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 the Crimea in Febru­ary 1945, which placed Berlin within the Soviet zone of post­war-occupied Germany. (Berlin would be carved into four occupation zones any­way, one each for the Soviets, Americans, British, and French.)

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, who took over Field Marshal Erwin Rom­mel’s old job at Army Group B in August 1944, com­mitted sui­cide as a matter of honor on April 12, 1945. “What is there left to a com­mander in defeat,” he had asked his staff before using his service revolver on himself.)

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, esti­mated that taking the Nazi capi­tal would cost him 100,000 casual­ties, while Lt. Gen. William Simp­son, com­mander of the U.S. Ninth Army, part of Bradley’s Twelfth Army Group, supposed his soldiers could have taken Berlin with little loss of life and well before the Red Army had reached the city.

As it turned out the Battle of Berlin (April 16 to May 2, 1945) cost Soviet and Polish troops an esti­mated 81,000-plus dead or missing and over 280,000 wounded or sick. 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 group 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. Tragically, more civilians died in the Battle of Berlin (125,000 killed or died from suicide) than German defenders (92,000–100,000).

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

Soviet artillery, Seelow Heights, April 1945Volkssturm 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, cost the Soviets about 30,000 casual­ties, 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 1945Soviet flag over Reichstag

Left: The German parliament building, the Reichstag, following its destruction. Photo taken in June 1945.

Right: “Raising the Red Flag over the Reichstag” is a his­toric photo­graph taken on May 2, 1945, during the Battle of Ber­lin by Red Army photo­grapher Yevgeny Khaldei. This photo­graph, like that taken by Associ­ated Press photo­grapher Joe Rosen­thal of the flag-raising atop Mt. Suri­bachi on the contested Pacific island of Iwo Jima, came to be regarded as one of the most significant and recognizable images of the war.

Hotel Adlon on Unter den LindenUnter 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 quar­ter, 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. 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