Seelow-Berlin Offensive Operation

The 'Seelow-Berlin Offensive Operation' was a Soviet part of the 'Berlin Strategic Offensive Operation' and generally known as the Battle of the Seelow Heights (16/19 April 1945).

In the undertaking, which was one of the last assaults on major entrenched defensive positions in World War II, Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Georgi K. Zhukov’s 1st Belorussian Front attacked the position known as the 'Gates of Berlin' and held by General Theodor Busse’s 9th Army, which was part of Generaloberst Gotthard Heinrici’s Heeresgruppe 'Weichsel'.

The Seelow Heights were the location of the bitterest fighting in the entire battle took place, but were just one of several crossing points along the Oder and Neisse rivers at which the Soviets attacked on the Battle of the Oder-Neisse, itself only the opening phase of the Battle of Berlin. The result was the encirclement of the 9th Army and the Battle of Halbe.

On 9 April 1945, Königsberg in East Prussia fell to the Soviets at the end of their 'Königsberg Offensive Operation', and this allowed the 2nd Belorussian Front to move to the eastern bank of the Oder river during the first two weeks of April in what was the fastest Soviet front redeployment of the war. The 2nd Belorussian Front relieved Zhukov’s 1st Belorussian Front along the lower reaches of the Oder river between Schwedt and the Baltic Sea, making it possible for the 1st Belorussian Front to be concentrated in the southern half of its former front, opposite the Seelow Heights. To the south, Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Ivan S. Konev’s 1st Ukrainian Front shifted its main force from Upper Silesia north-west to the Neisse river.

In total, the three Soviet fronts had 2.5 million men, 6,250 armoured fighting vehicles, 41,600 pieces of artillery and mortars, 3,255 truck-mounted Katyusha multiple rocket launchers, 95,383 motor vehicles, and 7,500 aircraft.

The 1st Belorussian Front had nine combined-arms and two tank armies comprising 77 infantry divisions, two cavalry corps, five tank corps, two mechanised corps, eight artillery divisions, one guards mortar division and a mixture of other artillery and rocket-launcher brigades. The front had 3,059 tanks and self-propelled guns, and 18,934 pieces of artillery and mortars. Eight of the 11 armies were positioned along the Oder river. In the north, General Polkovnik Pavel A. Belov’s 61st Army and General Leytenant Stanislav G. Poplavsky’s Polish 1st Army held the line of the river between Schwedt to its confluence with the Finow Canal. In the Soviet bridgehead at Küstrin, General Leytenant Frants I. Perkhorovich’s 47th Army, General Polkovnik Vasili I. Kuznetsov’s 3rd Shock Army, General Leytenant Nikolai E. Berzarin’s 5th Shock Army and General Polkovnik Vasili I. Chuikov’s 8th Guards Army were concentrated for the attack. The 69th Army and 33rd Army covered the river line to the south as far as Guben. General Polkovnik Andrei A. Grechko’s 1st Guards Army, General Polkovnik Semyon I. Bogdanov’s 2nd Guards Tank Army and General Polkovnik Aleksandr V. Gorbatov’s 3rd Army were in reserve. The 5th Shock Army and 8th Guards Army were positioned directly opposite the strongest part of the defences, where the Berlin Autobahn passed through the heights.

The 9th Army held the front from the area of the Finow Canal to Guben, including the Seelow Heights. The army comprised 14 divisions, the so-called Festung 'Frankfurt-an-der-Oder', 587 tanks (512 serviceable, 55 under repair and 20 in transit) and 2,625 pieces of artillery including 695 anti-aircraft guns. Farther to the south, the front was held by General Fritz-Hubert Gräser 's 4th Panzerarmee, which opposed the 1st Ukrainian Front.

Heinrici replaced Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler as the commander of Heeresgruppe 'Weichsel' on 20 March. Heinrici foresaw that the main Soviet thrust would be made over the Oder river and along the main east/west Autobahn at the Seelow Heights, and decided to defend the river’s western bank with only a light skirmishing screen, and to construct strong defences on the Seelow Heights, which rise about 160 ft (49 m) above the Oder river and overlooked the river at the point where the Autobahn crossed it. He thinned his command’s line in other areas so that he could emplace larger numbers of men on the heights. The Oder river’s flood plain had already been rendered sodden by the spring thaw, but German engineers also released water from a reservoir farther upstream to turn the plain into a swamp. Behind the heights, the engineers built three lines of defences, spreading back toward Berlin. That farthest to the rear was the 'Wotan-Linie', between 10 and 15 miles (16 and 24 km) behind the front line. The three defensive lines comprised anti-tank ditches, anti-tank gun emplacements, and an extensive network of trenches and bunkers.

Early in the morning of 16 April, the Soviet offensive began with a massive bombardment by thousands of pieces of artillery and Katyusha rocket launchers. Well before dawn, the 1st Belorussian Front attacked across the Oder river and the 1st Ukrainian Front across the Neisse river. The 1st Belorussian Front was the stronger of the two formations, but faced the more difficult of the Soviets tasks as it was opposed by the bulk of the German forces.

As noted above, the 1st Belorussian Front’s offensive started with an intense artillery bombardment. According to some historians, Heinrici and Busse had anticipated the attack and withdrawn their defenders from the first line of trenches just before the Soviet artillery would otherwise have destroyed them, but the Soviets denied this. As Zhukov himself reported to Stalin, he knew that the Germans moved their infantry from the first to the second and third lines of trenches in the morning, and used a nightly artillery barrage with a high density of fire for 30 minutes, with the use of searchlights to blind the Germans and illuminate the terrain ahead of the advancing troops. Zhukov continued that according to interrogated prisoners, the Soviet artillery fire was so sudden and overwhelming that the Germans did not have time to move from their first line of trenches, and that the second and third lines were at all times under heavy artillery fire, and that as a result the German formations and units in the first line of defence suffered heavy casualties.

The swampy ground proved to be a great hindrance to the Soviets, who lost a large number of men to the German counter-barrage. Frustrated by the slow progress of the advance, Zhukov committed his reserves, which earlier plan had envisaged being held back until the expected breakthrough. By a time early in the evening, the Soviets had achieved a general advance of between 2.5 and 3.7 miles (4 to 6 km), though the 3rd Shock Army’s LXXVII Corps had advanced 5 miles (8 km), but the German second defence line remained intact, and Zhukov was forced to report that his battle was not going as planned. However, in the south the attack by Konev’s 1st Ukrainian Front was going according to plan. To spur Zhukov, Stalin told him that he had let Konev angle the axes of his tank armies toward the north in the direction of Berlin.

On the second day, the 1st Belorussian Front continued to advance in accordance with the initial plan, and by the fall of night on 17 April the German second defensive line, the 'Stein-Stellung', had been broken by the 5th Shock Army and 2nd Guards Tank Army. The right flank of the 8th Guards Army’s IV Guards Corps and the 1st Guards Tank Army’s XI Tank Corps had seized the opportunity provided by the success of their comrades and also advanced. The 47th Army and 3rd Shock Army advanced another 2.5 to 8 miles (4 to 8 km).

Farther to the south however, the 1st Ukrainian Front was pushing back the 4th Panzerarmee, and the left flank of Generalfeldmarschall Ferdinand Schörner’s Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' was starting to disintegrate. Schörner kept his two reserve Panzer divisions in the south to cover his centre rather than using them to shore up the 4th Panzerarmee. This was the turning point in the 'Berlin Strategic Offensive Operation' as the positions of both Heeresgruppe 'Weichsel' and the centre and right of Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' were becoming untenable. Unless they fell back in line with the 4th Panzerarmee, they faced envelopment. In effect, Konev’s successful attack on Schörner’s relatively poor defences to the south of Seelow Heights was unhinging Heinrici’s defence.

On 18 April, both Soviet fronts advanced, though only at the cost of heavy losses. The Seelow Heights position was bypassed from the north in an advance during which Soviet troops met counterattacks by German reserves in the form of SS-Brigadeführer und Generalmajor der Waffen-SS Joachim Ziegler’s 11th SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Nordland', SS-Brigadeführer und Generalmajor der Waffen-SS Jürgen Wagner’s 23rd SS Freiwilligen Panzergrenadierdivision 'Nederland' and SS-Sturmbannführer Friedrich Herzig’s 503rd schwere SS Panzerabteilung with Tiger II heavy tanks. By the fall of nigh, the Soviets had advanced 1.9 to 3.1 miles (3 to 5 km) on the right flank and between 1.9 and 5 miles (3 and 8 km) in the centre, and the 1st Belorussian Front had reached the Germans' third defence line.

On 19 April, the 1st Belorussian Front eventually broke through the final line of the Seelow Heights and now nothing but shattered German formations lay between its formations and Berlin. The remnants of the 9th Army and 4th Panzerarmee were enveloped by the 1st Belorussian Front and elements of the 1st Ukrainian Front which had broken through and turned to the north. Other armies of the 1st Ukrainian Front raced to the west towards the US forces advancing to the east. By the end of 19 April, the German front in the east had ceased to exist for all practical purposes: all that remained were pockets of resistance.

The lines on the Seelow Heights constituted the last major defensive position outside Berlin. Heinrici had said before the start of the battle that the Seelow Heights could be held for only three or four days unless he received significant reinforcement, which did materialise. From 19 April, the road to Berlin, some 55 miles (90 km) to the west, lay open. By 23 April, Berlin was fully encircled and the Battle in Berlin entered its last stage. Within two weeks, Adolf Hitler was dead and the war in Europe was effectively over.

As a result of the 1st Belorussian Front’s success at the Seelow Heights and the Oder river in general, most of the 9th Army's forces were encircled before they could retreat to Berlin, whose defence thereupon depended on a miscellany of broken formations, the Volkssturm, police and air-defence units. These had the strength to hold the Soviet forces back for only 10 days.

After the war, his critics claimed that Zhukov should have stopped the 1st Belorussian Front’s attack via the direct line to Berlin along the Autobahn in preference for the exploitation of the 1st Ukrainian Front’s breakthrough over the Neisse river or for the concentration of his armies on surrounding Berlin from the north. This would have bypassed the strong German defences at Seelow Heights, and avoided many casualties and the delay in the advance on Berlin. It has been claimed that Zhukov opted for the shortest path so that his troops would be the first Soviet formations to enter the city. However, Zhukov chose to make his main thrust through the Seelow Heights not because he thought that was the quickest way to get to Berlin, but because that was the quickest way to link with Konev’s 1st Ukrainian Front and prevent the 9th Army from falling back to the city. Moreover, bypassing the Seelow Heights and attacking Berlin from the north would have exposed the northern flank of the 1st Belorussian Front to a possible attack from German forces to the north, which could have pinned Zhukov’s forces against the Seelow Heights. Furthermore, only two of the 1st Belorussian Front’s five armies actually attacked the Seelow Heights, which were eventually bypassed from the north as soon as there was a narrow breakthrough.

Estimates of Soviet casualties during the assault on the Seelow Heights vary from less than 10,000 to more than 30,000 men killed.

The immediate consequence of the Battle of the Seelow Heights was the The Battle of Halbe between 24 April and 1 May as Busse’s 9th Army was trapped and destroyed as a fighting formation by the Soviet forces of Konev’s 1st Ukrainian Front as it closed on Berlin. Trapped in a large pocket in the Spreewald region to the south-east of Berlin, the 9th Army tried to break out of the pocket to the west through the village of Halbe and the pine forests to the south of Berlin in order to link with General Walter Wenck’s 12th Army with the intention of heading west and surrendering to the Western Allies. In order to do so, the 9th Army had to fight its way through three lines of Soviet troops of the 1st Ukrainian Front, while at the same time formations of Zhukov’s 1st Belorussian Front fell on the German rearguard from the north east. After very heavy fighting about 30,000 German soldiers, some 20% of those trapped in the pocket, managed to reach the comparative but short-lived safety of the 12th Army's position, but the other 80% were either killed or captured by the Soviets.

As noted above, on 16 April the Soviets had started the Battle of Berlin with a three-front assault across the line of the Oder and Neisse rivers, and by 21 April had broken through the German front line in two places and had started to surround Berlin. The 9th Army held the defences along the Seelow Heights against the Belorussian Front, but its position was unhinged by the successful attack of the 1st Ukrainian Front on Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' on the Neisse river. By 20 April the remnants of the 9th Army had been force to pull back to the south-east of Berlin, opening the way for the 1st Belorussian Front to press forward on the German capital.

Because of the speed of the 1st Ukrainian Front’s advance, the 9th Army was now threatened with envelopment by the two massive Soviet pincers directed at Berlin from the south and east. The southern pincer consisted of General Polkovnik Pavel S. Rybalko’s 3rd Guards Tank Army and General Polkovnik Dmitri D. Lelyushenko’s 4th Guards Tank Armies, which had penetrated farther than other Soviet formations and had already cut through the area behind the 9th Army's front lines.

Command of SS-Obergruppenführer und General der Waffen-SS Friedrich Jeckeln’s V SS Freiwilligen Gebirgskorps, holding Cottbus and trapped with the 9th Army in the area to the north of Forst, passed from the 4th Panzerarmee, an element of Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' to the 9th Army, an element of the Heeresgruppe 'Weichsel'. While the main strength of Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' was being driven by the 1st Ukrainian Front’s advance to withdraw along its lines of communication to the south-west in the direction of Czechoslovakia, the southern flank of the 4th Panzerarmee achieved an element of local success in counterattacks to the north against the 1st Ukrainian Front.

Hitler gave orders which showed that his grasp of military reality had gone. He ordered the 9th Army to hold Cottbus and establish a front facing to the west, and then attack into the Soviet columns advancing to the north. This would allow the 9th Army to form the northern pincer which would meet with the southern pincer 4th Panzerarmee advancing from the south to envelop and destroy the 1st Ukrainian Front. These two German armies were to anticipate an attack to the south by the 3rd Panzerarmee and be ready then to become the southern arm of a pincer attack which would envelop the 1st Belorussian Front, which would then be destroyed by SS-Obergruppenführer und General der Waffen-SS Felix Steiner’s III germanische SS Panzerkorps advancing from the north of Berlin.

Later in the same day, Steiner made it plain that he did not have the divisions to make this effort. Heinrici then explained to Hitler’s staff that unless the 9th Army undertook an immediate retreat, it would be enveloped by the Soviet forces. Heinrici placed particular emphasis on the fact that it was already too late for the formation to move to the north-west in the direction of Berlin and would have to retreat to the west. Heinrici went on to say that if Hitler did not allow it to move west, he would ask to be relieved of his command.

At his afternoon situation conference on April 22, Hitler fell into a tearful 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, and declared that he himself 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 the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht’s staff, speculated that the 12th Army, which was opposing Lieutenant General William H. Simpson’s US 9th Army in the west, could move to Berlin because the US forces already positioned along the Elbe river were unlikely to move farther to the east. Inevitably, Hitler seized upon the idea and within hours Wenck had been ordered to disengage from the US forces opposite him and start to move the 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. and during the evening of the same day Heinrici was authorised to effect the link.

Although Hitler immediately took as reality that the 12th Army would break through to Berlin and that the 9th Army, once it had linked with the 12th Army, would support it, there is no evidence that Heinrici, Busse and Wenck believed that this was to the slightest degree feasible. However, they appreciated that Hitler’s agreement to allow the 9th Army to break through to the 12th Army would provide an opportunity for large numbers of German troops to escape to the west, and therefore be in a position surrender to the Americans, which is exactly what Wenck and Busse agreed to do. This was made easier when, shortly after 24.00 on 25 April, Busse was authorised to decide for himself the best direction of attack.

Before being encircled, the 9th Army had already suffered major casualties in the Battle of the Seelow Heights. It is estimated that, at the start of the encirclement, the army had available to it fewer than 1,000 guns and mortars, 79 tanks and probably a total of 150 to 200 other combat-capable armoured fighting vehicles. In all, there were inside the pocket some 80,000 men, most of them of the 9th Army, comprising formations and units of SS-Obergruppenführer und General der Waffen-SS Matthias Kleinheisterkamp’s XI SS Corps, Jeckeln’s V SS Freiwilligen Gebirgskorps and General Dr Ing Kurt Wäger’s newly acquired V Corps, as well as the garrison of the Festung 'Frankfurt-an-der-Oder'. The quantity of armour which was reported included 36 tanks in the XI SS Corps, this figure including as many as 14 Tiger II heavy tanks of SS-Sturmbannführer Kurt Hartrampf’s 502nd schwere SS Panzerabteilung. Attempts to deliver supplies by air were made on 25 and 26 April, but could not be completed as the aircraft could not find the drop zone, and no contact with the encircled army could be established.

The pocket into which the 9th Army had been compressed by the 1st Belorussian Front and 1st Ukrainian Front was a region of lakes and forest in the Spreewalde to the south-east of the Fürstenwalde. After breaking through and surrounded their primary objective of Berlin, the Soviets turned to the destruction of the pocket. During the afternoon of 25 April, Gorbatov’s 3rd Army, General Polkovnik Vyacheslav D. Tsvetayev’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, the last a formation highly effective in the infiltration of difficult terrain such as forests, attacked the pocket from the north-east as ordered by Zhukov. Konev knew that to break out to the west, the 9th Army would have to cross the Berlin/Dresden Autobahn top the south of a chain of lakes starting at Teupitz and extending to the north-east. On the same day as the attack in the north-east, Zhukov despatched General Polkovnik Vasili N. Gordov’s 3rd Guards Army to support the 28th Army, which was ready to close the likely break-out route over the Berlin/Dresden Autobahn.

The strength of the Soviet forces committed to the attack on the 9th Army was 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.

To the west of the pocket, Soviet forces were already positioned in depth with, from the north, the 28th Army’s CXXVIII Corps in the area of Mittenwalde and Motzen, and 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 and XXI Corps along the Berlin/Dresden Autobahn Nr 13 to the west of Lübben; and the 13th Army’s CII Corps with the 117th Guards Division near Luckenwalde and the XXVII Corps' 280th Division at Jüterbog.

So far as mechanised formations were concerned, 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 near Duben. Both the 3rd Guards Army and the 13th Army were to be heavily reinforced throughout the battle, as they were 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 to the 3rd Guards Army in the area of Teurow to Briesen.

The 12th Army's relief effort started on 24 April as General Karl-Erik Köhler’s XX Corps attacked to the east and north. During the night, Generalleutnant Bruno Frankewitz’s Division 'Theodor Körner' (Reichsarbeitsdienst-Division Nr 3) attacked General Major Ivan P. Ermakov’s V Guards Mechanised Corps near Treuenbrietzen. On the following day, Generalleutnant Heinrich Götz’s Infanteriedivision 'Scharnhorst' began to engage the Soviet forces in and round Beelitz, and caught the 4th Guards Tank Army’s VI Guards Mechanised Corps on an open flank and overran rear-area units. While Generalleutnant Gerhard Engel’s Infanteriedivision 'Ulrich von Hutten' attempted to reach Potsdam, with the Infanteriedivision 'Scharnhorst' on its eastern flank, in order to open a corridor into Berlin, as Wenck had agreed with Busse others of the 12th Army's forces advanced to the east to meet the 9th Army.

The 9th Army was planning to wriggle to the west with the Tiger II heavy tanks of the 502nd schwere SS Panzerabteilung in the van. Busse knew that his army’s escape effort was fraught with difficulty as while the van force headed to the west, the rearguard would inevitably be just as heavily involved in combat as it disengage from the following Soviet forces.

On the night of 25/26 April, Hitler issued a new order to the 9th Army and 12th Arm, in which he demanded that the 12th Army was to cut off the 4th Guards Tank Army by reaching the line linking Beelitz and Ferch, and to attack to the east to link with the 9th Army; the 9th Army was to hold its eastern front between the Spreewald and Fürstenwalde, and to attack westward to link with the 12th Army; and once they had met, the two armies were to attack to the north 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. By this time the army had lost contact with the V Corps and V SS Freiwilligen Gebirgskorps. The conference came to the conclusion that the only viable escape route was through Halbe, and in fact the Soviets had come to the same conclusion. The 9th Army had virtually no information about the disposition of the Soviet forces between itself and the 12th Army. From the time of this conference onward, the whole of the 9th Army's command and control arrangements collapsed: there was almost no contact between the headquarters of the 9th Army and that of Heeresgruppe 'Weichsel', and very little with the army’s subordinate formations; and there were few or no maps to facilitate either planning or combat operations.

The spearhead for the 9th Army plan to break out on 28 April 28 was to be the 502nd schwere SS Panzerabteilung with the remaining elements of Generalmajor Willy Langkeit’s Panzergrenadierdivision 'Kurmark'. These were divided into two wedges. The northern wedge included the 502nd schwere SS Panzerabteilung and the headquarters of the 9th Army, XI SS Panzerkorps and Panzergrenadierdivision 'Kurmark'. The remnants of Generalleutnant Werner Marcks’s 21st Panzerdivision were to 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 battle groups, namely Oberst Hans von Luck’s Kampfgruppe 'von Luck' comprising the 21st Panzerdivision and SS-Standartenführer Rüdiger Pipkorn’s Kampfgruppe 'Pipkorn' comprising Pipkorn’s 35th SS und Polizei Grenadierdivision to attempt a break-out in the direction of the road centre of Baruth, whose seizure would secure use of the roads to Luckenwalde and Jüterbog. The Kampfgruppe 'von Luck, comprising mainly the 125th Panzergrenadierregiment and tanks of the 22nd Panzerregiment, started from Halbe, while the Kampfgruppe 'Pipkorn', comprising the remnants of the 35th SS und Polizei Grenadierdivision with a few tanks from SS-Obersturmbannführer Franz Roestel’s 10th SS Panzerdivision 'Frundsberg', started from Schleepitz.

von Luck’s orders were to open and then keep open a corridor for the exclusive use of the 9th Army units: no civilians were to be allowed to use it. The Kampfgruppe 'von Luck' made good progress across the Berlin/Dresden Autobahn until it hit the Soviet defences of the 50th Guards division, reinforced by dug-in Stalin heavy tanks, at Baruth. The Kampfgruppe 'Pipkorn' soon encountered the defences of the 329th Division and was scattered, with some armoured elements, including a number of Panther battle tanks, reaching Baruth where there developed a battle which the German Kampfgruppen could not win. Busse ordered von Luck to remain in the area of Baruth, but von Luck disobeyed the order and disbanded his Kampfgruppe so that its men could attempt to break-out individually.

The fighting round Baruth continued on the following day, and tank-hunting teams blew up some of the dug-in Soviet tanks. Some supply canisters were delivered by air, but the strength of the Kampfgruppe was inadequate to check a Soviet counterattack. Heavy air attacks, a raid by 55 aircraft of the the IV Bomber Air Corps at about 12.00, and and repeated attacks by eight to 10 aircraft of the I and II Air Assault Corps, in all some 500 sorties, caused heavy casualties and chaos. The forces of the two Kampfgruppen were destroyed, Soviet reports claiming the capture of 5,000 men, the destruction of 40 tanks and self-propelled guns, and the seizure of almost 200 guns and mortars. The loss of these forces and their weapons were to be missed acutely in the course of later break-out attempts. Pipkorn was killed during the battle, and von Luck was taken prisoner on 27 April. Few of the German survivors reached the Elbe river.

During the morning of the following day, the German vanguard found a weak point between the two Soviet armies and many Germans were able to cross the Autobahn before the Soviets plugged the gap. The fighting was very heavy and included large numbers of attacks by the warplanes of General Polkovnik Stepan Ya. Krasovsky’s 2nd Air Army, as well as artillery fire whose shel burst in the trees and rained high-velocity wooden splinters through the area. During the battle, the Soviet air force flew 2,459 attack sorties and 1,683 bombing sorties. The Germans found that they could not use their armour as well as they had hoped because it was 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 Reichstrasse 96, to the south of Zossen and north of Baruth, where it was spotted by a Luftwaffe 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, and sent several messages demanding that the army turn towards Berlin. These received no answer.

During the night of 26/27 April and the day which followed, the Germans renewed their attack along two axes in the south from the village of Halbe toward Baruth, and in the north from Teupitz. This attack failed to produce a substantial break-out although, as on the previous day, some groups did manage to slip through Soviet lines.

The front lines were not continuous because the dense forest terrain meant that visibility was down to mere yards, so each side was faced with the danger of ambush and sudden attack. Smoke from burning sections of the forest, set alight by shell fire, helped the Germans and hindered the Soviets because it shielded the Germans from aerial reconnaissance and attack. This was cold comfort for any wounded German soldier who could not move fast enough to avoid the flames. It also hindered many German groups because, without a compass and the sun invisible, it was difficult to gauge direction.

The Germans essayed another mass break-out from the area round Halbe during the night of 28 April. They managed to break through the 50th Guards Division and create a corridor from Halbe to the west, but paid a very high price. During 28 and 29 April, the Soviets reinforced their flanks and attacked from the south, pouring in shells and Katyusha rockets into the area around Halbe.

By this time, the Germans were spread out over a wide area. The rearguard was at Storkow and the vanguard had linked with the 12th Army at Beelitz, and there were large groups around Halbe. The Soviet battle plan was to split the German 'caterpillar' into segments and then destroy each of these individually. The German battle plan was to keep the corridor open and continue moving to the west as rapidly as possible.

For the Germans, the situation in Halbe was now totally desperate. Orders were still being issued to recognisable formations, but by this time these were wholly intermingled with each other. There was considerable tension between Waffen-SS and army units for these accused each other of helping their own comrades while ignoring the plight of the other. In Halbe itself, some of the civilians took pity on very young soldiers and allowed them to replace their military uniforms with civilian clothing.

During the days which followed, the fighting became ever more confused. If the Germans overran a Soviet position, the Soviets counterattacked not only with ground forces, but with artillery and aircraft. The losses were very high on each side. By the time the fighting was over at the very end of April and start of May, about 25,000 German soldiers had managed to escape and link with the 12th Army on the eastern side of Reichstrasse 2, the road running north/south through Beelitz.

Although this was the effective 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 6.25 miles (10 km) away from elements of the 12th Army. The combined remnants of the 12th Army and 9th Army then made a fighting retreat to the west in the direction of the Elbe river in order to surrender to US forces, which had halted their advance on this river’s western bank. The bulk of the retreating German forces, along with several thousand civilians fleeing the final Soviet advance, reached and crossed the Elbe river using the partially destroyed bridge at Tangermünde between 4 and 7 May 1945, surrendering to elements of the US 9th Army’s 102nd Division, until Soviet forces reached the eastern bridgehead and halted further crossings in a final desperate skirmish.

The casualties of the Battle of Halbe were very high on each side. There are about 15,000 Germans buried in the cemetery at Halbe, making it the largest World War II cemetery in Germany. About 10,000 of these are unidentified soldiers killed during the first half of 1945. The Soviets claimed to have killed 60,000 German soldiers and taken 120,000 prisoners. About 20,000 of the 280,000 Soviet soldiers died trying to stop the break-out, but the remains of more who died in the battle are found every year, so the total will never be known. No one knows how many civilians died, but it could have been as high as 10,000.

The most astonishing part of the story, however, is not the numbers who died or compelled to surrender but the 25,000 soldiers and several thousand civilians who succeeded in getting through three lines of Soviet troops.