Operation Battle of Halbe

The 'Battle of Halbe' was fought in eastern Germany between Soviet and German forces in which General Theodor Busse’s 9th Army was destroyed by Soviet forces advancing on Berlin (24 April/1 May 1945).

The 9th Army, which had been encircled in a large pocket in the Spree forest region to the south-east of Berlin, sought to break out to the west through the village of Halbe and the pine forests to the south of Berlin to link with General Walther Wenck’s 12th Army with the intention of moving to the west and surrendering to the Western Allies. To do this, the 9th Army would have to fight its way through three lines of Soviet troops of Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Ivan S. Konev’s 1st Ukrainian Front while at the same time formation of Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Georgi K. Zhukov’s 1st Belorussian Front attacked the German rearguard from the north-east.

After heavy fighting, about 30,000 German soldiers, slightly more than one-third of those originally trapped in the pocket, reached the comparative safety of the 12th Army's front lines. The rest of the 9th Army was either killed or taken prisoner by the Soviet forces.

On 16 April, the Soviet forces started the 'Battle of Berlin' with a three-front attack across the line of the Oder and Neisse rivers, and by 21 April had broken through the German front in two places and started to invest Berlin. The 9th Army covered the defences of the Seelow Heights against Zhukov’s 1st Belorussian Front, but its position was unhinged by the successful attack of Konev’s 1st Ukrainian Front against Generalfeldmarschall Ferdinand Schörner’s Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' on the Neisse river. By 20 April, the 9th Army had retreated to the south-east of Berlin, opening the way for the 1st Belorussian Front’s progress.

As a result of the high speed of the advance by Konev’s forces, the 9th Army was now threatened with envelopment by the two Soviet pincers that were heading for Berlin from the south and east. The southern pincer consisted of the 3rd and 4th Guards Tank Armies, which had penetrated most deeply and already cut through the area behind the 9th Army's front.

Command of SS-Obergruppenführer und General der Waffen-SS Friedrich Jeckeln’s V SS Freiwilligen-Gebirgskorps, encircled with the 9th Army to the north of Forst, now passed from General Fritz-Hubert Gräser’s 4th Panzerarmee, which was part of Heeresgruppe 'Mitte', to the 9th Army, which was part of Generaloberst Gotthard Heinrici’s (from 30 April Generaloberst Kurt Student’s) Heeresgruppe 'Weichsel'. The V SS Freiwilligen-Gebirgskorps was still holding Cottbus. While the bulk of Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' was being forced by the advance of the 1st Ukrainian Front to fall back along its lines of communication to the south-west in the direction of Czechoslovakia, the southern flank of the 4th Panzerarmee had some local successes in a counterattack to the north against the 1st Ukrainian Front.

Contrary to the realities on the ground, which he totally ignored, Adolf Hitler ordered the 9th Army to hold Cottbus and establish a west-facing front and then attack into the Soviet columns advancing to the north. In Hitler’s estimation, this would allow the 9th Army to form the northern pincer which would meet with the 4th Panzerarmee coming from the south and thereby envelop the 1st Ukrainian Front before destroying it. They were to anticipate an attack to the south by the 3rd Panzerarmee and to be ready to be the southern arm of a pincer attack that would envelop the 1st Belorussian Front, which would then be destroyed by SS-Obergruppenführer und General der Waffen-SS Felix Steiner’s III SS Panzerkorps (germanisches) advancing from the north of Berlin. Later in the day, Steiner made it plain that he did not possess the strength to make this effort. Heinrici then explained to Hitler’s staff that unless it embarked on an immediate retreat, the 9th Army would be enveloped by the Soviet forces. Heinrici stressed that it was already too late for the formation to move north-west to Berlin, and would have to retreat to the west.

At his afternoon situation conference on 22 April, Hitler fell into a rage when he realised that his plans of the day before would not be implemented. He declared that the war was lost, blamed the generals for this, and announced that he would remain in Berlin until the end and then kill himself. In an attempt to coax Hitler out of his rage, Generaloberst Alfred Jodl, the chief-of-staff of the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht, speculated that the 12th Army, which was facing the US forces, could move to Berlin because the Americans already on the Elbe river were unlikely to move any farther to the east. Hitler immediately seized upon the idea, and within hours Wenck had received orders to disengage from the US forces and move his 12th Army to the north-east in order to support Berlin. It was then realised that if the 9th Army moved to the west, it could link with the 12th Army. During the evening, Heinrici was given permission to effect this junction.

Although Hitler now believed that the 12th Army would penetrate through to Berlin and, once it had broken through to the 12th Army, the 9th Army would aid beleaguered Berlin, there is no evidence that Heinrici, Busse and Wenck thought that this was in any way a feasible plan. However, Hitler’s agreement to allow the 9th Army to break through to the 12th Army would create a window through which sizeable numbers of German troops could retreat to the west and surrender to the US forces, which is exactly what Wenck and Busse agreed to do. This was made easier when, shortly after midnight on April 25, Busse was given authority 'to decide for himself the best direction of attack'.

Before it was encircled, the 9th Army had already suffered heavy losses in the 'Battle of the Seelow Heights'. It is estimated that at the start of the encirclement it had fewer than 1,000 pieces of artillery and mortars, about 79 tanks, and probably a total of between 150 and 200 combat-ready armoured fighting vehicles. In all, there were about 80,000 men in the pocket, of whom the majority belonged to the 9th Army. This army controlled SS-Obergruppenführer und General der Waffen-SS Matthias Kleinheisterkamp’s XI SS Corps, Jeckeln’s V SS Freiwilligen-Gebirgskorps and General Kurt Wäger’s newly acquired V Corps, and also had under its control the garrison of Frankfurt. The number of tanks reported included 36 in the XI SS Corps, including up to 14 PzKpfw VI Tiger II heavy vehicles of SS-Obersturmbannführer Klein’s 502nd SS schwere Panzerabteilung. Air supply was attempted on 25 and 26 April, but could not be carried out because the aircraft could not find the ordained drop point, and no contact with the encircled army could be established.

The pocket into which the 9th Army had been pushed by the 1st Belorussian Front and 1st Ukrainian Front was a region of lakes and forest in the Spree forest to the south-east of Fürstenwalde. The Soviet forces, having broken through and surrounded Berlin, which was their primary objective, then turned to mopping up those forces in the pocket. On the afternoon of 25 April, General Polkovnik Aleksandr V. Gorbatov’s 3rd Army, General Polkovnik Vyacheslav D. Tsvtsayev’s 33rd Army and General Polkovnik Vladimir Ya. Kolpakchy’s 69th Army, as well as General Leytenant Vladimir V. Kryukov’s II Guards Cavalry Corps, which was a formation capable of infiltration through difficult terrain such as forests, attacked the pocket from the north-east as ordered by Zhukov. Konev fully appreciated that to break out to the west, the 9th Army would have to cross the Autobahn linking Berlin and Dresden in the area to the south of a chain of lakes starting at Teupitz and running to the north-east. On the day of his attack in the north-east, Konev sent General Polkovnik Vasili N. Gordov’s 3rd Guards Army to support General Leytenant Aleksandr A. Luchinsky’s 28th Army, which was ready to close the likely break-out route over the Autobahn.

The Soviet forces ordered to attack the 9th Army totalled some 280,000 men, 7,400 pieces of artillery and mortars, 280 tanks and self-propelled guns, and 1,500 aircraft. The force included six air corps and the 1st Guards Breakthrough Artillery Division, which was committed on 25 April.

In the area to the west of the encirclement, the Soviet forces already positioned in depth were, the 29th Army’s CXXVIII Corps in the area of Mittenwalde and Motzen, the III Guards Corps in the area of Tornow, Radeland, Baruth/Mark and Golssen, the 3rd Guards Army’s CXX Corps to the south of Halbe, the XXI Corps along the Autobahn linking Berlin and Dresden to the west of Lübben, the 13th Army’s CII Corps with the 117th Guards Division near Luckenwalde, and the XXVII Corps' 280th Division at Jüterbog, where the German army’s main artillery school was located.

In terms of mechanised formations, the 3rd Guards Tank Army’s IX Mechanised Corps had its 71st Mechanised Brigade between Teupitz and Neuhof, the 4th Guards Tank Army’s 68th Guards Tank Brigade stood near Kummersdorf Gut, and the 3rd Guards Army’s XXV Tank Corps was near Duben. Both General Polkovnik Pavel S. Rybalko’s 3rd Guards Tank Army and General Polkovnik Nikolai P. Pukhov’s 13th Army were to be heavily reinforced throughout the battle as they came to be in the path of the German break-out. A reinforcement of particular note was the deployment of the 1st Guards Breakthrough Artillery Division under the command of the 3rd Guards Army in the sector between Teurow and Briesen.

The relief attempt by the 12th Army started on 24 April with General Karl-Erik Köhler’s XX Corps attacking to the east and north. During the night, Generalleutnant Bruno Frankewitz’s Infanteriedivision 'Theodor Körner' (Reichsarbeitdienstdivision Nr 3) attacked General Major Ivan P. Ermakov’s V Guards Mechanised Corps near Treuenbrietzen. On the following day, Generalleutnant Götz’s Infanteriedivision 'Scharnhorst' started to engage the Soviet troops in and around Beelitz and caught the 4th Guards Tank Army’s VI Guards Mechanised Corps' open flank, overrunning rear-area units. While Generalleutnant Engel’s Infanteriedivision 'Ulrich von Hutten' tried to reach Potsdam, with the Infanteriedivision 'Scharnhorst' on on its eastern flank, to open a corridor into Berlin, other elements of the 12th Army, as Wenck had agreed with Busse, pushed to the east in order to meet the 9th Army.

The 9th Army was planning to push to the west 'like a caterpillar', as Busse told Wenck. According to Busse’s plan, the Tiger II heavy tanks of the 502nd SS schwere Panzerabeilung would lead this caterpillar. As the head led the way, the rearguard was about to become engaged in fighting just as severe as it sought to disengage from following Soviet forces.

On the night of 25/26 April, Hitler issued a new order to the 9th Army and 12th Army, this order stipulating that the 12th Army was to cut off the 4th Guards Tank Army by reaching the line between Beelitz and Ferch, and to attack to the east to link with the 9th Army; that the 9th Army was to hold its eastern front between Spreewald and Fürstenwalde, and to attack westward to link with the ]e]12th Army; and that once they had combined, the two armies were to attack northward and open a corridor through the Soviet encirclement of Berlin.

The 9th Army's final army conference took place at 15.00 on 28 April. At this point, contact with the V Corps and V SS Gebirgskorps had been lost, and the conference decided that the only possible break-out route had to pass through Halbe. This was not difficult for Soviet commanders to deduce as well, while, on the other hand, 9th Army had almost no intelligence about the Soviet force dispositions between it and the 12th Army. From this conference onward, command and control within the 9th Army failed. There was almost no contact between the headquarters of the 9th Army and Heeresgruppe 'Weichsel', and little contact with the formations notionally under the 9th Army's command. There were few or no maps to guide planning or combat operations.

Busse has been accused of failing to exercise effective command and control of his trapped army, thereby contributing to the failure of successive break-out attempts. Busse’s initial movement of his headquarters placed it in the situation where Busse lost the ability to control the formations in the pocket. In its break-out plan, the headquarters of the 9th Army was to be placed immediately behind the break-out’s spearhead, the 502nd SS schwere Panzerabteilung, and this effectively reduced Busse’s ability to exercise command to the tactical level. Busse had also been accused of failing to provide adequate support for the first break-out attempt. The 502nd schwere Panzerabteilung was to operate with the remaining elements of Generalmajor Willy Langkeit’s Panzergrenadierdivision 'Kurmark', and these units were divided into two wedges. The northern wedge included the 502nd SS schwere Panzerabteilung, the headquarters of the 9th Army, the headquarters of the XI SS Corps and the headquarters of the Panzergrenadier Division 'Kurmark'. The remnants of Generalleutnant Werner Marcks’s 21st Panzerdivision were to provide cover in a north-westerly direction, while remnants of SS-Standartenführer Hans Kempin’s 32nd SS Freiwilligen-Grenadierdivision '30 Januar' were to cover the east and provide the rearguard.

During the evening of 25 April, Busse ordered the two battlegroups, Oberst Hans-Ulrich von Luck und Witten’s Kampfgruppe 'von Luck' based on the 21st Panzerdivision and SS-Standartenführer Rüdiger Pipkorn’s Kampfgruppe 'Pipkorn' based on Pipkorn’s own 35th SS- und Polizei-Grenadierdivision to attempt to break out in the direction of the road centre of Baruth. The attempted breakout failed.

On the following day, the battle continued around Baruth, and German tank-hunting teams located and destroyed some dug-in Soviet tanks. Several supply canisters were delivered by air, but the strength of the Kampfgruppe was inadequate to hold off a Soviet counterattack. Heavy air attacks, including bombing by the IV Bomber Air Corps at about 12.00 with 55 aircraft and repeated attacks by eight to 10 aircraft of the I Air Assault Corps and II Air Assault Corps totalling 500 sorties, caused heavy casualties and chaos. The forces of the two Kampfgruppen were destroyed, Soviet reports claiming 5,000 the taking of prisoners, the destruction of 40 tanks and self-propelled guns and the capture of almost 200 pieces of artillery and mortars. The two shattered German forces were to be sorely missed during later break-out attempts. Pipkorn was killed during the battle, and von Luck was taken prisoner on 27 April. Few of the survivors of the battle managed to reach the Elbe river.

On the morning of the following day, the German vanguard found a weak point between the two Soviet armies and many German troops were able to cross the Autobahn before the Soviet forces plugged the gap. The fighting was heavy and included continuous air attacks by General Polkovnik Stepan KrasYa. ovsky’s 2nd Air Army, as well as tree-bursting shells which hurled wood splinters through the area. During the battle, the Soviet air forces flew 2,459 attack sorties and 1,683 bombing sorties. The German forces found that they could not use their armour as well as they had hoped as the vehicles were vulnerable to destruction on the roads and could not get a good grip on the sandy soil of the region’s pine forests. The German vanguard managed to reach and cross Reichsstrasse 96, to the south of Zossen and the north of Baruth, where it was spotted and reported by a German aeroplane. Hitler was furious when he realised that Busse was attempting to break out to the west and not to come to his aid in Berlin, but he received no answers to his several messages demanding that the army turn toward Berlin.

During the night and 27 April, the German forces renewed their attack along two axes to the south from the village of Halbe toward Baruth, and in the north from Teupitz. This attack failed to produce a mass break-out although, as on the previous day, some groups were able to slip through the Soviet lines.

The front line was in no way continuous because the dense forest terrain meant that visibility was limited to very short distances, so there was the danger of ambush and sudden assault for both sides. Smoke from burning sections of the forest, set alight by the artillery fire, helped the Germans and hindered the Soviets because it shielded the German troops from aerial reconnaissance and attack. On the other hand, the smoke hindered many groups because, without a compass and any sight of the sun, it was difficult to judge which direction to go. The sandy soil precluded the digging of foxholes and there was no time to construct anything more elaborate, so there was little to no protection from the wooden splinters created by the high explosive shells fired by the artillery and tanks, which the Soviet forces deliberately aimed to explode at tree-top height.

On the night of 28 April, the German forces attempted another mass break-out from the area round Halbe. They broke through the 50th Guards Division and created a corridor from Halbe to the west, but only at very high cost. During 28 and 29 April, the Soviets reinforced the flanks and attacked from the south, pouring in Katyusha artillery rockets and shells, concentrating on the area around the Halbe. By this time, the German troops were spread over a wide area. The rearguard was at Storkow and the vanguard had linked with the 12th Army at Beelitz. There were large groups around Halbe. The Soviet plan was now to split the caterpillar into segments for individual destruction. The German plan was to continue moving to the west as rapidly as possible, keeping the corridor open.

The German situation in Halbe was desperate. Orders were still being issued to recognisable formations units, but these were by now all intermingled. There was considerable tension between Waffen-SS and army troops, with each accusing the other of helping their own while ignoring the plight of the other. In Halbe itself, some of the civilians took pity on very young soldiers and allowed them to change out of their uniforms into civilian clothes. In one case, a Waffen-SS trooper appeared at the door of a cellar intending to fire a Panzerfaust anti-tank rocket into a cellar with about 40 civilians and young army soldiers in it, only to be shot dead by one of the soldiers.

Over the next days, the fighting became ever more confused. If the Germans came into contact with Soviet forces and overran a Soviet position, the Soviets counterattacked not only with ground forces but also with artillery and aircraft, and the losses on each side were very high. By the time the fighting was over ay an indeterminate day late in April or early in May in different locations, about 25,000 German soldiers had escaped to join the 12th Army on the eastern side of Reichstrasse 2, the road running north/south through Beelitz.

Although this was the end of the 'Battle of Halbe', it was not the end of the break-out. Some 9th Army forces were again surrounded to the west of Luckenwalde by the north-westerly thrust of the 4th Guards Tank Army, only 6.2 miles (10 km) from the 12th Army. The combined 12th Army and 9th Army remnants then retreated to the west in the direction of the Elbe river in order to surrender to US forces, which had halted their advance on the river’s western bank as agreed with the Soviets. The bulk of the fleeing German forces, along with several thousand civilians, reached and crossed the Elbe river using the partially destroyed bridge at Tangermünde between 4 and 7 May, surrendering to elements of the US 102nd Division of Lieutenant General William H. Simpson’s US 9th Army, until Soviet forces reached the eastern bridgehead and halted further crossings.

The casualties of the 'Battle of Halbe' were high for each side. There are about 15,000 Germans buried in the Halbe Forest Cemetery, making this the largest war cemetery in Germany from World War II. About 10,000 are unidentified soldiers killed during the first half of 1945. The Soviets claimed to have killed 60,000 German soldiers and taken 120,000 as prisoners. The number of prisoners has been supported by some sources while other sources consider it exaggerated. Thousands of Soviet soldiers died trying to stop the breakouts, most being buried at the Sowjetische Ehrenfriedhof Baruth/Mark Cemetery. These are the known dead, but the remains of more who died in the battle are found every year, so the total will never be known. Nobody is certain of how many civilians died, but it could have been as high as 10,000 persons.