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Le Tissier, Tony. Race for the Reichstag: The 1945 Battle for Berlin. London: Frank Cass, 1999.
The newest book by Tony Le Tissier bears an unfamiliar title but it is in fact a revised
edition of his 1988 classic, The Battle of Berlin, 1945. Of this new version he says: "Subsequent historical events opening up access to places, people and information hitherto denied me, and this, together with feedback from the later German editions, have enabled an extensive revision of the original work, which I described as being 'rather like the reconstruction of an ancient vase from an incomplete set of fragments.'" The original was the best English-language book about the Soviet capture of Berlin in 1945, and the
new edition is even better.
Preparations within the Inner Defence Ring were quite elaborate. Barricades in the side streets allowed passage only to pedestrians, and those in the main streets were closed to vehicular traffic at night by means of movable sections. Machine-gun posts were prepared in cellars and upper storeys to cover these barricades, and holes were knocked through the dividing walls to allow covered passage from cellar to cellar. The generally shallow U-Bahn tunnels were also barricaded at intervals to prevent infiltration, and preparations were made for flooding some of them.
Despite the obvious importance of the seat of the German government and the high-priority preparations for the inevitable enemy assault, the nature of the defensive position, Le Tissier reminds us, should not be overrated, especially in light of Hitler's strategy.
Thus the overall results were scarcely in keeping with the appellation 'Festung'. With adequate troops of the right calibre, General Reymann had a feasible outline plan for the defense of the capital, but the proper military facilities for developing the plan simply did not exist any longer. However, the Nazi leadership had a completely different philosophy; Hitler's contention was that, if the Soviets succeeded in reaching Berlin, they should be forced to waste their strength in the city's ruins, much as von Paulus' 6th Army had done at Stalingrad. If this plan failed and the Soviets prevailed, the Germans would have shown themselves unworthy of their leadership and would deserve extinction, just as in nature only the strong survive.
The bulk of the remaining German armies in the field seem to have been retreating away from Berlin, for the most part leaving the defense of the city to a motley assortment of formations scraped together from various sources. The author discusses the preparation and participation of Volkssturm units, the Hitlerjugend, the SSin Berlin the level of hostility between the SS and the regular Army was reaching the point of internecine warfareand odds and ends like sailors flown into the city as reinforcements. German propaganda added a mythical "Freikorps Adolf Hitler" and "Freikorps Mohnke""bring your own weapons."
One unusual aspect of the political influence on the conduct of the defence was the mixing of members of different organizations within strongpoints in the various sectors, so that SS, Wehrmacht, Volkssturm and Hitlerjugend literally fought side by side. This may have been of some value in bolstering the morale of the weaker elements, but must have made the command function even more difficult.
While these defensive preparations were underway, the Soviet armies
succeeded in smashing their way forward and their advanced spearheads
reached the outer belt of the city's defenses on 20 April, Hitler's
birthday. To help celebrate, 299 B-17s bombed Berlin for two hours, followed
by RAF Mosquitos and then a nighttime Bomber Command raid. Due to the
proximity of Soviet troops, these were the last Anglo-American air raids on the
German capital. The RAF and 8th Air Force were soon replaced in the sky by the Red Air Force. On 25 and 26 April, for example, over 1300 Soviet aircraft attacked targets in
the city in a centrally orchestrated operation.
The combat teams generally consisted of a platoon of infantry, one or two tanks, some sappers, some man-pack flame-throwers, a section of anti-tank guns, and two or three field guns, usually 76mm, but sometimes even 150mm guns or 203mm howitzers were used in this role when particularly strong positions had to be attacked. In this direct support role the guns advanced with their teams, firing over open sights at ranges of up to 400 yards down the axis of the streets. The would set themselves up under cover of smokescreens, or would fire at the blank walls of buildings to raise clouds of dust for the same purpose. At these ranges the gunners inevitably took casualties from infantry fire, and it was a particularly trying time for their observers with the leading infantry, who frequently needed relief from the strain and fatigue of their role.
The nature of the battle required not only improvised assault teams, but also improvised tactics and ruses.
By this stage of the battle the Soviet armour had developed some ingenious methods of countering the prolific German anti-tank weapons. Their tanks were now festooned with sandbags, bedsprings, sheet metal and other devices to cause the projectiles to explode harmlessly outside the hull, and it was an inspired adaptation of one of these devices that finally enabled them to get their tanks across the Potsdamer Bridge. Sappers had first to remove the mines suspended beneath the structure, all the while working under heavy machine-gun fire. Initial attempts to rush the infantry across the bridge met with costly failure and the Soviet tanks found themselves helpless against the fire of a dug-in 'Tiger' tank covering the crossing from an enfilade position. More artillery fire and smoke were called for, and eventually some infantry managed to get safely across, but the tanks were still being knocked out one by one as they approached. Then someone had the idea of steeping the protective covering of one of the tanks in inflammable oil and adding some smoke cannisters. This tank then led the next armored assault, bursting into flames as if it had been hit as it reached the bridge. Thinking the tank was merely careering forward out of control, the Germans ignored it until it was too late and the Soviets were across the bridge and firing into their flanks at point-blank range.
Similarly, much of the German defense relied on improvisation and personal ingenuity.
Rogmann then withdrew some distance back toward Alexanderplatz to redeploy. While looking around his new location, he found a large cellar full of rockets, even larger than 'Stalin-Organs', stored in their wooden cases that also doubled as launchers. They looked so dangerous that he moved his platoon again, but then encountered a lone ordnance officer, who seemed to know all about the rockets and, under pressure, showed Rogmann how to fire them. Rogmann then tried one outit took eight men to move itfiring it in the direction of the Schlesischer Railway Station. The test proving apparently satisfactory, Rogmann then set up several against a barricade of sandstone blocks that had been built across Holzmarktstrasse, the main road leading from the station past the Jannowitzbrucke S-Bahn Station to Alexanderplatz. At dusk about a dozen Soviet tanks were seen approaching along Holzmarktstrasse, and Rogmann fired his rockets at what he guessed was the right moment. The effect was devastating, with some tanks collapsing as if they had been made of cardboard, others brushed aside as scrap, and one even falling into the river.
Amidst this chaos Hitler continued to issue contradictory and unrealistic orders to reposition the decimated defenders and launch suicidal counter-strokes. SS General Steiner was ordered to organize an attack, but his superior HQ was not informed and could not even locate Steiner's command post. The level of disorganization and the confusion of conflicting orders reached the point of black humor:
General Weidling summoned his divisional and regimental commanders to a conference at Corps Headquarters in Kaulsdorf, where he told them that General Busse had threatened to have him shot if he failed to link up with the 9th Army, and that Hitler had threatened him with the same fate if he did not go to the defence of the city.
On 24 April Steiner finally managed to launch his offensive. It mustered
only seven battalions but pushed forward four miles before being driven
back. By this time Berlin was encircled, and despite Hitler's frantic order
to General Wenck to relieve the city with his 12th Army, little could be
done. Wenck was mostly concerned with holding open an escape route to the
west for civilians for as long as possible.
On the afternoon of 28 April, the leading elements of the 79th Rifle Corps advancing down the street known as Alt Moabit first caught sight of the Reichstag building through the swirling clouds of smoke and dust that obscured the central districts of the city. The fixation of the Soviets on the Reichstag as their goal was to highlight this particular part of the battle to heroic proportions. Heroic as it undoubtedly was in its execution, this episode also emphasizes the ruthless exploitation of the troops involved and the fundamental military errors made by the commanders in their haste to meet a politically dictated deadline. The pressure from Stalin downward to get the Red Flag flying from the top of the Reichstag in time for the May Day celebrations was such that no one in the chain of command wanted to be in a position where he could be accused of sabotaging the project. The cost was of no consequence.
Throughout his book, Le Tissier assumes a certain amount of knowledge on
the part of his readers. For example, he doesn't explain the organizational
differences between Soviet and German units and he fails to give any
explanation for the participation of Polish divisions in the midst of
battle. Similarly, although he mentions the arrival of the Soviet Dneiper
flotilla and its activities fairly early in the book, it's not until many
pages later that he explains how the boats reached Berlin.
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Reviewed 6 February 2000
Reviewed 6 February 2000
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