75 years ago today Berlin surrendered to the Red Army at the end of World War II. The battle for the city raged from the 16th April until the 2nd May. At its end, the capital of the Third Reich, an empire that would last for a thousand years according to the boasts of its leader and prophet, Adolf Hitler, lay in utter ruin after only 12. Surviving civilians emerged from their cellars and bomb shelters into an unrecognisable landscape – a blackened, smoking ghost city crushed and scythed by the hammer and sickle. To mark this watershed anniversary we have broken down the Battle of Berlin, step-by-step, to give a concise and comprehensive overview of the climactic clash of the Second World War in Europe.
16th - 19th April: The Battle of Seelow Heights
The Battle of Berlin began with Marshal of the Soviet Union Georgy Zhukov’s 1st Belorussian Front attacking the Seelow Heights – a section of high ground overlooking the river Oder to the east, known as the ‘Gateway to Berlin’. Around 1,000,000 Soviet soldiers attempted to storm positions held by roughly 110,000 entrenched troops of the German 9th Army. The clash began at around 3am on the 16th of April when Zhukov’s ‘God of War’ – nearly 10,000 guns, heavy mortars, and katyusha rocket batteries – opened fire on German positions. The bombardment (the most intense of the entire war) made the walls of buildings in Berlin, nearly 70km away, vibrate. Bitter fighting followed. The Soviets finally broke through German defenses on the 19th April. The losses were staggering, with the Soviets losing roughly 30,000 men dead in three days, and the Germans around 12,000. As the bloodiest battle on German soil in WWII concluded, Berlin was now open for the taking.
20th April: Hitler’s Birthday
The German retreat from the river Oder, complicated by fleeing civilians, was chaotic. Soldiers looted houses on the way and took solace from the bottle where they could find it. Many awoke from their stupor as prisoners. Most of the German formations were in no condition to offer effective resistance, and by the afternoon the Soviet 3rd Shock Army had opened fire directly on Berlin's northern suburbs with their heavy artillery. Allied forces also continued to hammer the city from the skies. That same day, Adolf Hitler celebrated his 56th birthday in the half-wrecked halls of the New Reich Chancellery. Those attending could hear the bomb blasts. Amid the panic, civilians queued for their last issue of ‘crisis rations’.
21st - 23rd April: The Noose Closes
On the morning of the 21st April, Allied air forces broke off their raids over Berlin. Silence settled over the city, only to be shattered by the recommencement of vicious shelling from Zhukov’s artillery batteries. Hitler, retreating further into fantasy, ordered the SS Germanische Corps to launch a massive counterattack against Zhukov’s northern flank. Such a move was logistically impossible – the Germanische Corps having been stripped of almost all of its troops to strengthen positions elsewhere. The following day, upon hearing that the Soviets would imminently complete their encirclement of the city, Hitler declared that he would remain in Berlin and shoot himself. By the 23rd, the Soviet 8th Guards Army and the 1st Guards Tank Army were clashing with the SS Nordland division at the Tempelhof Airfield in the south, the 5th Shock Army was advancing inward from the east, the 3rd Shock Army had entered the northern suburbs, and the 47th Army were tackling Spandau’s fortress in the north-west. The Soviets had closed the noose.
24th - 26th April: Civilian Tragedy
On the 24th April, Marshal Konev, the great rival of Zhukov, attacked the Teltow Canal. His tanks were soon streaming into the city from the south. German units across the city were in disarray and the Luftwaffe was grounded. Reinforcements were flown in by the navy – landing on the Straße des 17te Juni, the east-west axis running through the Tiergarten – and some units, such as the French SS Charlemagne, managed to thread their way through Soviet lines from the east. But Berlin was now largely defended by ragged militia units, ill-trained young recruits, and even Hitler Youth boys forced into active service. The Soviets, battle hardened by the horror of the Eastern Front, tore through the city – street by street, house by house. As was the case in East Prussia, atrocity was widespread. Women were selected, abducted, and raped – often many times. Berlin’s main hospital, the Charité, estimated that there were up to 130,000 victims in the city alone, and that 10,000 died as a result of the attacks or from suicide shortly after. Further west, on the 25th April, American and Soviet troops met at Torgau on the river Elbe – Germany was now split in two.
27th April: Last Line of Defence
On the 27th April Soviet troops – the 8th Guards and the 1st Guards Tank Army – crossed the Landwehr Canal, breaking through the last line of defense before the government district. As some Soviet soldiers were using the underground train tunnels to advance, German sappers blew up the retaining walls between the train lines and the canal, flooding the tunnels. Most of those who drowned were Germans – wounded soldiers being treated in makeshift underground field hospitals. Bodies washed out of drains onto the streets. Elsewhere Hitler’s orders were now widely being disregarded by his commanders. Knowing the cause beyond lost, many Generals made efforts to save themselves and their soldiers. Troops were withdrawn westwards, toward Allied lines, and some commanders went into hiding until the end of the war. People, desperate for the end, hung white bedsheets or pillowcases out of their windows, despite the risk of being spotted by SS patrols who had been ordered to execute ‘cowards’ and ‘shirkers’ on-site.
28th and 29th April: Last Rites
Hitler suspected betrayal all around him. His suspicions were confirmed when, on the 28th April, Swedish radio announced that SS chief Heinrich Himmler had been negotiating with the Allies. Hitler, beside himself with rage, had Hermann Fegelein – Himmler’s subordinate and also husband to the sister of Hitler’s mistress – executed. Hours after the execution of his would-be brother-in-law, Hitler married Eva Braun. By the 29th, those still trapped in the Führerbunker with the rambling, disintegrating tyrant were anxiously waiting for him to commit suicide. Sounds of battle could clearly be heard just to the south. The SS Nordland and French SS were bitterly resisting Soviet troops advancing up the Wilhelmstraße – heart of the Nazi government quarter. The French SS volunteers had proved particularly adept at stalking Soviet T34 tanks and knocking them out with Panzerfausts – one-shot anti-tank bazookas. Further north, the Soviet 3rd Shock Army, under heavy fire from the Flak tower at the Zoo station, crossed the river Spree from Moabit to seize the Ministry of the Interior.
30th April Part I: Hitler’s Suicide
At dawn the 3rd Shock Army began amassing on the Königsplatz, ready to begin their assault on the Reichstag. The Soviets opened fire with their short-range artillery to ‘soften the building up’. The barrage lasted for hours. Inside the Führerbunker, Hitler, having learned of Mussolini’s death, made preparations for his suicide – testing an ampoule of cyanide on his dog Blondie, a German Shepherd. At around 3pm the Führer said his final farewells to his entourage, and retired to his office with Eva Hitler. At around 3.15pm, Hitler’s SS adjutant entered the office to find both the Führer and his bride dead. Hitler had shot himself, whilst Eva Hitler had taken cyanide – a gift from her husband. The bodies were wrapped in grey army blankets, taken above ground, placed in a shell crater, covered in petrol and – as per Hitler’s instructions – set alight. As decreed by Hitler upon his death, Joseph Goebbels became the new Reich chancellor and Karl Dönitz, head of the German navy, became Reich president in Hitler’s place. Less than a kilometre away, Soviet troops began storming the Reichstag.
30th April Part II: Storming the Reichstag
Stalin had designated the Reichstag building as the symbol of the capture of Berlin. The soldier who hoisted the Soviet flag above it was promised the order of Hero of the Soviet Union. The date was important: the flag would be hoisted in time for the May Day celebrations in Moscow – a symbolic day where Soviet socialism would triumph over German fascism. At 6pm, three regiments of the 150th Rifle Division were sent in to take the building. The Germans had bricked up all the windows, forcing the attackers to enter via the front portal into the main hall. The German defenders – a force of around 1,000 SS, Hitler Youth and sailors – fired down from the balconies above, turning the hall into a killing field. Suffering massive casualties (over 2,000 men dead in a matter of hours) the Soviets pushed beyond the main hall and began making their way up through the ruined building to the roof. Brutal room to room fighting ensued. At around 11pm Berlin time, just in time for May Day, the flag was successfully raised. The hammer and sickle of the Soviet Union now fluttered over the ruins of the Reich capital.
1st May Part I: ‘A Hurricane of Fire’
Acting as an emissary of new Reich chancellor Joseph Goebbels, General Hans Krebs – Chief of the Army General Staff – was sent to negotiate a truce with Marshal Zhukov. The Soviet commander sent his chief of staff General Vasily Sokolovsky to meet with Krebs. When Zhukov had phoned Stalin earlier that morning to inform him of Hitler’s death, the Soviet premier impressed upon his general that there would be no negotiation. Only unconditional surrender would be accepted. Krebs argued that only Dönitz’s new government could offer such terms. Sokolovksy responded that if Goebbels and Martin Bormann did not offer unconditional surrender by 10.15AM then Berlin would be blasted into ruins. No answer came, and the Soviets unleashed a ‘hurricane of fire’ on the city centre. To the south-west the remnants of the German Ninth Army, along with several thousand civilians who had escaped with them, emerged near Beelitz – around 45km from Berlin’s city centre. Weak and exhausted, they gathered all available vehicles and made for the river Elbe to escape Soviet imprisonment.
1st May Part II: Massacre on the Weidendammer Bridge
Goebbels still refused to countenance unconditional surrender. He would follow the example set for him by his Führer. That evening, in the bunker beneath the Reichschancellery, his wife Magda murdered their six children with poison. Once the children were dead, Joseph and Magda emerged into the gardens of the chancellery and crunched down on cyanide vials together. One of Goebbels’ aides then fired a bullet into each of them to make sure they were dead, covered them in petrol and set them on fire. With Goebbels dead, those left in the bunker not resorting to suicide – including Martin Bormann – joined up with troops from the SS Nordland in a desperate attempt to smash through Soviet lines with one Tiger tank and several armoured vehicles at the Weidendammer Bridge, just north of Friedrichstraße station. The Red Army had expected a breakout in the sector and had reinforced the position. Most of the would-be escapees were killed. Bormann, wearing civilian clothes to disguise himself, supposedly became separated and blundered into a detachment of Soviet soldiers. He too poisoned himself with cyanide.
2nd May: The End
Calm descended on the blackened ruin of Berlin on the 2nd May 1945, interrupted only by odd gunshots or brief bursts of machine gun fire – SS soldiers committing suicide or Soviet soldiers getting to them before they could. In the Reichschancellery, General Krebs and Hitler’s chief adjutant General Wilhelm Burgdorf drank a large amount of brandy and shot themselves. Soviet troops from the 5th Shock Army occupied the building and hung a red banner from it. The hammer and sickle now loomed over both the Reichstag and Hitler’s office. The war in Berlin was over. The battle for the German capital had cost the Soviets dearly. The Red Army suffered around 350,000 casualties in roughly two weeks – nearly a third of whom were killed. Stalin remained obsessed with Hitler, and was desperate for details about his death. He sent a SMERSH (the Soviet counter-intelligence and counter-terrorism organ) detachment to investigate the Führerbunker. The bodies of Joseph and Magda Goebbels were removed for forensic examination. Hitler’s remains were eventually found on the 5th May, buried in a shell crater. They too were removed under the greatest secrecy. Not even Marshal Zhukov was permitted to know of their discovery.
Sources and Acknowledgements:
Beevor, Anthony (2003) Berlin: The Downfall 1945
Beevor, Anthony (2012) The Second World War
Kershaw, Ian (2011) The End