In August 1940, after the bombing of London, Bomber Command of the Royal Air Force (RAF) raided Berlin, but the city enjoyed a respite thereafter until March 1943; then there was another pause. The battle for the city began in earnest in November 1943 with the first in a long series of punishing Allied air raids, with particularly severe attacks in March 1944. Somehow, Berliners managed to carry on amid the ruins.
Hitler returned to Berlin from the Alderhorst (Eagle's Nest), his retreat at Ziegenberg, by train on 16 January 1945, and as the war drew to a close, the city became the ultimate prize, at least for the Soviets. Josef Stalin wanted it desperately. So did British Prime Minister Winston L. S. Churchill, but he was overruled by U.S. leaders, who showed little interest in capturing the city, particularly after agreements setting up the postwar occupation placed Berlin deep within the Soviet zone. The supreme commander of Allied forces in the west, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, who was in any case distracted by a phantom Nazi Alpine "National Redoubt," said he had no interest in the capital. High casualty estimates for taking the city (Lieutenant General Omar Bradley posited a cost of 100,000 men) also deterred Eisenhower. Thus, although U.S. forces, including the 82nd Airborne Division, were readied for such an assault, the task was left to the Soviets.
Stalin concealed the U.S. ambivalence concerning Berlin from his front commanders, Generals Ivan S. Konev and Georgii K. Zhukov. By early February, Zhukov's 1st Belorussian Front and Konev's 1st Ukrainian Front had completed the initial phase of their advance into Germany. Zhukov's troops were across the Oder River, 100 miles from Berlin. The Soviets had surrounded large German troop concentrations at Breslau and Posen. Meanwhile, Soviet forces carried out a horrible revenge on eastern Germany, in which tens of thousands of civilians were murdered. Total casualties ranged into the millions.
Zhukov might then have pushed on to the capital in another several weeks had not Stalin ordered a halt, necessary because of logistical problems resulting from the vast distances the Soviet forces had covered to that point. Meanwhile, Konev's forces threatened the German capital from the southeast. In defense of Berlin, Hitler had only the remnants of his Third Panzer and Ninth Armies, now constituting Army Group Vistula. In March, however, he ordered that the city be held "to the last man and the last shot."
On 8 March, alarmed by the American crossing of the Rhine the day before, Stalin summoned Zhukov to Moscow to discuss an offensive against Berlin. The now rapid progress of the Western Allies eastward set off alarm bells in Moscow, and Stavka (the Soviet High Command) rushed plans for an offensive to take the German capital. On 31 March, Stalin ordered the offensive to begin. Zhukov would make the principal drive on Berlin, while Konev supported him on the left flank and Marshal Konstantin Rokossovsky's 2nd Belorussian Front on the lower Oder moved on Zhukov's right flank. Altogether, the three fronts had some 1.5 million troops, 6,250 armored vehicles, and 7,500 aircraft. Opposing them, the German Ninth Army and Third Panzer Army had only 24 understrength divisions, with 754 tanks and few aircraft.
Zhukov's frontal assaults on Berlin's defenses from the east failed. On 18 April, Stalin ordered him to go around Berlin from the north, while Konev encircled the city from the south. Hitler, meanwhile, ordered his Ninth Army to stand fast on the Oder, thus facilitating Konev's move.
On 20 April, Hitler's birthday, Konev's tanks reached Jüterbog, the airfield and key ammunition depot south of Berlin. That same day, Hitler allowed those of his entourage who wished to do so to leave the city. He pledged to stay.
The Soviets completed the encirclement of the city on 25 April. Also on that day, Soviet and U.S. forces met on the Elbe River. Hitler attempted to organize the Ninth Army as a relief force for Berlin, but it, too, was surrounded and soon destroyed. Although Lieutenant General Walther Wenck's Twelfth Army tried to relieve the city from the west, it was too weak to accomplish the task. Meanwhile, the defense of Berlin itself fell to miscellaneous German troops unfortunate enough to be pushed back there and by old men and boys hastily pressed into service for the daunting task. On 30 April, with the defenders' ammunition nearly depleted and the defenses fast crumbling and as Soviet troops took the Reichstag (Parliament) building, Hitler committed suicide. On 2 May, Lieutenant General Hans Krebs, chief of the German General Staff, surrendered Berlin.
Given their country's suffering in the war, Soviet soldiers hardly needed encouragement to destroy the German capital, the symbol of Nazism. They also committed widespread atrocities in the city both during and after its fall. Bradley's estimate of the cost of taking Berlin was, in fact, low. According to one source, the "Berlin Strategic Offensive" from April 16 to May 8, involving the 1st Belorussian, 2nd Belorussian, and 1st Ukrainian Fronts, produced a staggering total of 352,475 Soviet casualties (including 78,291 dead)—an average of 15,325 a day.
What is remarkable is how Berlin came back. It survived the destruction of the war and the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961, which divided the city into east and west portions. Today, it is once again the capital of a united, powerful, but this time peaceful German state. Spencer C. Tucker
Beevor, Antony. The Fall of Berlin, 1945. New York: Viking Penguin, 2002.; Read, Anthony, and David Fisher. The Fall of Berlin. New York: W. W. Norton, 1992.; Ryan, Cornelius. The Last Battle. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1966.
Spencer C. Tucker