Movement of German divisions, battle of Berlin. Source: Tragedy of the Faithfull, Wilhelm Tieke.
The Battle: A brief overview
The fighting for Berlin began with the Battle of Seelow Heights. At 3am, German time, on the 16th April the Soviet offensive kicked off with a massive bombardment. It was the largest seen in mainland Europe during the course of the war. “As far as the eye could see were burning farms, villages, smoke and clouds of fumes” (Gerd Wagner, quoted in Hamilton, P.97) Expecting such an onslaught the Germans had pulled back to their second line thus minimizing the impact. The Soviets also turned their massive searchlights on the Germans hoping to blind them, but in fact all they achieved was to blind themselves as the light was reflected back at them by the smoke and fog. This tactic also had the effect of marking their main avenues of approach, allowing the German artillery to target them easier. The 1st Belorussian Front (inc. Some of the 1st Polish Army) Commanded by Georgi Zhukov attacked with 77 rifle divisions, 2 cavalry divisions, five tank and two Mechanized corps – a total of over 3000 tanks and 18000 artillery pieces and mortars. Marshall Zhukov wrote in his memoirs:
“On the whole the work to prepare the Berlin Operation had no parallel in scale of intensity…We were quite sure that with these capacities our forces would smash the enemy within the shortest possible span of time.” (The Memoirs of Marshal Zhukov, P.599.)
The German forces numbered approximately 110,000 men of 9th Army under General Theodor Busse. They had 587 tanks of which a number were out of service and 2625 artillery pieces. The Germans were heavily outnumbered and watched in awe as a wall of Soviet tanks followed by waves of running infantry advanced towards them. Despite the Germans being heavily outnumbered their defense was ferocious and by mid afternoon it was clear that a combination of Swampy ground and effective counter battery fire had slowed the soviets substantially. The German 9th Parachute Division was hit especially hard and earned a lot of kudos for its continued counter attacks against the Soviets.
The Soviets were now desperate to breach the German lines, Zhukov wanted no more delays. Under intense pressure General Weidling, Commander of the German LVI Panzer Corp, ordered a general retreat of his forces. The Soviets had paid a heavy price for limited advances, losing 317 tanks in the process.
This was a critical day. Zhukov’s forces advanced recklessly running head on into German defensive positions. The Red army had lost cohesion and in many cases its tanks were attacking without infantry support or a decent reconnaissance of the area. The 11th SS Division Nordland tried to counter attack but ran out of fuel. Huge traffic jams were also hampering the Soviets who on this day managed just a 3-6km gain.
In the early morning Weidling held a conference with his Officers. There was a discussion that Berlin should become an open city and that there was no point taking their tanks into an urban environment. During the morning and afternoon there were massive Soviet armoured assaults – in one incident they lost seventy tanks in a shootout with German Tigers of SS Heavy Panzer Battalion 503. The town of Muncheberg fell to the Red Army in the afternoon and soon the German LVI Panzer Corps left flank had become exposed. Weidling decided to withdraw his forces south hoping to avoid fighting in Berlin.
This was Hitler’s birthday. The Soviets began to push through the weakened German positions. NCO’s of the Nordland division struggled to manage an orderly retreat as they headed for Alt Landsberg. On this day their Commander General Zeigler told some of his men to burn their paybooks and make for the west. The Soviets were now using incendiary shells in the woods to burn out the defenders. By the end of the day they had broken the German defense and the artillery of 79th Rifle Corps was shelling Berlin.
Meanwhile Marshall Koniev, Commander of the Soviet 1st Ukrainian Front, attacked across the Niesse at 0610 Moscow time. They reached the Spree within twenty four hours and began heading toward Berlin from the South, creating a race with Zhukovs 1st Belorussian Front. The Germans scrambled together a number of scratch units but were barely able to slow Koniev’s advance. The road to Berlin was now open.
With the fall of town of Muncheberg Zhukov now ordered his troops to surround Berlin from the north and the south. That afternoon there was a conference in the Fuhrerbunker and Hitler decreed that Berlin could be saved if General Steiner and his III SS Panzer Corps would launch an immediate attack into Zhukov’s right flank. It was blatant wishful thinking and Steiner knew that it was impossible. Throughout the day units of the LVI Corps fought desperate rear guard actions as they fell back towards the city.
On 23rd April Helmut Weidling was called to the Fuhrer bunker, he arrived expecting to be shot but left having been appointed commander of Berlin sector – this was yet another twist in the merry go round of commanders instigated by Hitler.
By 24th April the 1st Belorussian front and 1st Ukrainian front had completed the encirclement of the city. – Advance units probed the S-bahn defensive ring and by the end of the day it was clear the Germans could do little more than delay the eventual soviet victory. The German Panzer strength in the pocket was around 40 tanks and 80 Self propelled guns (Source: Hamilton, P.160) – this meant that they had lost nearly 80 percent of their tanks in the last nine days.
The principal German Divisions tasked with defending the city itself were mainly from the LVI Panzer Corps of the 9th Army. This Corp was positioned along the Seelowe Heights directly across the main line of Soviet advance along Reichsbahn 1. As they were pushed back some other formations joined them.
German order of battle:
– 20th Panzer Grenadier division. Initially an infantry division which had been recruited from the Hamburg area. In autumn 1942 it was redesignated a PG division. Battered in the Soviet Summer Offensives of 1944, it found itself fighting in southern Poland before being ordered to Berlin in March 1945. By this time it numbered around 5000 men and thirteen Panzer Mark IV tanks.
– 18th Panzer Grenadier division. This unit had also originally been an Infantry division and had began its career in 1935/6. It was badly mauled in the Soviet Winter Offensives of 1941/2 and had eventually been withdrawn with a strength of just 741 combat effectives. By March 1942 was back at the front fighting around the town of Demyansk. The division was again virtually destroyed during the Russian Summer Offensive in 1944. Only a tiny number survived to fight in Berlin.
– 9th Parachute Division – This unit was mainly formed from Luftwaffe ground crew and the remnants of a Special Forces unit that had served alongside Skorzeny in the Ardennes Offensive (Source: Hamilton, P.68) Unusually for this stage of the war it was generally well equipped inc. a battalion of Hetzer Self propelled guns. Some of this division fought in the siege of Breslau, the rest were in Berlin. They were battered by artillery at Seelowe and unable to recover.
– 11th SS Division “Nordland”. Formed in 1943 by the merger of three Germanic Legions. This unit was principally made up of Foreign Waffen SS volounteers from Scandinavia and Volksdeutsche from the Balkans. It was considered an elite unit and had fought well during the fighting around Narva and in the Courland pocket. Also attached to this division was a number of French troops from the 33rd SS Division “Charlamagne”.
– Muncheberg Panzer division – Formed in the last weeks of the war and commanded by Major General Mummert who was a highly decorated veteran. This Division was well equipped with heavy Tigers, Panthers and infrared systems. They had cut their teeth at Kustrin and had launched a successful night attack on Soviets using their new IR capability. By 15th April this unit consisted of around 1800 men, twenty-one Panther Tanks and 10 Tiger I’s. They were defending the north east sector of Berlin, north of the Spree.
As well as these divisions were numerous smaller groups including Heavy SS Panzer Battalion 503 – an armoured unit commanded by SS-Sturmbannfuhrer Friedrich Herzig that during its short existence managed to score more hits per day than any other Tiger Battalion during the war (source: Hamilton P.73). There were also two Regiments made up of the SS troops based in the city, i.e Hitler’s bodyguard from the Liebstandarte SS and numerous Allgemine SS personnel that were working as administrative staff in the capital. Approximately 30,000 Volksturm troops were also on hand and up to nine thousand Hitler Youth. (Source: Hamilton, P-48-50.)
By the 25th April the Soviets were struggling to advance along rubble strewn roads that were well defended. Their tanks were being battered by Panzerfaust wielding defenders and the fighting was exposing the limits of their tactical know how. As Lieutenant General Vasily Chuikov of the 8th Guards Tank Army noted: “In a city a tank Regiment or battalion. . .Is obliged to move in column along the street, and becomes a vulnerable target. . .The leading tank is set on fire – and there is nowhere for the others to go.” (Source: Hamilton, P.179)
On this day Weidling sacked General Zeigler as Commander of the Nordland division and replaced him with General Krukenberg. Zeigler had been showing weak leadership for some time and his division was scattered and lacking purpose.
The morning of the 26th April saw a Counter-attack by units of the Muncheberg Division and French SS troops in Neukolln alongside Tempelhof Airport. Later that morning the Russians launched their own offensive in the area pushing the German’s back and bypassing any strong points. The tactical situation was changing minute by minute. Weidling suggested a break out plan to Hitler who rejected it. General Krukenberg ordered his units to fall back to Hermannplatz – Two divisions now faced five Soviet armies in a pocket 25km long from west to east and 3km wide at its narrowest.
There was intense rivalry between the soviet commanders to be the first to reach the Reichstag. On 27th April the Soviet 1st Guards Tank army penetrated the Landwehr canal which was the last obstacle before Hitler’s Chancellery. The German troops were now beginning to exhibit signs of defeatism under the strain of non stop combat and lack of ammunition. That evening though there was cause for hope as word spread that the Twelth Army under General Wenck was on its way to relieve them.
At dawn on 28th Wenck’s four “youth” divisions (young military trainees) attacked from the south west of Berlin but after an initial thrust the German attack was blunted and turned back at the tip of Lake Schwielow. Berlin’s last hope had been crushed.
By this point the Muncheberg Div was now defending Anhalter station, just half a mile south of Fuhrerbunker.
On the same day the 1st Ukrainian front was pulled out of action to concentrate on the upcoming Prague offensive, leaving Zhukov’s 1st Belorussian front to capture the centre of Berlin alone. At Dusk his infantry established a bridgehead over the Spree at the Moltke bridge – just 600 metres from Reichstag.
The battle for the ReichstagIn the early hours of 29th April the 150th and 171st Soviet rifle divisions fanned out from their bridgehead over the Spree – there was a hard fight for the ministry of interior building. The 150th also attacked across Konigsplatz towards the Reichstag. They were desperate to capture this symbol of Nazism before May day. Trenches and a moat surrounded the building and cross fire from Kroll Opera house meant an infantry attack was very difficult. Fire from the Zoo flak tower was also a massive hindrance for the attackers.
By now about 10,000 German soldiers were crammed into the centre of Berlin and being assaulted from all sides.
The windows of Reichstag were bricked up and thick smoke was everywhere. The Main hall became a killing field. Combat raged throughout the night as Germans held onto the basement and the Soviets tried desperately to dislodge them.
At 15.30 on the 30th April Hitler shot himself. By late that night, after bitter fighting the Hammer and sickle flew over the Reichstag. One of the men who fought to the very end was Frenchman Henri Fenet. On the morning of the 2nd May he and some of his men were still fighting in the Air Ministry when Russians accompanied by German Officers approached. . .
“The Soviet soldiers came and invited us to surrender. A Major in the Luftwaffe said to me, ‘It’s over, the capitulation has been signed.There is no choice but to surrender.'”
Fenet and his men tried to escape via the U-bahn tunnels but were caught and captured, as he said: “We felt crushed, broken. It was an absolute catastrophe, the feeling of being wiped out, the fall into nothingness, into the blackest night.” (Source: Armor battles of the Waffen SS, Will Fey. P. 323)
On the night of 1st/2nd May a number of Germans had attempted to break out and make for the West where they hoped to surrender to the British or Americans. Some were successful, most weren’t. At 0400 hours on the 2nd May the surviving German troops in the basement of the Reichstag surrendered, there were around 120 of them still alive.
Video of the German surrender:
The battle tactics:
The Wehrmacht made the Red army pay a high price for the capture of Germany’s capital. According to Grigoriy Krivosheev’s work based on declassified archival data, Soviet forces sustained 81,116 dead for the entire operation, which included the Battles of Seelow Heights and the Halbe; Another 280,251 were reported wounded or sick during the operational period. The battle also cost the Soviets about 2,000 armoured vehicles (Source: Wikipedia).
This high price was not due to elaborately constructed defensive works within Berlin itself. Hitler had only decreed Berlin to be “Fortress” on the 3rd February 1945 – by this time the Soviets were just fifty kilometers from Berlin. Due to a lack of manpower and engineering skills and the regimes labyrinthine bureaucracy, only the bare minimum had actually been achieved by the time the Red Army launched their offensive at Seelowe. Makeshift barricades were erected and some trenches were dug but nothing capable of stalling the Soviets was constructed. Even Defensive District “Z” – the very centre of Berlin – had no field defences prepared. Brigadefuhrer Krukenberg, Commander of the 11th SS Division Nordland was greatly concerned when his troops took up positions there on the 26th April and reported that the promised defences existed only on paper. (Source: Charlamagne’s Legionnaires, Richard Landwehr. P.158)
In the end Berlins most important defensive positions proved to be the three massive Flak towers that had been built to defend the city from the brutal allied bombing. They were 100,000 tonne steel and concrete structures that proved to be excellent at fending off Russian armour and infantry assaults with their accurate firepower. The 12.8cm guns were so powerful that their shells would practically disintegrate the Soviet tanks when they struck them. By 1945 the gun crews were mainly Hitler Youth and SS cadets from Galicia and White Russia who had a visceral hatred for the Soviets. (Source: Bloody Streets, Hamilton. P.39)
Once the street fighting began the Germans had to rely on defensive tactics based on a combination of their experience and the physical characteristics of Berlin: Wide straight roads with waterways, parks and large railway marshaling yards. Solidly built 19th century apartment blocks made up the bulk of the housing stock, they were generally five stories high without elevators and built around a courtyard that could be reached from the street through a corridor large enough to take a horse and cart or a small truck used to deliver coal. Generally the larger more expensive flats faced the street and the smaller less expensive ones could be found around the inner courtyards.
As A Stephen Hamilton says: “Urban combat in Berlin was complex and both Soviet and German forces were forced to adapt to the changing operational environment rapidly. . .Without realizing it the Germans began employing a flexible application of force along interior lines. German soldiers came together at a particular point, forming a nexus of resistance only to quickly melt away and reform later; avoiding superior Soviet firepower in the process. All means of urban terrain were used for movement and combat.”
The experienced Waffen SS and Heer soldiers placed snipers and machine guns on the upper floors of buildings and on roofs because the Soviet tanks could not elevate their guns that high. At the same time they put men armed with panzerfausts in cellar windows to ambush tanks as they moved down the streets. These tactics were quickly adopted by the Hitler Youth as Erik Wallin, a Swedish volunteer in the Waffen SS recalls:
“These warlike children, came a rancorous frenzy and a boundless contempt of death, which we grownups could not muster. With the agility and speed of weasels they climbed and struggled their way into completely impossible positions, to knock out a Russian tank with a Panzerfaust or to finish off one or several advancing Red Army soldiers with a hand-grenade. There were quite a number of Russian tanks put out of action by small boys in their early teens during the battle of Berlin.” – Source: Twilight of the Gods, by Thorolf Hillblad, Kindle edition location 1786
To counter these tactics A few inspired Soviet Commanders learned quickly and began to employ very effective new methods. They created combined arms battle groups that included infantry artillery and tanks working in mutual support. They Soviets mounted sub-machine gunners on the tanks who sprayed every doorway and window, but this meant the tank could not traverse its turret quickly. The other solution was to rely on heavy howitzers (152 mm and 203 mm) firing over open sights to blast defended buildings and to use anti-aircraft guns against the German gunners on the higher floors. Soviet combat groups started to move from house to house instead of directly down the streets. They moved through the apartments and cellars blasting holes through the walls of adjacent buildings (for which the Soviets found abandoned German panzerfausts were very effective) while others fought across the roof tops and through the attics. These enfilading tactics took the Germans lying in ambush for tanks in the flanks. Flamethrowers and grenades proved to be very effective, but as the Berlin civilian population had not been evacuated these tactics inevitably killed many.
(Sources: Beevor, Antony (2002). Berlin: The Downfall 1945. P. 316-319 and Hamilton p.v)
The Soviets also learned how dangerous a lone enemy fanatic with a Panzerfaust could be. It was a handheld anti-tank weapon that was capable of knocking out Soviet armoured vehicles. Many crews decided to add bed springs, hanging chain link or even metal shields around tank turrets in an effort to force the Panzerfaust’s hollow shaped charge to detonate prematurely.
Another problem faced by the German defenders was lack of supplies. Everything within the city was in short supply. Lack of fuel resulted in military vehicles becoming immobilized and hampering their effectiveness – No stockpiles existed within the city and defenders could only count on what they had brought with them from outside. (Source: Hamilton, P44.)
A shortage of ammunition was a particularly difficult issue. Little could be produced locally due to a shortage of skilled labour and most stockpiles were either weapons and ammunition of foreign manufacture or badly made steel cartridges (the scarcity of brass meant that the Germans were forced to make cartridges out of steel and then lacquer them to prevent rusting). When the barrels of their weapons became hot they would jam – some Machine-guns had to change barrels after every belt of ammo fired. (Source: Berlin Dance of death, Helmut Altner. P.107) Gunther Labes of the “Muncheberg” division explains – “The 98 Carbine then in general issue as an infantry weapon was meant to be used as a repeater, but as a result of the lacquering of cartridges, the ejection of empty cartridges after firing by means of lifting and pulling back the bolt was only seldom possible, and even then only within half a second of having fired. Usually the short time it took to reach for the knob of the bolt was sufficient to enable the cartridge to burn fast in the breech. When this occurred regularly, it was not very clever to present oneself as a target to the enemy while trying to clear the breech under cover. The rifleman therefore had to go back into the trench with his unusable weapon each time after firing and by hammering the knob of the bolt with either a hefty kick or a blow from his bayonet, pull back the bolt and force the empty cartridge out of the breech with his ramrod, providing it was long enough. Sometimes a hard bang of the stock on the bottom of the trench sufficed. . .Looking back, I cannot help thinking that the musketeers of the Thirty Years War with their 17th Century weapons had a faster rate of fire on average and consequently greater firepower than we infantryman of the 20th Century with our modern automatic weapons, but supplied with lacquered ammunition!” (Source: http://www.dererstezug.com/LateWarGermanAmmunition.htm)
The outcome of the battle of Berlin was inevitable. Strategically the Germans had already lost the war but their defensive spirit and ability to hinder the Soviet advance proved that they remained a tough and determined foe until the very end. Their tactics of stinging the Soviets with Machine-guns and Panzerfausts and then deploying to new positions were dictated by the environment and strength of the enemy but proved very effective in the rubble strewn streets. The Soviets also deserve credit, initially they were guilty of sending columns of Tanks into the streets without infantry support but they learned a heavy lesson and by the end of the battle were employing combined arms groups that were able to flush out and defeat the German defenders.