29 June 2011

The Biggest War in History, Part Seven: Reaping the Whirlwind

Soviet soldiers hosting the Soviet flag on the balcony of Hotel Adlon in Berlin after the Battle of Berlin.(Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-R77767 / CC-BY-SA), via Wikipedia
Part Six

As 1945 began, any sensible military commentator on either side (if there had been any publicly writing on the German side) could see that the Thousand Year Reich was not going to survive the year, especially as it was outnumbered six to two million on the Eastern Front, while running out of fuel and ammunition.

Many of the German High Command knew that and that the best thing to do was make peace, although the chances of a negotiated peace treaty had now gone out of the proverbial window, especially after the liberation of Auschwitz on 27 January 1945. In fact, some of them had tried to remove the biggest obstacle to peace, namely Hitler himself, the previous July in the failed Valkyrie plot.

Adolf Hitler had lost it by this point. He still believed that he could win the war with the new wonder weapons he was bringing into service. Some of these weapons, such as the Me-262 jet fighter, would have been good had there been sufficient numbers of them. Others, like the V-2 short-range-ballistic missile, were just sucking up increasingly diminishing resources as the strategic bombing efforts of the Allies took their toll of German manufacturing - and civilian lives.

Now hiding out in a bunker under the Reichs Chancellery (one that wasn't really up to a command and control job due to lack of communication equipment), Hitler tried to give orders to units that when they still existed could not hope to fulfil them.

Until Hitler was eliminated, by one means or another, a good number of Germans were going to fight on. For others, there was another reason - it was a matter of defending their own country. In the east, it seemed for many to be a choice between Red or dead.

As the Soviet forces advanced, they began to loot, rape and murder on a massive scale, taking their revenge for what the Germans had done to them. Of course, most of them didn't and historian David Jones suggests that only 10-15% got up to this sort of thing. My response to that is: 10-15% is very high by any normal standards. A massive flight of refugees ensued as Germans fled west to try and escape the Soviets - 425,000 refugees were evacuated by sea, the biggest such evacuation in history.

In one case, a cruise liner packed with refugees, M.S. Wilhelm Gustlof, was misidentified as a troop ship by a Soviet submarine and sunk. It is estimated that 9,400 people drowned - making this the worst maritime disaster of all time. It's also one of the least remembered.

Lead up to Berlin

The Soviets launched another massive offensive on 17 January 1945 from bridgeheads on the Vistula river in Poland. The forces soon entered pre-war German territory and by 31 January, they were less than 40 miles from Berlin on the Oder river; soon to form part of the post-war border of East Germany. The fortress cities were generally surrounded by Soviet forces. Some of these cities would end up with different names after the war, such as Danzig (Gdansk) and Breslau (Wroclaw).

By April, Vienna and Budapest were under Soviet control; the final target, Berlin was now in sight.

The Final Battle - Berlin

The reasons for the Western Allies not getting to Berlin first are both clear and unclear. Certainly, there had been a hard slog through the Ruhr area - indeed, all the way from Normandy. There was still a lot of "mopping up" to do and concerns about a "National Redoubt" forming in the Bavaria area, where the die-hards would make their final stands. However, in an environment where it was increasingly clear that the USSR was not playing ball with regards to freedom post-war, Eisenhower's declaration of Berlin as a secondary target when he tended to link military action to political objectives is strange. Churchill disagreed, but the US stuck to their guns.

Stalin wanted the glory as well. He told the Western Allies that the offensive on Berlin would be in the second half of May and would only involve secondary forces; as the Allies cleared the Rhine and the Weser, he moved up the attack into late April. The stuff about "secondary forces" was a lie, because the forces who would attack were led by Marshals Zhukov and Koniev, two of his two commanders.

The 1st Belorussian (Zhukov) and 1st Ukrainian Fronts were basically allowed by Stalin to race for the city; whoever got to Lübben on the Spree river would have first crack at the city. It was clear from the force dispositions that the former would have the easier job.

Berlin's defence fell to Generalleutnant Helmuth Reymann; the eventual "plan" involved three defensive rings and various obstacle areas. It was a good plan - it just completely lacked the materiel and the men to put it into effect, even when the elderly Volksturm and juvenile Hitler Youth brigades were thrown in.

As mentioned, Zhukov had the easier job of the two relevant Soviet commanders - he almost managed to mess it up.

On 16 April, a massive artillery barrage kicked off Zhukov's part of Operation Berlin around the Seelow Heights, the last major defence line before reaching Berlin itself; 10,000 guns fired for 20 minutes, before 143 searchlights turned on to help the attacking Soviet troops, with the artillery moving its aim forward to the German positions.

Unfortunately for Zhukov, confusion ensued as marshy terrain caused coordination to break down and a massive traffic jam ensued as bridging units were moved up. Zhukov threw in his tank armies and just made things worse. The German defences eventually cracked - but it took four days and a lot of casualties.

On 18/19 April, the final RAF raid on Berlin took place. On 20 April, bombing of the city by Soviet artillery began, while elements of the German 9th Army launched desperate counter-attacks at Frankfurt-an-Oder. The German leader celebrated his 56th birthday and was seen for the last time in public.

Two days later, the Red Army was in the suburbs of Berlin. At this point after discovering a counter-offensive he'd ordered of the SS units Army Detachment Steiner (basically a big corps in reality) had never been launched and his worst enemies were in the capital, Hitler decided to stay in Berlin until the end; the concept of Hitler fleeing abroad has been explored in some works of fiction, but he'd just be too recognisable (maybe).

Berlin's taking was a much faster, but ultimately more successful version of Stalingrad. The fighting took on a house-to-house, room-to-room nature, particularly in the final assault on the Reichstag. It could take hours just to cross a street.

On 23 April, Hermann Goering, at Berchtesgaden, told Hitler that if he hadn't heard from him by 11.00pm that night, he was going to take over as he assumed that the Fuhrer was not free to act. Hitler was enraged and promptly sacked the overweight Luftwaffe head from all his positions.

25 April was marked by three developments of note, the linking up of US and Soviet forces at Torgau, the encirclement of Berlin entirely.

Over the next seven days, facing intense resistance but still with overwhelming numbers, the Soviet forces pushed their way through Berlin. The narrow streets were dangerous for tanks - there could be a Panzerfaust-carrying German in any window - and just as unpleasant for the infantry. Civilians just had to survive as best as they could.

An attempt to relieve the city by the Germans was launched on 26 April and completely failed; large elements of the 9th Army were surrounded the same day near Halbe. 9th Army, desperate to surrender to the Western Allies instead of the Soviets launched a desperate breakout west that actually succeeded and got them to 12th Army's lines on 1 May.

On the night of 28/29 April, the Soviets had reached Anhalt station, a major rail terminus in central Berlin (it no longer exists - it was closed in 1952 and knocked down in 1960, although an S-Bahn station of that name remains present). This was half a mile from Hitler's bunker, where he would marry his mistress Eva Braun that morning and write his will.

On that same day, Hitler heard the news of Mussolini's death at the hands of Italian partisans and was informed of just how bad the situation now was. With the Red Army beginning to attack the centre of the city, the man who had once ruled an empire running from Brest to the outskirts of Moscow decided that he would take the easy way out. The next day, Adolf Hitler, quite possibly the most evil man in history, shot himself, his wife taking poison. The SS did a botched job on cremating his body - it would take the Soviets to finish the job properly. In 1970, they dumped his ashes in the Elbe river.

The Red Army launched a massive assault on the Reichstag that afternoon - a decision to go into a pretty worthless building (as it was largely damaged due to the 1933 fire), albeit one that was heavily defended, was largely for propaganda reasons - a false report of the Soviet flag being raised there had led to large numbers of war correspondents turning up and the local commander did not want to disappoint them. With the clock running down to May Day, it was a race to get a flag onto the roof, but it was duly done so with 70 minutes to go. Then promptly taken down again by the Germans again. It would take a further two days to fully clear the building.

[The famous Reichstag flag-raising photo is actually a re-enactment with the flag in a different position and taken during the day as it was too dark at the time for a decent photograph.]

On 3pm on 2 May, General Weidling surrendered the remaining forces in Berlin, although resistance continued for a few hours afterwards.

The Soviet and Polish forces took over 300,000 casualties in the assault (based on the usual 1 in 4 deaths as was common at the time, we're looking at nearly 100,000 dead); the German and civilian figures are estimated at approximately 22,000 dead each. In addition, a million Berliners were now homeless.

The Final Days

The Germans essentially completely collapsed after this point as forces began to surrender en masse. In the West, British Field Marshal Montgomery launched an attack into Denmark to liberate that country before the Red Army could get there and got the surrender of forces facing him at Luneberg Heath on 4 May, promptly nicking the original of the surrender document for his own collection.

On 7 May, General Jodl went to Rheims offered to surrender all forces facing the Western Allies to Eisenhower. Ike told him that he would only accept the surrender of all German forces and negotiations would be broken off otherwise. The Germans had no choice to accept and it was agreed that the war would end at 2301 Central European Time on 8 May. This would be 0101 Moscow time, which is why they mark the end of the war on 9 May instead.

Some fighting would continue in the east until 13 May as the last elements of German resistance were suppressed - on a Dutch island called Texel, Georgian soldiers in a German unit revolted and a battle between them and the Germans with Dutch help on the former side continued until 20 May.

For most citizens of the Soviet Union, on 9 May 1945, the bloodiest war in history that had killed 26.6 million of their fellow countrymen and women, leaving every family with at least one family member dead, the war was over.

The impact, though, had only just begun.

Part Eight 

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