Seelow Heights, Germany April 16, 1945

On this date in 1945 the Allies called off their strategic bombing cam­paign against Nazi Germany because most targets were already in Allied hands or, like the Reich capital, Berlin, would be soon. So on the day the aerial cam­paign stopped the Red Army unleashed a battle to capture the Seelow Heights (April 16–19, 1945), 40 miles east of Berlin. The Seelow escarp­ment formed the eastern edge of a wide plateau just over 150 ft above the Oder River flood­plain, the Oder­bruch. At this time of year the Oder­bruch, between 6 and 10 miles wide, was saturated with water due to spring melt abetted by released water from an up­stream swamp. Never­the­less, the Red Army established a strong presence on the soggy plain.

The situation on Germany’s Eastern Front at the top of April 1945 was grim. The Wehr­macht (German armed forces) had paid dearly for Adolf Hitler’s folly of invading the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941 (Oper­a­tion Bar­ba­rossa). It had suffered stag­gering losses in men and equip­ment after count­less retreats and rear­guard actions following the Battle of Stalin­grad (late August 1942 to the end of Janu­ary 1943), Kursk (July 1943), and Lenin­grad (1941 to January 1944). In con­trast, the Red Army boasted at the out­set of 1945 that it had cleared Axis forces out of Mother Russia, was clearing the enemy from East Prussia and Germany’s eastern neigh­bor, Poland, and was at the moment invading the German heart­land as it mopped up pockets of Germans fighting desperately in a general retreat toward the Oder and Neisse rivers.

After breaching the middle Oder River “moat” and building a bridgehead on its west bank, Marshal Georgy Zhukov’s army group, the First Belo­russian Front, stood before the Seelow Heights, the so-called “Gates of Berlin.” Under Zhukov’s command were two Soviet armies of 1,000,000 men, nearly 17,000 field guns, mortars, and Katyu­sha truck-mounted rocket launchers, and 3,059 tanks. Facing Zhukov’s armies were 112,143 German men at arms: Gen. Theodor Busse’s Ninth Army, cobbled from untrained Luft­waffe ground units, sailors, guard and police bat­talions and trainees, and the Volks­sturm, itself a mot­ley collec­tion of mostly un­tested and poorly equipped boy sol­diers and old men; and Gen. Hel­muth Weidling’s 15,000-strong LVI Panzer Corps, which was assigned to Busse’s Ninth Army. Between Busse and Weidling the German defenders had 2,625 self-propelled guns, regu­lar artil­lery pieces, and anti­aircraft guns and 587 tanks, 55 of which were in repair and another 20 in transit.

Soviet leader Joseph Stalin chose April 16 as the start date for his Oper­a­tion Berlin, with the capture of the German capi­tal set for Lenin’s birth­day, April 22. By dusk on Day 1 the Soviets had managed to clear German forward posi­tions on the flood­plain. On Day 2 a First Belo­russian army, Lt. Gen. Vasily Chui­kov’s 8th Guards, gained the all-impor­tant escarp­ment at terrible costs, over­running the enemy’s left flank and breaching his lines every­where. Day 3 wit­nessed the Soviets ex­ploiting their upper hand as German defenses disintegrated.

Day 4 was a day of reckoning. On April 19, 1945, the First Belo­russian Front blud­geoned its way through the third and last defen­sive line on Seelow Heights. Now the “Gates of Berlin” were busted wide open. By April 23 Hitler’s capi­tal was fully en­circled and the Battle of Berlin entered its termi­nal phase. In 7 days Hitler would be a sui­cide and 7 days after that the once unbeat­able Wehr­macht would sign in Reims, France, the first of two uncon­di­tional surren­der docu­ments. Stalin twisted his enemy’s nose by insisting on a second and grander surren­der cere­mony amid Berlin’s rubble on May 8, 1945, Vic­tory in Europe (VJ) day. German citizens remem­ber that date as “Stunde Null” (Zero Hour), the moment when the historical slate was wiped clean and everything started fresh and new again, untainted by the past.

Battle of Seelow Heights, April 16–19, 1945

Map Eastern Front, January 1 to May 11, 1945

Above: Map of the Eastern Front, January 1 to March 31 (colored coral) and April 1 to May 11, 1945 (colored green). Against over­whelming odds, German forces con­cen­trated at the Seelow Heights (three arrows down in the green area of the map) in a last-ditch effort to block the Red Army’s advance on Berlin. The 4-day Battle of the Seelow Heights (German, Schlacht um die Seelower Hoehen) is often incor­po­rated into the Battle of the Oder-Neisse (April 1945). The site of some of the most bitter fighting in the over­all Oder-Neisse battle, Seelow Heights pro­tected a direct route to Berlin, but the loca­tion was only one of dozens of crossing points along the two rivers where the Soviets attacked. The Soviet victory at Seelow Heights fed into the opening phase of the Battle in Berlin (aka the Fall of Berlin), April 23 to May 2, 1945, which was the last and most consequential battle of the European War.

Battle of Seelow Heights: Soviet artillery pound pockets of German resistance, March 1945Battle of Seelow Heights: Soviet artillery bombard German positions, April 1945

Left: As the Red Army in Poland approached the German heart­land east of the Oder and Neisse rivers, Soviet artillery­men some­times paused and deployed their wea­pons against pockets of German resis­tance, which desperately tried to stem the Soviet juggernaut to no avail.

Right: Soviet artillery bombard German posi­tions during the Battle for the See­low Heights, April 16–19, 1945. The battle to break through the so-called “Gates to Berlin” and cap­ture the ulti­mate war prize—the cultic heart of Nazism—days after Stalin launched his Berlin offen­sive cost the Soviets about 30,000–33,000 lives (a more cred­i­ble esti­mate is 70,000 lives), 18,000 more than the Germans repu­tably lost. Despite inspired and fierce resis­tance, German troops were com­pelled to fall back, leaving chao­tic scenes of devas­ta­tion in their flight to save them­selves. Within two weeks of the Soviet break­through at See­low Heights, Hitler took his own life and that of his wife in the Fuehrer­bunker of his smashed Thou­sand Year Reich. Iron­i­cally, it was left to Gen. Weidling, since April 25 com­man­der of “For­tress Berlin,” to sur­render the city’s shattered remains to his See­low Heights’ oppo­nent, Soviet Lt. Gen. Chuikov, on May 2, 1945. On May 7 and 8, the German high com­mand signed surrender documents, bringing the war in Europe to an official conclusion.

Battle of Seelow Heights: A German artillery gun fires on Soviet positions, April 1945After Battle of Seelow Heights: Soviet tanks patrol Berlin street

Left: Fighting back, German Brandenburger commando troops fire a German 88mm anti­aircraft gun in the tank-killer mode. The gun crew takes aim at Red Army armor and troops on a bridge over the Oder River as they approach the Seelow Heights, a fiercely contested set of forti­fi­ca­tions east of Berlin. Once the forti­fi­ca­tions fell, basically nothing could stop Zhukov’s First Belo­russian Front and Marshal Ivan Konev’s First Ukrainian Front from taking the Reich capital.

Right: After the Battle of Berlin ended on May 2, 1945, Soviet tanks began patrol­ling the streets of a paci­fied, eerily quiet Berlin, home to 2 mil­lion shell-shocked, weary, and desper­ate citi­zens who were slowly emerging from their bomb-ravaged cellars, attics, and other hiding places. An esti­mated 100,000–125,000 Ber­liners perished in the battle, 20,000 from heart attacks, 6,000 from sui­cide. The wall graf­fiti in the back­ground, likely scrawled by a die-hard SS (Schutz­staffel) man days earlier, reads: “Berlin will remain German” (BERLIN bleibt deutsch). Appended to one such graf­fiti a smart-alecky Soviet trooper wrote: “But I’m already here in Berlin, [signed] Sidorov.”

Battle of Seelow Heights, April 16–19, 1945