Berlin offensive, April 16 - May 8, 1945.
by Vladimir KISELEV, Cand. Sc. (Military)
Sixty years ago, on April 16 - May 8, 1945, the Soviet armed forces carried out a crucial strategic offensive, the Berlin Operation, which was entered into the Guinness Book of Records as one of the most blood-letting battles of our time. The fall of Third Reich capital plus success scored by our troops on other fronts meant the shipwreck of the Hitler "Neue Ordnung"; it meant the liberation of European peoples from the Nazi yoke. World civilization was saved.
Germany was in dire straits on the eve of 1945. Her allies deserted Hitler and even turned their arms against him. Only a part of Hungarian and Italian contingents stuck to their guns in support of the Wehrmacht. The Anglo-American forces had reached the Third Reich's western frontiers and, having recovered from the German counteroffensive in the Ardennes (launched in December 1944), were poised for attack across the Rhine. The Red Army had fought its way as far west as East Prussia, and crossed into Poland and Hungary. The Fuhrer was pinning hopes on a separate peace with the West which could enable him to throw all of his forces against the Red Army in the east. That is why Nazi troops continued fighting back in northeastern France till late January in a bid to make the Western Allies agree to a truce.
The Red Army command planned to mount an all-out offensive on the Soviet-German front which by 1945 had contracted to 2.2 thousand km. This was to be accomplished in two stages. First, by smashing the enemy within 15 days in East Prussia, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Austria, and cutting as far ahead as Poznari in Poland and the Austrian capital, Vienna. Next, our supreme command aimed to capture Berlin and Prague, and then, joining hands with the British and the Americans, complete the Wehrmacht's destruction. The Anglo-American command intended to pierce En defenses on Germany's western frontier, force the Rhine and push ahead toward Berlin in the east.
Our Western Allies were highly superior to the enemy; Britain and USA had a threefold superiority in manpower, fivefold in the armor and sixfold in combat aircraft. However, their superiority in artillery was not as significant. The Red Army, too, had an edge-nearly twofold in personnel and artillery, 1.5 fold in tanks and 3.6 fold in aircraft. This difference in the lineup of forces was due to the German Wehrmacht having massed the bulk of its forces on the Eastern Front.
Preparing an all-out offensive, the General Headquarters (GHQ) of the Soviet Supreme Command planned to strike in the direction of Warsaw and Berlin. It concentrated in this sector (that made up a fifth part of the overall front in length) as much as a third of manpower, artillery and aviation, and more than half of the available tanks. The Germans failed to guess the meaning of this maneuver and still believed the target of the forthcoming Red Army offensive would be East Prussia and the southern wing of the front, where the Wehrmacht had concentrated its main forces. As a consequence, the Red Army had gained decisive superiority at the main attack front: it was superior to the En Army Group A nearly four times in personnel, seven times in artillery, six times in tanks and eight times in aircraft.
Marshal Stalin, the Soviet Supreme Commander-in-Chief, while staying in Moscow, personally supervised the offensive operations in Poland and East Prussia. To begin with, he reshuffled the high army command. Marshal Georgi Zhukov, while remaining Deputy Supreme Commander, was
put in charge of the First Byelorussian Front which was to march on Berlin. Marshal Konstantin Rokossovsky, its former commander, took charge of the Second Byelorussian Front. He was reluctant to leave his battle-seasoned comrades-in-arms with whom he had been fighting all the way from Stalingrad* to Warsaw. Marshal Ivan Konev stayed on as commander of the First Ukrainian Front, and so did Army General Ivan Chernyakhovsky, who continued in command of the Third Byelorussian Front.
Originally the Red Army was to begin its offensives in Poland and East Prussia about January 10, 1945. But the Soviet Supreme Command had to put off the D-Day because of the thick fog and heavy snowfall. However, Stalin acted on his promise to Churchill** of January 7 to complete preparations at a rapid rate and, regardless of weather, to launch large-scale offensive operations along the entire Central Front not later than the second half of January. This was welcome news to General Dwight Eisenhower, for the Germans would have to split up their forces fighting back both east and west.
Between January 12 and 15 the five Soviet fronts, three Byelorussian and two Ukrainian, mounted an offensive. They were fighting pitched battles along a vast band, more than 1,200 km long, from the Baltic in the north to the Carpathians in the south. Weatherbound, our troops had to break En defenses without air cover. Despite foul weather, our main attack forces were prompt in piercing the German defense positions.
The First Ukrainian Front did that on the second day of the offensive. On January 15 motorized units of the First Byelorussian Front gained freedom of maneuver and developed their thrust to the West, to be followed next day by the Second Byelorussian Front. But things were not as good with General Ivan Chernyakhovsky, the young commander of the Third Byelorussian Front, who had to break through organized defense in East Prussia, just where the enemy had expected the main attack. Performing a skillful maneuver, General Chernyakhovsky managed to pierce En defenses on January 16 when clear flying weather in Poland made air support possible.
Our tank formations kept pressing on the Wehrmacht, with Marshals Zhukov and Konev in hot pursuit. By the evening of January 17 the First Ukrainian Front covered 150 km and reached the immediate objective. Meanwhile the First Byelorussian Front advanced 130 km in four days and captured the Polish capital, Warsaw. Our offensive proceeded twice as fast ahead of schedule.
The enemy was taken by surprise-he had spent months and months in organizing his defenses. Hitler, who had thought but little of the possibility of a Red Army's offensive in Poland, now put the blame on troop commanders;
* See: V. Kiselev, "Routing the Enemy at Stalingrad", Science in Russia, No. 2, 2005. - Ed.
** See: Ya. Renkas, "Irreconcilable Allies", Science in Russia, No. 6, 2004. - Ed.
he dismissed a few generals and had OKH officers, responsible for the defense of Warsaw, court-martialed. The newly appointed commanders were ordered to stop the Soviet march in Poland, something utterly impossible at that stage.
On January 17 Moscow specified the objectives. The First Ukrainian Front was to reach the Oder not later than January 30 and secure bridgeheads on its western (left) bank for a strike toward Berlin 60 km away. The target for the First Byelorussian Front was Bydgoszcz (Bromberg) and Poznari in Poland to be reached by February 4. Marshal Konev's troops fulfilled the task on schedule. Heavy fighting broke out on the Oder bridgeheads. Earlier, on January 19, the armies of the left wing of the First Ukrainian Front took Cracow.
Actually this Polish city was in the sector of the Fourth Ukrainian Front under General Ivan Petrov. His troops went over to the offensive somewhat later and were not advancing as fast. Seizing the opportunity, Marshal Konev decided to capture the old Polish capital Cracow. On January 14 he engaged an army from the reserve and had it and another army pitted against this city. Stalin let Konev take Cracow, which he did. On January 19 Moscow honored the First Ukrainian Front with an artillery salute for the liberation of Cracow, just as two days before, on January 17, it had saluted Marshal Zhukov's troops for sweeping Warsaw clear of the enemy.
Pushing ahead, troops of the First Byelorussian Front under Marshal Zhukov reached the Bydgoszcz-Poznari line a week ahead of time and, swinging around this stronghold, continued their thrust toward Germany.
Zhukov was advancing faster than Konev because of their different approaches to the engagement of tank armies. Marshal Konev was all too cautious: while clearing the way for infantry divisions, his tank corps would not risk moving too far ahead, they halted and waited for the combined arms forces to pull up. Zhukov, however, opted for bolder and deeper thrusts of armored spearheads that, cutting through defense lines, pushed on and prohibited the enemy for rehabilitating his defenses elsewhere.
Be that as it may, Germany sustained a crushing defeat in Poland during the Red Army's January offensive of 1945. By destroying large forces of the enemy our troops eased the position of the Western Allies.
The Red Army was making good headway in East Prussia as well, where the Second Byelorussian Front under Gen. Rokossovsky cut through En defenses and exploited the initial success in its march northward. Its main attack force reached the Baltic Sea on January 26 and outflanked the German garrison defending Konigsberg (it fell only in April and was then renamed Kaliningrad). In the meantime the Third Byelorussian Front commanded
by Gen. Chemyakhovsky broke the enemy's resistance at the approaches to this stronghold and, driving around from the north and south in a pincer-like movement, reached the seacoast, too. Large German forces in East Prussia were thus cut from central Germany and split into three. However, troops of the left wing of the Second Byelorussian Front hugging the northern bank of the Vistula fell behind the First Byelorussian Front on March to the south, which resulted in a 100 km-wide breach.
On January 26 Marshal Zhukov, commander of the First Byelorussian Front, cabled to Moscow his plan for further action. His troops were to keep up the offensive and overrun organized defense in eastern Germany before it had been occupied by the enemy. Upon forcing the Oder, Zhukov proposed, his divisions were to take Berlin on February 15 or 16. Stalin advised him to wait for ten days or so until Rokossovsky pulled up. But Zhukov insisted on his plan by arguing that a delay would enable Germans to take up defense positions and entrench themselves there. In that case a breakthrough would take a heavy toll. Stalin acquiesced.
Assigning a task force for securing his northern flank, just where the gap was, Zhukov threw the bulk of this forces toward Berlin. By late January his advanced units approached the Oder, the last major water artery before the Reichshauptstadt only 60 to 70 km away. Forward units forced the Oder and seized small bridgeheads on its western bank. But at this point the situation changed all of a sudden: Hitler built up a new task force, Army Group Vistula, under Heinrich Himmler, SS chief. Advancing from Pomerania southwards, it was to strike at Red Army divisions on the approaches to Berlin and cut them off. Under the circumstances, Zhukov had to turn his main attack force northwards. Further march on Berlin had to be discontinued.
The Soviet onslaught in the Oder-Vistula operation of January 1945 was staggering in strength and scope. In just 23 days our divisions cut 500 km deep into enemy-occupied territory and, crossing Germany's eastern bor-
ders, came close to the enemy's lair, Berlin. Making use of organized defense positions in Poland, he sought to wear down Soviet troops and arrest their onward march. But our generals foiled these schemes by delivering deep blows and dissecting enemy groupings.
The Third Byelorussian Front was to destroy the enemy grouping in East Prussia from February 8 with the aid of the First Baltic Front under Army General Ivan Bagramyan. Gen. Chernyakhovsky was to smash German forces cut off southwest of Konigsberg, while Gen. Bagramyan was to do the same north of the stronghold. But weakened by heavy fighting, divisions of the Third Byelorussian Front just slogged on. Seeking to turn the tables, Gen. Chernyakhovsky stayed on the forward edge all the time. On February 18 he received a deadly wound from a stray shell splinted and died the same day.
On February 21 Marshal Alexander Vasilevsky took charge of the Third Byelorussian Front and of divisions of the disbanded First Baltic Front. His first order to troops was to stop frittering away forces in futile piecemeal attacks and prepare thoroughly for fresh strikes. He decided to rout the enemy on three sites in turn, one by one, by mustering adequate forces each time.
On March 13, 1945, our troops launched an offensive spearheaded against the strongest En grouping southwest of Konigsberg. It was destroyed in a fortnight of pitched battle. And on April 6 our forces began the storming of the fortress of Konigsberg. It took just four days to make the 100,000-strong garrison lay down their arms. However, the remnants of the East Prussian grouping, who have ensconced themselves on a peninsula to the north and tried to escape via the naval base and port of Pillau, surrendered only on April 25.
In February the Red Army proceeded to the destruction of Nazi troops in Pomerania, which was an essential preliminary to the offensive on Berlin. On February 10 the Second Byelorussian Front struck west. But hastily and ill-prepared that it was, and with no ascendancy over the enemy, this attack was bound to fail. In ten days of fighting our units were able to advance only 60 km westwards and came to a standstill. The commanding general, Konstantin Rokossovsky, asked Stalin to reinforce the front at least with two armies and replenish it with fresh personnel; but Stalin disagreed. On February 16 the armies of the Vistula Group deployed in Pomerania dealt a powerful blow at forces of the First
Byelorussian Front and pressed forward. Taking urgent countermeasures, Marshal Zhukov put the Germans on the defensive.
On February 24 Gen. Rokossovsky resumed the offensive and overwhelmed En defenses. On March 1 Marshal Zhukov went over to the offensive, too. On March 5 the main attack forces of both fronts reached the seacoast and cut En troops in half. Thereupon the Second Byelorussian Front turned east toward Danzig, and the First Byelorussian Front-west, to the lower reaches of the Oder. Zhukov's armies reached the Oder ten days after, and by end March Rokossovsky destroyed the enemy at the Danzig bay. On getting the order to advance toward Berlin, his troops halted for redeployment.
Late in January Ivan Konev, Commander of the First Ukrainian Front, dispatched his suggestions to Moscow concerning the further course of action: he proposed to pierce En defenses on the Oder and reach the Elbe between Feb. 25 - 28. Troops of the front's right wing were to be employed in concert with the First Byelorussian Front for capturing Berlin. Stalin endorsed Konev's plan. Accordingly, on Feb. 8 Konev moved his troops from the Oder bridgeheads, with the main attack spearheaded at Breslau. Smashing En defenses, his armies exploited the success thus gained. But they were stalled south of Breslau. Leaving one army for the blockade of the beleaguered Festung Breslau, Konev directed his forces toward the Neisse which he reached by end February. Although the German capital was but 150 km away, our troops lacked strength for further advance without support of the First Byelorussian Front engaged in the destruction of En grouping in Pomerania.
So, six weeks had passed since the onset of the Red Army's winter offensive. Our soldiers defeated the enemy again and advanced to Berlin's near approaches, forcing the enemy to divert fresh forces to Berlin, thereby helping our Western allies in going over to the offensive. Be that as it may, the plans of the Red Army and allied forces command were realized.
At the summit conference held in the Crimea on Feb. 4 - 11, 1945, our Western Allies pledged to launch an offensive on February 8: crossing the Rhine early in March, their troops would move toward Berlin. Although this offensive began according to schedule, it proceeded slowly for lack of adequate strength. Reaching the Rhine, the British and American forces overcame this wide water route only by the close of March. Bypassing the Ruhr industrial region from north and south, Gen. Eisenhower sought to surround the enemy.
Meanwhile our forces got stuck in Hungary-their offensive did not come off for a long time, with the Germans making a desperate bid for relieving their contingent encircled in Budapest and reestablishing defenses along the Danube. In January the enemy delivered three powerful counterstrikes at the Third Ukrainian Front and broke to the Danube. In stubborn defense and maneuvering to advantage, Marshal Tolbukhin's troops halted the German onslaught and threw the En striking force back to its initial attack positions.
On February 13 the Second Ukrainian Front under Gen. Malinovsky completed the destruction of the encircled enemy grouping in Budapest and captured the Hungarian capital. Conditions seemed ripe for a further offensive, but it was foiled again: Hitler sought to keep the Red Army away from the oil-rich districts of Hungary and Austria. Besides the oil, strategic matters were likewise involved, for overrunning Hungary the Red Army posed an immediate threat to Germany from the southeast. Besides, Hitler was trying hard to keep the puppet Szalasi regime in power, for its divisions still kept fighting on Germany's side. The Fuhrer drew off a tank army from the Ardennes and thus achieved a twofold superiority in tanks over the Third Ukrainian Front. On March 6 the Hitlerites dealt a strong blow near Lake Balaton, they were eager to reconstitute defenses along the Danube and release forces for Berlin's defense. Going on the defensive, our troops under Gen. Tolbukhin put up stubborn resistance. In heavy ten-day fighting German divisions could cover only 30 km. On March 15 their advance was arrested.
Moscow reinforced our troops in Hungary from the strategic reserve. On March 16 they counterstruck at the enemy who had breached our defenses and, in two days of fighting, threw him back to the initial attack positions of March 6. The bulk of the German and Hungarian forces was destroyed ten days later. Thrusting forward on a 450 km-wide front, the troops of Gen. Rodion Malinovsky and Marshal Fyodor Tolbukhin cleared Hungary, a large part of Czechoslovakia and crossed into Austria. On April 13 they took Vienna. Late in April and early in May our advancing units linked up with the Americans.
The Red Army was all set to resume its offensive on Berlin. It stood only 60 kilometers east of the Reichshauptstadt while the British and the Americans were still 300 km away. That is why on having surrounded the Germans in the Ruhr by April 1 the Allies made a beeline for Berlin. General Dwight Eisenhower, Commander-in-Chief of the Western forces in Europe, sent a personal message to Stalin on March 28 in which he disclosed his plans of striking toward Dresden where US forces were to link up with Red Army units. Stalin agreed right away: in a reply message cabled on April 1 he made it sure our armies would launch the main attack on Dresden, too, in the latter half of May.
Actually, however, the main strike was to be spearheaded at Berlin, while only two armies of the First Ukrainian Front were to proceed against Dresden.
The deadline for Operation Berlin was fixed on April 16.
On April 15 Stalin informed the US ambassador to Moscow that our troops would undertake an offensive shortly, with the main strike directed at Dresden. In August 1945, as Gen. Eisenhower was visiting Moscow, Stalin apologized for that episode. The original plan had to be changed, he said, and explained why. But Stalin concealed the real reason.
Operation Berlin was conceptualized this way. The two Byelorussian and the First Ukrainian Fronts were to pierce En defenses along the Oder-Neisse line; surround and destroy the Berlin grouping and reach the Elbe where, linking up with the Western Allies, they would finish off the enemy and bring Germany to her knees.
The offensive began according to plan on April 16. After three days of heavy fighting Zhukov's main attack force broke through the Oder defense lines and advanced as far as 30 km, but then came up against
strong defense positions. Konev's troops overcame the enemy along the Neisse and the Spree the day before, on April 18. Here the Germans had depleted their reserves, and their defenses were much weaker. Konev was 120 km away from Berlin. But seeking to reinforce the First Byelorussian Front, Stalin ordered that Konev should turn his tank armies for a strike from the south.
Receiving this long-awaited order, Marshal Konev reinforced his tank armies with artillery, aviation and motorized infantry, and ordered them to break into Berlin from the south in the small hours of April 21. However, his tankmen could approach the city only in the evening of April 22.
Zhukov, getting wind of Konev's maneuver, was eager to break into Berlin first, before Marshal Konev. In the evening of April 20 he ordered his tank armies, no matter what, to burst into Berlin before 4 o'clock in the morning of April 21, and report to Stalin immediately. However, one of his tank armies approached the northeastern suburbs of the German capital only in the evening of April 21, while another one speeding from the south was still 20 km away.
On April 22 Hitler met top chiefs of the Reich and Wehrmacht on the situation. Meanwhile the German defenses on the western front collapsed. The troops encircled in the Ruhr surrendered to the Anglo-American forces on April 17. Their commander, Field Marshal Modell, shot himself. Hitler ordered to direct all forces to relieve Berlin, for he was still hoping for a separate peace with the Western powers. Elated by the sudden death of President Roosevelt on April 12, he thought the new American president, Harry S. Truman, might change US policy.
By April 11 American divisions had come within reach of the Elbe, with Berlin being only 100 km away. General Simpson, in command of one of the armies, assured his divisions would get into Berlin before the Russians if he was supplied with enough fuel within two days. Winston Churchill was insisting exactly on that. But Dwight Eisenhower curbed his impatient general who calmed down only when the Red Army proceeded to the storming of Berlin.
The first linkup of US and Soviet forces took place on April 25 at Torgau, a small town on the Elbe south of Berlin. Thus Germany was cut in half, north and south. Torgau happened to be 20 km east of the separation line agreed upon, and
soon after, the Americans withdrew beyond the Mulde.
By April 26 the First and Second Byelorussian Fronts joined hands west and southeast of Berlin, and encircled the Reichshauptstadt.
The Second Byelorussian Front in the meantime crossed the Oder that had burst its banks and, overwhelming Hitler defenses south of Stettin, pursued the enemy southwest, toward the Baltic seacoast.
In spite of the hopeless situation, Hitler stuck to his guns. On his orders the German contingents surrounded south of Berlin started breaking westward to join the forces drawn off from the Western Front; joining up, they were to move north and relieve the besieged capital.
A blood-letting battle broke out to the south, and it went on until May 1. Trying to escape from the burning forests, the Germans were making desperate attacks, they broke through, but were surrounded again by troops of the First Ukrainian Front. But the Germans broke forth again. This tug of war went on up until the end of the Berlin Operation. The two enemy groupings were only 3 to 4 km apart. Pressing on, they strew the terrain with dead bodies and wrecked hardware. The woodland was aflame. At last 120,000 men and officers laid down their arms and surrendered. On April 30 Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel and General Alfred Jodl, responsible for the breakthrough attempt, cabled a message to Hitler that the relief plan had failed.
Meanwhile stiff fighting continued in the capital. On April 23 Marshal Zhukov urged the surrounded garrison to cease the senseless struggle and surrender. No reply came. Then the assault began. Over 2,000 aircraft showered En positions in three massed raids, followed by tank and infantry attacks. Marshal Zhukov advanced from the north and east, and Marshal Konev - from the south. Our forces were pushing ahead to the heart of Berlin, toward the Reichstag. By April 28 our troops, striking from the north and south, had squeezed the En grouping within a 3 km-wide band and split it into three.
Heading for the Reichstag, Konev's tank units burst into the rear of Zhukov's troops crashing westward. Stalin and the General Staff happened to be late with defining the demarcation line. This mess-up had to be cleared somehow. Zhukov asked Stalin: either delimit the operation areas or pull Konev's troops out of Berlin. Stalin agreed with the latter option. Konev's tank army marching on the Reichstag turned back, and his troops were ordered to advance west of Berlin.
In the evening of April 28 General Weidling, commander of the Berlin Garrison, reported to the Fuhrer that ammunition supplies were running low, and further resistance made no sense. Only one chance remained-break out of the city. Although Hitler agreed that the situation was hopeless, he declined the breakout proposal.
The Reichstag and the Reichskanzlei were now the key targets. The assault undertaken in the morning of April 30 was beaten off, and so was another one launched at midday, when our units were halted only 200m short of the Reichstag building. Only a third one was successful: in the evening our men burst into the Reichstag and several groups carrying red banners hoisted them over the building.
In the morning of May 1 war correspondents counted dozens of flags raised there. Who was the first to do that? This is still being disputed. The Third Shock Army's command ruled that those were Sgts Mikhail Yegorov and Meliton Kantariya. Both were cited for the title of Hero of the Soviet Union, but they did not get it in 1945. Misguided by false reports, the Military Council of the First Byelorussian Front did not endorse the citation. Both men were honored with this distinction only on the first anniversary of V-Day in May 1946. Other heroes who stormed the Reichstag merited this title, too.
Meanwhile the condition of the besieged Berlin garrison and civilians became desperate. In the afternoon of April 30 Adolf Hitler committed suicide, appointing in his will Gross-admiral Karl Donitz his successor as German president and commander-in-chief. In his order to troops on May 1 and radio address Donitz stressed his resolve to keep up the fight against Bolshevism to save German troops and population from destruction and enslavement. His government would continue the hostilities in the west should the Allies interfere with the struggle on the Eastern Front.
On May 2 the Berlin garrison surrendered after the heavy assault of May 1. Gen. Weidling issued the capitulation order. And by the close of May 7 the armies of the three Soviet fronts linked up with the Allies along the entire line agreed upon beforehand.
They did it without any clashes or incidents on which the new German leadership headed by Karl Donitz had been reckoning.
In the early hours of May 9 the Wehrrnacht representatives signed an Unconditional Surrender Act. A long-awaited V-Day came, hailed by the people all over the world.