April 16, 2011

Battle of Berlin: Hell on Earth

The Battle of Berlin was one of the most ferocious, bloodiest battles in history. It marked the final major offensive of World War II which lasted from April 16, 1945 to May 2, 1945, Soviet troops advanced towards the German stronghold from the east. south and north annihilating everything in their path. More than 2.5 million Soviet troops, 6,250 tanks, 7,500 aircraft, 41,600 artillery pieces pounded German defensive positions into oblivion. On the German defensive were 1 million troops, 1,500 tanks, 3,300 aircraft, and 10,400 pieces of artillery. By the end of the fighting the Soviets had killed over 458,080 German soldiers and taken another 479,298 as prisoners. By comparison, the Soviets lost 81,116 KIA, or MIA, and 280,251 WIA. Soviet materiel losses amounted to 3,300 tanks, 2,108 artillery pieces and 917 aircraft.

The Soviet Offensive consisted of four fronts; Rokossovsky's 2nd Belorussian Front, which would position itself on the northern flank, and thereby protect Zhukov's 1st Belorussian Front, which was to spearhead the attack on Berlin itself, in conjunction with Konev's 1st Ukrainian Front located just to the south. The 4th Ukrainian Front led by Yeremenko would attack and maintain a constant barrage against German troops in the southern zone.

German defenses were assembled from the German Army Groups Vistula which consisted of the 3rd Panzer and 9th Armies in the north, and Army Group Centre consisting of the 4th Panzer and 12th Armies in the south. Within Berlin itself were about forty Volkssturm Battalions, the 1st 'Berlin' Flak Division, a few engineer Battalions and 'Police' Battalions.

Berlins' defences were structured along a series of concentric rings emanating from the city core, the outermost of which was located approximately 25 miles from the city centre which served as a basic defence line in the east. The Germans benefited from the natural defences between the Dahme and Alte Oder Rivers which covered a distance of approximately 50 miles.

The Germans set up another defensive line barricaded by obstacles and heavily reinforced by German defensive positions at every major road juncture to the north and south of the city. Yet another defensive ring was created following the outer city boundary for a distance of approximately 60 miles, and included fallback positions to the Havel and Wuhle Rivers, in the west and east respectively, as well as the Hohenzollern Canal to the north, and the Teltow Canal to the south. Throughout the length of this belt was a single fire trench also heavily reinforced and barricaded. Likewise the eastern and southern perimeter were protected by a continuous anti-tank ditch. The inner defensive ring was established along the S-Bahn circuit extending for about 30 miles, and winding through steep embankments, affording a natural defensive line. At every road crossing were anti-tank weapons dug in and heavily barricaded. Each of the eight defensive zone had its own commander, whose sectors were identified alphabetically, that is A to H in clockwise fashion.

The most formidable German defense was on the Citadelle, the island-center of Berlin (formed by the Spree River and Landwehr Canal). Its central focus was a veritable fortress which extended along the East and West around Alexander Platz and ErenstReuter Platz. Every side street was barricaded and all the basements and upper floors of each building were heavily fortified. Within the Citadelle were three towers located at Friedrichshain, Humboldthain and the Zoo, each having elevated platforms for the anti-aircraft Batteries. Each tower had the capacity to contain 8 gun Batteries of 128mm each, and were completely bomb and shell proof.

Zoo Flak Tower
German troops planned the demolition of all 483 bridges within Berlin in order to slow the Russian advance however the plan was undertaken only in stages to allow themselves some degree of maneuverability.

Battle of Berlin (The Lost Evidence) (Part 2 of 5) (00:09:39m)

On April 20th, the 1st Belorussian Front's 1st Guards Tank Army advanced to the forward defence line clashing head on with the 56th Panzer Corps, the latter of which was desperately struggling to keep contact with the 9th Germany Army positioned on its southern flank. Meanwhile the 65th Germany Army was able to secure a bridgehead to the south of Kurzow, while the 2nd Belorussian Front began its crossing of the Oder. Hitler had made the decision to remain in Berlin that day to see to the Operations personally, contrary to the advice of this staff.

In the morning of April 21st, the Soviets began shelling Berlin, launched from Batteries of the 3rd Shock and 47th Armies positioned in eastern suburb of Bernau. Up until then the allied bombers had conducted sorties over Berlin but now Berlin's air space became the sole domain of the Red Air Force.

While bombing continued relentlessly over the city, the Soviet 2nd Guards Tank Army crossed the autobahn ring headed towards the northeastern part of the city; the 3rd Shock Army reached the suburb of Weissensee and the 5th Shock Army headed for Hohenschönhausen. In the meantime, the 56th Panzer Corps had retreated to the Köpenick-Marzahn area and as a result lost lines of communication with the 9th Army to its southeast. By the evening of the 21st of April, the encirclement of Berlin was complete. Elements of the 3rd Guards Tank Army reached Königs Wusterhausen situated in the southeast district of the city, and there rendezvoused with units of the 8th Guards Army. The next day, the German 9th Army was given the go-ahead to withdraw from the Frankfurt-an-der-Oder area to a bridgehead at Füsrtenwald which enabled it to establish a stronger defense, owing to the shortening of its defensive line.

On April 23rd, Hitler ordered the commander of the 12th Army, Wenck, to leave its positions behind the Elbe. Despite the order, Wenck considered that his primary task was to assist any other German forces which were bidding a hasty retreat westwards.

During the same day, the 1st Belorussian Front force were crossing the Havel River. Meanwhile on the northern flank the 1st Polish Army was attacking Oranienburg, while the 61st Army crossed the Oder-Havel Canal at Friedrichsthal and the 47th Army crossed the Havel at Hennigsdorf and then veered southwards enveloping the western perimeter of the city.

By the end of the day, the 47th Army's 125th Rifle Corps had commenced its attack on Spandau, while the 175th Rifle Division engaged the enemy on the airfield at Gatow. In the eastern vicinity of the city, the 29th Guards Rifle Corps succeeded in capturing a rail bridge (intact) across the Spree River at Adlershof and thus were able to secure a small bridgehead on the western bank.

By April 24th Wenck's 12th Army commenced relief operations in the southwestern district of the city. Meanwhile Konev's 1st Ukrainian Front had to confront the Teltow Canal, which contained numerous obstacles running all along the southern side of the city. Approaches to the canal, despite the width, were very heavily mined. Germany had blown up all the bridges along the canal and solidified defensive positions on its far side. The width of the canal made it possible for the Germans to heavily mine the approaches.

Despite what seemed insurmountable obstacles, General Pavel Rybalko, Commander of the 3rd Guards Tank Army cracked the Teltow Canal line. The day before his unit transported about 3,000 artillery pieces, mortars and Katyusha rocket launchers, positioning them all along a narrow front. At precisely 06:20 hours the Soviet barrage commenced firing and assault teams crossed the canal in collapsible boats. German resistance was fierce, as reinforcements of the 20th Panzergrenadier Division were added. In the midst of heavy fire in the early afternoon the Soviets were able to construct a pontoon bridge across the canal making it possible for Russian troops to cross. Rapid advancements were made also by the 8th Guards and 1st Guards Tank Army breaking through the outer obstacle belt of the city perimeter defence lines thus reaching the southern districts of Dahlwitz and Rahnsdorf. At this point they ran straight into units of Konev's 3rd Guards Tank Army. Zhukov became aware for the first time that 1st Ukrainian Fronts had also advanced into Berlin.

Before the day was out, General Helmuth Weidling was appointed as overall commander in charge of the Berlin defence zone. At the same time, armoured columns of the 2nd Belorussian Front were winding their way around the city to the north, while the 1st Ukrainian Front were advancing along the west side of city to meet them. By noon on the 25th of April, tanks from Zhukov's and Konev's units met having completed the encirclement of Berlin.  And with the meeting of  American and Russian troops at Torgau, on the Elbe - Germany was cut in half.

L-R:  2nd Lt. Wm. Robertson (US Army), and Lt. Alexander Sylvashko (Red Army)

Meanwhile elements of the 3rd Shock Army had crossed the Hohenzollern Canal at Wedding and Plötzensee to the north of the city and succeeded in establishing a series of bridgeheads. The 12th Guards and 79th Rifle Corps met with fierce fighting from the 9th Parachute Division which was positioned in the industrial area north of Invalidenstrasse near Stettiner station. To the south - the 8th Guards and 1st Guards Tank Army's attacked the Tempelhof airport, heavily defended by units of the Münchberg Panzer Division and a Luftwaffe Flak unit. By nightfall, the 3rd Panzer Army was forced to withdraw from its positions in the west of the city along the Uecker River. The Hitlerjugend Volkssturm force which had been defending Spandau found themselves surrounded but managed to escape through the Russian positions and cross over to the western bank of the Havel by the Charlotten Bridge.

By April 26 bridge demolitions were underway while citizens of the northern and eastern districts were evacuated from the area. At first light, the 12th Army's 20th Corps opened fire on Rathenow, northwest of the city near Potsdam, catching the 6th Guards Mechanized Corps off guard and thus making significant headway towards Brandenburg.

Russian tanks at Brandenburg Gate
By noon, defence of Templehof airport to the south of the city collapsed. Units of the 8th Guards Army then continued on their advance towards the Landwehr Canal as splinters of the Münchberg Panzer Division began retreating from Templehof towards the Anhalter railway station.

The next day, the airport at Gatow also fell. Meanwhile the 12th Guards Tank Corps reached the northern bank of the Spree River near the Tiergarten and there were halted by remnants of the 9th Parachute Division dug into positions around the Stettiner railway station reinforced by firepower of the Humboldthain flak tower. Slowly but surely, German defences in the centre of the city were being squeezed into a small area just south of the Spree River. A few German troops that had been bypassed by the Soviet advance still managed to put up a fierce resistance, though their units were small and scattered. German units at the Lowen Brewery managed to hold out to the very end.

Battle of Berlin (The Lost Evidence) (Part 3 of 5) (00:09:51m)

Once inside Berlin, Russian fighting strategy shifting to street fighting tactics. It was based on the strategy that each street would be taken by an entire Regiment: battalions would make advancements along each side of the street, while a third Battalion was held in reserve. Rather than advance directly, the Soviet Battalions tunneled their way through the buildings employing demolitions at various levels to create passageways. Meanwhile Soviet artillery winded their way through the backyards and alleys.  In the event that the Soviets met with strong resistance from the Germans, the Soviets would mobilize their artillery and demolish the entire building to the ground.

Soviet tanks in Berlin

Russian Bombers over Berlin

Finally on the afternoon of April 28th, the 2nd Guards Tank Army's 79th Rifle Corps reached the northern end of the Moltke Bridge and crossing the Spree they caught their first glimpse of the Reichstag Building.

By evening elements of the 9th Army consisting of 11th, SS Panzer 5th SS Mountain, 5th Corps and 21st Panzer Division broke through the Soviet line in a desperate attempt to reach Wenck's 12th Army in the western vicinity. As the Germans retreated they destroyed all unessential pieces of equipment. They proceeded towards the bridges over the Dahme River, near Prieros and made the crossing together with thousands of refugees.

Throughout the night the 21st Rifle Corps positioned near Teurow succeeded in breaking through the Russian line after fierce fighting. Units of the 1st Guards Artillery Division, and the 11th SS Panzer and 5th Corps also made it through under heavy constant fire. Meanwhile, The 10th Guards Tank Corps from its position near the Teltow Canal launched an attack on the southeastern tip of Wannsee Island, and soon after were able to establish a bridgehead. They lay a pontoon bridge and proceeded to transport weapons and armour.

But by noon on April 29th the breach was sealed trapping the 5th SS Mountain Corps and units of the 21st Panzer Division. Also during the night of the 28th, the 10th Guards Tank Corps launched an attack across the Teltow Canal at the southeastern tip of Wannsee Island. It soon established a small bridgehead, contained by remnants of the 20th Panzergrenadier Division. A pontoon bridge was assembled across the canal in order to send support weapons.

On the stroke of midnight the 79th Rifle Corps launched their attack across the Moltke Bridge however their initial assault came under heavy fire. The unit soon after resumed their attack with the addition of several heavy tanks and attempted to break through the heavy barricade set up at the southern end of the bridge but again came under heavy fire from anti-tank guns, as well as a few tanks from the 11th SS Panzer Battalion and guns of the Zoo Flak tower. They succeeded in getting across during the third attack, and set up a bridgehead in the Diplomatic Quarter.

View of Reichstag from Moltkestrasse
By dawn the 29th numerous forces had already crossed the bridge, expanding the bridgehead and making significant advances into Moltkestrasse and Kronprinzenufer. Meanwhile, Wenck's 12th Army was stalled south of Potsdam, while the 219th Tank Bridge captured the Jungfernheide railway station, enabling the 1st Mechanized Corps of the 2nd Guards Tank Army to cross the Spree over the locks in close proximity to the station. The 89th Guards Rifle Division of the 5th Army made extensive advances reaching Alexanderplatze, while the 266th Rifle Division was locked in heavy combat with units of the 11th SS Nordland Panzergrenadier Division in the Rotes Rathause.

By the morning of the 30th April, Russian forces had expanded the bridgehead on the southern side of the Moltke Bridge while the 150th Rifle Division captured the Ministry of the Interior and the 171st Rifle Division had made headway into the western part of the Diplomatic Quarter.

Soviet soldiers march into Berlin May 1945

Battle of Berlin (The Lost Evidence) (Part 4 of 5) (00:09:42m)

Meanwhile Soviet units had infiltrated the eastern sector of Berlin - the 5th Shock Army's 94th Guards Rifle Division captured the Charité Hospital-the 266th Guards Rifle Division had crossed the Spree and captured Museum Island and the Dom Cathedral - units of the 32nd Rifle Corps launched an attack across the Spree  while the 60th Guards and 416th Rifle Division's captured Schloss Berlin, the old Royal Palace and the 295th Rifle Division captured the Reichsbank.

At 15:00 that day, Hitler had committed suicide and by 17:00 hours the German Command began to contact Russian Command in order to negotiate a surrender. However fighting still continued elsewhere - the 207th Rifle Division positioned in the area of the Reichstag had cleared the Kroll Opera House during the morning and attacks continued until almost midday. While the initial attack was repulsed by the Germans it was followed by a second massive barrage in the afternoon accompanied by tanks. But that too was met with fierce resistance from the Zoo flak tower. The remnants of the 9th Army succeeded in its breakout and using radio guidance linked with the 12th Army south of Beelitz.

By evening the Soviets had fought desperately to reach the environs of the Reichstag through the heaviest of German defenses, and suffered very heavy casualties. Some units however managed to break through and enter the building where ferocious hand to hand fighting ensued and continued throughout the stairwells at each level leading to the top.

Soviet soldiers of the 150th Rifle Division's Red Banner No.5 found their way to the rear of the building and took the stairwell to the roof. At about 23:00 hours they hoisted their banner at the pinnacle of the Reichstag, just before the much anticipated May Day festivities in Moscow.

May the 1st saw a significant reduction in fighting as Soviet troops assembled to celebrate May Day, including at Charlottenburg, where the 1st Polish Infantry Division had just recently been deployed. That morning the German garrison stationed at Spandau surrendered though fighting inside the Reichstag building continued through the day, as well as in the area of Zoo flak tower and the residential area of the Tiergarten.

Polish Howitzer Brigades in Berlin April-May 1945

The 29th Guards Rifle Corps attacked the area of the Zoo effectively cutting them off from the remainder of the Citadelle defence zone. By evening of the 1st, General Weidling in the company of all remaining commanders of the zone agreed to surrender to the Russians as soon as possible. The 56th Panzer Corps broadcast their surrender by radio, and it was received by the 79th Guards Rifle Division at 22:40 hours. The German envoy was received at the Bendlerstrasse Bridge in the early hours of the morning and taken to the HQ of the 47th Guards Rifle Division. The envoy was instructed that the offer would be accepted and all German troops were to begin their surrender at 07:00 hours on May 2nd. All fighting had to end by 13:00 the same day.

German Surrender
On the morning of May 2nd, the 5th Shock Army's area the Reichs Chancellery was attacked by elements of the 9th Rifle Corps and captured. Konev's 1st Ukranian Front began to withdraw from the city and move south to participate in the liberation of Czechoslovakia.

From the very outset the enormity of the combined Russian forces left no doubt as to the outcome of the war. The Soviets held an overwhelming advantage and superiority in both numbers and materiel. The victor was evident before the battle ever came to a close however Hitler and his henchmen were incapable of grasping this reality and chose to continue fighting causing undue heavy losses and misery upon German forces and civilians in Berlin.

The Russian Armies were resolute in their objective to inflict complete and bitter defeat upon Germany, That after having endured four years of bitter warfare, the Russians could not settle for anything but a complete and unconditional German surrender.

Battle of Berlin (The Lost Evidence) (Part 5 of 5) (00:05:48m)

German resistance however was remarkable during the last days of fighting. Despite their dwindling resources and in the face of overwhelming odds, they dutifully fought to the death.

To the Russians befell the glory of vanquishing a powerful and mighty enemy. The greatest heroes were the 62nd Soviet Army, henceforth called the 8th Guards Army, under the command of Chuikov, which led the charge into the Reichstag. Six hundred officers and men were bestowed the title "Hero of the Soviet Union" for their actions in Berlin.

  Soviet Soldiers
In 1944 the Polish People's Army was created from the remnants of soldiers left in the USSR (after the creation of the 2nd Polish Corps) and  under the command of the communist-ruled People's Republic of Poland.

Units of the 1st Polish Army crossed the Hohenzollern Canal to advance on Kremmen, Flatow, Paaren and Nauen and completed their mission by fighting in the Battle of Berlin. Polish units of the 1st Infantry Division supported by the 2nd Brigade of Howitzer Artillery and the 1st Independent Mortar Brigade fought in Berlin in the vicinity of the Technical University as well as the south western area of Tiergarten near the Zoo. Polish soldiers suffered very high casualties. Approximately 180,000 soldiers from the 1st and 2nd Polish Army took part in the attack in central Berlin.

 The Polish 1st Tadeusz Kościuszko Division was the only other Soviet military unit to have raised its national flag over Berlin. 

Polish soldiers of the 7th battery of the 3rd division of the 1st Regiment of the Kosciuszko Light Artillery hoisted the Polish flag atop the Prussian victory column Siegessaule in Tiergarten Park on May 2nd, 1945 at 06:00 hours. A second flag was afixed below the railing by the 3rd Division of the 8th Battery by order of the 1st Lt. P. Potapski. A third flag was raised by five Polish soldiers of the 1st infantry division, 2nd Ltn. M. Trocki, Lance Corporal K. Otap, Corporal A. Dabłoński and Gunners A. Karpowicz and E. Mierzejewski. After the German surrender, Brandenburg Gate and Siegesaule were festooned with red and white banners after which Soviet soldiers hoisted their red flags next to the Polish ones.

According to Lance Corporal Kazimierz Otap, as the Polish soldiers were attaching their flags, Soviet soliders tried to arrest them and almost shot them on the spot! Luckily, news of the German surrender was received within moments, at which point the Polish soldiers were set free.

(It is noteworthy to mention that the victory over Berlin and the Nazi regime was a very important part of Soviet propaganda; Stalin allowed the Poles to participate only because of heavy losses suffered by Koniev's and Zukov's fronts.  Polish participation in the battle, according to Stalin, was proof positive of the "brotherhood" between Soviets and Poles, a slogan that the Soviets used in the effort to strengthen the new Polish communist regime.)

The Battle of Berlin marked the end of conflict on the eastern front. Although the Allies won the war, victory came at an enormous cost - the catastrophic loss of human lives and the virtual swath of destruction throughout the greater part of the world. And then, with bated breath, the world watched as eastern European states including Poland, became engulfed behind the Iron Curtain - its people subjected to decades of brutal repression, arrests, and murder at the hands of the Soviet government.
But their fate had already been sealed by the Big Three at the Yalta Conference.

Polish Soldiers in Berlin May 1945


  1. I'm looking for a credible source such as an an academic history book that states the Polish flag flew over the Brandenburg Gate at the Battle of Berlin. Please advise.

  2. Thank you for your interest. Please excuse my frankness but I must say that academic history books are not my primary source for information. They are notorious for large-scale omissions of important facts about the Polish contributions to the allied war effort during WWII. May I suggest that instead, you contact Polish veterans associations, or visit your local Polish library. Best Regards

  3. The most documented is affair with Polish flags in Siegeshaule http://www.berlin-1945.com/2010/05/02/polish-flag-in-berlin/. You can find there a names units, initial number of flags and Soviet reaction. During last days of Berlin siege Poles were more active, because Russians tried to avoid being killed in last day of war. Also Soviets were more interested in looting and other things. Poles fought to the last German soldier killed/captured. Also in Polish Army was introduced in March 1945 very strict code about German civilians. Communication (radio operators) soldiers were ordered to have a flag in combat, so we can expect they were in many places first and hoisted a flag. In my opinion it is almost sure that Polish flag was hoisted on Brandenburg gate, but not for long time.

    You find more in my website: http://www.berlin-1945.com

  4. Polish soldiers march into Berlin May 1945 picture above
    There is Russian soldier and German prisoners of war. I can't see polish soldiers?

    1. Thank you for alerting me. I rechecked my photos, and I have indeed named the photo file "Soviets March in Berlin". But the caption on the blog is a typo. Has been corrected. Regards.