Seelow and the Spree

After Stalin's two midnight telephone conversations on 16 April, the race between Zhukov and Konev began in earnest. Konev, incited by Stalin, rose enthusiastically to the challenge. Zhukov, although rattled by the setback on the Seelow Heights, believed that Berlin was his by right.

The overcast sky and drizzle gave way to better weather on Tuesday 17 April. The Shturmoviks were able to attack the remaining German positions on the Seelow Heights with much greater accuracy. Down on the Oderbruch and up on the escarpment, small towns, hamlets and individual farmhouses still burned. The Soviet artillery and aviation had targeted any building in case it housed a command post. This resulted in an overpowering smell of charred flesh, mostly human in the villages and livestock on the farms. The shelling of farm buildings as likely depots and headquarters led to a terrible slaughter of animals unable to escape from being burned alive.

Behind the indistinct German lines, dressing stations were filled with wounded far beyond the capacity of the doctors. A stomach wound was as good as a death sentence under the system of triage, since the surgery it required took too long. The first priority for treatment were those capable of further combat. Specially detailed officers trawled the field hospitals for walking wounded capable of firing a gun.

The Feldgendarmerie at their improvised roadblocks were always on the lookout for stragglers, whether fit or lightly wounded, who could be forced back into scratch companies. As soon as a reasonable number had been assembled, they were marched into the line. Soldiers called the Feldgendarmerie not only 'chain-hounds', but also 'Heldenklauen', or 'heroic talons', because they saw no fighting yet snatched anybody who retreated.

In their brutal zeal, the Feldgendarmerie often grabbed men who were genuinely trying to rejoin their battalions. They then found themselves mixed in with stragglers and fifteen- or sixteen-year-old Hitler Youth, some of whom were still in shorts. A smaller size of steel helmet had been manufactured for boy soldiers, but not nearly enough were produced. Their tense, pale faces could barely be seen under helmets that dropped over their ears. A group of Soviet sappers from the 3rd Shock Army called forward to clear a minefield were taken by surprise when a dozen Germans emerged from a trench to surrender. Suddenly a boy appeared from a bunker. 'He was wearing a long trench-coat and a cap,' recorded Captain Sulkhanishvili. 'He fired a burst with his sub-machine gun. But then, seeing that I didn't fall over, he dropped his sub-machine gun and started to sob. He tried to shout, "Hitler kaputt, Stalin gut!" I laughed. I hit him only once in the face. Poor boys, I felt sorry for them.'

The most dangerous of the Hitler Youth were often those whose homes and families had been ripped apart in the east by the Red Army. The only course for them seemed to be death in battle, taking as many hated Bolsheviks with them as possible.

The fighting qualities of the German Army had not yet collapsed, as Zhukov and his troops found to their cost. Another artillery and aviation bombardment on the morning of 17 April, followed by a renewed advance by Katukov and Bogdanov's tank armies, did not achieve the success which Zhukov had promised Stalin. The 88mm anti-aircraft guns and tank-hunting infantry with panzerfausts immobilized many of the tanks. At midday, almost as soon as Katukov's tank brigades moved into Dolgelin and Friedersdorf, they faced a counter-attack by the remaining Panther tanks of the Kurmark Panzer Division.

General Yushchuk's 11th Tank Corps, on the other hand, managed to surround Seelow itself astride the Reichstrasse 1, the old Prussian highway which used to lead from Berlin all the way to the now destroyed East Prussian capital of Königsberg. But Yushchuk's tanks soon found themselves under fire from the artillery of the neighbouring 5th Shock Army. This led to a 'distinctly uncultured' row with Berzarin's headquarters. It was not just the tank troops which suffered. 'In the opinion of the infantry,' a report on the fighting stated tactfully, 'the artillery is not firing at precise targets but at general area targets.'

In the confused fighting round Seelow, Yushchuk's tanks were repeat- edly attacked with panzerfausts fired at close range. His soldiers responded by grabbing wire-sprung mattresses from nearby houses and fastening them to their turrets and flanks. This improvised spaced armour made the hollow-charge of the panzerfaust detonate before hitting the hull or turret.

The T-34s and Stalin tanks of both Guards Tank Armies 'ironed' any trenches which they encountered, although most had by now been abandoned. In the more northerly part of the Oderbruch, the 3rd Shock Army, supported on its right by the 47th Army, pushed back the forward units of the CI Corps, many of whose regiments had been almost entirely composed of young trainees and officer candidates. The 'Potsdam' Regiment, which had reassembled near Neutrebbin, pulled back further behind the marshy banks of the Alte Oder, which was nearly ten metres wide at that point. There were only thirty-four boys left on their feet.

Again they heard the noise of tank engines. 'We infantry were once again the idiots. We were expected to halt the Russian advance when all the other arms were pulling back westwards.' Only a few self-propelled assault guns were left to take on Soviet tanks. The divisional artillery, having fired the last of their few rounds of ammunition, had blown up their guns and left. Not surprisingly, many of the infantry had slipped off with those withdrawing. Discipline was beginning to disintegrate, accelerated by feverish rumours that a cease-fire with the Western Allies had already begun.

In the centre, the 9th Parachute Division had completely collapsed.

Its humiliated commander was General Bruno Bräuer, who had commanded the airborne assault on Heraklion in Crete. Bra'uer, an elegant man who used a cigarette holder, had later become the garrison commander on Crete. Yet despite all of Göring's preposterous boasts about his superhuman warriors, who had been kitted out to look the part with the paratrooper's rimless helmet, Bräuer was in fact commanding Luftwaffe ground personnel. Most had never jumped from an aircraft in their life, let alone seen action. When the bombardment and assault began, the officers were unable to control their panic-stricken men, especially when subjected to a katyusha rocket attack.

Colonel Menke, the commander of the 27th Parachute Regiment, had been killed when T-34s broke through near his headquarters. Only during the late morning of 17 April did the division rally a little, when armoured support arrived in the form of Panthers, Panzer Mark IVs and half-tracks. But the collapse started again soon afterwards. Wöhlermann, the artillery commander of LVI Corps, came upon Bräuer and found him 'completely shattered by the flight of his men'. The highly strung Bräuer suffered a nervous collapse and was relieved of his command. He was a truly unfortunate man. Shortly after the war he was tried and convicted in Athens for atrocities committed under another general on Crete and executed in 1947.

At 6.30 p.m., Ribbentrop arrived unannounced at Weidling's headquarters, demanding to be briefed on the situation. Wohlermann hap- pened to arrive at that moment. 'This is my artillery commander, who has just arrived from the front,' said Weidling. Wöhlermann received a flabby handshake from the foreign minister. 'He can report on the situation,' Weidling added. Then, having indicated that his subordinate should hold nothing back, Weidling sat down next to Ribbentrop to listen. Wöhlermann's 'report had a devastating effect on the foreign minister'. Ribbentrop asked one or two questions in a hoarse, barely audible voice. All he could do was make evasive references to a possible 'twelfth-hour' change in the situation and hint at negotiations with the Americans and the British. It was perhaps this assertion that prompted General Busse to send the signal, 'Hold on for two more days, then everything will be sorted out'. This suggestion of a deal with the Western Allies was the ultimate lie of the Nazi leadership.

Stragglers from the Oder flood plain pulled back into woods on the steep slope of the Seelow escarpment, often to find Soviet infantry and tank formations ahead of them. Groups of nervous soldiers often fired at their own side and both Soviet artillery and aviation continued to bombard their own men as much as the Germans. The Luftwaffe put up as many Focke-Wulf fighters that day as it could to oppose the onslaught and towards evening German aircraft attacked the pontoon bridges over the Oder, but in vain. A report from an unidentified source claimed that 'German pilots frequently death-dive into Russian bombers, causing both [to] plunge flaming groundwards'. If true, this would have signified a notable reversal of roles from 1941, when desperately brave Soviet pilots rammed their Luftwaffe attackers on the first day of Operation Barbarossa.

What is even more striking is the reported use of a kamikaze squadron against the Soviet bridges across the Oder. The Luftwaffe appears to have invented its own term - Selbstopfereinsatz, or 'self-sacrifice mission'. The pilots of the Leonidas squadron, based at Jüterbog and commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Heiner Lange, supposedly signed a declaration which ended with the words, 'I am above all clear that the mission will end in my death.' On the evening of 16 April, there was a farewell dance for the pilots on the base with young women from the Luftwaffe signals unit there. The dance ended with a final song. Major General Fuchs, the overall commander, was 'fighting back his tears'.

The next morning, the first of the so-called 'total missions' were flown against the thirty-two 'over-water and under-water bridges' repaired or built by Soviet engineers. The Germans used a variety of aircraft - Focke-Wulf 190, Messerschmitt 109 and Junkers 88 — whatever was available.

One of the 'self-sacrifice pilots' flying the next day was Ernst Beichl, in a Focke-Wulf with a 500-kilogram bomb. His target was the pontoon bridge near Zellin. Air reconnaissance later reported it destroyed, but claims that a total of seventeen bridges were destroyed in the course of three days seem wildly exaggerated. The only other one that genuinely appears to have been hit was the railway bridge at Küstrin. Thirty-five pilots and aircraft were a high price to pay for such a limited and temporary success.

This did not stop Major General Fuchs from sending their names in a special birthday message 'to the Führer on his imminent fifty-sixth birthday'. It was just the sort of present that he appreciated most.

The whole operation had to be abandoned suddenly because Marshal Konev's tank armies, charging unexpectedly towards Berlin from the south-east, threatened their base at Jüterbog.

The fortunes of war still favoured Konev's 1st Ukrainian Front after its attack across the Neisse. The 13th Army and the 5th Guards Army had broken open the second line of German defence. Even while heavy fighting continued on either side, Konev sent through his leading tank brigades to race for the River Spree between Cottbus and Spremberg.

Large patches of pine forest burned fiercely from the renewed bombardments of both artillery and ground-attack Shturmoviks. These fires were dangerous for tanks which carried their fuel reserves in barrels strapped to the back. But speed was vital, because they had a chance of breaching the Spree barrier before the Fourth Panzer Army could reorganize a new line of defence. Konev's troops scented victory. There was a feeling in the 4th Guards Tank Army that 'if the Germans could not hold on to the Neisse, they can't do anything now'. Commanders carried out a weapon inspection before the assault. A young Communist was found to have a rusty weapon. 'How are you going to fire it?' the officer yelled at him. 'You should be an example to everyone, but your own weapon is dirty!'

An armoured breakthrough towards Berlin ran the risk of a German counter-thrust to its lines of communications. Konev therefore angled Zhadov's 5th Guards Army to the left towards Spremberg and the 3rd Guards Army to the right to force the Germans back on Cottbus.

That evening, when the leading brigades of the 3rd Guards Tank Army reached the Spree, General Rybalko, their army commander, who took pride in leading from the front, did not wait for bridging equipment to come up. He selected a point which looked as if it might not be too deep, then sent a tank straight into the river, which was about fifty metres wide at this point. The water rose above the tracks but no more.

The tank brigade followed across in line, fording the river like cavalry. Unlike cavalry, however, they could ignore the German machine guns firing at them from the far bank. The bulk of both tank armies was able to follow on across the Spree during the night.

Konev knew that his tanks would find the lakes, marshes, watercourses and pine forests of the Lausitz region difficult going, but if they were quick, the roads to Berlin would be sparsely defended. The German Fourth Panzer Army had already committed its operational reserve in an attempt to hold the second line, while commanders in Berlin would be more preoccupied by the threat from Zhukov's armies.

Konev had come to a similar conclusion to Zhukov, that it was easier to break the enemy early in the open than later in Berlin. But he did not mention this when he spoke to Stalin that evening on the radio-telephone from his forward command post, a castle perched on a small hill with views across the top of the surrounding pine forests.

Konev had almost finished his report when Stalin suddenly interrupted him. 'With Zhukov things are not going so well yet. He is still breaking through the enemy defences.' A long pause followed, which Konev decided not to break. 'Couldn't we,' Stalin continued, 'redeploy Zhukov's mobile troops and send them against Berlin through the gap formed in the sector of your Front?' This was probably not a serious proposal, but a gambit to make Konev put forward his own plan.

'Comrade Stalin,' he replied, 'this will take too much time and will add considerable confusion . . . The situation for our Front is developing favourably, we have enough forces and we can turn both tank armies against Berlin.' Konev then said that he would advance via Zossen, which they both knew was the headquarters of OKH.

'Very good,' Stalin replied. 'I agree. Turn the tank armies towards Berlin.'

In the government quarter of Berlin during the course of 17 April, nobody really knew what to do except draft stirring declarations combined with further threats of execution. 'No German town will be declared an open city', read the order sent by Himmler to all military commanders. 'Every village and every town will be defended with all possible means. Any German who offends against this self-evident duty to the nation will lose his life as well as his honour.' He ignored the fact that the German artillery was virtually out of ammunition, tanks were already being abandoned for lack of fuel and the soldiers themselves were without food.

Nazi bureaucracy, even at the lowest levels, did not change in the face of annihilation. The little town of Woltersdorf, just south of the Reichstrasse 1 to Berlin, found itself overrun with refugees on 17 April. Yet the local authorities still allowed just their 'non-employed [inhabitants] and those not liable for Volkssturm service' to leave, and then only if they had 'written confirmation from their host location' that shelter was available. In addition, each person had to seek permission of the Kreisabschnittsleiter, the Nazi district chief. The local spirit of resistance, however, was far from fanatical. The town's Volkssturm emergency platoon asked permission to be excused further duty.

Konev's forces were now less than eighty kilometres to the south-west of the OKH and OKW command centres at Zossen. Yet neither the Fourth Panzer Army nor Field Marshal Schörner's Army Group Centre had reported that the Soviet 3rd and 4th Guards Tank Armies were crossing the Spree in force and that there were no further reserves to stop them. The attention of staff officers at Zossen was fixed primarily on the struggle for the Seelow Heights.

General Heinrici had already sent the major part of his army group reserve — Steiner's III SS Germanische Panzer Corps — to support Busse's beleaguered Ninth Army. The 11th SS Division Nordland received orders at midday on 17 April to move south to Seelow. The Nordland consisted mainly of Danes and Norwegians but also Swedes, Finns and Estonians. Some have suggested that there was even a handful of British in its ranks, but this seems more than doubtful. Commanded by SS Brigadeführer Joachim Ziegler, it had around fifty armoured vehicles, mainly with its reconnaissance battalion and the Hermann von Salza Panzer Battalion. The bulk of the remaining manpower was with the 'Danmark' and the 'Norge' panzergrenadier regiments, and a sapper battalion. The Nordland, which had been evacuated from the Courland encirclement and then thrown into the heavy fighting for the Oder estuary east of Stettin, had suffered just under 15,000 casualties since the beginning of the year, with 4,500 killed or missing.

Heinrici sent another formation of foreign Waffen SS, the Nederland Division, even further south. Its destination was south-west of Frankfurt an der Oder and Müllrose, where it would come under the command of the V SS Mountain Corps. Relations between SS and Wehrmacht were enflamed. Himmler was furious that Heinrici should strip Steiner's SS Corps of his strongest divisions. And the Nordland itself, demonstrating great reluctance to serve under an army commander, did not exactly hurry to join its new formation..

Dawn on Wednesday 18 April produced a red sky along the eastern horizon. Those still fighting to cling on to the Seelow Heights were filled with foreboding. It was not long before they heard the deep, harsh noise of tank engines and churning tracks. Air attacks began soon afterwards. Shturmoviks again dive-bombed the Nordland column while it was still some way from the front, and the SS panzergrenadiers in the open trucks were showered with earth. Ziegler had gone on ahead to Weidling's headquarters to inform him that his vehicles had run out of fuel and that was why the division was taking so long to get to him. Weidling was furious.

Zhukov, too, was in a dangerous mood that morning. He now knew that Konev's tank armies had been allowed to swing north on Berlin. Stalin had also raised the possibility during their night-time conversation of turning Rokossovsky's 2nd Belorussian Front down towards Berlin once it crossed the Oder to the north. The Verkhovny had goaded him even further by offering Stavka advice on how to run his Front. Zhukov's orders to his army commanders that morning were uncompromising. They were to reconnoitre their front in person and report back on the exact situation. Artillery was to be moved forward to take on German strongpoints over open sights. The advance was to be accelerated and continued day and night. Once again, soldiers were to pay with their lives for the mistakes made by a proud commander under pressure from above.

After another heavy barrage and bombing raids, Zhukov's exhausted armies went back into the attack early that morning. On the right, the 4yth Army attacked Wriezen. The 3rd Shock Army pushed up to the Wriezen-Seelow road, but met heavy resistance around Kunersdorf. The 5th Shock Army and 2nd Guards Tank Army managed to push across the road north of Neuhardenberg but were also halted. Chuikov's 8th Guards Army and Katukov's 1st Guards Tank Army, meanwhile, continued to hammer at the town of Seelow itself and the Friedersdorf-Dolgelin sector. Chuikov was furious that the neighbouring 69th Army on his left had hardly advanced at all. This exposed his flank dangerously.

But fortunately for him, all of Busse's forces were heavily engaged already.

In fact, both of Zhukov's extreme flanks had met with little success. South of Frankfurt, the 33rd Army was still grinding down the defences of the SS 30. Januar Division in the V SS Mountain Corps. And at the extreme northern end of the Oderbruch, the 61st Army and the 1st Polish Army had not been able to advance until Wriezen was taken.

The breakthrough came suddenly just behind Seelow on the Reichstrasse 1. At 9.40 a.m. on 18 April, Colonel Eismann at Army Group Vistula headquarters received a message that 'leading enemy armoured groups had broken through at Diedersdorf'. They were heading for Müncheberg along the Reichstrasse 1. The infantry was running away.

Twenty minutes later, on Heinrici's insistence, Eismann was ringing Colonel de Maizière at OKH to find out what had happened to the 7th Panzer Division, which he needed to secure the gap between the left of the Ninth Army and the right flank of the Third Panzer Army.

At midday Busse rang Heinrici. 'Today is the moment of crisis,' he reported. The two main thrusts were coming from south-west of Wriezen and along the Reichstrasse 1. Busse saw that his army was being broken up. The 3rd Shock Army and the 5th Shock Army were splitting open the front between Wriezen and Seelow. Half a dozen kilometres west of Seelow, near the village of Alt Rosenthal, the Germans launched a counter-attack with infantry and tanks. Major Andreev of the 248th Rifle Division in the 5th Shock Army left two of his companies to hold the thrust, while he led another company round to attack the Germans from the rear. 'His battalion liquidated 153 soldiers and officers and two tanks.'

It was a pitiless battle. At Hermersdorf, south-west of Neuhardenberg, Soviet infantry advanced past a T-34 still burning from a panzerfaust. A German soldier in a nearby foxhole screamed to them for help. A grenade dropped in the foxhole had blown off his feet and he lacked the strength to pull himself out. But the Red Army soldiers left him there, despite his cries, in revenge for the burned crew.

At 4.20 p.m., Göring, furious at the collapse of the 9th Parachute Division, rang Army Group Vistula headquarters to order that General Bräuer should be stripped of his command immediately. At 6.45 p.m., General Busse rang Heinrici. The split in his army was unavoidable. 'Which sector,' he asked, 'is more important from a command point of view, north or south?'

At 7.50 p.m., the Luftwaffe liaison officer informed the operations staff at Army Group Vistula that their aircraft had destroyed fifty-three enemy planes, forty-three tanks and another nineteen 'probables'. Somebody on the staff added two exclamation marks in pencil in the war diary to demonstrate their scepticism at these claims. The fighting was violent, but German claims of Red Army losses were highly inflated. The Nazi newspaper Der Angriff stated that '426 Soviet tanks' had been destroyed on that day alone. Nevertheless, Soviet casualties had indeed been much heavier than German losses. Zhukov, in his desperation to capture the Seelow Heights, had lost just over 30,000 men killed, while the Germans lost 12,000 during the battle.

German prisoners sent towards the rear were overawed by the endless columns of tanks, self-propelled guns and other tracked vehicles moving forward. 'And this is the army,' some of them thought, 'which in 1941 was supposed to have been at its last gasp.' Soviet infantrymen coming up the other side of the road would greet them with cries of 'Gitler kapuuutt!', accompanied by a throat-cutting gesture.

One of the German prisoners was convinced that a number of the dead they passed were 'Soviet soldiers who had been crushed by their own tanks'. He also saw Russian soldiers trying out some captured panzerfausts by firing them at the wall of a half-ruined house. Others were stripping greatcoats from their own dead, and in one village, he saw a couple of soldiers taking pot shots at nesting storks. Target practice seemed compulsive even after the battle. Some of the prisoners, taken to the magnificent schloss at Neuhardenberg, were alarmed when their escort, spotting a 'superb chandelier', raised his sub-machine gun and fired a burst at it. A senior officer reprimanded him, 'but that seemed to make little impression'.

'In the town of Gusow', a detachment of the 5th Shock Army reported, 'we freed sixteen Soviet women. Soldier Tsynbaluk recognized a girl he knew from home. Her name was Tatyana Shesteryakova. The women told the soldiers of their terrible suffering during their slavery. They also mentioned that before fleeing, their ex-owner, Frau Fischke said, "For us, the Russians are worse than death."' Political departments claimed that Red Army soldiers were outraged by the 'fascist propaganda' slogans daubed on walls about defending German womanhood from the Bolsheviks.

South of Berlin, Konev had an uneasy moment on 18 April. Field Marshal Schörner, the commander-in-chief of Army Group Centre, alarmed by the breakthrough on the Spree, sent in a counter-attack near Görlitz against the flank of the 52nd Army heading for Dresden. But Schorner's failure to concentrate his forces — in his haste he sent them into the attack piecemeal - made it comparatively easy for the 52nd Army to fight them off. The 2nd Polish Army at first did not have to halt its advance. But repeated attacks over the next few days slowed them down considerably.

Konev carried on pushing the 13th Army across the Spree behind his two tank armies. All this time, Gordov's 3rd Guards Army kept the pressure on the Germans round Cottbus and Zhadov's 5th Guards Army continued to attack Spremberg, thus securing the breach. Konev also instructed his staff" to assemble all the trucks they could. The leading formations of the 28th Army, arriving as reinforcements, were now across the Neisse, and he wanted to hurry them forward to support the tank forces advancing on Berlin. By the end of that day, Rybalko's 3rd Guards Tank Army had advanced thirty-five kilometres beyond the Spree, while Lelyushenko, facing less resistance, had moved forward forty-five.

In the afternoon, General Reymann, the commander of the Berlin Defence Area, had received an order to send all the Volkssturm units out of the city to the Ninth Army to strengthen a new line. Reymann was appalled that the city was to be stripped of its defences. When Goebbels, as Reich Defence Commissar for Berlin, confirmed the order, Reymann warned him that 'a defence of the capital of the Reich is now unthinkable'. Reymann had not realized that this was just what Speer and Heinrici had wanted in order to save Berlin. In the event, less than ten battalions and a few anti-aircraft guns were sent westward. They marched out of the city in the early hours of the following morning. News of this order, according to Speer, created a widespread assumption that 'Berlin would in effect be an open city'.

General Weidling, to his exasperation, found that he had another self-important visitor from Berlin. This time it was Artur Axmann, the head of the Hitler Youth. Weidling tried to persuade him that it was futile to throw fifteen- and sixteen-year-olds armed with panzerfausts into the battle. It was 'the sacrifice of children for an already doomed cause'. Axmann was prepared only to admit 'that his youngsters had not received enough training'. Despite an assurance to Weidling that he would not use them, he clearly did nothing to withdraw them from combat. An even more chilling measure of Nazi desperation that day was the beheading of thirty political prisoners in Plb'tzensee prison.

On the Ninth Army's northern flank, the CI Corps had retreated less on 18 April than its neighbours. But this meant that many of its regiments soon found that Soviet troops were already well to their rear. One detachment, the remains of an officer candidate regiment, sent a couple of their comrades back to headquarters that evening to find out what had happened to their rations. The two returned out of breath and shaken. 'The Russians are eating our supper right now,' they said.

Nobody had any idea where the enemy had broken through and where the front line now lay. They grabbed their equipment and marched back through the darkness, bypassing a village ablaze. The billowing black clouds reflected a bright red glow from the flames.

That night, a massive katyusha strike destroyed and set light to the village of Wulkow, behind Neuhardenberg. Almost all its houses were crammed with exhausted German soldiers who had fallen asleep. The state of the burned and panic-stricken survivors was terrible. The Nordland reconnaissance battalion also suffered a katyusha strike. They lost more men in a few moments than in all the bitter fighting round Stettin a few weeks earlier.

On 19 April, the Ninth Army began to split up in three main directions, as General Busse had feared. The Red Army's capture of Wriezen and the 3rd Shock Army's advance further westward on to the plateau behind Neuhardenberg forced CI Corps back towards Eberswalde and the countryside north of Berlin. Weidling's LVI Panzer Corps in the centre began to withdraw due west into Berlin. And on the right, the XI SS Panzer Corps began to withdraw south-westwards towards Fürstenwalde. The Kurmark Division had less than a dozen Panther tanks left.

That day, the 1st Guards Tank Army and Chuikov's 8th Guards Army pushed on from Seelow along Reichstrasse 1 towards the key town of Müncheberg. The remains of the 9th Parachute Division, which had rallied the day before, fled in panic again, shouting, 'Der Iwan kommt.' The reconnaissance battalion of the SS Nordland Division, which had finally reached the front, rounded up some of the para- troopers, gave them ammunition and brought them back into the battle in a temporarily successful counter-attack.

The retreat along Reichstrasse 1 and for quite a distance on either side soon collapsed into chaos and misery. 'Are you the last?' everyone asked. And the reply always seemed to be, 'The Russians are right behind us.' Soldiers of all arms and services were mixed up together, Wehrmacht and Waffen SS alike. The most exhausted flopped down under a tree and stretched out their legs. The local population, hearing that the front had collapsed, swamped the roads to seek shelter in Berlin. Soldiers passed refugees with carts halted by a broken axle or wheel, often hindering military traffic. Officers stood in their Kübelwagen vehicles to shout at the unfortunates to push their obstruction off the road or to order a group of resting soldiers to do it. In the retreat, officers found that they had to draw their pistol more and more often to have their orders obeyed..

The Feldgendarmerie and SS groups continued to search for deserters. No records were kept of the roadside executions carried out, but anecdotal evidence suggests that on the XI SS Corps sector, many, including a number of Hitler Youth, were hanged from trees on the flimsiest of proof. This was nothing short of murder. Soviet sources claim that 25,000 German soldiers and officers were summarily executed for cowardice in 1945. This figure is almost certainly too high, but it was unlikely to have been lower than 10,000.

Executions by the SS were even more unforgivable since word was being passed round SS formations that they were to pull back 'with orders to reassemble in Schleswig-Holstein' near the Danish border, which was not exactly the best place from which to fight the Russians.

They did not appear to know that the British Second Army had reached the Elbe at Lauenburg that day, just south-east of Hamburg.

The 19th of April was another beautiful spring day, providing Soviet aviation with perfect visibility. Every time Shturmoviks came over, strafing and bombing, the road emptied as people threw themselves in the ditches. Women and girls from nearby villages, terrified of the Red Army, begged groups of soldiers to take them with them: 'Nehmt uns mit, nehmt uns bitte, bitte mit!' Yet some people living quite close to the front seemed incapable of appreciating the scale of the impending disaster. A Herr Saalborn wrote to the bürgermeister of Woltersdorf on 19 April, demanding confirmation that, in accordance with Article 15 of the Reichsleitungsgesetz (the version of 1 September 1939), he would get back his bicycle, which had been commandeered by the Volkssturm.

The remnants of trainee and officer candidate battalions from the CI Corps found themselves retreating 'village by village' westwards to Bernau, just north of Berlin. Most had lost nearly three-quarters of their strength. They were exhausted, hungry and thoroughly confused. As soon as they halted for a rest, everyone fell heavily asleep and their officers had to kick them awake several times when it was necessary to move on. Nobody knew what was happening on either side or even in front or behind. Radios and field telephones had been abandoned. There was also no hope of re-establishing an effective front line, despite the best efforts of the more experienced officers, who grabbed any stragglers from other units and incorporated them into their own little command.

General Heinrici's attention now had to focus on the northern part of the Oder defence line between the Baltic coast and the Hohenzollern Canal at the top end of the Oderbruch. General von Manteuffel, who had been flying in a light reconnaissance aircraft over the forward areas of Rokossovsky's armies, had no difficulty spotting enemy preparations.

The 2nd Belorussian Front faced a formidable task. North of Schwedt, the Oder followed two channels, with marshy ground on either side and in between. That night of 19 April, Rokossovsky reported to Stalin that the offensive would start at first light the next morning, preceded by heavy bombing raids and artillery bombardment.

Rokossovsky had had the most difficult time of all Front commanders, redeploying his troops from Danzig and the Vistula estuary. This huge logistic problem had prompted Zhukov to warn Stalin on 29 March of what was involved. 'Well, we'll have to start the operation without waiting for Rokossovsky's Front,' he had replied. 'If he's a few days late, that's not a great trouble.' Clearly, Stalin had not been worried then. But now that Rokossovsky's armies might be needed for Berlin, he was much more concerned.

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