Berlin, Germany · April 23, 1945
On this date in 1945, with most land communications and electrical power lines down, Adolf Hitler broadcast on Greater German Radio the order to save his capital. The order called for Wehrmacht forces opposing the Americans at the Elbe River to withdraw and move north to rescue Berlin, now within range of incessant Soviet artillery and Katyusha truck-mounted rocket fire. Two days later Hitler assured Gen. Helmuth Weidling, commanding the defense of Berlin, that reinforcements from Gen. Walter Wenck’s 12th Army and Gen. Theodor Busse’s 9th Army would deliver a crushing blow to the Bolshevik enemy. It was all fantasy and Wenck and Busse knew that. The night before Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel had left his reclusive Fuehrer in their claustrophobic underground bunker and surprised Wenck at his headquarters east of Berlin, telling the general that he and Busse must lift the siege and “save Hitler.” To the agitated and irrational Keitel, Wenck merely said okay. Wenck and Busse had nowhere near the resources to accomplish anything but gather up the remains of their forces and, along with thousands of German civilians, retreat across the Elbe River and surrender to the Americans, which they did on May 7, 1945. Meanwhile, back in Berlin, the number of troops available to poor Weidling totaled around 80,000, barely enough to man the outer defense perimeter. Moreover about half of the capital’s defenders consisted of the Volkssturm (home guard), a motley, sometimes dragooned cadre of teenagers and the elderly, many of whom lacked weapons and even basic training. The remainder consisted of exhausted and demoralized veterans of combat on the Eastern Front. Ranged against these makeshift formations were 1.5 million battle-hardened and well-equipped Soviet soldiers. On April 26 the capital’s defenders withdrew to within a few miles of Hitler’s bunker. The next day the German defense area shrunk to less than 30 sq. miles. Hitler’s bunker was practically within spitting distance of the Soviets. On the night of April 29–30, a frantic Hitler, still hoping to be rescued, demanded Keitel tell him where Armee Wenck was. In his cramped study hours later Hitler put a bullet through his right temple. His wife Eva lay slumped on the small couch to his left, a suicide too. Above ground nothing remained of their Thousand Year Reich.
Scenes of Devastation from the Battle in Berlin, April 23–May 2, 1945
Left: The German Reichstag shows the scars of battle. Forces defending the Nazi symbol of power included naval, SS, and Hitler Youth personnel. Many defenders held out in the building’s upper floors and cellars. It took several hours of vicious room-to-room fighting before Red Army personnel secured the building.
Right: A dead NCO lies close to the Brandenburg Gate while smoke rises from the nearby Reichstag. The badge on his sleeve indicates membership in an unidentified formation numbered 185. Death, devastation, and smoke cast a pall over the Reich capital that lasted for weeks.
Left: The caliber of the guns that the Red Army brought to bear on Berlin’s streets increased rapidly. Capable of firing one shell every two minutes, 203mm howitzers like this one had a range of 10 miles and a crew of 15.
Right: An aerial photo of Berlin shows the legacy of destruction left by the war. By April 1945 Berlin had become a moonscape of ruined buildings and cratered streets.
Left: Berlin’s premier street Unter den Linden in 1945 presented a grim contrast with the street’s prewar splendor. View is to the east.
Right: Berliners had learned to clear streets following Allied bombing raids in the early days of the war. During the Battle of Berlin, many streets and sidewalks were turned into rubble-fields and thousands of citizens were conscripted afterwards to make them passable.
Berlin 1945: A Cavalcade of Photos from German and Soviet Archives