THE BATTLE OF BERLIN
During the summer of 1942, the German Third Reich was at its zenith. Hitler had created an empire which dominated all Europe, stretching from the Atlantic coastline of France to deep within the heartlands of Soviet Russia. Germany's powerful war machine seemed unstoppable.
After the disastrous German defeat at Stalingrad (October 42 - February 43) the German Whermacht in Russia was severely crippled and forced onto the defensive. Although the successful German counter offensive at Kharkov (February - March 43) had revived hopes for victory in the east, the Russian victory at Kursk in the summer of 1943 quickly ended this false optimism and the long retreat was resumed.
By mid - 1944 Germany's steady decline was irreversible. She had become powerless to stop the Allies steady advance. With her reserves exhausted, Germany's staggering losses in both men and materials could no longer be replaced.
At the start of 1945 Hitler had clearly lost his empire, Germany now found itself effectively under siege. After six years of war on a global scale, the once mighty German armed forces had been utterly destroyed, with it's pathetic remnants pushed back too within their own borders.
By April, much of Germany had been occupied by the Allied armies. Although their still remained strong pockets of resistance, the war was clearly drawing to an end. The German forces in the east however continued to fight on more bitterly to allow German refugees to escape westward.
As the Russian's closed on the German capital, Hitler designated Berlin and impregnable fortress which must be defended to the last. Concentrated in the Berlin sector, the German's could muster (1,000,000 men, 1,500 tanks, 10,400 artillery pieces and 3,300 aircraft, with the Berlin garrison itself amounting to 200,000 men).
Although this was a powerful force on paper, the reality of the situation was the German's were in fact scraping the bottom of the manpower barrel. Their front lines were formed by poor quality troops bolstering mainly Volksstrum units (German citizens pressed into service) ranging from sixteen year old boys to veterans of the First World War. Of the Berlin defenders 60,000 comprised Volksstrum personal.
YOUNG AND OLD AWAIT THE SOVIET ONSLAUGHT
In response the Red Army could field a formidable force consisting of (2,500,000 men, 6,250 tanks, 41,000 artillery pieces and 7,500 aircraft). Unlike their foe these were veteran troops, highly trained and well equipped.Each soldier also possessed a bloodlust to destroy the German capital and raze it to the ground.
On April 12th, President Roosevelt died. Hitler by this time was severally delusional, not only did he believe the sudden death of the U.S leader would provoke the Allies to turn upon one another, Hitler was now positively sure that an oracle's recent telling of the Third Reich's future was completely accurate in that "It is written in the stars that the second half of April would be a turning point in the war for Germany."
On April 16th, Hitler's vain hopes were finally shattered as three Soviet fronts launched a massive assault against the German sectors to the north, east and south of Berlin, which Outnumbered their foe 5:1 in men, 15:1 in artillery, 5:1 in tanks and 3:1 in aircraft.
Despite the overwhelming odds against them, the German's still managed to put up a stubborn defence inflicting thousands of casualties upon the enemy formations . After very bitter fighting however the Oder- Neisse defence line finally crumbled under the weight of the Soviet attack and Russian forces poured unopposed into the open German countryside.
On April 20th, Hitler celebrated his fifty sixth birthday. This was to be the last official ceremony of the Third Reich. Among the list of high ranking dignitaries in attendance were Goring, Himmler, Goebbels, Speer and Bormann. As the visitors lined the bunkers central corridor, Hitler walked amongst them shaking their hands and expressing his gratitude for their services to the regime.
On the morning of April 21st, Hitler ordered SS General Felix Steiner and his 3rd SS panzer army stationed north of Berlin to launch a major offensive and deny Zhukov the northern approaches to the capital. In reality Steiner's force was so under strength that it amounted to little more than remnants of various retreating formations scraped together from the highways, thus when the attack went forward it was repulsed that same day after gains of only a few kilometres.
On the evening of the 21st, Soviet troops reached the small villages lining the outskirts of Berlin. The reports of rape, torture and murder by the fleeing villagers horrified the terrified Berliners. The defenders within the Reich capital knew of the terror that approached and felt they now had no choice but to resist the Russian's to the very last.
April 25th clearly signaled that an end to Hitler's madness was drawing near. Russian and U.S forces had meet at Torgau splitting Germany in two. The army groups of Marshall's Zhukov and Konev also linked up to the west of Berlin completing the encirclement of the city and near the town of Stettin, Marshall Rokossovsky's 2nd Belorussian front broke through the German defenses and utterly destroyed the Third Panzer Army.
Despite the obvious hopelessness of the situation, Hitler still put his faith in General Wenck's 70,000 strong 12th army which had been recently withdrawn from the western front, to link up with General Busse's 40,000 men of the 9th army retreating from the Oder river line. Once this juncture was completed both commanders were to launch a counter offensive and relive Berlin.
Advancing from the south, Marshall Konev's mobile reserve armies quickly caught up and overtook Busse's exhausted men, trapping them within the forests surrounding the small town of Halbe. Because these Russian forces were denied the honor of the historic assault on Berlin, their commanders choose to ignore all German requests of surrender and instead decided to annihilate their German foe.
Busse's men had little or no ammunition, armor, artillery and no air cover to call upon, they simply had nothing left to defend themselves. The subsequent Russian massacre of the German 9th army was simply horrific.
The Russian attack easily rolled over the hastily prepared German positions leaving no survivors. Konev's men simply left the wounded German's screaming by the roadside to die a slow death as they marched onward to inflict more destruction on the German countryside.
Upon hearing of 9th armies complete destruction, Wenck immediately ordered his forces to halt. In the midst of such a catastrophic event Hitler's frenzied orders to continue with the operation took on a sinister almost nightmarish quality.
For a soldier who had always adhered to the strict German code of discipline, Wenck decided for the first time in his military career to disobey his Fuhrer's orders, resolving instead to fall back and lead his men towards the American's so as to spare them the fate of being taken prisoner by the Russian's.
Unknown to Hitler, all remaining German forces were not marching to relieve Berlin as ordered, but in fact were turning westward to surrender to the Allies. With no serious German opposition remaining within the Berlin sector, Konev and Zhukov launched their offensive to capture the Reich capital.
On April 26th as many as 500,000 Red Army troops swarmed into Berlin from all directions. Fierce and bloody battles now ensued as the fighting became street to street and house to house. Russia's vast tank superiority counted for little as they suffered heavy losses attempting to advance through the debris ridden streets of the city.
Night and day Russian artillery and Katyusha rocket batteries bombarded German defensive positions at point blank range, in some cases leveling entire city blocks. Despite the seemingly hopelessness of the situation, German defenders continued to contest every yard of rubble, putting up a fanatical resistance against the Soviet onslaught.
During this period of heavy fighting, SS execution squads freely roamed the inner streets of the city with an increased urgency and cold fanaticism looking for deserters and shirkers. All able bodied males from young to old which were caught not participating in the cities defense, were mercilessly executed in cold blood, or hanged from the nearest light post.
By this time Hitler had but one last German force remaining to throw at the Russian's, the 5,000 strong Hitler youth corps lead by Artur Axmann. Comprising eleven and twelve year old boys these children armed with little more than small arms and portable anti tank weaponry, were ordered to hold the strategic Pichelsdorf bridges to the very last.
The commander of Berlin's defense, General Reymann, steadfastly protested the order to occupy defensive positions with mere children, for expressing his concerns he was subsequently relived of command by Hitler and replaced by a much younger Lieutenant General Weilding.
HITLER DECORATES BOY SOLDIERS OF THE HITLER YOUTH
Despite two days of fanatical German resistance, the Russian's had penetrated to within 600 meters of the Fuhrer bunker itself. The government district surrounding the Reichstag was now heavily garrisoned with the remnants of the cities defenders amounting to nearly 10,000 men.
The mixture of troops scraped together in this last great effort to resist the Russian's was truly astounding. Units representing the Kreigsmarine, Luftwaffe, Waffen SS, Volksstrum, Hitler youth and Foreign SS now comprised Hitler's final Praetorian Guard.
On the morning of April 29th, Hitler received reports that Soviet troops were advancing through a subway tunnel under the river Spree. Hitler wasted no time in ordering Berlin's entire underground subway system to be flooded.
Not only did the subsequent water surge engulf the Russian assault troops, it also drowned tens of thousands of wounded German soldiers and civilians which were taking refuge from the fighting in the city streets above.
Later in the day news had reached Hitler of Benito Mussolini's execution by partisans and how the bodies of his Italian comrade and that of his mistress had been hanged upside down and mutilated in a town square by the populace of Milan.
During that evening confirmation had also been received from Field Marshall Keitel that no relief of the city could be expected, this coupled with General Weidling's report that the Russian's were now a mere 200 meters from the bunker and that resistance would collapse within the next twenty four hours, cemented Hitler's resolve to end his life.
Just before midnight, Hitler married his long time mistress Eva Braun, giving her the one title she had dreamed of all these long years at the Fuhrer's side, that of Mrs Adolph Hitler. Throughout the remainder of the night Hitler dictated his last will and testament naming Grand Admiral Donitz as his successor and leaving all his worldly possessions to his beloved Nazi party.
On the morning of April 30th, the atmosphere within the Fuhrer bunker was tense and emotional. Hitler appeared quite calm as he spent the morning silently roaming the bunker complex. During the afternoon Hitler assembled the Nazi inner circle and made his final farewells and then retired to his room with his wife.
At 3.15 pm, a single pistol shot was heard. Goebbels, Bormann and the recently arrived Axmann cautiously entered Hitler's sitting room. Both Hitler and Eva were slumped on the couch, Hitler with a single bullet wound to the head while Eva lay at his side, her lips puckered and blue from the poison she had ingested.
Goebbels reportedly stated to the gallery of shocked onlookers "The heart of Germany ceases to beat". Hitler's body with that of Eva's were then carried up the stairs to the Chancellery garden, drenched in petrol and set aflame.
Along with his wife Magda, Goebbels had decided to remain loyal to the Fuhrer to the very end. Accompanying them within the bunker were their six children ranging from three to twelve years of age. To spare them the wrath of the Soviets, Magda had given the unsuspecting children chocolate treats which were laced with a slow acting poison. Once they were all dead Goebbels and Magda then walked up to the Chancellery garden where an SS guard shot them both and then burned their bodies.
The most desperate fighting within the city now raged over the Reichstag. Were the last of the Berlin defenders had assembled to make their final stand. The Russian's now brought up 205mm howitzers to reduce the Reichstag to dust.
Firing at point blank range, the Russian heavy guns released a thunderous barrage which blasted huge holes in the Reichstag's superstructure but failed to bring down its walls. The Russian's were now forced to send in Soviet assault troops to capture the building. After two bloody days in which the fighting degenerated into savage hand to hand combat, the Reichstag was finally captured after fanatical resistance by the last of the SS troops which had fought on to the very last.
THE FALL OF THE REICHSTAG
On May 1st, the Red Flag was hoisted atop the statuary which rises above the columns of the main entrance to the Reichstag. That same day the Pichelsdorf bridges were finally captured after heavy Russian casualties with the surrender of the last 500 boy - soldiers of the Hitler youth corps still remaining alive.
On May 2nd, General Weilding visited Marshall Chuikov's headquarters and signed the declaration for all remaining German forces still defending small pockets within the city, to lay down their arms.
Russian casualties in the eight day campaign for the German capital amounted to 80,000 dead and 275,000 wounded along with an astounding 2,000 tanks. German losses in Berlin's defense numbered 150,000 dead and 134,000 taken prisoner.
GERMAN TROOPS BEGIN TO SURRENDER
The worst mistake made by the German military authorities within Berlin was their refusal to destroy the cities vast quantities of alcohol stocks. This decision was based on the belief that a drunken enemy could not fight effectively.
Tragically for the female population, this decision would prove disastrous as German women of all ages were assaulted as a part of the extended victory celebrations. Estimates from the Berlin hospitals deduced that out of approximately 100,000 women raped, some 10,000 died with another 30,000 committing suicide.
Although Berlin had capitulated, the war would continue for another six bloody days due to the refusal of Field Marshall Schorner's army group in surrendering the Czechoslovakian capital of Prague and the stubborn resistance put up by General von Saucken's forces still trapped in the Courland - Vistula estuary.
Only on May 7th, when representatives of the German High Command headed by Field Marshall Keitel, signed the document of unconditional surrender did all remaining German forces lay down their arms, finally ending the war in Europe.
Europe now lay devastated and in ruins, its peoples had suffered immensely for Hitler's war of global domination suffering 55,000,000 deaths of which 30,000,000 were civilians including the systematic extermination by the Nazi's of 6,000,000 Jews.
The German people also paid dearly under Hitler's twelve year regime suffering 7,060,000 deaths of which 3,810,000 were civilians. To repel Hitler's invasion of the Soviet Motherland, Russia suffered a staggering 21,300,000 casualties of which 7,700,000 were civilians.
BACK TO WORLD WAR II
BACK TO GREAT MILITARY BATTLES
This Literary work © GreatMilitaryBattles.com