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 fielded the world’s largest modern mili­tary and occu­pied most states in Central and Eastern Europe. (Soviet polit­i­cal com­mis­sars were busy setting up puppet Com­mu­nist regimes in the slip­stream of the Red Army jugger­naut; soon these states would be known as “Soviet satel­lites” trapped behind the Iron Curtain.) 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 81,000–100,000 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 perished in the Battle of Berlin (an esti­mated 100,000–125,000 killed or died of heart attacks [20,000] or by sui­cide [6,000]) than German defenders (92,000–100,000). Among the German defenders lucky enough to survive the Battle of Berlin were 480,000 POWs.

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

Capture of Berlin: Soviet artillery, Seelow Heights, April 1945Capture of Berlin: 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, if pos­si­ble, cap­ture Berlin on Day Five of the offen­sive, cost the Soviets between 30,000 and 33,000 lives (a more cred­i­ble estimate is 70,000 lives), 18,000 more than the Germans lost. Despite fierce resis­tance, the Germans were forced to pull back. Within two weeks of the Soviet break­through, Hitler was dead, a suicide among the 6,000 people who took their lives during the Battle of Berlin.

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 single high-explo­sive, anti­tank war­head the size of a hornet’s nest. Unfor­tu­nately for the sol­dier carrying a Panzer­faust, once he or she released the war­head that person had nothing but the launch tube for a weapon. Photo taken March 21, 1945.

Capture of Berlin: Reichstag, June 1945Capture of Berlin: 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.

Capture of Berlin: Hotel Adlon on Unter den LindenCapture of Berlin: 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 less than 175 yards from the heavily damaged Branden­burg Gate. Located in the heart of the govern­ment dis­trict (the Citadel as it was known), the Hotel Adlon was only blocks from Goebbels’ Propa­gan­da Minis­try, Joachim von Ribben­trop’s Foreign Minis­try, Reichs­fuehrer-SS Hein­rich Himml­er’s Minis­try of the Inte­rior, and Hitler’s Reich Chancellery and underground Fuehrerbunker.

Right: A devastated street in the city cen­ter just off the broad Unter den Linden boule­vard, July 3, 1945. Post­war sta­tisti­cians cal­cu­lated that for every in­habi­tant of Berlin there were nearly 39 cubic yards/29.82 cubic meters of rubble, the pro­duct of over 2 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 2 weeks in April and early May 1945 to more thoroughly despoil Hitler’s once beau­ti­ful Reich capital. A Soviet war corres­pon­dent wrote that in order to silence German firing points “our guns some­times fired a thou­sand shells into one small square, a group of houses, or even a tiny garden.” In doing so Soviet artil­lery­men killed thou­sands of German resisters along with thou­sands of civil­ians who cowered in cellars, attics, and other hiding places. Berlin counted 1 million orphans at war’s end.

Excellent Color Footage of Battle of Berlin, April 16 to May 2, 1945