Robin Oomkes, Kreuzberged and Marcel Krueger provide a local timeline of WW2’s Battle of Berlin…
“The events […] are distant and strange, but they happened not very long ago, to that woman sitting right in front of me, insisting I take another slice of bread and butter and a fresh cup of tea.” – Anna Reid, Leningrad
In the spring of 1945, after six years of war, the last major battle in Europe was fought between the Soviet Union and Hitler’s Third Reich.
The Battle of Berlin, one of the most bitterly contested offensives of the entire war, saw a gigantic army of 2.5 million men unleashed in a deadly assault against the remnants of the Wehrmacht – an assault designed to crush Nazi Germany once and for all.
For the Soviet Union, Berlin was the ultimate prize, the city being the heart of the Reich and the place where Adolf Hitler was hiding in his bunker. If Berlin could be captured by the Red Army before English and American troops reached it, most of Central and Eastern Europe could be brought under Communist control.
For Adolf Hitler and his most fanatical followers, there seemed to be still some misguided hope to defeat the Red Army at the gates of the capital. In reality, the Nazi’s final defiant and vain gestures served only to prolong a bloody and horrific battle: in the burning ruins of Berlin, hundreds of thousands of Russian and German lives were lost, and the resultant Soviet victory would divide the city – and the continent – for the next 44 years.
Both legacies, the War and the Iron Curtain, have shaped, and continue to shape in some ways, the contemporary city many of us today call home.
April 16th 1945: Battle of Seelow Heights
by Robin Oomkes
From their positions on the Oder-Neisse Line, Soviet 1st Byelorussian and Soviet 1st Ukrainian Fronts begin their final push on Berlin. Hitler’s order of the day, dated on the previous day, is released to all German troops, ordering that anyone found fleeing in the face of the Soviet attack is to be arrested or shot.
Even with 50% of Germany already occupied by Allied forces in February 1945 and no realistic hope of a military victory, Adolf Hitler showed no signs of surrender, preferring to fight to the bitter end – bringing country and population down with him.
From September 1944 onwards, Goebbels finally got the “Total War” that he had demanded in his February 1943 Sport Palast speech. It meant that all of German society was now drafted into the war effort, including previously exempt workers in sectors like postal services, the railways, theaters, and newspapers.
Most workers thus “released” were sent to the front. Those too old or young for active service were put in the Volkssturm, an inexperienced, under-armed militia charged with defending the Fatherland against the approaching Allies.
To force the Nazi leadership and Army High Command to surrender, the Allies needed to conquer Berlin. The job was left to the Soviet forces advancing from the east, and the first step was the Battle of Seelow Heights. Seelow is a small market town on the B1 road, close to where it crosses the Oder River into Poland. The B1 used to be Reichsstrasse 1, which ran all the way across Prussia, some 1300 km from the Dutch border at Aachen in the west to Königsberg (today’s Kaliningrad) in the east.
Marshall Georgy Zhukov, the commander of the 1st Belorussian Front, had been pushing back Nazi forces through Ukraine and Poland since October 1943. In January 1945, he finally reached the Oder-Neisse line, at Kostrzyn, the point where Reichsstrasse 1 crossed the river.
Here, his armies kept their position in the floodplain of the Oder river, only 70 kilometres from Berlin’s Alexanderplatz, waiting for other Soviet army units to spread to the north and south to allow for a full encirclement of Berlin. By April 16th, sufficient forces had finished their mopping-up operations further east for the final push to the German capital.
General Theodor Busse’s 9th Army, consisting mainly of under-armed Hitler Youth boys and untrained Volkssturm fighters, had prepared its defences on a a north-south ridge in the landscape some 90 metres high, flanking the Oder’s flood plain and centred on Seelow – where Reichsstrasse 1 scaled the Heights. This was the last defensible natural barrier protecting Berlin from the east.
The attack started before dawn. The Red Army used runway floodlights to light the battlefield and blind their opponents, but in the early morning mists, they only served to backlight the advancing infantry. Pushing across the muddy floodplain up onto the well-defended heights proved to be more difficult than expected, and the battle dragged on for days, causing heavy casualties on both sides.
Only after two days of fighting, the Soviet troops managed to break the German forces’ third line of defence at Seelow, and from then on, not much stood in their way until reaching Berlin’s city limits. The Battle of Seelow Heights turned out to be the last entrenched battle in the senselessly protracted war between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.
When the Battle of Berlin was over and Germany had capitulated, the Red Army wanted to honour its dead and mark its victory. Marshall Zhukov, who stayed on as military commander of Berlin and the Soviet occupation zone, commissioned three monuments immediately after hostilities ceased in May 1945: the famous Soviet War memorial on Strasse des 17. Juni in Berlin’s Tiergarten, the monument at Seelower Heights, and an obelisk at Kostrzyn, just up the road in Poland, which was removed by Polish authorities in 2008.
The monument at Seelow was created by Lev Kerbel, who also designed the Tiergarten memorial. The Red Army didn’t waste time: both monuments were inaugurated in November 1945. The Seelow statue shows a Red Army soldier with his hand on the turret of a defeated German tank. From the beginning, the memorial included war graves, but most Soviet and German casualties of the battle are buried elsewhere, at Lebus and Lietzen cemeteries respectively.
April 23rd 1945: Soviet troops reach the outskirts of Berlin
by Marcel Krueger
Between April 18th 1945 and April 23rd, several significant events occured. On the 18th, Joseph Goebbels burned files in his office as Soviet troops approached and moved with his wife and children into Hitler’s bunker. He later poisoned them all and committed suicide alongside his wife.
On the 21st, Soviet infantry reached Berlin and Adolf Hitler ordered an all-out counter-attack against the Soviets at Berlin under the command of SS General Felix Steiner – a counter-attack that was never attempted.
On the 22nd, Soviet 1st Byelorussian Front penetrated the Berlin suburbs from the east and north. Adolf Hitler learned that the counter-attack he ordered on the previous day was never carried out by General Steiner and grew furious; when told by Wilhelm Keitel that Soviet tanks were now entering the city, Hitler conceded that the end is near, and decided to burn the most important papers stored at the bunker and remain in Berlin.
Day in and day out, civilians were exposed to constant long-range air and mortar attacks and spent most of the battle in cellars and basements. Above ground there was intensive hand-to-hand fighting, as German soldiers and especially the SS defended their streets and houses to the death.
With typical black Galgenhumor (gallows humour), Berliners started calling their city the Reichsscheiterhaufen, the imperial pyre, and Berlin women allegedly said that it was better to have “a Russian on the belly than an American on the head”, referring to both the Allied bombing raids and the rapes committed by Red Army soldiers.
The filth, stench and gloom in the shelters grew worse by the hours, as water supplies collapsed. Generators provided power only for a few hours, if at all. One of the largest shelters, the Anhalter Bahnhof, housed 12,000 people in conditions so hideously cramped that they were unable to move, even to relieve themselves, for days on end.
Bullets sometimes whipped for thousands of yards across empty air until they found a target in flesh or brick. A woman sitting up in the bed where she had taken refuge beside her husband was killed by a round fired a mile or more away, which ricocheted off the wall. A pall of dust and smoke shrouded the whole city, as street by street the battle continued.
Alexander Shelomotov, Red Army tank driver:
“On the morning of 23 April, our team, reinforced by units of the 29th Guards Motorized Rifle Brigade, continued the offensive in the direction of Stahnsdorf. Our task was to cross the Teltow Canal and seize the south-western outskirts of Berlin.
In the evening on April 24 our team, overcoming fierce resistance Germans, came to the southern outskirts of Berlin. On the streets everywhere where barricades with disguised anti-aircraft guns hidden behind. In basements and backyards German soldiers with bazookas lurked and the fighting was hard. However, by the evening of the next day we took the train station and seized Lichterfelde district.
We were helped by a Berlin engineer of Russian nationality. How he came here and how he survived in the city before we reached it I don’t know, but he knew Berlin and competently told us about the layout of the streets and the general situation in the city. He saved a lot of lives.
On April 26, our team captured the Schmargendorf-area and in the afternoon came to the Charlottenburg district. In the evening the same day our brigade was ordered to turn around 180 degrees and advance in the direction of Potsdam.”
April 25th, 1945: The blowing-up of Karstadt Hermannplatz
On April 25th, 1945 with the battle in full swing, its outcome was more or less clear. While the Red Army pushed relentlessly into the city from all directions, many of Hitler’s subordinates had given up all hope of victory and focused more on survival. It was time to burn the bridges.
At the western end of Hermannplatz in Berlin-Kreuzberg the members of the SS Division Nordland– mostly French, Belgian and Scandinavian volunteers – led by their newly appointed head SS Brigadenführer Gustav Krukenberg, finished installing the explosives necessary to blow up the old Karstadt department store.
During the war Karstadt am Hermannplatz, once the biggest and most modern department store in Europe, was used as a food storage and also the Heeresbekleidungsamt, Hitler’s Army Clothing Board.
But it was neither the food supplies, almost gone by then anyway, nor the garments that made the department store such a dangerous post to give up. It is far more probable that the Nordland troops did not wish for such a perfect assault position to fall into the hands of the enemy: shooting from Karstadt would have been like shooting fish in a barrel.
Now, with the Soviet 5th Shock Army under General Berzarin already on this side of the Teltow Canal and within the S-Bahn ring, the SS troops knew they would not be able to hold their positions around Hermannplatz for long. General Katukov’s 1st Guards Tank Army, which had reached Tempelhof airport, would be reaching their “stronghold” soon.
The decision to blow up Karstadt to prevent it from being captured, plundered and used as fortress by the Soviets was made quickly. Civilians who had come in search for food supplies inside the building were all forcefully removed and Krukenberg himself gave a signal to blast the old department store away.
Gone were the 70,000 m2 of space, the famous roof gardens, the delivery van lift and the 11-storey light towers. Gone the elegant restaurants, the hair salons and the famous food court competing with that of Berlin’s most elegant department store, the KaDeWe.
Ironically, despite the heavy fighting between what by the end turned out to be five Soviet armies and two German divisions, hardly any other buildings around Hermannplatz suffered a similar fate.
And like so many other unique pre-WW2 buildings in Berlin, the historic department store in Kreuzberg left behind only a tiny, hardly perceptible trace of its former glory: a small section of the original building (with the car park entrance) can be found in Hasenheide Street, and inside the new Karstadt is the original staircase, most of which survived intact and has been restored.
April 25th, 1945: The Complete Encirclement Of Berlin
by Marcel Krueger
On the April 25th 1945, units of the Soviet 1st Byelorussian and 1st Ukrainian Fronts met near Kietzen, completing the encirclement of Berlin. About 70 kilometres to the south, American and Soviet troops met at Torgau. Besides all the different nationalities that made up the Soviet Union and the Red Army, there were also two Polish communist armies fighting for Berlin, the 1st Army in the north and the 2nd Army attacking from the south. They made vital contributions to the fight: the Polish 1st Infantry Division for exampled bailed out a halted Red Army tank attack on the Reichstag on May 1st.
Jutta Petenati, a 16-year old Red Cross Nurse, remembers the scene in the city during these days.“We could hardly breathe; the air was full of sulphur because of the artillery fire – a bit like New Years Eve these days. Dust was swirling around like a fine fog, so we could hardly see where we were going. Groups of dead and wounded were everywhere…”
Five days later, Adolf Hitler commited suicide in his bunker. His body was burned in the garden of the Reich’s Chancellory together with Eva Braun. In the Tiergarten district, Zhukov launched an assault, refusing to permit an armistice and demanding unconditional surrender.
On the May 1st 1945 began the Battle of Halbe, which saw the German 12 Armee retreat from Berlin to the Elbe River and attempt to begin negotiations with US troops. One day later, May 2nd 1945, the Soviet “Hammer and Sickle” flag was hoisted atop Berlin’s Reichstag building.
General Helmuth Weidling accepted General Vasily Chuikov’s terms of unconditional surrender. The surrender of the Berlin garrison in Germany was to be effective at 15:00 hours, and on the May 8th, all Wehrmacht troops surrendered unconditionally. This date is today known worldwide as VE or Victory in Europe day.
The surrender was signed and sealed at a former pioneer school in Berlin-Karlshorst, which is now the German-Russian anti-war museum. The Battle of Berlin effectively ended the fighting on the Eastern Front and in Europe as a whole. Taking possession of Berlin, the Soviets worked to restore services and distribute food to the city’s inhabitants.
Seventy years on, the scars of the battle can still be seen throughout the city. Some official buildings, such as the Neues Museum, the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church and the Reichstag, have deliberately kept their damage visible as a memorial to the ravages of war. But the city is still also dotted with ‘unofficial’ war-era sites, such as un-refurbished tenements, forgotten courtyards and abandoned industrial buildings.
Berlin’s war bunkers played multiple roles during the war: islands of safety for civilians during the battle, artillery platforms for the Wehrmacht as well as the dramatic scene of Adolf Hitler’s suicide. Some of these existing bunkers have been appropriated as contemporary art museums, while others – including a former Flak Tower at Humbolthain (which doubled as a bunker) – have been made accessible to tourists and other interested parties.
In the fighting for Berlin, the Soviets lost 81,116 killed/missing and 280,251 wounded. German casualties are estimated being as high as 458,080 killed. Civilian losses may have been as high as 125,000. We should never forget them, the 16-year old drafted Hitler Youth soldiers, the families in the bunker and the farmer from Kazakhstan who fought all the way from Russia to Berlin to defeat the Nazis.