Read Berlin at War Online

Authors: Roger Moorhouse

Berlin at War (74 page)

trophe . . . Beyond question Berlin is in danger. You can scent it in the

air, read it in the distracted faces of men called up, the scurrying of

steel-helmeted policemen and couriers.18

Helmut Vaupel, an officer-cadet undergoing training in Spandau,

heard that day about the fate of the last batch of eight hundred recruits

who had been sent out to the front: only eighty had survived. The

carnage was such, he said, that even their otherwise hard-hearted

sergeant major was reduced to tears.19 Friederike Grensemann, mean-

while, was sent home from work and arrived just in time to see her

father leave to join the
Volkssturm
. As he departed, he gave her his

pistol, adding, ‘It’s all over, my child. Promise me that when the

Russians come you will shoot yourself.’20 He then kissed her in silence

and left. She would never see him again.

That evening, taking advantage of a break in the incessant firing

and Soviet air raids, Ruth Andreas-Friedrich stole upstairs from her

cellar to take a look at the city. The sky to the east, she noted, was

now tinged with red, ‘as if blood had been poured over it’. In the

distance, she and her companion could make out the sounds of combat:

‘From the east comes a grumbling like distant thunder. That’s no

bombing, that’s . . . artillery. They’re attacking the city.’ The realisa-

tion was a sobering one, and they stood for a moment transfixed, lost

in their thoughts. ‘Before us lies the endless city’, she wrote, ‘black in

the black of night, cowering as if to creep back into the earth. And

we’re afraid.’21

* * *

ghost town

361

Surprisingly, given the urgency of the hour, German plans for the

defence of Berlin were in a state of chaos. The capital had been declared

a ‘Fortress’ in February, but little of any practical use had been done

to prepare it for this role. A plan of sorts was then worked out in

March, advocating the division of the city into eight defensive sectors,

designated A to H. In addition, two concentric defence lines were to

be constructed: one roughly following the boundary of the city and

another along the line of the S-Bahn ring that circled the city centre.

An inner defence line – codenamed ‘Citadel’ – was foreseen for the

administrative district, centring on the island formed by the Spree

River and the Landwehr canal, and encompassing both the former

Reichstag building and the Reich Chancellery.

Within the city, German troops attempted to nullify the material

superiority of the Soviets by targeting enemy armour with anti-aircraft

guns and
Panzerfaust
bazookas. In engaging the infantry, meanwhile,

they resorted extensively to ambushes. Red Army Marshal Vasily

Chuikov would write of the Battle for Berlin:

The Germans fought tenaciously . . . every dwelling, every block of

houses had its machine-gun nest and its Panzerfaust grenadiers . . .

They employed the following tactic: after the counterattack, they made

a feint, as though it had failed, and pulled back. In the roomy villas,

troops were concealed with machine pistols. Their job was to attack

our assault formations on the flanks and from the rear, causing us heavy

casualties with concentrated fire.22

There were a number of natural and man-made obstacles that could

also be exploited. The city’s river and canals provided a natural line of

defence, and many of the bridges across them were mined in prepar a-

tion. Moreover, the three formidable flak towers, located in an arc around

the north of the city centre, made for obvious strongpoints in the defence

network. Not only were they bristling with weaponry – much of which

could be lowered to engage targets on the ground – their sheer size and

strength made them ideal command posts.

Elsewhere in the city, improvisation was key. Barricades had been

erected wherever possible, often consisting of disused trams or rail

carriages filled with rubble. In some locations, iron girders were set

into the ground to give strength to paving stones or railway sleepers

362

berlin at war

that were stacked up to three metres high. Other positions were rather

more formidable, featuring the working turret of a tank buried into

the ground. Yet, for all the effort involved, such barricades were often

afforded little respect by Berliners. As one of them quipped, the barri-

cades would take only ten minutes for the Soviets to clear – ‘nine

minutes for the Ivans to control their laughter, and one minute for

them to blast them into oblivion’.23

The number of troops available for the defence of Berlin totalled

around 80,000, barely enough to man the outer defence line alone –

and certainly insufficient to contend with the 1.5 million Soviet soldiers

ranged against them.24 What is more, that figure was made up of units

of vastly differing quality and experience. Around half of them

consisted of the cadres of the
Volkssturm
, many of whom lacked

weapons and even basic training. The remainder, though regular troops,

often comprised exhausted and makeshift formations, ranged along-

side a core of battle-hardened veterans.

Morale among these myriad units was far from uniform. Many

of those now fighting for their own capital – and in some instances

their own streets and suburbs – were very determined. They were

motivated not only by the Nazi habit of presenting a Soviet victory

as a triumph for barbarism and the end of European civilisation, but

also by the grim treatment they had been taught to expect from the

Soviets. The atrocities at Nemmersdorf and Metgethen in East

Prussia, in which dozens of German civilians had been raped and

murdered by the Red Army, had been ruthlessly and systematically

exploited by Goebbels. Many Berliners fully expected to witness

similar scenes if their city were to fall.

There was also a distinct war-weariness in evidence, exacerbated

no doubt by the bitter and protracted nature of the battle in the city,

as well as the dawning realisation that the end was nigh. As one diarist

from the makeshift Müncheberg Division recorded: ‘Increasing signs

of disintegration and despair . . . hardly any communications among

the combat groups, inasmuch as none of the active battalions have

radio communications any more . . . Physical conditions are inde-

scribable. No relief or respite, no regular food and hardly any bread.

Nervous breakdown from the continuous artillery fire.’25

Even within the SS there were rumblings of discontent, particu-

larly among its foreign fighters. Berlin’s defences had been bolstered

ghost town

363

by a motley collection of French, Dutch, Danes and others, the

remnants of the multi-national Waffen-SS divisions
Nordland
and

Charlemagne
, raised to fight the Soviets. Many of them would fight

courageously for their cause, with some being awarded the Knight’s

Cross during the Battle for Berlin. One of the latter was the twenty-

five-year-old Frenchman Henri Fenet, who had the additional distinc-

tion of having been awarded the Croix de Guerre in 1940. He was

presented with his Knight’s Cross in a wrecked tram, by candlelight.26

Though Fenet was determined to fight to the bitter end, there were

others who were actively seeking a way out of the impasse. Jacob

Kronika recorded how a number of his fellow Danes, members of the

SS
Wiking
Division,27 pleaded for access to the Danish Embassy’s bunker

in the capital, so that they could sit out the remainer of the battle. As

one of them explained: ‘The Battle for Berlin will be over in a few

hours. Like many others, I have allowed myself to be exploited by a

regime, which is corrupt from top to bottom. I volunteered in good

faith many years ago, but I do not wish to throw away my life for

this.’28 Such deserters were generally turned away by embassy staff.

The morale of the
Volkssturm
was even more fragile. Given that

many of those called up were little more than children, it is some-

times hard to envisage the
Volkssturm
as a fighting force at all. Dorothea von Schwanenflügel was shocked to run into one such child-soldier,

‘a sad-looking young boy’, while she was collecting her rations:

I went over to him and found a mere child in a uniform many sizes

too large for him, with an anti-tank grenade lying beside him. Tears

were running down his face, and he was obviously very frightened of

everyone. I very softly asked him what he was doing there. He lost his

distrust and told me that he had been ordered to lie in wait here, and

when a Soviet tank approached he was to run under it and explode the

grenade. I asked how that would work, but he didn’t know. In fact this

frail child didn’t even look capable of carrying such a grenade.29

Among many
Volkssturm
units the overriding sentiment appears to

have been a fervent desire to get home and avoid being killed. Erich

Neumann found himself dragooned into a makeshift platoon, after

he left his Charlottenburg home on his bicycle to find a doctor for his

sick mother. Though only fourteen, he was given a ‘used steel helmet’,

364

berlin at war

had a K-98k rifle pushed into his hand – which was barely 10 centi -

metres shorter than he was – and was sent off to the western suburbs

of the capital. There he was fortunate to run into a family friend,

‘Uncle Hermann’, who would act as his protector:

Uncle did not think much of heroism. The so-called battle consisted

of a constant search for cover in stairwells and ruin. . . . Uncle Hermann

thought only about survival, for us both. We left Spandau without a

fight and marched west, as we thought the Russians were approaching

from the east. Many others joined us and we quickly became a large

group, albeit without a commanding officer.30

After deliberately avoiding any contact with the enemy, the group

finally ran into a Soviet patrol. ‘Nobody’, Neumann recalled, ‘reached

for his gun.’31

They were fortunate not to have run into an SS patrol. Had they

done so, there is every chance that they would have been subjected to

a drumhead court martial and executed as deserters. Berlin saw

numerous such cases during those final days of the war, with most

victims being hanged from nearby trees or lampposts with a placard

placed around their necks detailing their offence: ‘I am a traitor’ or ‘I

was too cowardly to defend my wife and children’.32 Some of the offences

cited could be astonishingly petty. Two soldiers were hanged on

Friedrichstrasse for their failure to adequately maintain their weapons.33

In carrying out these tasks, the SS were no respecters of rank or

status. As one eyewitness noted, ‘More and more people were hanged

everywhere, even men in uniform wearing the Iron Cross.’34 Neither

did the military command allow wounded soldiers to be tended if

they suspected them of being traitors to the cause, or of having caused

their injuries themselves. ‘In Prenzlauer Berg, a wounded soldier was

lying in the street’, recalled Gisela Richter,

who was crying out in pain, but was not allowed to be helped as he

was a deserter. Other soldiers cast a wide cordon around him, which

no one could cross, because [they said] ‘the pig deserved nothing more’.

He lay there crying on the pavement the whole day, and only that

evening did an officer give him the coup de grâce.35

ghost town

365

Dieter Borkowski was one of the lucky ones. He had left his pos-

ition in an anti-tank unit in Friedrichshain in an attempt to check on

his mother in nearby Kreuzberg, but had been picked up by an SS

patrol, along with some foreign labourers, and had been taken to a

command post in a nearby cellar. There he was abused by a young –

and obviously drunk – SS officer who proceeded to read the order

giving him the authority to execute ‘traitors and deserters’:

The SS-Sturmführer pronounced the death sentence and poured a large

glass of cognac down his throat. I almost passed out through sheer

terror. The Frenchmen babbled in their language, no one understood

them. We were to be taken up to street level – three SS soldiers were

given the order – to be shot. Then I ran over to the drunken commander

and burst out crying from fear; ‘I am not a traitor, I don’t want to

desert!’ I cried. The commandant waved to the SS men, who carried

me away between them. I was taken up along with the French and

Dutchmen.36

Though the foreign labourers were duly executed, Borkowski was

fortunate. Just as his turn came, a report arrived informing the SS men

that the Soviets had just crossed the Jannowitz Bridge and were now

barely a kilometre away. Grabbed by the collar by the commander of

the execution detail, Borkowski was roughly sent on his way. ‘Get out

of here’, he was told, ‘the next patrol will kill you anyway.’ That night,

the fear was still so fresh that he could barely write his diary: ‘I would

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