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What was the Battle of Berlin? When did it take place? When did it end? Why Nazi Germany did lost its capital against the Red Army of the Soviet Union? Discover here the final death throes of Hitler’s Third Reich during the Second World War, some facts, and the atrocities of the Battle of Berlin.

#1 Berlin 1945. Day-to-day under the bombs

January 1945, it was obvious to most of the Germans, that the war was lost. Except for Hitler, who in their fantastical delusion, and totally disconnected from the front realities, dreamt of encircling the advancing Soviet armies, with units that barely had personnel or ammunition left to counterattack.

Berlin and all the major cities of the German Reich were devastated. Its citizens lived amongst the ruins, spending more time in cellars than in their own beds. Germans had lost the war by then, but not their sense of humour, dubbing the initials of the air-raid shelters, LSR (Luftschutzraum), as ‘Learn Russian Quickly’.

The Wehrmacht was no longer the fighting machine it was in 1941. Gaps in their ranks were filled with the Volkssturm, a militia created by the Nazi Party, which amalgamated the crippled, the old, and the unfit who weren’t serving in the regular army already. The teenagers and kids of the Hitler Youth were also cruelly thrown into battle. As one German officer crudely admitted it: ‘it was a crime to send children against a battle-hardened enemy’. But Hitler’s regime wasn’t bound by any common sense or humanity.

#2 The Soviet artillery aim to Berlin

On 12th January 1945, the Red army began, simultaneously, the Vistula-Oder offensive and the East Prussian offensive, reaching the Oder by early February and establishing bridgeheads in preparation for attacking Berlin. Zhukov, deputy commander-in-chief of the Red Army, and commander of the 1st Belarussian Front, decided to halt the offensive. The flanks of his Soviet Front had to be secured through the Pomeranian and Silesian offensives, which lasted until the 4th of April.

Advances of the Red Army during the last year of war
Evolution of the Eastern Front in 1945. In orange the territory captured during operations Vistula-Oder, Pomeranian and Silesian

Check here for a more detailed map

On the 16th of April, the 1st Belarussian Front, and Konev’s 1st Ukrainian Front in their south flank, supported in the north flank by Rokossovsky’s 2nd Belarussian Front, unleashed a shell storm upon the German 9th Army, trenched in the Oder-Nessie line. For the capture of Berlin, the Red Army had amassed 2.5 million men, 6,250 tanks, 41,600 guns and mortars, and 7500 aircraft. The greatest concentration of firepower ever.

Leading the 1st Belarussian Front spearhead, was Chuikov’s 8th Guards Army (the former 62nd Army that defended Stalingrad), and Berzarin’s 5th Shock Army. In front of them stood the Seelow Heights, a hill providing a fantastic defensive position to the German 9th Army, and delaying Zhukov’s offensive. Too slow for Stalin’s taste, who redirected Konev’s 1st Ukrainian Front, who at the same time easily pierced the German lines in the south, to advance against Zehlendorf, Berlin’s most south-western suburb.

A long line of Soviet guns open fire
Soviet artillery shelling German positions around Seelow Heights. Even if the soldiers survived the projectiles, they were left shell-shocked for a while and uncapable of fight

The early thaw made the Soviet T-34 tanks’ tracks slip on the mud, and the dust raised by the initial shelling compromised the gunners’ aim. Zhukov, in his desperation to claim the price of Berlin before Konev, urged his commanders to break through, suffering over 30.000 casualties against 12.000 German casualties. The latter played duck sitting with the T-34, blowing many with their 88mm anti-aircraft guns and the Panzerfaust, an explosive anti-tank warhead.

Eventually, on the 19th of April, the Ninth German Army broke under the Soviet push, and began to retreat, but in their way westwards, found themselves trapped by Konev’s armies. Jumping out of the frying pan into the fire.

The road to Berlin was open…

#3 The Russians are coming!

Der Iwan kommt!’ Yelled the exhausted Landser (German soldier with battle experience) while retreating. They were so tired they immediately dozed whenever sitting to pause. Their rations gone for a week and their ammunition short. All major roads were jammed with abandoned tanks due to petrol shortage, and with hundreds of thousands of civilians, fleeing westwards with their carts. Goebbels propaganda had relentlessly nailed the Germans into believing the Russians intended to kill them all, and rape all the women. That made surrender unthinkable. But many German soldiers fought simply because nobody had told them they could stop.

The Red Army propaganda, however, was more than a match for their German counterpart. They instilled in their ranks a vicious urge of revenge against the Germans, encouraging a wave of looting, rape and sometimes, indiscriminate killing. Especially targeted, were those in uniform, but above all, the universally hated Waffen-SS (SS troops). Such vengeful attitude stiffened German resistance, as the Landser, fearing capture, fought until the last consequences against the Frontoviki, the Russian front-line soldiers.  

Tatiana and two companions, both women, check through some sort of binoculars in a large tube
Women were also present in the Red Army. Tatiana Shmorgunova, an anti-aircraft gunner of the 1st Belarussian Front awaits for orders by the Oder river

In the meantime Hitler, oblivious or impervious to the misery and death he had brought upon Germany, as well as, hundreds of millions of human beings, had permanently moved into the Führerbunker. It was located under the Reich’s Chancellery, reduced to rubble during the Allies air-raids. Berliners bravely queued under the bombs, risking their lives for meagre rations. Their homes were destroyed. Electricity and water supply totally interrupted.

On 20th April, Hitler celebrated his 56th birthday, when the USAF (US Air Force) and the RAF (UK) suddenly ceased to grind the German capital to dust. Hitler emerged in the surface for the very last time, where he awarded a group of Hitler Youth who fought in the front. His right hand shook uncontrollably, so he had to grip it with his left hand behind his back, in order to keep it still.

A smiling Hitler and Göring talking to a man who gives his back to the camera
Adolf Hitler and Hermann
Göring in April 1945

On that very same morning, artillery from one of Zhukov’s battle formations, the 3rd Shock Army, began to open fire on Berlin. A day later, the first tank brigades of Berzarin’s 5th Shock Army arrived in the outskirts of the city, to deliver their deadly birthday presents to the Führer.

#4 The last defenders of Berlin

Berlin’s population at the time oscillated between 3 and 3,5 million, and Hitler, like Stalin in Stalingrad in 1942, decided against civilian evacuation, in hopes of stiffening resistance. To make things even more challenging for Berliners, a few months ago, Hitler decided against Guderian’s proposal of evacuating by sea the Army Group Courland, trapped in Courland (Latvia), and using them to reinforce Berlin.

Reymann, the commander of Berlin’s Defense Area, was replaced last-minute by Helmuth Weidling. The former had been repeatedly assured by Hitler that troops would be allocated, if the enemy ‘ever’ reached Berlin. The result? Berlin was seriously under protected.

A well-preserved T-34 with the red star of the Soviet Union visible on its turret
This T-34 was amongst the first Soviet tanks to reach Berlin

The defense was divided in eight sectors, from A to H. Few of the troops had battle experience. Playing to their advantage were the rivers Spree and the Landwehr canal, which would slow down the Soviet advance. Ruins and cellars were to help the defenders, and expose the vulnerable T-34 flanks. It was a reversal of what happened in Stalingrad. However, Berlin only had three real strongpoints, three immense Flak towers designed to protect the capital against bombings, and also shelter thousands of civilians under the almost indestructible concrete.

Altogether, Berlin counted with 45,000 Wehrmacht and SS troops, and over 40,000 Volkssturm, including Hitler Youth, most of them with no training or rations whatsoever. But Berlin’s most ferocious defenders were to be the foreign SS, especially distinguished were the French Charlemagne and the Scandinavian Nordland divisions. They had betrayed their countries, and now had no choice but to fanatically fight until the end. Capture meant certain execution.

#5 Hitler and his generals

On the 22nd of April, Hitler, still totally oblivious to the fact that he had lost the war, asked his generals about the Steiner’s offensive north of Berlin, made to pierce Zhukov’s right flank. He was informed Steiner lacked means to do so, and Hitler, activating his beast mode, yelled at his generals. He collapsed and admitted the war was lost. He announced he would shoot himself. Such dramatic scene was famously recreated in the movie Downfall, with Bruno Ganz portraying Hitler.

The Battle of Berlin offers a lot and it’s impossible to cram it into just one article. Discover how the battle unleashed and ended here, in the second part.

Don’t forget to check Antony Beevor’s account of the battle in this free preview. Read about the braveness, the courage, the crimes, the revenge and the atrocities of the end of the Second World War in Europe. Thanks for reading, don’t forget to comment and subscribe!

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