Berlin April 1945 : The Devil's Cauldron
The Streets of Berlin, April 1945Click thumbnail to view full-size
On April 18, 1945, the last thousand plane air raid in the European theater of war took place over the skies of Berlin leaving the Nazi capital in a complete state of total ruin. Before the Allies landed on the beaches Normandy in June 1944, the bomber was the only answer the Allies had to draw the German Air Force away from Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union. In effect, the Allied air campaign as Arthur (Bomber) Harris saw it, was the "second front" which was a constant request by Joseph Stalin the leader of the Soviet Union.
As the smoke from the morning's air raid drifted slowly across the streets Berlin, most of its remaining citizens began to stir trying to find a way out of the city before the Red Army completely cut their lifeline to the rest of the world. Berlin, the most bombed city in history, home to nearly four million civilians, by the end of the war would be the focus of 363 air raids forcing over 1.7 million of its citizens to flee the city. As is perhaps too often forgotten, in 1945 the most active front was the vertical "third front," the air war over Germany. Germany's capital city was blackened by soot, pockmarked by thousands of craters, and littered by the twisted girders of ruined buildings. Whole blocks of apartment houses had vanished, and in the very heart of the capital entire neighborhoods had been flattened. Everywhere roofless buildings lay open to the sky. That morning a fine residue of soot and ash rained down, leaving a fine coating on the wreckage, and in the great canyons of smashed brick and twisted steel nothing moved but the swirling dust. Few of the great city's banks, libraries, and elegant shops once the showplace of Europe were left undamaged. Allied leaders had crossed the moral threshold by bombing Berlin, they had deliberately decided to bomb civilians, once they had crossed that moral divide they had sealed the fate for almost a half a million Germans. Churchill and Roosevelt saw little reason to stop the bombing offensive, both leaders were eager to accelerate an end to the conflict and were frustrated by an enemy who seemed determined to fight to the end. There was always this persistent fear, over the entire war, that the Nazis might be able to turn the tide of the war by unleashing new science-based weapons. This fear encouraged the final months of heavy bombing to continue, by the end of the war every major city in Germany was laid to waste. In April 1945, Nazi Germany had become an utter wasteland of death and destruction.
In the sixth year of the Second World War, Hitler's military was fighting a hopeless battle for survival. Hitler's New Years speech of 1945 a number of people believed had been pre-recorded or even faked. Hitler had not been seen in public for so long that wild rumors were circulating, some asserted that he had gone completely mad and that Goring, his second in command, was in a secret prison because he had tried to escape to Sweden.
In the late summer of 1941 Hitler's empire was the largest on earth occupying almost all of western Europe, North Africa and the European part of the Soviet Union. The world held its breath as Hitler's vast legions blasted their way to one victory after another with this new type of warfare called "Blitzkrieg" (lightning war). When they invaded the Soviet Union taking over 2 million Soviet prisoners it seemed only a matter of time before Stalin's kingdom would come crashing down. The operation was code-named after Emperor Fredrick Barbarossa of the Holy Roman Empire, a leader of the crusades in the 12th century. The operational goal of the Nazi invasion was the rapid conquest of the European part of the Soviet Union, west of a line connecting the cities of Archangel and Astrakhan. Nazi policy aimed to destroy the Soviet Union as a political entity with the geopolitical Lebensraum idea for the benefit of future "Aryan" generations in the centuries to come. The ultimate goal of Barbarossa was the Ural mountains.
Hitler's intention was to give the German people needed Lebensraum (living space) and raw materials. It was the stated policy of the Nazis to kill, deport, or enslave the Russian and other Slavic populations, whom they considered inferior, and to repopulate the land with Germanic peoples. The policy was called the New Oder and was laid out in detail by Hitler and his henchmen. The entire urban population was to be exterminated by starvation, thus creating an agricultural surplus to feed Germany and allowing their replacement by a German upper class. Barbarossa was a race war between what Hitler thought was a vastly inferior enemy. Hitler believed that all his legions needed to do was smash in the front door and the whole rotten Soviet structure would come crashing down. Up to that point in time the Wehrmacht (German Army) was the most sophisticated army to ever roam the earth. Hitler's troops ruled over nations from the arctic circle to the equator.
But Hitler's Generals were against invading the Soviet Union. Stalin's army vastly outnumbered Hitler's Wehrmacht and the German Blitzkrieg was not suited for the vast Soviet Empire. The immense Soviet steppe, a vast grassland the extended for a thousand miles to the Ural Mountains, they feared would simply swallow up Hitler's soldiers. Including the fact that the German soldier's uniform was not equipped to handle the harsh Soviet winters they were dressed more for parade than a battle in sub-zero conditions. Man and machine would break down under such extreme conditions. Hitler and his generals would soon learn that the Soviets were the masters of winter warfare. To fill in the demographic disadvantage between the two warring armies the Germans recruited satellite armies from Italy, Romania, Bulgaria, and Finland. The use of German allies on the eastern front would prove an utter disaster. Hitler's belief that summer in 1941 that the Red Army was about to collapse had proved to be one of the most catastrophic miscalculations in history.
The End of Hitler's Thousand Year ReichClick thumbnail to view full-size
The Last Battle
Despite the constant bombing, and the very shrinking of Germany, there were still Nazis who were not willing to even consider the thought of surrender. They were the most fanatical Nazis who accepted the hardships they were undergoing as a kind of purgatory, believing the defense of the Fatherland was a test of their devotion to Hitler and his beliefs. In January 1945, time was running out on Hitler and his embattled Reich, massive Allied armies were quickly advancing on all fronts pushing his beleaguered armies to the point of near collapse. From the east, the Red Army and from the west, the Western Allies—on both sides, their soldiers were pushing fanatically toward their ultimate goal: the capture of Berlin, the beating heart of the Nazi Empire. The Soviets had assembled three mighty army groups along the Oder River, called fronts, to attack Berlin. The last miles to the gates of Berlin would still cost Soviet forces 405,000 troops, almost the same number of American soldiers who died during the entire Second World War. The cost to the Red Army for its victory in Berlin would be bought at a terrible price. They would endure more casualties than any other battle of the war, losing ten percent of their total combat strength. But regardless of the causalities Stalin and his Red Army were determined to win the race to Berlin. It would be the ultimate battle of revenge in the Second World War. The Berlin operation was something special everyone wanted to get to Berlin and end the war.
The German General Staff estimated the Red Army had 6.7 million men along a front which stretched from the Baltic to the Adriatic. This was over twice the strength of the Wehrmacht and its allies when they invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941. In the north was Marshal Rokossovsky with his 2cnd White Russian Front. In the center, near Frankfurt on the Oder, was Marshal Zhukov who commanded the 1st White Russian Front. To the south, Marshal Ivan Koniev and his 1st Ukrainian Front. Zhukov and Koniev were rivals. Stalin would play on this rivalry when the big push for Berlin began, making sure they beat Dwight D. Eisenhower's massive 4.5 million man army to Berlin which occupied most of western Germany. In the northwestern part of Germany near the Rhine River was the 21st Army Group, consisting of British, Canadian, and American forces under the command of Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery. In the center of the Western Front, American forces were going all out and their strength was enormous. With the return of Simpson's massive Ninth Army from Montgomery's Twenty-First Army Group, American general Omar Bradley had become the first general in American history to command four field armies. Besides the Ninth, his forces included the First, Third, and Fifteenth which amounted close to a million men. In five great columns, Bradley's massive force sped toward the River Elbe and Berlin. In the south, the 6th Army Group, American and French forces under General Jacob L. Devers pushed into southern Germany. The Western Allies quickly advanced to Berlin on the autobahns built before the war, some elements advanced as much as 60 miles in a day. Finding a weakness in an enemy's defenses, an American unit could slash through and hurl more brute firepower than any other force ever to walk the battlefield. One armored corps, given preferential logistic support and supplied by the air, could have blasted into Berlin in less than a fortnight. But Eisenhower had already made the decision to give the Red Army the prize of taking Berlin.
The Final Days of Nazi Germany 1945Click thumbnail to view full-size
On January 16, 1945, Adolf Hitler feebly went underground into a bunker in downtown Berlin. It had been constructed under the Reich Chancellery at the end of 1944. The bunker was a larger and deeper extension of an air-raid shelter dug in 1936. There had been a thousand plane air raid by the U.S. Eighth Air Force that morning. Now, in this bleak, pale afternoon, a cloud of dark smoke hung over the doomed city. A few of Berlin's citizens may have noticed the Fuehrer's yellow and white standard, which he had himself designed, flying above the New Reich Chancellery. It announced his return to the German capital after a brief absence.
Most Berliners were more worried about getting home, that is if they were lucky enough to still have a home in this war-ravaged city. They knew the Royal Air Force was due that evening, and if they could of have wished for anything it would be for dirty weather. Sunny days and cloudless, moonlit nights always brought out the bombers.
No curious passerby could have seen Hitler descending into the safest bunker in Berlin. He moved through an underground tunnel that led from the New Reich Chancellery into and under the garden. The Chancellery garden was a spacious interior court, discreetly shielded from public view. Few of Berlin's citizens, and only a few hundred of Hitler's closest aids, knew of the bunker. Aboveground, there was not much to see except for an emergency exit, about twenty feet high in the form of a square blockhouse, and a round pillbox-tower. The latter was unfinished; it was supposed to have been a watchtower. A part of the permanent background outside of the bunker was a large, abandoned cement mixer which during all the confusion, nobody had taken the time to move away.
Adolf Hitler made his last move into the bunker quietly, without a fuss, with the aide of a single soldier-valet, who lugged his personal belongings. The move was from his luxury apartment, in the upper reaches of the Old Reich Chancellery, into a catacomb that contained eighteen tiny rooms, fifty-five feet below ground level, twenty feet lower than that of the municipal sewage system. The buried roof of the bunker was sixteen feet thick, and the exterior walls were six feet wide.
Inside the bunker, the interior was ghostlike and bleak. All the ceilings were low and the corridors were like the narrow passages in a crypt. The rough corridor walls were a rusty brown. In places, the bare cement dripped moisture; the masons just didn't have the time to finish their plastering work. Three rooms, only slightly larger than the rest, ten by fifteen feet plus a shower and toilet, were Hitler's private quarters. Like monastic cells, they were furnished with a few sticks of furniture. The living room had a couch, a coffee table, and three chairs. Hitler's bedroom included a single bed, a night table, and a dresser. This was the supreme military headquarters of the Third Reich, the last of the thirteen command posts from which Hitler had directed the war. Command posts from which, only three short years before, Hitler the conqueror had dominated Europe and beyond, from the North Cape of Norway to the deserts of North Africa, from the Pyrenees to the Caucasus. This lifestyle was, however, not altogether anything new. Hitler had always managed to remain linked with Berlin, with his Nazi ministries by a superb communications system. On July 20, 1944, he was able to put down the officers' revolt without leaving his bunker in Rustenburg. Rustenburg was a dark pine forest more than 400 miles northeast of Berlin.
The historic moment of Hitler's descent passed unnoticed. He preferred to make his moves unannounced for good reason after escaping six assassination attempts. And the distance from his old to his new bedroom was only about 100 yards. Those who must have seen him, as he shuffled toward the tunnel leading out of the cellar of the Old Chancellery, would have just assumed that he was just making another of his inspection tours, minding the shop, Adolf Hitler was, after all the most familiar sight in their dreary lives. In the last three months of the war, there were an estimated four million military and civilian casualties in Central Europe. Every single day Hitler lived, thousands would die. In the concentration camps, from January to April 1945, 500,000 hopeless souls went to the gas chambers. Hitler's death in the afternoon, on the last day of April 1945, was only one of fifty-five million casualties in the Second World War. His war.
Adolf Hitler was still destined to live another 105 days. But he had spent his last full day above ground. According to Captain Helmut Beermann, on of his last SS honor bodyguard, who attended to him during this time, "Hitler never saw another sunrise or sunset after January 16, 1945." He worked, slept, took meals and tea, bathed, defecated, and finally married and died underground. In a world where day and night blended into a continuous glare of artificial light, the departure from reality became more evident with each passing week. The last battles of the Reich were conducted from the bunker conference room; as was the Battle for Berlin. In late January 1945, Colonel-General Gotthard Heinrici was given command of Army Group Vistula with orders to hold the Russians on the Oder and save Berlin. He would meet Hitler and his entourage in his bunker to discuss the situation with his new command. Martin Bormann would ask him what is his opinion about the Army Group Vistula situation? Soon Heinrici had the uncomfortable feeling that he was the only sane person in the room. Heinrici had the disquieting feeling that the men around Hitler had retreated into a dream world in which they had convinced themselves that by some miracle catastrophe could be averted. At the center was the paranoid, drug-transformed dream-ridden emperor, Adolf Hitler. As he moves invisible armies across meaningless situation-maps, as the melodrama played out around him.
The Fall of Berlin in 1945
The Last Stand of the National Socialist
The Devil's Cauldron
The Battle for Berlin was the last great offensive against Hitler's Third Reich, it would begin at exactly 3 A.M on Monday, April 16,1945. It would be unlike any other battle in world history, it was the ultimate battle for survival of the Second World War. At that moment, barely thirty-eight miles east of Berlin, red flares burst into the night skies above the swollen river Oder, triggering a mind numbing nine thousand piece artillery barrage which signaled the opening round of the Soviet assault on the city. Marshal Georgy Zhukov, the general who orchestrated the heroic defense at the gates of Moscow in December 1942 was given command of the 1st Belorussian Front the army group, closest to Berlin, it was a colossal force with over 6,500 armored vehicles. Vasily Chuikov's Eight Guards Army (formerly the Sixty-Second Army), which had defended Stalingrad, led the assault whose soldiers had sworn an oath to fight without thought of retreat in the coming battle.
To the south of Berlin, Marshal Ivan Koniev and his 1st Ukrainian front attacked across the Nise River at 150 jump off points on anything that could float. Within twenty minutes they had a bridgehead and advanced eight miles to the outskirts of Berlin. Zhukov's troops ran into trouble in front of the Seelow Heights, it was the main German defensive line to the approach to Berlin. It was a steep 160 foot ridge with broken ground covered with forest and crossed by rivers, every ravine was fortified with artillery and machine guns. The Germans prepared the positions well, but Zhukov used brute force to over-run the position at great cost with over 30,000 dead and losing over 130 tanks. Soon the road to Berlin was opened and shattered remnants of the Seelow Heights defense force retreated to the city of Berlin itself. It would form the backbone of the Berlin Garrison with 40,000 men and 60 tanks.
West of Berlin, elements of the U.S. Ninth Army were turning back from Berlin to take up new positions along the river Elbe. Two days earlier General Eisenhower commander of the American and British forces decided to halt the Anglo-American drive across Germany. Eisenhower would leave Berlin to the Russians even though Berlin, for some of them, was only forty-five miles away. The die had been cast and Berlin would fall to the Red Army. At the Yalta Conference in February 1945, it was decided Stalin would be given the honor of taking Berlin. The Soviet Union had endured over twenty million civilian and military deaths during the German occupation of the Soviet Union, far more than any other country during the Second World War. The war was known as the "Great Patriotic War" to those Soviet citizens and soldiers who survived the German onslaught.
On April 20,1945, soon after the defeat at Seelow Heights, Hitler would celebrate his 56th birthday, tweaking the cheeks of the boy defenders of the Third Reich in the rubble-choked garden of the Reich Chancellery. Many of the boy defenders of Berlin were made orphans by the Allied bombing of Germany. It would be the last time Adolf Hitler would be seen in public he would retreat back into his bunker for the final battle of Berlin. At 9:30 A.M. April 21,1945, Soviet artillery for the first time began to strike at the center of Berlin.
On April 25,1945, Koniev and Zhukov had succeeded in encircling Berlin and were assembling an unprecedented force to reduce resistance within the city. About 125,000 Berliners would die in the siege, a significant number by suicide. For the final stage of the assault on the center of Berlin, Koniev massed artillery at a density of 650 guns to the kilometer, literally almost wheel to wheel, and the Soviet 16th and 18th Air Armies had also been brought up to drive away the remnants of the Luftwaffe still trying to fly munitions into the perimeter, either to Tempelhof, the inner Berlin airport, or on the great avenue of the East-West Axis.
On April 26,1945, over 464,000 Red Army troops, supported by 12,700 artillery pieces, 21,000 rocket-launchers and 1,500 tanks, ringed the inner city ready to launch the final assault of the siege. The conditions for the civilians trapped inside the Soviet encirclement were unbearable. Tens of thousands had crowded into the huge concrete flak towers, impervious to high explosives, which dominated the center of Berlin, the rest, almost without exception, had taken to the cellars, where living conditions became unlivable. Food was running short, so too was water, while the relentless bombardment had destroyed the electrical, gas, and sewage services. Behind the front line troops roamed the second echelon, many were released prisoners of war with a bitter hatred against Germans of any age or sex, who vented their anger by rape, looting, and murder. The Soviets were frequently brutal occupiers. The Soviet soldier was in awe of European wealth at a time where there was little.
In the misery of 1945, the Soviet state began dismantling industries in their zone and shipping them to Soviet Union. Soviet soldiers stole watches and shipped them home to friends and family inside the Soviet Union. They were obsessed with watches, a symbol of wealth and enlightenment for peasants who had not been fully familiar with the idea of time. Many had never seen indoor plumbing and regarded the homes of ordinary citizens as opulent.
On April 27, 1945, columns of dark smoke from burning buildings and the heat of combat rose a thousand feet above Berlin, for those who witnessed the scene they described it as walking through the gates of hell, the area of the city still in German hands had been reduced to a strip some ten miles long and only three miles wide, running in an east to west direction toward American lines. Berlin was now defended by remnants of divisions, including handfuls of foreign SS units from the Charlemagne Division, as well as Degrelles' Walloons whom the chaos of the fighting had pushed into the streets near Hitler's bunker.
On April 28,1945, the last fanatics of the National Socialist revolution found themselves fighting for its government buildings in the Wihelmstrasse, the Bendlerstrasse and near the Reich Chancellery itself. During the final stages of he Battle for Berlin the Soviets advanced not only through the city's streets but also through the courtyards, basements, and buildings. Red Army soldiers managed to secure entire blocks of the innner city at a very heavy price. On April 29,1945, Adolf Hitler married Eva Braun, who had arrived in the bunker on April 15th, in a civil ceremony performed by a Berlin municipal official hastily recalled from his Volksstrum unit defending the "Citadel." Early on April 29th the fighting was less than a quarter mile from the Reich Chancellery, which was being demolished by heavy Russian shells, while fifty-five feet beneath the surface of the cratered garden Hitler was enacting the last decisions of his life. On the afternoon of April the 29th, the balloon which supported the bunker's radio transmitting aerial had been shot down disabling the telephone switchboard which was no longer able to communicate with the outside world. General Karl Weilding, the "fortress" commander of Berlin, warned Hitler that the Soviets would certainly break through to the Chancellery bunker by May 1, 1945.
Anyone who could walk was attempting to break free from Soviet soldiers and reach the American lines knowing life would be far better under American occupation. Two members of Hitler's personal staff Traudl Junge and Gerda Christian, dispite alarming adventures, managed to reach the other side of the Elbe to freedom escaping from the devils cauldron which was Berlin in the last days of April 1945. Traudl Junge would later chronicle her life as one of Adolf Hitler's personal secretaries in the movie "Downfall". On the last day of April 1945, Adolf Hitler and his wife of one day, Eva Braun committed suicide before Marshal Vassily Chuikov's soldiers, the same Red Army soldiers who defeated the Germany Army in the streets of Stalingrad, arrived to capture the bunker behind the Reichstag . Hitler's bodyguards would pour gasoline over the bodies of Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun setting them on fire, so they couldn't be recognized, afterward they buried their bodies in a shallow grave next to his bunker. It was Chuikov, now the commander of the Eighth Guards Army, who just two years earlier had commanded the Soviet defenders of Stalingrad who would be the first Senior Soviet officer to receive the German surrender of Berlin. About a week after the death of Adolf Hitler, the war in Europe ended, May 8, 1945. Over four million German soldiers died fighting for Nazi Germany during the Second World War. Most of the highest ranking Nazi officials would also commit suicide taking the easy way out to avoid prosecution for the crimes they committed during the war.
Hitler's Bunker in Berlin April 1945
The Search for Nazi's Wonder WeaponsClick thumbnail to view full-size
The Search for Hitler's Wonder Weapons
After the end of the war in Europe all the victors searched for Hitler's wonder weapons. The V-2 was one of the most important of those weapons. The Soviets and the Americans will take V-2s back to their own countries to back engineer the technology and begin their own missile programs. The United States was twenty years behind Germany in rocket development. It would be over a year before the Americans were capable of successfully launching one of the V-2s they had captured after the end of the Second World War. They needed the help of Nazi scientist who they secretly brought over to the United States after the war to bring the United States military into the age of the ballistic missile. The Allies were obsessed with the Nazi's V-Weapons. Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe reasoned , "It seemed likely that, if the Germans had succeeded in perfecting and using these weapons six months earlier than they did, the Western Allie's invasion of Normandy would have proved exceedingly difficult, perhaps impossible." Instead, circumstances worked in he Allie's favor, and by the fall of 1944, Allied forces had a firm foothold on the European continent.
The Battle of Berlin
Beevor, Antony. The Fall of Berlin 1945 . Penguin Group, Penguin Putnam Inc.,
375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014., USA 2002.
Keegan, John. The Second World War . Penguin Group, Viking Penguin., 40 West 23rd Street, New York, New York 10010., USA 1990.
Ray, John. The Illustrated History of WWII . Weidenfeld & Nicolson. The Orion Publishing Group Ltd., Orion House 5 Upper Saint Martin's Lane London WC2H 9EA 2003.
Ryan, Cornelius. The Last Battle: The Classic History of the Battle for Berlin. Simmon & Schuster ., Rockefeller Center 1230 Avenue of the Americas New York, New York, 10020 ., USA 1996.
© 2018 Mark Caruthers