteilung ‘Spree’, in succession to Generalleutnant Bruno Ritter von Hauenschild, and on 20 March Generaloberst Gotthard Heinrici replaced Himmler as commander of Heeresgruppe ‘Weichsel’. Heinrici was one of Germany’s ablest defensive tacticians, and immediately started to plan the defence on the correct assumption that the main Soviet thrust would be made over the Oder river and along the line of the main east/west Autobahn. Heinrici decided not to try to defend the banks of the Oder with anything more than a light skirmishing screen, and instead ordered engineers to fortify the Seelow heights which overlook the Oder river at the point where the Autobahn crossed it. This is some 10.5 miles (17 km) to the west of the Oder and 56 miles (90 km) to the east of Berlin.

Heinrici also thinned the line in other areas to increase the manpower available to him for the defence of the heights. German engineers turned the Oder’s flood plain, already saturated by the spring thaw, into a swamp by releasing the waters in an upstream reservoir. Behind this, the engineers built three belts of defensive emplacements reaching back toward the outskirts of Berlin (the lines nearer to Berlin were called the ‘Wotan-Stellung’). These lines consisted of anti-tank ditches, anti-tank gun emplacements, and an extensive network of trenches and bunkers.

On 9 April Königsberg in East Prussia finally fell to the Soviet forces, an event which freed Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Konstantin K. Rokossovsky’s 2nd Belorussian Front to move from East Prussia to the eastern bank of the Oder river. During the first two weeks of April the Soviets undertook their fastest front redeployment of the war. Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Georgi K. Zhukov concentrated his 1st Belorussian Front, which had been deployed along the Oder river from Frankfurt-an-der-Oder in the south to the Baltic in the north, into the area to the east of the Seelow heights. The 2nd Belorussian Front moved into the positions being vacated by the 1st Belorussian Front to the north of the Seelow heights.

While this redeployment was being completed, gaps inevitably appeared in the line and the remnants of General Dietrich von Saucken’s 2nd Army, which had been trapped in a pocket near Danzig, managed to escape into the delta of the Vistula river.

To the south, Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Ivan S. Konev shifted the main weight of his 1st Ukrainian Front out of Upper Silesia into the area to the north-west of the Neisse river. The completion of these Soviet redeployments meant that the three Soviet fronts involved in the ‘Berlin Strategic Offensive Operation’ had 2.5 million men (including 78,556 soldiers of General Leytenant Zygmunt Berling’s Polish 1st Army), 6,250 armoured fighting vehicles, 41,600 pieces of artillery and mortars and 3,255 truck-mounted Katyusha rocket launchers, and 7,500 aircraft.

The Battle of the Oder-Neisse is the name generally accorded to the first operational phase of the ‘Berlin Strategic Offensive Operation’, and this breakthrough phase was fought on 16/19 April. The Soviets divided the frontal and pincer phases of the operation into the ‘Stettin-Rostock Offensive Operation’ (16 April/8 May) by the 2nd Belorussian Front, the ‘Seelow-Berlin Offensive Operation’ (16 April/2 May) by the 1st Belorussian Front, the ‘Cottbus-Potsdam Offensive Operation’ (16 April/2 May) by the northern flank and Cavalry Mechanised Group of the 1st Ukrainian Front, and the ‘Spremberg-Torgau Offensive Operation’ (16 April/5 May) by the southern flank of the 1st Ukrainian Front. The battle thus included heavy fighting by Rokossovsky’s, Zhukov’s and Konev’s fronts against Heinrici’s Heeresgruppe ‘Weichsel’ and Generalfeldmarschall Ferdinand Schörner’s Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’.

Most of the fighting took place during the 1st Belorussian Front’s assault on the Seelow heights, which were defended by General Theodor Busse’s 9th Army of Heeresgruppe ‘Weichsel’ in what became known as the Battle of the Seelow Heights. To the south, the 1st Ukrainian Front encountered considerably lighter resistance in its crossing of the Neisse river to penetrate the defensive lines of Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’.

It was in the early hours of 16 April that the ‘Berlin Strategic Offensive Operation’ began with a massive bombardment by thousands of pieces of artillery and Katyusha rockets in a barrage which was sustained for two hours in some sectors. Shortly after this, and well before dawn, the 1st Belorussian Front and 1st Ukrainian Front attacked across the Oder and Neisse rivers respectively. The 1st Belorussian Front had been considerably reinforced as it had the more difficult assignment and was facing the majority of the German forces in prepared defences. From north to south the 1st Belorussian Front’s largest formations were General Leytenant Pavel A. Belov’s 61st Army, Berling’s Polish 1st Army, General Leytenant Frants I. Perkhorovich’s 47th Army, General Polkovnik Vasili I. Kuznetsov’s 3rd Shock Army, General Polkovnik Nikolai Ye. Berzarin’s 5th Shock Army, General Polkovnik Vasili I. Chuikov’s 8th Guards Army, General Leytenant Vladimir I. Kolpakchy’s 69th Army and General Leytenant Vyacheslav D. Tsvetayev’s 33rd Army, with General Polkovnik Mikhail Ye. Katukov’s 1st Guards Tank Army, General Polkovnik Semyon I. Bogdanov’s 2nd Guards Tank Army and General Leytenant Aleksandr V. Gorbatov’s 3rd Army in reserve, and air support provided by General Polkovnik Sergei I. Rudenko’s 16th Air Army.

The 1st Belorussian Front’s initial attack was a disaster, for Heinrici had anticipated the move and withdrawn the defence from the first line of trenches just before the Soviet barrage destroyed them. Then the light of 143 searchlights, intended to blind the defenders, was diffused by the early morning mist and in fact made useful silhouettes of the attacking Soviet soldiers. The swampy ground proved to be a great hindrance, and a German counter-barrage inflicted very heavy losses on the Soviets. Frustrated by the slow advance, or on the direct orders of the Stavka, Zhukov threw in his reserves, which in his plan were to have been held back to exploit the expected breakthrough. By early evening, an advance of almost 3.75 miles (6 km) had been achieved in some areas, but in overall terms the German line remained relatively intact. Zhukov was forced to report that the 'Seelow-Berlin Offensive' was not going as planned.

To spur Zhukov, Stalin told the commander of the 1st Belorussian Front that he would give Konev permission to wheel his tank armies toward Berlin from the south. On the second day, the staff of the 1st Belorussian Front staff combed the front’s rear areas for any troops who could be thrown into the battle, and while the standard Soviet tactic of densely concentrated firepower was on the verge of providing the usual results, by the fall of night on 17 April the German front before the 1st Belorussian Front remained unbroken, though only barely so. On 18 April both Soviet fronts made steady progress, but the Soviet losses continued to rise. By nightfall on 18 April the 1st Belorussian Front had reached the third and final German line. On 19 April, the fourth day of the battle, the 1st Belorussian Front broke through the final line of the Seelow heights’ defences, and there was nothing but severely depleted German formations, all pulling back to the west, between its troops and Berlin.

The remnants of Busse’s 9th Army, which had been holding the heights, and the remaining northern flank of General Fritz-Hubert Gräser’s 4th Panzerarmee, pulling back from the offensive of the 1st Ukrainian Front, were in danger of being enveloped by elements of the 1st Ukrainian Front pasing round their right in a north-westerly direction. While the 1st Belorussian Front encircled Berlin, the 1st Ukrainian Front started the battle for the city itself.

Rokossovsky’s 2nd Belorussian Front started its offensive to the north of Berlin, between Schwedt in the south and the Baltic Sea coast north of Stettin, with General Leytenant Georgi K. Kozlov’s 19th Army, General Leytenant Ivan I. Fedyuninsky’s 2nd Shock Army, General Leytenant Pavel I. Batov’s 65th Army, General Leytenant Vasili S. Popov’s 70th Army and General Leytenant Ivan T. Grishin’s 49th Army, from north to south, against General Hasso-Eccard Freiherr von Manteuffel’s 3rd Panzerarmee of Heeresgruppe ‘Weichsel’.

By 22 April, the 2nd Belorussian Front had established a bridgehead on the eastern bank of the Oder more than 9.33 miles (15 km) deep, and was heavily engaged with the 3rd Panzerarmee.

In the south, the attack was undertaken by the 1st Ukrainian Front using General Leytenant Vasili N. Gordov’s 3rd Guards Army, General Polkovnik Pavel S. Rybalko’s 3rd Guards Tank Army, 56th Army, General Leytenant Aleksandr A. Luchinsky’s 28th Army, General Leytenant Karol Świerczewski’s Polish 2nd Army and General Leytenant Konstantin A. Koroteyev’s 52nd Army, with General Polkovnik Dmitri D. Lelyushenko’s 4th Guards Tank Army and the 28th Army in reserve, and air support provided by General Polkovnik Stepan A. Kravsovsky’s 2nd Air Army and General Polkovnik Aleksandr Ye. Golovanov’s 18th Air Army.

The 1st Ukrainian Front’s offensive was well up to schedule as Schörner’s Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ was not providing as much resistance as the forces facing the 1st Belorussian Front. The 4th Panzerarmee on the northern flank of Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ was falling back under the weight of the 1st Ukrainian Front’s offensive. Two Panzer divisions on the southern flank were retained in reserve for possible need in the centre of the front held by Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’, and were thus unavailable to shore up the 4th Panzerarmee. This was the turning point in the battle, because by the fall of night the southern positions of Heeresgruppe ‘Weichsel’ and northern positions of Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ were becoming untenable. Unless it fell back into line with the 4th Panzerarmee, the 9th Army faced envelopment. In effect, Konev’s successful attacks on Schörner’s poor defences south of the Seelow heights were unhinging Heinrici’s defence.

On 18 April the 1st Ukrainian Front, having captured the town of Forst, was preparing to break out into relatively flat terrain. Elements of the 3rd Guards Army, 3rd Guards Tank Army and 4th Guards Tank Army, which were the front’s so-called Cavalry Mechanised Group, exploited the breach in the 4th Panzerarmee’s sector of the front and turned north between Seyda and Jüterbog toward a junction with the 1st Belorussian Front west of Berlin. Other armies of the 1st Ukrainian Front’s southern flank attacked to the west and a meeting with US forces that would be remembered as the ‘meeting at Torgau’ when the 58th Guards Division of the 5th Guards Army, part of the 1st Ukrainian Front, made contact with elements of Major General Emil F. Reinhardt’s US 69th Division of Lieutenant General Courtney H. Hodges’s US 1st Army near Torgau on the Elbe river. The forces of the 1st Ukrainian Front had reached the Mulde river, a western tributary of the Elbe, by 8 May.

In the north, the 2nd Belorussian Front broke through the 3rd Panzerarmee’s line around the bridgehead to the south of Stettin on 25 April and crossed the Randow swamp in the Gramzow area. The front was now free to move to the west and a junction with the forward elements of Field Marshal Sir Bernard Montgomery’s Allied 21st Army Group, and to the north in the direction of the Baltic ports of Stralsund and Rostock.

By the end of 19 April, the German front to the north of Frankfurt-an-der-Oder around the Seelow heights and to the south around Forst had ceased to exist. The Soviet breakthroughs in these areas opened the way for the two Soviet fronts to envelop large parts of the 9th Army and 4th Panzerarmee in a large pocket around Marskisch Buchholz, some 23 miles (37 km) to the south-west of Frankfurt-an-der-Oder. The trapped German formations tried to fight their way along the course of the Oder-Spree Canal to Berlin, and attempts by the 9th Army to break out to the west later led to the Battle of Halbe.

The cost to the Soviet forces in the course of these first breakthroughs was very great: in the period 1/19 April, for instance, the Soviet forces lost more than 2,807 armoured fighting vehicles, and in the same period the Western Allies lost 1,079 armoured fighting vehicles.

On 20 April, which was Hitler’s 56th birthday, the artillery of the 1st Belorussian Front began to shell the centre of Berlin, and this bombardment did not cease until the city’s surrender. The 1st Belorussian Front now advanced toward the east and north-east of Berlin, and the 1st Ukrainian Front, having pushed through the last formations of the northern wing of Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ and passing to the north of Jüterbog, was well over half way to the US forces’ front on the Elbe river at Magdeburg. To the north, between Stettin and Schwedt the 2nd Belorussian Front attacked the northern flank of Heeresgruppe ‘Weichsel’, held by von Manteuffel’s 3rd Panzerarmee. On 21 April, Bogdanov’s 2nd Guards Tank Army advanced nearly 31 miles (50 km) to the north of Berlin and then attacked to the south-west of Werneuchen.

Other Soviet formations started to reach Berlin’s outer defence ring. The Soviet plan was first to encircle Berlin first and then to envelop the 9th Army. At this stage command of General Kurt Wäger’s V Corps, trapped with the remnant of the 9th Army to the north of Forst and still holding Cottbus, passed from the 4th Panzerarmee to the 9th Army. When the surviving southern flank of the 4th Panzerarmee achieved a measure of local success with a counterattack to the north against the 1st Ukrainian Front, Hitler gave orders which showed that his grasp of military reality had now totally disappeared as he ordered the 9th Army to hold Cottbus and set up a front facing to the west, and from this to attack the Soviet forces advancing to the north. This would turn the remnant of the 9th Army into a northern pincer which, Hitler had decided, would meet the remnant of the 4th Panzerarmee striking from the south and thus envelop and destroy the 1st Ukrainian Front. At this point, Hitler believed, these southern forces would link with the southward attack by the 3rd Panzerarmee and so constitute the southern pincer of a movement which would next envelop the 1st Belorussian Front. This would then be destroyed by SS-Obergruppenführer und General der Waffen-SS Felix Steiner’s Armeegruppe ‘Steiner’ advancing from its location to the north of Berlin.

Later in the day, after Steiner had made it plain that he did not have the divisions to do this, Heinrici told Hitler’s staff that unless the 9th Army retreated immediately it would be enveloped by the Soviets. Heinrici stressed it was already too late for it to move to the north-west and thus be in a position to contribute to the defence of Berlin, and would therefore have to retreat to the west. Heinrici went on to say that if Hitler did not allow it to move to the west he would ask to be relieved of his command.

At his afternoon situation conference on 22 April, Hitler fell into a tearful rage as he realised that his plans of the day before were not being implemented. He declared that the war was lost, blamed the generals for this fact, and announced that he would stay on in Berlin until the end and then kill himself. In an attempt to coax Hitler out of his rage the chief-of-staff of the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht, Generaloberst Alfred Jodl, speculated that the General Walther Wenck’s 12th Army, which was facing General Omar N. Bradley’s US 12th Army Group, could move to Berlin because the Americans, already on the Elbe river, were unlikely to advance farther to the east. Hitler immediately grasped at the concept, and within hours Wenck had been ordered to disengage from the Americans and move his 12th Army to the north-east to support the defence of Berlin. It was then realised that, if the 9th Army moved to the west, it could link with the 12th Army. In the evening Heinrici was given permission to make the move.

In the world of practical rather than fantasy warfare, the Soviet forces continued to press forward. The 2nd Belorussian Front had established on the eastern bank of the Oder river a bridgehead more than 9.33 miles (15 km) deep, and was heavily engaged with the 3rd Panzerarmee. The 9th Army had lost Cottbus and was being pressed from the east. A Soviet armoured spearhead was on the Havel river to the east of Berlin and another had at one point penetrated the German capital’s inner defensive ring. On 23 April, the 1st Belorussian Front and 1st Ukrainian Front continued to tighten the encirclement and cut the last link between the city and the 9th Army. Elements of the 1st Ukrainian Front continued to move to the west and started to engage the 12th Army moving in the direction of Berlin.

On this same day, Hitler appointed General Helmuth Weidling to succeed Reymann at the head of the Verteidigungsbereich ‘Berlin’.

By 24 April elements of 1st Belorussian Front and 1st Ukrainian Front had completed the encirclement of the city. On the following day the Soviet investment of Berlin was consolidated with the leading Soviet formations probing and penetrating the S-Bahn defensive ring. By the end of 25 April there was no prospect that the German defence of the city could do anything but delay the capture of Berlin as the decisive stages of the battle had already been fought and lost by the Germans outside the city.

The Battle of Berlin took place between 23 April and 2 May. The forces available to Weidling for the city’s defence included several severely depleted army and Waffen-SS divisions, in all about 45,000 men comprising, clockwise from the north, Oberst Harry Hermann’s 9th Fallschirmjägerdivision, Generalmajor Warner Mummert’s Panzerdivision ‘Müncheberg’, SS-Brigadeführer und Generalmajor der Waffen-SS Joachim Ziegler’s (from 25 April SS-Brigadeführer und Generalmajor der Waffen-SS Dr Gustav Krukenberg’s) 11th SS Panzergrenadierdivision ‘Nordland’, and Oberst Arnold Scholz’s 20th Panzergrenadierdivision. These skeletal formations were supplemented by the police force, boys of the compulsorily enlisted Hitlerjugend organisation, and the Volkssturm. Many of the 40,000 elderly men of the Volkssturm had been in the army as young men and some were veterans of World War I. The commander of the central district, SS-Brigadeführer Wilhelm Mohnke, who had been appointed to this position by Hitler, had more than 2,000 men under his command.

Weidling organised the defences into eight sectors designated ‘A’ to ‘H’, each commanded by a colonel or a general, but most of these men were staff officers with no combat experience. In the west of the city was the 20th Panzergrenadierdivision, in the north the 9th Fallschirmjägerdivision, in the north-east the Panzerdivision ‘Müncheberg’, and in the south-east and east of Tempelhof airport the 11th SS Panzergrenadierdivision ‘Nordland’, to which were attached a miscellany of Luftwaffe and naval units, a so-called assault battalion of 300 to 330 men of Krukenberg’s 33rd SS Grenadierdivision ‘Charlemagne’ (französische Nr 1), the 101st Spanische Freiwilligen Kompanie, the Swedish-manned 3rd Panzergrenadierkompanie ‘Swedenzug’ of the 11th SS Panzeraufklärungsabteilung of the 11th Panzergrenadierdivision ‘Nordland’, remnants of the 23rd SS Panzergrenadierregiment ‘Norge’ and 24th SS Panzergrenadierregiment ‘Danmark’ of Krukenberg’s 11th SS Panzergrenadierdivision, and elements of this division’s pioneer element. The reserve was Generalleutnant Karl Zutavern’s 18th Panzergrenadierdivision, and this formation was located in the centre of Berlin.

Berlin’s fate was wholly inevitable as the decisive stages of the battle had been fought outside the city, as noted above, but the resistance inside the city nonetheless continued. On 23 April Berzarin’s 5th Shock Army and Katukov’s 1st Guards Tank Army assaulted Berlin from the south-east and, after overcoming a counterattack by Weidling’s own LVI Panzerkorps, had by the evening of 24 April reached the Berlin S-Bahn ring railway on the northern side of the Teltow Canal. During the same period, of all the German forces ordered to reinforce the inner defences of the city by Hitler, only a small contingent of Krukenberg’s French SS volunteers arrived in Berlin, and on 25 April Krukenberg was appointed commander of Defence Sector ‘C’, the sector under the most pressure from the Soviet assault on the city. The 8th Guards Army and 1st Guards Tank Army fought their way through the southern suburbs and attacked Tempelhof airport, just inside the S-Bahn defensive ring, where they met stiff resistance from the Panzerdivision ‘Müncheberg’. But by 27 April the understrength Panzerdivision ‘Müncheberg’ and 11th SS Panzergrenadierdivision defending the south-east were now faced by five Soviet armies in the form, from east to west, of the 5th Shock, 8th Guards, 1st Guards Tank, 28th and 3rd Guards Tank Armies of the 1st Ukrainian Front. The German defence was driven back toward the centre and assumed new defensive positions around the Hermannplatz. Krukenberg informed General Hans Krebs, the chief-of-staff of the Oberkommando des Heeres, that within 24 hours the 11th SS Panzergrenadierdivision would have to fall back to Defence Sector ‘Z’ (Zentrum, or centre).

The Soviet advance to the city centre was pursued along several axes: from the south-east along the Frankfurter Allee ending and stopped at the Alexanderplatz; from the south along the Sonnen Allee ending to the north of the Belle Alliance Platz; from the south ending near the Potsdamer Platz; and from the north ending near the Reichstag. The Reichstag, the Moltkebrücke, Alexanderplatz, and the Havel bridges at Spandau were the places where the fighting was more severe, with house-to-house and hand-to-hand combat. The foreign contingents of the SS fought particularly hard, because they were ideologically motivated and they believed that they would not survive if captured.

In the early hours of 29 April the 3rd Shock Army crossed the Moltkebrücke and started to fan out into the surrounding streets and buildings. The initial assaults on buildings, including the ministry of the interior, were hampered by the lack of supporting artillery, which could not be moved up in support until damaged bridges had been repaired.

At 04.00, in the Führerbunker, Hitler married Eva Braun, and shortly after this signed his last will and testament. At dawn the Soviets pressed on with their assault in the south-east. After very heavy fighting they managed to capture the Gestapo headquarters on Prinz-Albrechtstrasse, but a Waffen-SS counterattack forced the Soviets to withdraw from the building. In the south-west, the 8th Guards Army attacked north across the Landwehr Canal into the Tiergarten. By the following day, 30 April, the Soviets had resolved their bridging problems and with artillery support at 06.00 launched an attack on the Reichstag. Because of German entrenchments and support from 88-mm (3.465-in) guns 1.25 miles (2 km) away on the Flak tower in Berlin zoo, however, it was not until that evening that the Soviets were able to enter the building. The Reichstag had not been in use since 1934, when it had been burned, and its interior was more a demolition site than a government building. The German troops inside had made excellent use of this, and lay waiting in heavily entrenched positions. There was fierce room-to-room fighting, and it took the Soviet forces two days to win complete control of the building.

During the morning of 30 April, Weidling informed Hitler that the defenders would probably exhaust their ammunition during the night. Hitler gave him permission to attempt a breakout and, in the afternoon of the same day, Hitler and Braun committed suicide. Their bodies were cremated not far from the bunker. In accordance with the terms of Hitler’s testament, Grossadmiral Karl Dönitz became the president of Germany (Reichspräsident) in the new government based in the north port of Flensburg, and Dr Joseph Goebbels became the new chancellor of Germany (Reichskanzler).

As the German perimeter shrank and the surviving defenders fell back, they became concentrated into a small area in the city centre. By now there were about 10,000 German soldiers in the city centre, which was being assaulted from all sides. One of the other main Soviet thrusts was along Wilhelmstrasse on which the air ministry, built of reinforced concrete, was pounded by large concentrations of Soviet artillery. The remaining Tiger heavy tanks of the 11th SS Panzerabteilung ‘Hermann von Salza’ took up positions in the east of the Tiergarten to defend the centre against the 3rd Shock Army which, although heavily engaged around the Reichstag was also flanking the area by advancing through the northern part of the Tiergarten, and the 8th Guards Army advancing through the south of the Tiergarten. These Soviet forces had effectively cut the sausage-shaped area held by the Germans in half and made any westward escape attempt for German troops in the centre much more difficult.

At about 04.00 on 1 May, Krebs talked to Chuikov, commanding the 8th Guards Army, informing him of Hitler’s death and a willingness to negotiate the surrender of the city. The two men could not agree terms, however, because of the Soviet insistence on unconditional surrender and Krebs’s claim that he lacked authorisation to agree to that. In the afternoon Goebbels, who was against surrender, and his family killed themselves. Goebbels’s suicide removed the last impediment preventing Weidling from accepting the terms of unconditional surrender by his garrison, but he chose to delay the surrender until the next morning to give some time until dark for the planned breakout.

During the night of 1/2 May, most of the Berlin garrison’s remnants tried to break out of the city centre in three different directions. Only those who went to the west through the Tiergarten and crossed the Charlottenbrücke over the Havel river into Spandau succeeded in breaching the Soviet lines. However, only a handful of those who survived the initial breakout reached the lines of the Western Allies, most being killed or captured by the Soviet forces.

Early in the morning of 2 May, the Soviets captured the Reichskanzlei (Reich chancellery), and Weidling surrendered with his staff at 06.00. Weidling was taken to see Chuikov at 08.23 and agreed to order the city’s defenders to surrender. Under the supervision of Chuikov and General Vasili D. Sokolovsky, the deputy commander-in-chief of the 1st Ukrainian Front, Weidling put his surrender order in writing. The 350-strong garrison of the zoo’s Flak tower finally left the building. There was sporadic fighting in a few isolated buildings where some SS still refused to surrender. The Soviets simply reduced such buildings to rubble.

The Soviet forces then undertook a house-to-house search and rounded up everyone in uniform, including firemen and railway men, and marched them off as prisoners of war.

At a time on 28 or 29 April, Heinrici had been relieved of the command of Heeresgruppe ‘Weichsel’ after disobeying Hitler’s direct orders to hold Berlin at all costs and never order a retreat. Heinrici had been replaced by Generaloberst Kurt Student, with General Kurt von Tippelskirch as a stop-gap commander until Student could arrive and assume control. There remains some confusion as to who was actually in command as some references say that Student was captured by the British and never arrived. Regardless of whether von Tippelskirch or Student was in command of Heeresgruppe ‘Weichsel’, the rapidly deteriorating situation that the Germans faced meant that this army group’s co-ordination of the formations under its nominal command during the last few days of the war was of little significance.

On the evening of 29 April, Krebs contacted Jodl, the chief-of-staff of the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht, by radio: ‘Request immediate report. Firstly of the whereabouts of Wenck’s spearheads. Secondly of time intended to attack. Thirdly of the location of the 9th Army. Fourthly of the precise place in which the 9th Army will break through. Fifthly of the whereabouts of Generalleutnant Rudolf Holste’s spearhead [of the XLI Panzerkorps].’ In the early morning of 30 April, Jodl replied: ‘Firstly, Wenck’s spearhead bogged down south of Schwielow Lake. Secondly, 12th Army therefore unable to continue attack on Berlin. Thirdly, bulk of 12th Army surrounded. Fourthly, Holste’s corps on the defensive.’

While the 1st Belorussian Front and the 1st Ukrainian Front encircled Berlin, and started the battle for the city itself, Rokossovsky’s 2nd Belorussian Front had started its offensive to the north of Berlin. On 20 April, between Stettin and Schwedt, the 2nd Belorussian Front attacked the northern flank of Heeresgruppe ‘Weichsel’ in the areas held by the 3rd Panzerarmee. By 22 April the 2nd Belorussian Front had established over the Oder a west-bank bridgehead more than 9.33 miles (15 km) deep, and was heavily engaged with the 3rd Panzerarmee.

On 25 April the 2nd Belorussian Front broke through the 3rd Panzerarmee’s line around the bridgehead to the south of Stettin and crossed the Randowbruch swamp, and was now free to move to the west in the direction of Montgomery’s Allied 21st Army Group and to the north in the direction of the Baltic port of Stralsund. The 3rd Panzerarmee and von Tippelskirsch’s 21st Army, situated to the north of Berlin, retreated to the west under relentless pressure from the 2nd Belorussian Front, and was eventually pushed into a pocket 20 miles (32 km) wide that stretched from the Elbe to the coast. To their west was the 21st Army Group, which on 1 May broke out of its Elbe bridgehead and raced to the coast capturing Wismar and Lübeck, to their east the 2nd Belorussian Front, and to their south Lieutenant General William H. Simpson’s US 9th Army, which had penetrated as far to the east as Ludwigslust and Schwerin.

The successes of the 1st Ukrainian Front during the first nine days of the battle meant that by 25 April it had occupied much of the area to the south and south-west of Berlin, and its spearheads had met elements of the 1st Belorussian Front to the west of Berlin, thereby completing the investment of the city. These advances had divided the German forces to the south of Berlin into three parts: Busse’s 9th Army was surrounded in the Halbe pocket; Wenck’s 12th Army, obeying Hitler’s order of 22 April, was attempting to force its way into Berlin from the south-west but meeting stiff resistance from units of the 1st Ukrainian Front in the area of Potsdam; and Schörner’s Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ was being compelled to withdraw from the Battle of Berlin along its lines of communications in the south toward Czechoslovakia.

Between 24 April and 1 May, the 9th Army fought a desperate battle to break out of the Halbe pocket in an attempt to link with the 12th Army. Hitler assumed that, following a successful breakout from the pocket, the 9th Army could combine forces with the 12th Army so that the two armies could relieve Berlin. There is no evidence to suggest that Heinrici, Busse and Wenck thought that this was even remotely feasible in any logistic or strategic terms, but Hitler’s agreement to the idea of the 9th Army’s break through the Soviet lines did provide a window of opportunity through which large numbers of German troops were able to escape to the west and surrender to the US Army.

At dawn on 28 April three extemporised divisions, namely Generalleutnant Martin Unrein’s Panzerdivision ‘Clausewitz’, Generalleutnant Heinrich Götz’s Division ‘Scharnhorst’ and Generalleutnant Bruno Frankewitz’s Division ‘Theodor Körner’, attacked from the south-west in the direction of Berlin. These formations were part of General Karl-Erick Köhler’s XX Corps of Wenck’s 12th Army, and included men from officer training schools, making them some of the best units the Germans had in reserve. They covered a distance of about 15 miles (24 km) before being halted at the tip of Lake Schwielow, to the south-west of Potsdam and still 20 miles (32 km) short of Berlin, their objective.

On 28 April, Krebs made his last telephone call from the Führerbunker when he spoke to Generalfeldmarschall Wilhelm Keitel, the head of the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht, at the new supreme headquarters in Fürstenberg. Krebs told Keitel that, if relief did not arrive within 48 hours, all would be lost. Under pressure, Keitel promised to exert the utmost pressure on Wenck and Busse in their attempts to relieve Berlin. On the night of 28 April, Wenck reported to the supreme headquarters that his 12th Army had been forced back along the entire front. According to Wenck, no attack on Berlin was now possible. This was even more so as support from the 9th Army could no longer be expected. About 25,000 German soldiers of the 9th Army, together with several thousand civilians, succeeded in reaching the lines of the 12th Army after breaking out of the Halbe pocket. The casualties on both sides were very high: about 20,000 Soviet soldiers were killed. These are the known dead, but the remains of more who died in the battle are found every year so the total of those who died will never be known.

It is not known how many civilians died but it could have been as high as 10,000.

Having failed to break through to Berlin, the 12th Army undertook a fighting retreat back toward the Elbe river and the US lines after providing the 9th Army’s survivors with surplus transport. By 6 May many German formations, units and individuals had crossed the Elbe and surrendered to the US 9th Army. Meanwhile, the 12th Army’s bridgehead, with its headquarters in the park of Schönhausen, had come under heavy Soviet artillery bombardment and had been compressed into an area measuring 5 by 1.25 miles (8 by 2 km). On the night of 2/3 May, von Manteuffel and von Tippelskirch, commanders of the 3rd Panzerarmee and 21st Army respectively, also surrendered to the US Army. von Saucken’s 2nd Army, which had been fighting to the north-east of Berlin in the Vistula delta, surrendered to the Soviet forces on 9 May.

On the morning of 7 May, the 12th Army’s perimeter started to collapse. Wenck crossed the Elbe under small arms fire during the afternoon, and surrendered to the US 9th Army. Those who did not cross the Elbe surrendered to the Soviets. As noted above, the total strength of the Soviet forces involved in the ‘Berlin Strategic Offensive Operation’ was in the order of 2.5 million men, 41,600 pieces of artillery, 6,250 armoured fighting vehicles and 7,500 aircraft, and of the manpower total some 1.5 million men were involved in the investment and assault on the Verteidigungsbereich ‘Berlin’. The Soviet losses were in the order of 81,115 dead or missing (including 2,825 Polish), 80,250 sick or wounded, 2,108 pieces of artillery, 1,997 armoured fighting vehicles, and 917 aircraft.

On the other side of the front line, the Germans forces totalled 766,750 soldiers, 9,303 pieces of artillery, 1,519 armoured fighting vehicles and 2,224 aircraft, while in the Verteidigungsbereich ‘Berlin’ there were about 45,000 soldiers supplemented by the police force, Hitlerjugend and 40,000 Volkssturm soldiers. According to the Soviets, the German losses were in the order of 458,080 killed and 479,298 taken prisoner. The number of civilian casualties is unknown.

The Soviet forces made a major effort to feed the surviving residents of Berlin, but in many areas of the city Soviet troops (often rear-echelon units) looted, raped an estimated 100,000 women, and murdered civilians for several weeks. In the preceding months, as the Soviet forces began their offensives into Germany proper, the Stavka had recognised the potential for major lapses in discipline involving vengeful troops and had been able to check such behaviour to a certain extent. In a January 27 order near the conclusion of the 'Vistula-Oder Strategic Offensive Operation', Konev supplied a long list of commanders to be reassigned to penal battalions for looting, drunkenness, and excesses against civilians. The initial chaos in the aftermath of Berlin’s fall was far too widespread, however, to be deterred or controlled. Some Soviet officers resorted to punishing or even shooting offending troops on the spot in the streets.

It was only in the late summer of 1945 that the Soviet authorities were able to reimpose discipline on their troops, and Soviet soldiers caught raping were usually officially punished to various degrees. Berlin had been suffering food shortages for many months, caused by Allied strategic bombing and exacerbated by the final military assault on the city and despite serious Soviet efforts to supply food and rebuild the city, starvation remained a problem. Almost all the transport in and out of the city had been rendered inoperative, and bombed-out sewers had contaminated the city’s water supplies. In June 1945, one month after the surrender, when the US forces arrived in their sector of Berlin they found that the average calorie intake of Berliners was extremely low as they were getting only 64% of a specified 1,240-calorie daily ration.