David Porter analyses the balance of forces in the Third Reich's final battle in Part One of this series on the Battle of Berlin.
During the second week of April 1945, a massive Soviet force was assembled in the small bridgehead on the west bank of the Oder near Küstrin. Zhukov’s 1st Belorussian Front was preparing to attack the Seelow Heights, the last natural line of defence before Berlin.
The 1st Belorussian Front had 908,000 men, 3,155 AFVs, 16,934 guns, and had stockpiled over 7 million rounds of artillery ammunition. On its northern flank, Rokossovsky’s 2nd Belorussian Front was to attack to the north of Berlin, while Koniev’s 1st Ukrainian Front covered its southern flank.
At the beginning of April, Stalin had played on the intense rivalry between Zhukov and Koniev, authorising whoever first broke through the German defences to take Berlin.
The combined strength of the three Fronts stood at 2,500,000 men, 6,250 AFVs, 7,500 aircraft, 41,600 guns and mortars, 3,255 Katyusha salvo rocket-launchers, and 95,383 motor vehicles.
Despite its enormous numerical superiority, the Red Army was suffering acute manpower problems – casualties in the offensives since mid-1943 had been horrendous, possibly totalling more than 4 million dead.
In the absence of a cadre of professional senior NCOs, it relied heavily on sketchily trained junior officers to carry out routine training and disciplinary duties. In the infantry, these young officers had an average life expectancy of a few weeks.
This, in turn, worsened the situation for units that were receiving new conscripts, some of whom arrived with only a week’s very basic military training. ‘Many have proved unstable in action, and indeed cowardly,’ reported the 1st Ukrainian Front on 7 April.
There have been cases of self-inflicted wounds. One rifle battalion containing 75% replacements broke and ran. Its officers shot five men on the spot to restore order.
No matter how severe frontline manpower shortages became, Stalin never considered drawing on the estimated 250,000 NKVD troops guarding the prison camps of the Gulag, containing over 10 million prisoners scattered across the Soviet Union.
As the war went on, an increasing number of these prisoners were Soviet servicemen who had been captured by German forces in 1941/1942 and subsequently ‘liberated’ by the Red Army – only to be convicted under Stalin’s Order 270, which ruled that ‘there are no Soviet prisoners of war, only traitors’.
In the final months of the war, the Soviet reputation for savagery cost them dearly. In the West, many German troops were only too ready to surrender to British or American forces. All but the most fanatical Nazis knew that, if they picked the right moment to surrender, they would probably survive and be treated in accordance with the Geneva Convention.
An army of murderers and rapists?
In contrast, Germans on the Eastern Front had no illusions about their far lower chances of having their surrender accepted, and, even if it was, surviving captivity. Lieutenant Pavel Nikiforov, a Soviet reconnaissance officer, noted that: ‘Many Germans seemed to feel that they were going to die anyway, so they might as well die fighting’.
This attitude was strengthened by the fact that, ever since entering Germany, Soviet troops had committed endless atrocities against civilians, urged on by an official campaign of revenge put out by the Soviet press and radio.
This was belatedly recognised as counter-productive, and an Order of 20 April called for
a change of attitude towards prisoners and civilians. We should treat Germans better. Bad treatment of Germans makes them fight more stubbornly and refuse to surrender. This is an unfavourable situation for us.
Such efforts were far too late to alter the mindset of millions of ill-trained and poorly disciplined conscripts. A female Soviet war correspondent described how ‘Russian soldiers were raping every German female from eight to 80. It was an army of rapists.’
It seems likely that Red Army personnel were responsible for raping at least 1.4 million German women.
Zhukov’s forces were spearheaded by over 3,000 AFVs, supported by almost 7,500 guns, 7,000 mortars, and 1,500 Katyusha rocket-launchers.
They were opposed by General Gotthard Heinrici’s Army Group Vistula. Its 9th Army, which would bear the brunt of the assault on the Seelow Heights, fielded 14 under-strength divisions, 512 AFVs, 344 guns, and 300-400 AA guns.
Further south, the front was held by 4th Panzer Army, which faced Koniev’s 1st Ukrainian Front.
Although heavily outnumbered, Heinrici had done much to reduce the odds against him. Correctly anticipating that the main Soviet attacks would be made on the Seelow Heights along the line of the main east–west autobahn, he had thinned out other sectors of the front to reinforce the area.
The Heights themselves were well fortified, forming part of three defence lines up to 25km deep. The Oder floodplain, already saturated by the spring thaw, was turned into a swamp by water released from a reservoir upstream, and minefields were laid to protect key points.
At 05.00 on 16 April, the offensive began with a massive bombardment by the thousands of guns and Katyushas of the 1st Belorussian Front before the main assault went in.
Almost immediately, things started to go wrong for the Soviets – the debris and smoke from the massive bombardment meant that the glare of the 140-plus searchlights, intended to blind the Germans, was reflected and blinded the attackers, as well as turning them into easy targets, silhouetted against the light.
Worse still, the bombardment had largely been wasted on empty defences – a Soviet prisoner had revealed the timing of the attack, and Heinrici had pulled his forces back to the second defence line. Taking advantage of the slow and confused Soviet advance, the Germans then reoccupied their forward defences and brought down a murderous fire on the attackers.
By the next day, the 1st Belorussian Front had advanced no more than 8km, and was still bogged down in the German defences. An enraged Zhukov committed the 3,000 AFVs of his two tank armies to the attack, but the huge number of vehicles deployed on a narrow front caused a massive traffic jam, providing more targets for the German artillery.
It was not just a passive defence – sharp German counter-attacks often inflicted heavy losses. One of the most effective was launched on the morning of 18 April near Diedersdorf.
As the leading Soviet tanks emerged from the village, creeping nose to tail along the highway, they were met by a storm of fire from the German second defence line, the Stein-Stellung, followed up by the Müncheberg Panzer Division with Luftwaffe support.
The situation was only stabilised when the 8th Guards Army hastily committed its reserve formation (39th Guards Rifle Division), but the Germans inflicted severe casualties before they were finally driven back. The Luftwaffe alone claimed to have destroyed 43 Soviet tanks, plus another 19 ‘possibles’, and 59 Soviet aircraft.
In contrast to the bloody confusion at the Seelow Heights, Koniev’s attack, launched at almost the same time, made excellent progress. By 17 April, the 1st Ukrainian Front’s forward units had broken through the main German defences and crossed the River Spree.
Koniev seized the opportunity and obtained Stalin’s permission to make for Berlin. With the 3rd Tank Army and 4th Guards Tank Army in the lead, his forces charged along the autobahn towards the city.
With Koniev ruthlessly driving them on, the 3rd Guards Tank Army succeeded in covering 37 miles on 20 April, taking Baruth during the afternoon and almost reaching Zossen before disaster struck. The leading brigade of the 6th Guards Tank Corps ran out of fuel and was then destroyed piecemeal by infantry anti-tank teams with Panzerfausts.
On 21 April, Soviet forces captured the huge bunker complex at Zossen, which had housed the HQ of Oberkommando des Heeres (OKH), responsible for directing all German operations on the Eastern Front.
On 19 April, Zhukov’s forces had finally broken through the last defences on the Seelow Heights and were also on their way to Berlin. The cost had been appalling – over 700 Soviet AFVs had been destroyed in the battle for the Heights, and the Red Army had sustained at least 30,000 casualties (three times the German total).
Berlin: orders of battle
The defenders of Berlin were a very mixed bag, ranging from hard-bitten veterans of the regular army and Waffen-SS to hastily raised, virtually untrained Volkssturm militia, totalling possibly 60,000 men and 50-60 AFVs, supported by police and Hitler Youth units.
Detachments defending key points within the city were equally mixed – the 300 French volunteers of SS Sturmbataillon Charlemagne, with 100 Hitler Youth, and a three-man machine-gun team from the Reich Labour Service, for example, held the Halensee Bridge against all attacks for 48 hours.
A high proportion of the SS were foreigners, such as the tough Nordland Division, with many Danes, Swedes, and Norwegians in its ranks. There was even a tiny number of British and Commonwealth renegades from the 50-strong British Free Corps.
All these foreign groups fought with a fanaticism that appalled their opponents, simply because they had nothing to lose – escape was virtually impossible, they were hardly likely to survive surrender to the Red Army, and even the remote possibility of a successful breakout to the West carried the very real risk of a treason trial and execution.
In contrast, many of the locally conscripted Volkssturm units would have been only too happy to give up and go home, but most were kept at their posts by fear of the SS ‘flying courts martial’, which summarily executed deserters and anyone suspected of spreading defeatism.
The Soviet forces assembling for the attack on the city comprised five armies and four tank armies – 464,000 men, 12,700 guns and mortars, at least 2,000 Katyushas, and 1,500 AFVs. On 26 April, they completed the encirclement of Berlin.
The city first came under artillery bombardment on 20 April, and attacks on the suburbs began on 24 April. The initial attack was made by the 1st Guards Tank Army under cover of a barrage from 3,000 guns and heavy mortars – 650 guns per kilometre of front!
General Nikolai Bersarin, commanding the 5th Shock Army, later claimed that
the Western Allies had dropped 65,000 tons of explosives on the city in the course of more than two years; whereas the Red Army had expended 40,000 tons in merely two weeks.
It was later calculated that for every inhabitant of Berlin, there were nearly 30 cubic metres of rubble. Soviet units learned to their cost just how difficult it was to dislodge determined defenders from ruined buildings and rubble-choked streets – ironically, just as the Germans had discovered at Stalingrad over two years earlier.
The Soviet attack
Stalin had finally decided that both fronts should combine to assault the city, but that Zhukov would have the honour of taking the Reichstag, which Soviet propaganda portrayed as the symbol of Hitler’s Reich.
Between 24 and 28 April, the Soviets slowly ground their way through the Berlin suburbs against fierce resistance – the 3rd Shock Army took three days to advance 3km.
All Soviet units took heavy casualties, largely due to poor coordination between tanks, infantry, and artillery. General Chuikov’s 8th Guards Army initially sent unsupported columns of tanks straight down main streets – Panzerfausts and anti-tank guns trapped these columns by knocking out the lead and rear vehicles, before infantry anti-tank teams moved in to destroy the remaining AFVs. As Chuikov ruefully remarked, ‘A battle within a city is a battle of firepower.’
Units quickly developed special assault teams comprising an infantry platoon or company, a tank platoon, a section of self-propelled guns, a section of Katyushas, and a detachment of assault engineers. The assault drills almost invariably involved artillery and Katyushas smothering the objective with smoke and close-range direct fire before the infantry attacked.
A Soviet war correspondent described how the gunners ‘sometimes fired 1,000 shells on to one small square, a group of houses, or even a tiny garden’.
As the Red Army reached the city centre, it found out that the larger government buildings had been turned into improvised but formidable fortresses. Dealing with these demanded exceptional measures – at one stage, 500 Soviet guns were firing from a 1km section of the Unter den Linden.
The battle for the city centre
Increased resistance was encountered as the Soviets advanced towards the city centre, pushing the Germans into a smaller perimeter that could be more easily defended.
This prompted the adoption of a rather more standardised set of assault tactics, based on the principle that each street should be tackled by a complete regiment, with one battalion working down either side of the street and the third, in reserve, bringing up the rear.
The frontage for a regiment (perhaps no more than 900-strong by this stage of the war) was thus as little as 200 to 250 yards, while that of higher formations varied according to the terrain. Individual units were each assigned immediate objectives, follow-up objectives, and an axis for further advance.
As movement in the open brought down a hail of fire from defenders dug in among the ruined buildings, the troops quickly learned not to advance along the streets themselves but instead to ‘mouse hole’ their way through walls from one building to the next, while the supporting artillery pushed its way through backyards and alleys with engineer assistance.
Light 76mm infantry guns and dismantled Katyusha rocket-launchers were manhandled to the upper floors and rooftops to support attacks against defended buildings, and were used with great flexibility.
In attacking a heavily defended building, the assault group would usually split into two teams, one part concentrating on quickly bottling up the enemy in the cellars, where they would normally have taken shelter during the preliminary bombardment, and the other clearing the upper storeys.
Despite their use of massive firepower, Soviet losses continued to rise – at least 108 tanks were destroyed in the city centre by weapons ranging from 128mm AA guns on the city’s flak towers to the ubiquitous Panzerfaust.
On 29 April, Hitler awarded one of the last Knight’s Crosses of the war to Unterscharführer Eugène Vaulot, a French volunteer serving with SS Sturmbataillon Charlemagne, for destroying six Soviet tanks in one day with Panzerfausts.
Immobilised German tanks were dug into the rubble to cover key points such as bridges and major road junctions. They proved to be difficult targets and accounted for a significant number of Soviet AFV losses.
Both sides flew air-support missions whenever possible, although German efforts were always dependent on scraping up enough fuel – until the last improvised airstrips were overrun, small numbers of the Luftwaffe’s Ju 52 transports flew in supplies and reinforcements at night.
Even in the last days of the fighting, a handful of Fw 190 fighter-bombers of Schlachtgeschwader 1 attacked Soviet tank units in the city centre with Panzerblitz rockets and cluster bombs.
The Red Air Force effort was on a far larger scale, but the thick pall of smoke hanging over the city meant that the number of ‘friendly fire’ incidents threatened to get out of hand.
Air Marshal Novikov was forced to establish two control centres for ground- attack operations. All air units and individual aircraft operating over Berlin had to keep in touch with these centres and could only attack targets with their permission. Once over the city, aircraft were directed to their targets by radio, light, and rocket signals from observers stationed on the rooftops.
By the time the last German units surrendered on 2 May, after Hitler’s suicide and the capture of the battered shell of the Reichstag, the losses on both sides had been horrendous.
As always, infantry casualties were the heaviest. Between 19 and 30 April, one Soviet infantry company was reduced from 104 men to just 20 exhausted survivors. Red Army casualties totalled over 352,000, including more than 78,000 dead. In addition, the First and Second Polish Armies lost almost 9,000 men.
The best estimate of Soviet AFV losses is 2,000 vehicles, while the two air armies supporting the offensive lost 527 aircraft – the majority to intense AA fire. These figures would almost certainly have been markedly greater if two of the three main German ammunition dumps had not been overrun before most of their stocks could be saved.
The tally given by the Soviets for the three fronts claims 480,000 prisoners, 1,500 tanks and self-propelled guns, 8,600 guns and mortars, and 4,500 aircraft taken.
Their own casualties they gave as 304,887 killed, wounded, and missing between 16 April and 8 May 1945, together with the loss of 2,165 tanks and self-propelled guns, 1,220 guns and mortars, and 527 aircraft. The Red Air Force claimed to have destroyed 1,132 German aircraft in combat, plus another 100 destroyed on the ground, and to have knocked out some 400 tanks and self-propelled guns.
All images: WIPL, unless otherwise stated.