The Battle of Berlin: aircraft and infantry

David Porter analyses the balance of forces in the Third Reich’s final battle.


The Battle of Berlin has few historic parallels. It was 1945, and the Germans had lost the war by the winter of 1942/1943 – if not already by the winter of 1941/1942.

Certainly, once Hitler’s summer/autumn offensive of 1942 had been defeated at Stalingrad, the history of the Second World War in Europe, on all fronts, was essentially one of dogged defence, step-by-step retreat, and slow contraction of the Nazi empire.

The reason was simple enough: the overwhelming industrial superiority of the Allied alliance that had been conjured into being by Hitler’s aggression.

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A propaganda image depicting Soviet soldiers raising the Red Flag on the Reichstag. It has since become one of the most recognisable images of the taking of Berlin. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

It seems likely that the Soviet Union could eventually have defeated Nazi Germany on its own. Certainly, the US commitment was relatively modest until the campaign in north-west Europe during the last year of the war. The number of German divisions deployed in North Africa and then Italy pales in comparison with the number on the Eastern Front in 1943. What weakened the Nazis further was their bestial behaviour in the countries they occupied. The Resistance was a major factor in the military equation, pinning down German troops and undermining the Third Reich’s mobilisation of resources.

The traditional German elites – political, corporate, and military – knew the war was lost long before the end. In 1918, their forebears had negotiated an armistice and accepted a victor’s peace, in order to save Germany both from invasion, conquest, and possible dismemberment, and to prevent socialist revolution.

This was the rational course after 1942. But the process of Gleichschaltung – ‘streamlining’ or ‘coordination’ – since 1933 had created a Nazi-dominated state backed by a ferocious police terror that had effectively disempowered those traditional elites. They were unable to act.

Instead, Hitler dragged the whole of Germany into the abyss of his own defeat. The Battle of Berlin was an act of military madness by a deranged regime. It arose from the dictator’s absolute power and his equally absolute refusal to contemplate negotiation and surrender.

In our special this time, David Porter analyses this extraordinary battle. In his first article, he details the massive imbalance in force, but lays stress on notable German advantages in equipment, experience, and tactics. In his second, he describes the battle itself, both on the Seelow Heights and in the streets of city, drawing out the key features of this apocalyptic last stand of the Third Reich.

‘Quantity has a quality all its own’

Josef Stalin

By 1945, both German and Soviet forces had been transformed under the pressures of total war.

In 1939, the German infantry went to war with beautifully made, expensively produced machine-guns and bolt-action rifles, supported by a small range of anti-tank weapons, infantry guns, and mortars.

By 1945, it fought with increasing numbers of assault rifles, Panzerschrecks and Panzer-fausts, and was field-testing shoulder-fired AA rockets. The thinly armoured light and medium Panzers of 1939 had evolved into a vast range of powerfully armed AFVs, whose potential could never be fully exploited due to ever-worsening fuel shortages.

The Luftwaffe, which had always been primarily a tactical air force, was also re-equipping with some of the world’s most-advanced aircraft, but was just as badly crippled by the fuel crisis caused by Allied bombing of synthetic fuel plants and the Soviet conquest of the Romanian oilfields.

The Red Army’s ambitious modernisation programme of the 1930s had been crippled by Stalin’s purges, which had led to the rise of incompetent, but politically ‘safe’ senior officers such as Marshal Grigory Kulik, who was appointed Head of the Main Artillery Directorate, with responsibility for weapons-systems research and development in 1937.

His near-total ignorance of weapons technology and his tendency to condemn military innovations as ‘bourgeois sabotage’ contributed to Soviet humiliation in the Winter War against Finland and the catastrophic defeats during Barbarossa in 1941/1942.

ABOVE Soviet tank crews parade in Moscow after the victory. Sheer numbers of men and machines were the decisive factor.
Soviet tank crews parade in Moscow after the victory. Sheer numbers of men and machines were the decisive factor.

It was only after his dismal battlefield performance led to his swift dismissal and demotion in 1941 that the situation began to improve. By 1945, Soviet infantry were armed with basic but robust and effective weapons, the only real weakness being a lack of modern infantry anti-tank equipment.

Limited range, mass production

Stalin’s ruthless concentration of resources on a limited range of AFVs had produced the highly effective T-34 and Josef Stalin tanks, but this left a huge shortfall in support vehicles, and Soviet tank armies were heavily reliant on Western-supplied Lend Lease trucks and fuel tankers for their strategic mobility.

The pre-war Red Air Force had been subjected to considerable interference from Stalin. His interest had the malign effect of ensuring that all reports on it were wildly optimistic, making accurate assessments almost impossible.

It seems likely, however, that the Soviets had at least 10,000 front-line aircraft at the time of the German invasion, of which roughly half were serviceable. The bulk of these were lost in the opening stages of Operation Barbarossa, when the Luftwaffe established complete air supremacy.

Although the Luftwaffe never lost its qualitative and technological advantage – and continued to run up an impressive tally of victories – as the war went on, it became a wasting asset, unable to win the war of attrition to which it had been committed.

In contrast, the Red Air Force could absorb its tremendous losses, thanks to high rates of production of proven aircraft types, backed up by large-scale Lend Lease deliveries. By 1945, it had an estimated total strength of 58,300 aircraft. In comparison, the Luftwaffe had roughly 3,000 machines – and most of these were non-operational due to crippling fuel shortages.

Infantry weapons

Both sides’ platoon-level tactics were based on their light machine-guns, protected by riflemen and submachine-gunners. In this respect, the German infantry had a clear advantage over their Soviet counterparts, as their MG42 machine-guns had a far higher rate of fire than the Soviet DP.

ABOVE Member of the Volkssturm (Home Guard) armed with a Panzerschreck, the late-war German bazooka. RIGHT One of the most-famous pictures from the Battle of Berlin two Volkssturm recruits, young and old, await the Soviets in a trench armed with Panzerfausts, the short-range, single-use, anti-tank rocket.
Member of the Volkssturm (Home Guard) armed with a Panzerschreck, the late-war German bazooka.

Even at the end of the war, the Red Army’s infantry-assault tactics remained clumsy, with little attempt at emulating Western fire-and-movement drills. This gave the German defenders a further advantage, allowing them to inflict massive casualties – though they were always massively outnumbered and were frequently swamped by sheer weight of numbers.

In 1944/1945, the Germans were beginning to introduce a new generation of infantry weapons to compensate for Soviet numerical superiority.

The selective-fire Sturmgewehr 44 assault rifle offered far greater firepower than the former mix of bolt-action rifles and submachine-guns.

The Luftfaust shoulder-fired AA rocket-launcher seemed to be a potential answer to the swarms of Allied fighter-bombers. But although 10,000 launchers and 4 million rockets were ordered, it seems that no more than 80 launchers were issued for combat trials. (A photograph of the Hotel Adlon, in central Berlin, shows at least three discarded Luftfausts lying in the rubble.)

In the close-quarter fighting typical of the Battle of Berlin, the Panzerfaust and Panzershreck proved invaluable, and captured examples were eagerly used by the Soviets, who were still reliant on the PTRD anti-tank rifle and hand-thrown hollow-charge grenades as their standard infantry anti-tank weapons.

At a time when US forces were receiving large numbers of bazookas, the Red Army was reliant on grenades and anti-tank rifles, and, surprisingly, failed to adopt a shoulder-fired anti-tank rocket launcher until the RPG-2 entered service in 1949. Ironically, 8,500 Lend Lease bazookas were sent to the Soviet Union in 1942, where a number were captured and subsequently used by the Germans in the development of their Panzerschreck system.


Although badly outnumbered, the German artillery inflicted heavy losses on Zhukov’s forces attacking the Seelow Heights. It remained efficient until the last days of the fighting, when it was crippled by a dire shortage of ammunition combined with the near-impossibility of moving its guns as the perimeter shrank and came under ever- intensifying bombardment from the vast numbers of Soviet guns and rockets.

In terms of conventional artillery, there was little to choose between the equipment of the two sides. But the Soviets had a marked edge in their heavy mortars and Katyusha salvo rocket-launchers.

One of the most-famous pictures from the Battle of Berlin two Volkssturm recruits, young and old, await the Soviets in a trench armed with Panzerfausts, the short-range, single-use, anti-tank rocket.

By this stage of the war, they routinely deployed 120mm and 160mm mortars, together with 81mm, 132mm, and 300mm rockets. The 120mm mortar so impressed the Germans that captured examples were taken into service, and they subsequently produced a near-copy as the 12cm Granatwerfer 42.

The intensity of Soviet bombardments in key sectors was enhanced by the concentration of much of their firepower in Breakthrough Artillery Divisions, each of which fielded: 48 × 76mm guns, 84 × 122mm howitzers, 32 × 152mm howitzers, 24 × 203mm howitzers, 108 × 120mm mortars, 32 × 160mm mortars, and 36 × 12-rail 310mm truck-mounted Katyushas.


The newer German AFVs of 1945 were highly sophisticated machines, but arguably over-engineered – they were certainly prone to breakdowns and difficult to maintain.

Maintenance was not helped by a perennial shortage of spares, partly due to Allied bombing, but also to Hitler’s obsession with increasing AFV production at all costs, while refusing to give sufficient priority to the manufacture of spares.

He ignored Guderian’s repeated pleas that an adequate supply of spares would increase combat strength far more quickly than building new AFVs, largely because this would require a 20% reduction in the output of new tanks and assault guns.

Despite these shortcomings, newer German tanks – such the Panther and Tiger II, with their well-designed armour and powerful armament – were formidable opponents, even for the latest Soviet AFVs.

LEFT Soviet soldiers pose in front of a captured King Tiger in April 1945.
Soviet soldiers pose in front of a captured King Tiger in April 1945.

Perhaps 50-60 operational Panzers were available for the defence of the city itself. Some of these were obsolete, with little combat value, but the total included about 12 Tiger IIs of s.SS.Pz.Abt. 503, which inflicted heavy losses on Soviet AFVs before the last was destroyed in a breakout attempt on 3 May.

In the midst of the disasters of 1941, when the Germans destroyed or captured 24,500 of the 29,000 Soviet AFVs in service, Stalin’s evacuation of Soviet war industries to the Urals came just in time to save the Red Army’s armoured force from complete annihilation.

The subsequent concentration of resources on the T-34, KV, and later Josef Stalin tanks allowed Soviet industry to out-produce the Germans to the extent that the Soviets could absorb the massive losses of AFVs which they sustained right up to the end of the war. The Red Army lost an estimated 8,700 tanks in 1945.

Fortifications and field defences

Although Hitler was prone to designating key towns and cities as Festungen (‘fortresses’), the grandiose title was seldom justified – in most cases, their only fortifications were hastily constructed field defences such as trenches and anti-tank ditches.

Nonetheless, well-sited trenches, weapons pits, minefields, and barricaded buildings could be highly effective – the three belts of field defences on the Seelow Heights allowed the heavily outnumbered and out-gunned defenders to inflict heavy casualties on the Red Army.

Although much wasted effort was put into the construction of poorly positioned barricades within Berlin itself, the ruins and rubble left by Allied bombing formed a host of ready-made defensive positions that were hard to spot.

The city’s most imposing fortifications were three huge ferro-concrete flak towers, each with four twin 128mm and 12 quadruple 20mm AA guns. These had wide fields of fire against ground targets and the 128mm was deadly in the anti-tank role, while the 20mm were highly effective anti-personnel weapons. The walls of the towers were 2.5m thick and proved invulnerable even to direct fire from Soviet 203mm howitzers.

Air support

By April 1945, the Luftwaffe was crippled by fuel shortages and the constant loss of aircraft, not only in air combat but also on the ground, due to Allied bombing and strafing.

Replacement aircraft were still being produced until factories and bases were overrun in the last weeks of the war, including exceptionally advanced types such as Me262 jet fighters and Ar234 jet bombers, a few of which flew sorties in support of the defenders of Berlin.

Most operational aircraft were older types, such as the Fw190, which had entered service as a fighter in 1941 and was so successful that it was constantly updated and modified. Variants were produced as bomber destroyers, ground-attack aircraft, and night fighters. By 1945, ground-attack versions were beginning to be equipped with the deadly Panzerblitz anti-tank rockets.

RIGHT Ilyushin Il-2M3 Shturmovik armoured ground-attack aircraft. Some 36,000 of these had been manufactured by 1945; one in three were shot down by German flak or fighters. Soviet doctrine stressed mass assault to overwhelm the enemy by numbers and firepower, which meant Soviet casualties were disproportionately high.
Ilyushin Il-2M3 Shturmovik armoured ground-attack aircraft. Some 36,000 of these had been manufactured by 1945; one in three were shot down by German flak or fighters. Soviet doctrine stressed mass assault to overwhelm the enemy by numbers and firepower, which meant Soviet casualties were disproportionately high.

One of the most unusual types was one used in conjunction with the Mistel (Mistletoe) composite attack aircraft, which was based on a Ju88, but the entire crew compartment was replaced by a 3,500kg hollow-charge (HEAT) warhead. The Ju88 was controlled from an Fw190 mounted on a set of struts above the bomber’s centre section.

After take-off, the fighter would draw fuel from the bomber to top up its tanks for the return flight, and, on sighting the target, the pilot aimed the composite using his standard gunsight. He then fired explosive bolts to release the bomber, which flew on to the target.

The majority of the 80 or so serviceable Mistels were expended in attacks on the Soviet pontoon bridges over the Oder – although several hits were scored, these caused relatively little damage. (Mistels only had HEAT warheads designed for use against ‘hard’ targets such as battleships or power stations. Attacks against bridges really required HE warheads with good blast/fragmentation effects.)

While worsening fuel shortages severely restricted aircrew training, eroding the overall skills advantage that the Germans had enjoyed in 1941/1942, the surviving veterans had accumulated immense combat experience and ran up phenomenally high scores.

One of the most remarkable was Oberst Hans-Ulrich Rudel, who was presented with the specially created Knight’s Cross with Golden Oak Leaves, Swords, and Diamonds after winning every other German gallantry award. Amazingly, he survived the war, having flown 2,530 bombing and ground-attack missions on the Eastern Front, the majority in the obsolescent Junkers Ju87B/D dive-bomber and the Ju87G ‘tank buster’.

He shot down 51 Soviet aircraft and was credited with the destruction of 519 tanks, severely damaging the battleship Marat, as well as sinking the cruiser Petropavlovsk, the Leningrad-class destroyer Minsk, and 70 landing craft.

Major Erich Hartmann also survived the war, as the highest-scoring fighter pilot of all time, with 352 confirmed victories, all but two of which were on the Eastern Front.

Soviet air support was very much a matter of quantity rather than quality. Although newer Soviet aircraft such as the Lavochkin La7 fighter and the Tupolev Tu2 light bomber were comparable to their Luftwaffe counterparts, aircrew training was sketchy throughout the war, and the Red Air Force lost roughly 11,000 aircraft in 1945, of which no fewer than 6,900 were due to accidents.

Priority was given to close support for the Red Army, with 36,000 Ilyushin Il-2M3 Shturmovik armoured ground-attack aircraft being produced between 1941 and 1945. Their losses to German flak and fighters were unsurprisingly high, totalling at least 10,700 by 1945.

David Porter worked at the Ministry of Defence for 30 years, and is the author of nine Second World War books, as well as numerous magazine articles.
All images: WIPL.

In Part Two, David Porter explores the last stand of Hitler’s Third Reich in the Battle of Berlin.