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
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.
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.
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