In the war's final days, the Soviets were determined to take the last natural barrier east of Berlin.
By Colin D. Heaton
By 1945 the Eastern Front was on Germany's back porch. Soviet forces entered East Prussia in January of that year, throwing Adolf Hitler into a tirade. When German General Heinz Guderian, inspector of armored troops, requested that Hitler authorize the withdrawal of the 300,000-man force from the Kurland region, Hitler refused, condemning those soldiers to death. They would disappear in the marshland and the fog of war.
Another pivotal point on the Eastern Front at this time was the German defense of Breslau, which the Soviets badly wanted to take. The Soviet Sixth Army was stalled at the Silesian capital, and Marshal Ivan Konev needed the Sixth for the final drive on Berlin. There was still one major obstacle to the Soviet advance--the rolling plains and plateaus of an area known as the Seelow Heights, only 35 miles from the German capital.
Not since 1210, when the Order of Teutonic Knights had forced the Poles out of Prussia and crossed the Vistula River, had an enemy approached the Prussian frontier from the east. These lands were held by families that dated back to the baronies instituted during the 13th century, and the Soviets would find them heavily defended. The groundwork laid by Frederick I, "Barbarossa," and the Hohenstaufens in 1190 was still tangible, even in the age of National Socialist Germany. But things were about to change.
The Soviets drove a wedge into Prussia, but their losses were heavy. Six Soviet infantry and two tank divisions were wiped out after a series of assaults on Vitebsk, Orsha, Allenstein and Königsberg. After January 1945 the Soviets made great gains until they outran their supply lines. Then the Red Army halted, allowing the Germans time to prepare a defense on the approach to Berlin.
The man chiefly responsible for the German forward units was General Hasso Baron von Manteuffel, who commanded the Third Panzer Army. Manteuffel had been forced back to positions that extended 95 miles from Stettin to the junction of the Hohenzollern Canal and the Oder River. A tough Eastern Front veteran, Manteuffel had just been awarded the diamonds to his Knight's Cross in January, the 25th man to be so honored. The 5-foot-2-inch aristocrat was now placed in a precarious strategic situation. If he faltered in his defense, Berlin lay wide open.
Below Manteuffel on his right was the intelligent 47-year-old General Theodore Busse, commanding the German Ninth Army. He was to prevent the Soviet pincer movement that Marshal Konev was expected to execute. The hammer was to strike the anvil during the first week of April.
Konev ordered his armor to attack on a broad front, converging into a spearhead and then swinging around the left flank of the German defenders. On April 8, after several smaller encounters, the Soviet armor proved inadequate, even with infantry support. German defenders from a mixed bag of units were armed with stockpiles of Panzerfaust anti-tank weapons. They also had many tank destroyers, rocket launchers and carefully prepared minefields. Most important of all, they had nothing to lose.
By the end of the first day of the assault, the Soviets were learning just how expensive the Seelow Heights were going to be. Soviet losses added up to 75 tanks, 2,250 killed, 3,400 wounded and 12 Ilyushin Il-2 Shturmovik fighter-bombers lost. German losses included two Tiger I heavy tanks, four Hanomag halftracks, three Messerschmitt Me-109 fighters, seven Junkers Ju-87 Stuka dive bombers and approximately 300 killed, with a like number wounded. Konev knew he had to do something. The Kremlin wanted results, and Josef Stalin personally threatened retaliation if the attack continued to falter. Marshal Georgi Zhukov himself, Konev's adjacent Red Army commander, was also on standby for the push to Berlin.
April 9 saw another massive effort by the Red Army. The first wave of T-34 medium tanks, numbering about 50, was utterly destroyed by rockets, Stukas, mines and Panzerfausts. The second wave attacked at 1150 hours, following the same route as its predecessor, hoping to take advantage of the cleared paths through the German minefield. Soviet fighters managed to keep the Stukas at bay, but nothing could overwhelm the German troops, who were equipped with anti-tank rockets. The second Soviet wave suffered a fate similar to that of the first, leaving 34 smoking wrecks and several hundred dead littering the open plains.
Manteuffel knew that he could not hold out much longer. He had no replacements and no additional armor. He placed heavy emphasis on his anti-tank gunners, armed with a few 88mm and several 75mm PAK 40 artillery pieces. He had even conscripted a local anti-aircraft battery. Luftwaffe air support would be crucial, but the fighter squadrons of Jagdgeschwader 54 and 52 were outnumbered 20-to-1. Their airfields had already been overrun. Stukageschwader 2, the so-called Immelman wing, was spread out over the entire area. Nevertheless, its planes accounted for 149 Russian tanks.
One of the most hotly contested areas was defended by SS Major Rudolf Falkenhahn, whose company of 130 men had been reduced to 58 by April 9. They had knocked out nine tanks on the 8th and 11 on the 9th. The morning of April 10 would test the best of them.
Just to Falkenhahn's right was Major Hannes Gottlieb, with a ragtag mixture of soldiers manning the PAK 40 anti-tank guns. They were having a field day until the attack on the morning of the 10th. They had 12 guns and were down to 18 rounds per fieldpiece. Small arms were limited as well, and the infantrymen were eagerly anticipating an airdrop with a resupply. Food had been unavailable since April 4, and the desperate need for water was reason enough to kill the enemy. Men often raced across the smoke-shrouded ground to strip corpses of canteens and ammunition.
Konev ordered another assault against the weakened left flank. His observers had noticed gaps in the German defenses after the last great tank assault, and Konev planned to move into those gaps and split the defenders in two. All he waited for was dawn.
Manteuffel knew there were gaps in the line, and during the night of the 9th he ordered them filled--not with soldiers but with 88mm guns, which were rolled into place and concealed. The right flank was protected by only a dozen 75mm guns, with the front wide open. All the gunners had to do, however, was turn their guns slightly and the open gap to the front would be covered by interlocking anti-tank fire. The Germans also planted new mines, in many cases unearthing the old ones that remained intact and creating a new minefield in front of the new positions.
Manteuffel had another piece of luck on his side. The 5th SS Division Wiking, supplemented by the 28th SS Division Wallonien and a loose confederation of stragglers, showed up, bringing several captured Soviet field guns and two T-34s. And yet another surprise awaited Konev: Manteuffel had secured heavy artillery from the 11th SS Panzergrenadier Division Nordland and the 23rd SS Division Nederland. All four divisions combined numbered less than one division at full strength, however, due to heavy combat losses.
As the morning of April 10, 1945, dawned, the German troops--tired, hungry and unable to sleep--were stirred by the distant sound of engines. Soon the sound of an even more terrible weapon broke the stillness. Konev had brought up the artillery.
The first 10 minutes of the ensuing barrage tore up the new minefield and knocked out two of the 88mms and five of the 75mms. One of the captured T-34s was destroyed, and dozens of men were screaming in pain from shrapnel wounds. The medics were stretched too thin to be effective, and wounded gunners could only wait in their improvised dugouts. Men were lifted into the air by the Soviet 152mm rounds, each of which was potentially lethal within 150 meters and left a crater a meter deep. Major Gottlieb lost half his men during the heavy barrage, which lasted nearly 30 minutes. Falkenhahn and his men fared better; they ran forward and began closing with the enemy tanks, which were advancing under the carpet of death.
The SS men destroyed more than a dozen T-34s and a JS-1 heavy tank, then crawled under them for protection. At about 0645 the barrage was lifted, and the bulk of the Soviet armor raced forward to take advantage of the confusion. They ran right into a German artillery barrage, called in as soon as the Soviet artillery stopped. Soviet tanks and infantry were shredded by the creeping fire. Konev saw 30 percent of his unit's total strength die on the vine in front of his eyes.
The Soviets, however, did gain one advantage: The Germans were forced to pull back even farther. Several German volunteers stayed behind in shallow depressions, armed with Panzerfausts. Those men would fire into the advancing Soviets, sacrificing themselves for their compatriots. The wounded were the most likely to volunteer since they were in no shape to go anywhere, and there was no place for them to retreat to anyway.
The Soviets attacked again at 0915. Konev had told his subordinate commanders that should any of them survive the next assault without driving the Germans from the heights, they would be shot for cowardice. Battalion commanders led from the rear with their guns pointed at the backs of their men. German machine-gunners had a field day. The Soviets would have suffered even more casualties had the Germans not been running out of ammunition. Since sunrise, another 400 Germans had died at their forward positions. Behind them lay another 60 disabled Soviet tanks and nearly 2,000 dead and wounded Soviet troops.
Falkenhahn and his men accounted for 13 tanks. Gottlieb could boast 18, three of them destroyed by the major single-handedly. German troops too badly mauled to survive were shot so that they would not fall into Soviet hands.
Manteuffel knew that without reinforcements and armor support, his defense would collapse regardless of how many Soviets his men killed. Air support was welcomed yet ineffective. The artillery was sorely needed, yet it, too, proved to be too little, too late. The small arms ammunition was gone, and the anti-tank guns were down to their last rounds. Could it get any worse?
Konev was wondering the same thing at that juncture. He had suffered a total of 4,000 killed, with nearly 300 tanks destroyed, and he had advanced only two kilometers in three days. He decided that it was time to commit his reserves, two tank divisions and three infantry regiments. The Soviet commander ordered his artillery to fire smoke shells to conceal the advance, and at 1050 the order was given to move forward.
Manteuffel instructed the individual commanders to use their own initiative. Falkenhahn and his newly reinforced company (now numbering close to 90 men) were resupplied by trucks carrying magnetic mines and Panzerfausts. Small-arms ammunition was still on the way, along with shells for the anti-tank guns. Although he was only 23, Falkenhahn had served previously with the Fallschirmjäger (paratroops) at Fort Eban Emael, Norway and Crete before transferring to the army and later the SS. He had three years of Eastern Front experience, and the Knights Cross with Oak Leaves and Swords testified to his fighting skill.
Falkenhahn ordered his men to engage the enemy tanks with rockets, while another group used the smoke as concealment to run close to the tanks and hurl mines at them. Loud cheers rose from the ranks as the Germans captured Soviet armor. Although many of the tanks would not roll, the Germans operated their main guns, firing on the advancing Soviets. The tanks that could still be driven were taken back to the German positions and used as supplemental anti-tank pieces.
Gottlieb and his survivors faced a more serious dilemma. Soviet tanks had scaled the shallow banks of the hillside, and although 20 were burning within mere feet of his positions, Gottlieb ordered a pullback. There were too many Soviets for a standing fight. Gottlieb and his men retreated to the secondary defense line, commanded by Major Heinz Wilker.
Wilker was a veteran of Stalingrad and had witnessed Soviet attacks like this before. He personally held out against 14 human-wave attacks. The fighting was very similar to that at Stalingrad, with the Soviets seemingly unconcerned by their heavy losses. Wilker commanded a battalion of Hitler Youth and Volkssturm, augmented by Gottlieb's soldiers and newly arrived paratroops. The Soviet tanks halted when they entered the minefield and began to reverse their course. Wilker's boy soldiers attacked the remainder with Panzerfausts and Molotov cocktails. Still, the German defense buckled. Konev's weight of numbers--rather than any grand strategy--was winning the day.
Falkenhahn was having troubles of his own by that time. He had personally destroyed five tanks, the last of which exploded after he fired a rocket into it from only 30 meters away. The blazing fuel sprayed him, setting him afire. Another man helped him extinguish the flames. As they pulled back, Falkenhahn saw the advancing Soviets shooting German wounded. Neither side was taking prisoners.
The Germans threw their own wounded onto retreating supply trucks, which came under immediate fire. Few of the wounded made it to the field hospital. Falkenhahn had just placed one man on a truck when a Soviet shell destroyed it, killing all aboard. Finally, the Germans again had to fall back, adding to the ranks of Wilker's unit.
On the afternoon of April 10, Zhukov radioed Konev asking what the delay was. He told Konev that he had just received word from Stalin that Berlin had better be in Soviet hands by May 1. The message was clear. Konev assured Zhukov that he would be able to support Zhukov's drive to the German capital by April 12.
Manteuffel saw that the situation was hopeless, and he had even radioed Berlin to apprise his superiors of the situation. He was authorized to pull back and told that a relief force was on the way.
SS Gruppenführer (lieutenant general) Felix Steiner, mastermind of the Kiev offensive in Russia, Rhodes scholar and tactical genius, immediately ordered every available SS and army soldier onto trucks. He gathered a relief force composed of the remnants of the Nordland, Nederland, Wiking, Prinz Eugen and Wallonien divisions and elements of the Reichsführer-SS. The total strength of the reinforcements was about 26,000 men, including 24 tanks, 15 tank destroyers, and dozens of halftracks and trucks. Those who could not find transportation had to travel the 140 miles to the front on foot, since the rail line had been destroyed.
Manteuffel prayed for the relief force to arrive in time. He theorized that if they made good time, he might have the troops and tanks by April 12. That, however, might be too late.
Konev was made aware of the German movement to the east when a Soviet aircraft spotted the relief columns and reported to Zhukov. Zhukov would now have to swing south and intercept the force, wasting valuable time in order to aid Konev.
By 1700 on April 10, Konev had gained another mile of ground but had lost another 3,000 men and a total of 368 tanks. His armored force had been rendered virtually ineffective. Even with his support and reserve armor, he could barely muster a full tank battalion. In spite of his difficulties, Konev was winning, and he knew it.
Falkenhahn, Gottlieb and Wilker were now faced with the ultimate reality. Defeat was imminent. Soviet tanks, although no longer as serious a threat, were still a major point of concern. Luftwaffe dive bombers, seeing the enemy armor, began bombing the already immobilized Soviet vehicles. In some cases this resulted in more German casualties, given the position of the beleaguered defenders.
Konev ordered a last-ditch effort by the Soviet air force. Before sundown on the 10th, 30 Shturmoviks flew three sorties in a row, blasting the known German positions. But the Germans had already retreated to a safer area, and as soon as darkness fell they regained their old defensive fortifications. The night saw a series of bloody confrontations as Konev launched infantry assault after assault. Manteuffel ordered a smaller, tightly defended perimeter.
Wilker held the left flank, Gottlieb secured the rear from any flanking maneuvers, and Falkenhahn held the right to the north. The center was weakly defended, yet still mined and covered by some of the remaining guns. From 1900 to 2130 hours, Konev launched four attacks. One battalion led by Majors Ilya Kurov and Anna Nikolina was wiped out. Three hundred of the 500 Soviets in the assault perished, but the survivors regrouped for another assault. At 2215 a series of flares went up, and the Soviets attacked again. This time they approached the weakly defended center and ran into the minefield. Dozens of men died clearing a path, and their comrades advanced over their twisted bodies. When the attackers entered the defensive perimeter, hand-to-hand combat ensued.
In the light of flares and the glow of burning tanks, men were locked in a death struggle. It was estimated that 400 Soviets entered the perimeter, engaging a like number of Germans. The fighting finally ceased around midnight, when the last Soviet soldier inside the compound was killed. Only 240 men of the German defensive force were still alive, and they were physically exhausted and mentally drained. Konev wanted to push another attack through but decided to wait for reinforcements.
Manteuffel himself was wounded when a group of Soviets burst into the command center. Four of his staff were killed and another four wounded before the six intruders were shot down. Manteuffel, who was a former World War I cavalry officer, shot one of his attackers and cut the other down with a trench knife. His own injury--a bullet wound in his upper arm--proved to be serious but not life threatening. A medic treated his injury, and the general, who had not slept in five days, slipped into a deep sleep and was carried to safety without his knowledge by his adjutant, who had himself been wounded twice during the last five days.
The Germans were fighting on borrowed time, and by now both sides knew it. The night dragged on, with the Soviets firing flares, shooting weapons and even bringing up a loudspeaker to harass the Germans. But Konev would not launch any further attacks until the following morning, when his armor relief arrived.
When Falkenhahn tried to speak with Manteuffel, he found that the general had been moved farther back due to his wound. This left the initiative with each commander. Falkenhahn contacted Wilker and Gottlieb, and they decided to abandon their positions. Should they reach the relief column, they could attack and regain the Seelow Heights. They knew the move had to be made quickly, however, since dawn was only four hours away.
The Germans left their positions, taking as many of the wounded as they could and manhandling the operable weapons. They hooked up the towed guns to trucks and pulled out in the darkness. All headlamps, cigarettes and other lights were ordered extinguished. A small group would stay behind to try to deceive the Russians--then they would retreat as soon as they saw the first sign of enemy movement.
Konev received word that his support was 10 miles away and would arrive at 0530. He ordered his men to attack as soon as reinforcements arrived. At 0500 the sun was beginning to rise, and Konev ordered another artillery barrage. The Soviet guns, under Colonel Konstantin Durayev, had been moved forward. The 122mm and 152mm pieces were within two miles of the front line and supported by self-propelled guns.
By 0545 on April 11, the Soviet tanks had arrived, and the barrage was lifted. Konev ordered the attack to commence, and the supporting infantry moved out. They covered the two kilometers quickly, and the Germans who had stayed behind fired a few shots, then retreated. The armor caught up to them after sweeping through the empty positions, and the Germans stopped behind a ridge. They ambushed the tanks, destroying a dozen before they were cut down. There were no German survivors.
Wilker was covering the rear of the retreat. After almost five hours his command had traveled 16 miles on foot, and the soldiers could hear the fire of the distant artillery. One of the men had a radio and contacted the relief unit en route. According to Wilker, they should link up in six hours. In the meantime they requested air support to impede the Soviet pursuit that was sure to follow.
Konev realized what had happened. He ordered the tanks to roll at top speed to catch up to the escapees. The T-34s ate up the distance quickly, and Wilker radioed Falkenhahn and Gottlieb that they had company. Then a flight of Stukas appeared. The first wave dropped 500-pound bombs on the Soviet tanks. The second echelon swooped down and hammered away at the survivors with their 37mm anti-tank cannons. Five tanks were destroyed, and the rest scattered to avoid the onslaught.
Gottlieb ordered his men to stand fast and prepare an anti-tank defense. Falkenhahn and his men would move farther west and then establish a defensive position, allowing Gottlieb's men to fall back under cover. Wilker had his men disperse and fill the ranks of the other two elements.
Konev had secured the Seelow Heights and made up for the two days he had lost. Zhukov was informed of his success, and he in turn transmitted the following message to Stalin in Moscow: "Konev has accomplished his objective; however, losses were apparently heavy. Anticipate reaching Berlin in two days' time. Zhukov."
Manteuffel had to make his own report--to Hitler: "After several days of fierce fighting, I do not blame the individual German soldier, he fought against incredible odds, outnumbered forty to one. We have seriously weakened the enemy force, but cannot halt the Russian advance. I bear all responsibility. Manteuffel."
The retreating Germans were able to slip into the outskirts of Berlin. Zhukov entered the eastern suburbs of the city with Konev supporting his left, and the battle for Berlin commenced on April 15.
Wilker, Gottlieb and Falkenhahn would fight in the final defense of their capital, and all three would survive the battle and spend several years in Soviet captivity. Falkenhahn would be one of the last to see Hitler alive and lead a breakout with Lt. Gen. Hans Baur (Hitler's pilot) and Martin Bormann after Hitler's bunker became a grave.
Zhukov and Konev shared in the glory of their victory in Berlin. After the war, however, when Zhukov's diaries and Konev's private letters were released, those works painted a very bleak picture of the battle and their personal relationship.
Until recently the Russians had claimed that they lost 10,000 men during the battle for the Seelow Heights and 100,000 in Berlin. The actual figures are unknown. Yet no less than 30,000 Red Army soldiers were killed at Seelow, and the staggering figure of 600,000 killed in Berlin seems more plausible. Konev complained at one point that he was losing 1,000 men a day because Zhukov's artillery failed to shift fire when asked. Zhukov denied that allegation, stating that Konev was not using his troops intelligently.
German losses at Seelow were also high, with 11,000 of the 18,000 troops positioned on the lower hill dying and the Third Panzer Army suffering a total of 80,000 killed during the week of fighting. The survivors would, for the most part, perish in Berlin, fighting without respite in a city destined to die.