Military history

Chapter 2

AT THE MAIN GATES of the base, Heinrici’s car was quickly cleared. The inner red-and-black guardrail swung up, and in a flurry of salutes the car passed into the Zossen headquarters. It was almost as though they had driven into another world. In a way it was just that—a hidden, camouflaged, orderly, military world, known only to a few and identified by the code words “Maybach I” and “Maybach II.”

The complex through which they drove was Maybach I—the headquarters of OKH, the Army High Command, headed by General Guderian. From here he directed the armies on the eastern front. A mile farther in was another completely separate encampment:Maybach II, the headquarters of OKW, Armed Forces High Command. Despite its secondary designation Maybach II was the higher authority—the headquarters of the Supreme Commander, Hitler.

Unlike General Guderian, who operated directly from his OKH headquarters, the top echelon of OKW—its Chief of Staff, Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel, and Chief of Operations, Colonel General Alfred Jodl—stayed close to Hitler wherever he chose to be. Only the operational machinery of OKW remained at Zossen. Through it Keitel and Jodl commanded the armies on the western front, besides using it as a clearinghouse for all of Hitler’s directives to the entire German armed forces.

Thus Maybach II was the holy of holies, so cut off from Guderian’s headquarters that few of his officers had even been permitted inside it. The sealing was so complete that the two headquarters were physically separated by high barbed-wire fences constantly patrolled by sentries. No one, Hitler had declared in 1941, was to know more than was necessary for the carrying out of his duties. In Guderian’s headquarters it was said that “if the enemy ever captures OKW we’ll go right on working as usual: we won’t know anything about it.”

Beneath the protective canopy of the forest, Heinrici’s car followed one of the many narrow dirt roads that crisscrossed the complex. Spotted among the trees in irregular rows were low concrete buildings. They were so spaced that they got maximum protection from the trees, but just to be sure, they had been painted in drab camouflage colors of green, brown and black. Vehicles were off the roads—parked by the sides of the barracks-like buildings beneath camouflaged netting. Sentries stood everywhere, and at strategic points around the camp the low humps of manned bunkers rose above the ground.

These were part of a warren of underground installations extending beneath the entire encampment, for there was more of Maybach I and Maybach II below ground than above. Each building had three floors underground and was connected to the next by passageways. The largest of these subterranean installations was “Exchange 500”—the biggest telephone, teletype and military radio communications exchange in Germany. It was completely self-contained, with its own air conditioning (including a special filtration system against enemy gas attacks), water supply, kitchens and living quarters. It was almost seventy feet beneath the surface—the equivalent of a seven-story building below ground.

Exchange 500 was the only facility shared by OKH and OKW. Besides connecting all the distant senior military, naval and Luftwaffe commands with the two headquarters and Berlin, it was the main exchange for the Reich government and its various administrative bodies. It had been completed in 1939, designed to serve a far-flung empire. In the main trunk or long-lines room, scores of operators sat before boards with blinking lights; above each was a small card bearing the name of a city—Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Copenhagen, Oslo and so on. But the lights had gone out on some consoles—boards that still carried labels such as Athens, Warsaw, Budapest, Rome and Paris.

Despite all the camouflaging precautions, the Zossen complex had been bombed—Heinrici could see the evidence plainly as his car rolled to a stop outside Guderian’s command building. The area was pitted with craters, trees had been uprooted, and some buildings were badly damaged. But the effect of the bombing had been minimized by the heavy construction of the buildings—some of which had walls up to three feet thick.*

There was more evidence of the attack inside the main building. The first person Heinrici and Von Bila saw was Lieutenant General Hans Krebs, Guderian’s Chief of Staff, who had been injured in the raid. Monocle rammed in his right eye, he sat behind a desk in an office close to Guderian’s, his head wrapped in a large white turban of bandages. Heinrici did not care much for Krebs. Though the Chief of Staff was extremely intelligent, Heinrici saw him as “a man who refused to believe the truth, who could change black to white so as to minimize the true situation for Hitler.”

Heinrici looked at him. Foregoing the niceties, he asked abruptly, “What happened to you?”

Krebs shrugged. “Oh, it was nothing,” he replied. “Nothing.” Krebs had always been unperturbable. Before the war he had been military attaché at the German Embassy in Moscow, and he spoke near-perfect Russian. After the signing of the Russo-Japanese Neutrality Pact in 1941, Stalin had embraced Krebs, saying, “We shall always be friends.” Now, chatting casually with Heinrici, Krebs mentioned that he was still learning Russian. “Every morning,” he said, “I place a dictionary on a shelf beneath the mirror and while shaving, learn a few more words.” Heinrici nodded. Krebs might find his Russian useful soon.

Major Freytag von Loringhoven, Guderian’s aide, joined them at that moment. With him was Captain Gerhard Boldt, another member of Guderian’s personal staff. They formally greeted Heinrici and Von Bila, then escorted them to the General’s offices. To Von Bila, everyone seemed immaculately dressed in shining, high boots, well-cut, well-pressed field-gray uniforms with the red tabs of staff rank at the collar. Heinrici, walking ahead with Von Loringhoven, seemed, as usual, sartorially out of place—especially from behind. The fur-collared sheepskin coat made Von Bila wince.

Von Loringhoven disappeared into Guderian’s office, returned a few moments later and held the door open for Heinrici. “Herr Generaloberst Heinrici,” he announced as Heinrici passed through. Von Loringhoven closed the door and then joined Boldt and Von Bila in the anteroom.

Guderian was sitting behind a large, paper-strewn desk. As Heinrici entered, he rose, warmly greeted the visitor, offered him a chair and for a few moments talked about Heinrici’s trip. Heinrici saw that Guderian was tense and edgy. Broad-shouldered, of medium height, with thinning gray hair and a straggling moustache, Guderian seemed much older than his fifty-six years. Although it was not generally known, he was a sick man, suffering from high blood pressure and a weak heart—a condition that was not alleviated by his constant frustrations. These days the creator of Hitler’s massive panzer forces—the General whose armored techniques had brought about the capture of France in 1940 in just twenty-seven days and who had nearly succeeded in accomplishing as much in Russia—found himself almost completely powerless. Even as Chief of the General Staff he had virtually no influence with Hitler. A hot-tempered officer at the best of times, Guderian was now so thwarted, Heinrici had heard, that he was subject to violent rages.

As they talked Heinrici looked about him. The office was spartan: a large map table, several straight-backed chairs, two phones, a green-shaded lamp on the desk, and nothing on the yellow-beige walls except the usual framed picture of Hitler, which hung over the map table. The Chief of the General Staff did not even have an easy chair.

Though Guderian and Heinrici were not intimate friends, they had known each other for years, respected each other’s professional competence and were close enough to converse freely and informally. As soon as they got down to business, Heinrici spokefrankly. “General,” he said, “I’ve been in the wilds of Hungary. I know almost nothing about Army Group Vistula, what it’s composed of or what the situation is on the Oder.”

Guderian was equally blunt. Briskly he replied, “I should tell you, Heinrici, that Hitler didn’t want to give you this command. He had somebody else in mind.”

Heinrici remained silent.

Guderian continued: “I was responsible. I told Hitler that you were the one man needed. At first he wouldn’t consider you at all. Finally, I got him to agree.”

Guderian spoke in a businesslike, matter-of-fact fashion, but as he warmed to his subject the tone of his voice changed. Even twenty years later Heinrici would remember in detail the tirade that followed.

“Himmler,” Guderian snapped. “That was the biggest problem. Getting rid of the man you’re to replace—Himmler!”

Abruptly he got up from his chair, walked around the desk and began pacing the room. Heinrici had only recently learned that Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler was commander of the Army Group Vistula. The news had so astonished him that at first he did not believe it. He knew of Himmler as a member of Hitler’s inner cabinet—probably the most powerful man in Germany next to the Führer. He did not know that Himmler had any experience commanding troops in the field—let alone directing the activities of a group of armies.

Bitterly Guderian recounted how in January, as the Polish front began to collapse before the tidal wave of the Red Army, he had desperately urged the formation of Army Group Vistula. At that time it was envisioned as a northern complex of armies holding a major defense line between the Oder and the Vistula, roughly from East Prussia to a point farther south where it would link with another army group. If the line held it would prevent the Russian avalanche from driving directly into the very heart of Germany, through lower Pomerania and Upper Silesia, then into Brandenburg and finally—Berlin.

To command the group Guderian had suggested Field Marshal Freiherr von Weichs. “At the time he was just the man for this situation,” Guderian said. “What happened? Hitler said Von Weichs was too old. Jodl was present at the conference and I expected him to support me. But he made some remark about Von Weichs’s religious feelings. That ended the matter.

“Then,” thundered Guderian, “whom did we get? Hitler appointed Himmler! Of all people—Himmler!”

Guderian had, in his own words, “argued and pleaded against the appalling and preposterous appointment” of this man who had no military knowledge. But Hitler remained adamant. Under Himmler the front had all but collapsed. The Red Army had moved exactly as Guderian had predicted. Once the Russians were across the Vistula, part of their forces swung north and reached the Baltic at Danzig, cutting off and encircling some twenty to twenty-five divisions in East Prussia alone. The remaining Soviet armies sliced through Pomerania and upper Silesia, and reached the Oder and Neisse rivers. Everywhere along the eastern front the German line was overwhelmed. But no sector had collapsed so fast as Himmler’s. His failure had opened the gates to the main drive across Germany and the link-up with the Western Allies. Above all, it had placed Berlin in jeopardy.

Guderian told Heinrici that, just forty-eight hours before, he had driven to the Army Group Vistula headquarters at Birkenhain, roughly fifty miles north of Berlin, to try to persuade Himmler to give up the command. There, he was informed that Himmler was ill. He had finally located the SS commander twenty miles away, near the town of Lychen, “cowering in a sanatorium with nothing more than a head cold.”

Guderian quickly saw that Himmler’s “illness” could be used to advantage. He expressed sympathy with the Reichsführer, and suggested that perhaps he had been overworking, that the number of posts he held would “tax the strength of any man.” Besides being the commander of Army Group Vistula, the ambitious Himmler was also Minister of the Interior; Chief of the Gestapo, the German police forces and security services; head of the SS, and Commander of the Training Army. Why not relinquish one of these posts, Guderian suggested—say, the Army Group Vistula?

Himmler grasped at the proposal. It was all too true, he told Guderian; his many jobs did, indeed, call for enormous endurance. “But,” Himmler asked, “how can I possibly suggest to the Führer that I give up Vistula?” Guderian quickly told Himmler that, given the authorization, he would suggest it. Himmler quickly agreed. That night, added Guderian, “Hitler relieved the overworked, overburdened Reichsführer, but only after a lot of grumbling and with obvious reluctance.”

Guderian paused, but only for a moment. His acrimonious recital of disaster had been punctuated by bursts of anger. Now he flared again. His voice choking with rage, he said: “The mess we’re in is fantastic. The way the war is being run is unbelievable. Unbelievable!”

Through the previous months, Guderian recalled, he had tried to get Hitler to understand that “the real danger lay on the eastern front,” and that “drastic measures were necessary.” He urged a series of strategic withdrawals from the Baltic States—particularly from Courland in Latvia—and from the Balkans, and even suggested abandoning Norway and Italy. Everywhere lines needed shortening; each division relieved could be sped to the Russian front. According to intelligence, the Russians had twice as many divisions as the Western Allies—yet there were fewer German divisions fighting in the east than the west. Furthermore, the best German divisions were facing Eisenhower. But Hitler refused to go on the defensive; he would not believe the facts and figures that were placed before him.

Then, Guderian declared, “Hitler made possibly his greatest error.” In December, 1944, he unleashed his massive, last-throw-of-the-dice offensive against the Western Allies through the rolling forests of the Ardennes in Belgium and northern Luxembourg. The attack, Hitler boasted, would split the Allies and change the whole course of the war. Against the center of the Allied line he hurled three fully equipped armies—a total of twenty divisions of which twelve were armored. Their objective: to break through, reach the Meuse, and then swing north to capture the vital supply port of Antwerp. Caught off balance, the Allies reeled under the blow and fell back with heavy losses. But the offensive soon petered out. Swiftly recovering, Allied troops drove Hitler’s shattered armies back behind Germany’s borders in just five weeks.

“When it became obvious that the offensive had failed,” Guderian said, “I begged Hitler to get our troops out of the Ardennes and put them on the eastern front, where we expected the Russian offensive at any moment. It was no use—he refused to believe our estimates of their strength.”

On January 9 Guderian told Hitler that the Russians could be expected to launch their attack from the Baltic to the Balkans with a massive force totaling some 225 divisions and 22 armored corps. The situation estimate had been prepared by General Reinhard Gehlen, Guderian’s Chief of Intelligence. It indicated that the Russians would outnumber the Germans in infantry by eleven to one, in armor by seven to one, in both artillery and aircraft by at least twenty to one. Hitler pounded the table and in a frenzy denounced the author of the report. “Who prepared this rubbish?” he roared. “Whoever he is, he should be committed to a lunatic asylum!” Three days later the Russians attacked, and Gehlen was proved right.

“The front virtually collapsed,” Guderian told Heinrici, “simply because most of our panzer forces were tied down in the west. Finally Hitler agreed to shift some of the armor, but he would not let me use the tanks to attack the Russian spearheads east of Berlin. Where did he send them? To Hungary, where they were thrown into a perfectly useless attack to recapture the oilfields.

“Why, even now,” he fumed, “there are eighteen divisions sitting in Courland—tied down, doing nothing. They are needed here—not in the Baltic States! If we’re going to survive, everything has got to be on the Oder front.”

Guderian paused and, with an effort, calmed himself. Then he said: “The Russians are looking down our throats. They’ve halted their offensive to reorganize and regroup. We estimate that you’ll have three to four weeks—until the floods go down—to prepare. In that time the Russians will try to establish new bridgeheads on the western bank and broaden those they already have. These have to be thrown back. No matter what happens elsewhere, the Russians must be stopped on the Oder. It’s our only hope.”

*Zossen was, in fact, heavily bombed by the Americans just seven days before, on March 15, at the request of the Russians. The message from Marshal Sergei V. Khudyakov of the Red Army staff, to General John R. Deane, chief of the U.S. Military Mission in Moscow, now on file in Washington and Moscow, and appearing here for the first time, is an astonishing document for the insight it offers into the extent of Russian intelligence in Germany: “Dear General Deane: According to information we have, the General Staff of the German Army is situated 38 kms. south of Berlin, in a specially fortified underground shelter called by the Germans ‘The Citadel.’ It is located … 5½ to 6 kms. south-southeast of Zossen and from 1 to 1½ kms. east of a wide highway … [Reichsstrasse 96] which runs parallel to the railroad from Berlin to Dresden. The area occupied by the underground fortifications … covers about 5 to 6 square kilometers. The whole territory is surrounded by wired entanglements several rows in depth, and is very strongly guarded by an SS regiment. According to the same source the construction of the underground fortification was started in 1936. In 1938 and 1939 the strength of the fortifications was tested by the Germans against bombing from the air and against artillery fire. I ask you, dear General, not to refuse the kindness as soon as possible to give directions to the Allies’ air forces to bomb ‘The Citadel’ with heavy bombs. I am sure that as a result … the German General Staff, if still located there, will receive damage and losses which will stop its normal work … and [may] have to be moved elsewhere. Thus the Germans will lose a well-organized communications center and headquarters. Enclosed is a map with the exact location of the German General Staff [headquarters].”

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