U.S. LEAVES CAPTURE OF BERLIN TO SOVIETS

Forward SHAEF HQ, Reims, France April 12, 1945

On this date in 1945 President Frank­lin D. Roose­velt died in Warm Springs, Georgia, and Harry S. Tru­man became the thirty-third pre­si­dent of the United States. That same day the Supreme Com­man­der of the Allied Expedi­tionary Force, Gen. Dwight D. Eisen­hower, informed his staff that neither Amer­i­can nor British forces would try to cap­ture Berlin, the epi­center of Adolf Hitler’s rapidly dis­appearing Thou­sand Year Reich. That task would be left to the Red Army, which by now con­trolled most of Cen­tral and East­ern Europe. For Eisen­hower it was a purely prag­ma­tic deci­sion, to say nothing of the poli­ti­cal deci­sion reached by Roose­velt, Brit­ish Prime Minis­ter Winston Chur­chill, and Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin at the Yalta Con­fer­ence in Febru­ary 1945, which placed Berlin within the Soviet zone of post­war-occupied Germany.

Some 2.5 million Soviet soldiers in 20 armies, with support from more than 40,000 mortars and field guns and hundreds of multi­barreled Katyusha rockets, were roughly 40–50 miles east of the German capital when the Red Army launched its Berlin offen­sive on April 16, 1945, from its Oder River bridge­head at Kuestrin. U.S. forces were 120 miles to the west of Berlin. In the wake of the Battle of the Bulge (mid-Decem­ber 1944 to late-Janu­ary 1945), the March breach of the Rhine River at numer­ous points, and the West­ern Allies’ en­circle­ment of 300,000 troops and 30 generals of Field Marshal Walther Model’s Army Group B in the Ruhr pocket, it was clear that the Nazis had lost the war, their cause ul­ti­mately hope­less. (After dis­solving his army and dis­charging his youngest and oldest mem­bers, Model com­mitted sui­cide as a matter of honor on April 12, 1945.)

Yet elements of the German Army con­tinued to fight tena­ciously on their home turf. “Sieg oder Sibirien” (“Victory or Siberia”) was their battle cry as the Red Army closed in. (Months earlier, in an attempt to stop German soldiers surren­dering to the enemy, Nazi propa­ganda chief Joseph Goebbels had concocted a story that the Western Allies had agreed to hand over German POWs to the Soviets for recon­struc­tion work.) Gen. Omar Bradley, com­manding the Twelfth U.S. Army Group, believed taking the Nazi capi­tal would cost him 100,000 men. It turned out that the Battle of Berlin (April 16 to May 2, 1945) cost Soviet troops an esti­mated 81,000-plus dead or missing and over 280,000 wounded or sick out of 360,000 Soviet and Polish troops who perished in Germany alone. The blood price paid by the 1.1 mil­lion Soviets who took part in the capture of Berlin was high because Stalin had ordered two army com­manders—Marshal Georgy Zhukov of the First Belo­russian Front and Marshal Ivan Konev of the First Ukrai­nian Front—to com­pete in a race to be first to reach the city the Nazis were prepared to defend with special ferocity.





Soviet Assault on Berlin, Mid-April Through Early May 1945

Soviet artillery, Seelow Heights, April 1945 Volkssturm learning to use Panzerfaust, March 1945

Left: Soviet artillery bombarding German posi­tions during the Battle for See­low Heights, April 16–19, 1945. The battle to break through the so-called “Gates to Berlin,” just over 50 miles east of the German capi­tal and capture Berlin on Day Five of the offen­sive, reportedly cost the Soviets about 30,000 lives (a more cred­i­ble estimate is 70,000 lives), 18,000 more than the Germans lost.

Right: Ranged against the Soviets, who were assembling on the edges of Berlin, was a mot­ley crew of boys and elderly men com­prising the Volks­sturm (home guard). Here soldiers of the Volks­sturm are being trained to use the Panzer­faust, a small, dis­pos­able pre­loaded launch tube that fired a high-explosive, antitank warhead. Photo taken March 21, 1945.

Reichstag, June 1945 Soviet flag over Reichstag

Left: The German parliament building, the Reichstag, following its destruction. Photo taken in June 1945. The Branden­burg Gate, which we today consider the symbol of Berlin, went mostly ignored by Soviet troops; instead, several Soviet units were tasked with taking and hoisting banners over the captured “German Kremlin.”

Right: “Raising the Red Flag over the Reichstag” is one of the most significant and recognizable images of the war. The photo­graph was taken on May 2, 1945, during the Battle of Berlin by Red Army photo­grapher Yevgeny Khaldei. Khaldei recalled: “It was about eight o’clock, the Reichs­tag was on fire. I climbed on to its roof with the Russian soldiers and handed one of them the flag. At last I found the point where the burning Reichs­tag could be seen, with the burning houses as well as the Branden­burg Gate in the back­ground. I knew that was it.” Quoted in Kempowski, Swansong, p. 292.

Hotel Adlon on Unter den Linden Unter den Linden street scene, July 1945

Left: Soviet soldiers hoist the Red flag on the bal­cony of the once pres­tigious Hotel Adlon on Unter den Linden. Located in the heart of the govern­ment district, the Adlon was only blocks from Goebbels’ Propa­gan­da Minis­try and Hitler’s Reich Chancellery and underground Fuehrerbunker.

Right: A devastated street in the city cen­ter just off Unter den Linden, July 3, 1945. Post­war sta­tisti­cians cal­cu­lated that for every in­habi­tant of Berlin there were nearly thirty-nine cubic yards of rubble, the product of over two years of Allied aerial bombard­ment and shelling. Nearly two-thirds of the rubble was caused by the Red Army, which expended 40,000 tons of explo­sives in arti­llery and rocket bom­bard­ment in a mere two weeks in April and early May 1945.

Battle of Seelow Heights, April 16–19, 1945


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