Soon after 1 a.m. on 2 May, General Chuikov had been woken yet again. Red Army signals units had picked up repeated transmissions from the German LVI Panzer Corps requesting a cease-fire. Emissaries would come under a white flag to the Potsdamer bridge. Colonel von Dufving, accompanied by two majors, appeared. He held discussions with one of Chuikov's commanders, then returned to General Weidling. Weidling surrendered with his staff at 6 a.m. and was taken to Chuikov's headquarters, where he prepared an order to. the garrison to capitulate.
On that chilly dawn, the last prisoners of the Gestapo left in its Prinz-Albrechtstrasse headquarters still did not know whether they were about to be liberated by the Red Army or murdered by their captors. Pastor Reinecke was the only priest to be spared from the massacre of a week before. 'What I experienced as sadism during those last one and a half weeks,' he wrote in a letter, 'cannot be described here.'
The survivors were a mixed group. One of his cell companions was the Communist Franz Lange, who said afterwards that, despite having had nothing to do with the Church since the age of sixteen, he would never forget Reinecke's ability to find the strength to survive through silent prayer. Another was Joseph Wagner, a former Gauleiter of Silesia, who had fallen out with the regime because of his Catholicism. The Gestapo had arrested him after the July plot.
On 1 May, their cell door had been thrown open to shouts of 'Raus! Raus!' They had been chased downstairs by the SS guards, who had killed one of their number, a Wehrmacht NCO, on the way. The remaining six were then locked in another cell, provided with food and water, next to the SS guards' own quarters. Lange heard the Sturmbannführer in charge explain to one of his men with the unique logic of the SS, 'We're sparing these ones as proof that we shot no prisoners.' During the afternoon the six survivors heard the guards preparing to pull out. By nightfall, they were left in the darkness of the building Berliners had dubbed the 'House of Horror' when it became known that prisoners were strapped in manacles diagonally across the walls of its cellars like a medieval torture chamber.
Not long after dawn on 2 May they heard voices. The flap on their cell window opened. A voice asked them in Russian for the key to open the door. 'No key,' replied Lange, the Communist, who knew a little of the language. 'We are prisoners.' The soldier went away and a few minutes later they heard the sound of axes crashing into the door. Soon it swung open. They found themselves looking into the face of a smiling young Red Army soldier.
He and his comrades took them into the SS guards' canteen to offer them food. One of their guns went off by accident, a tragically common occurrence in the Red Army. Joseph Wagner, the former Gauleiter, fell dead at Pastor Reinecke's side.
Other Red Army soldiers wasted little time upstairs. The silk panels lining the walls of Himmler's grand reception room were slashed from their battens and bundled into packs, ready for the next five-kilo parcels to be sent home.
In the Führer bunker, General Krebs and General Burgdorf had sat down side by side at some time in the early hours of that morning, drawn their Luger pistols and blown their brains out. Rochus Misch, probably the last member of the SS Leibstandarte to leave the building, saw them slumped together. After all the brandy they had consumed, they were fortunate not to have botched their suicide most painfully. Captain Schedle, the commander of the Leibstandarte guard in the Reich Chancellery, had also shot himself. A foot wound had prevented him from getting away with the Bormann party. Apart from the doctors, nurses and wounded in the cellars, the Reich Chancellery was virtually deserted when Misch crept out.
The dramatic Soviet account of storming the Reich Chancellery that morning has to be taken with a good deal of caution, especially since the vast majority of Mohnke and Krukenberg's men had taken part in the breakout the night before. Descriptions of rolling up a howitzer to the Wilhelmplatz to blast in the front doors and 'severe battles' in corridors and on the stairs were made to sound like a companion piece to the capture of the Reichstag. The red banner was taken to the roof by Major Anna Nikulina from the political department of the 9th Rifle Corps in Berzarin's 5th Shock Army. And, for good measure, 'Sergeant Gorbachev and Private Bondarev fastened a red banner over the main entrance of the Reich Chancellery.'
Of the previous night's fugitives from the Führer bunker, only the first group to leave had stayed together. Led by Brigadeführer Mohnke, it included Hitler's personal pilot, Hans Baur, the chief of his bodyguard, Hans Rattenhuber, the secretaries and Hitler's dietician, Constanze Manzialy. In the early hours of 2 May, they had been forced to hide in a cellar off the Schönhauserallee when the area was swamped with Soviet troops. They remained concealed there until that afternoon, when finally discovered by Soviet troops. Resistance was pointless. The men were arrested immediately, but the women were allowed to go.
Traudl Junge and Gerda Christian disguised themselves as men. But the striking Tyrolean Constanze Manzialy became separated from them almost immediately. One account claims that she was seized by a huge Russian infantryman and assaulted by him and his comrades. Nobody knows whether she resorted to the cyanide ampoule which Hitler had presented in a brass container to each of his staff as going-away presents. In any case, she was never seen again. Both Traudl Junge and Gerda Christian, despite alarming adventures, managed to reach the other side of the Elbe.
Many German soldiers and officers had contrived to spend their last night of freedom in breweries. Captain Finckler met his regimental commander from the 9th Parachute Division in a brewery in Prenzlauerberg, not far from where Mohnke and his group were cornered. As a farewell, the two men shared a bottle of wine with alternate swigs as there were no glasses.
In the Schultheiss brewery that morning, a young Luftwaffe flak helper asked what was going on when he heard shots. 'Come around to the back,' a comrade said to him. 'The SS are shooting themselves . . . You have to watch.' Many were foreigners in the Waffen SS. Hitler's SS adjutant, Otto Günsche, was taken prisoner there by the Red Army later in the morning. He, like Mohnke, Rattenhuber and the others, was immediately handed over to SMERSH for interrogation. Stalin wanted to discover for certain what had happened to Hitler and whether he was still alive.
The decision on 29 April to send the SMERSH department of the 3rd Shock Army to the Reich Chancellery, an objective clearly in the 5th Shock Army's sector, could only have been taken at the very highest level. Beria and Abakumov, the chief of SMERSH, appear not only to have kept Zhukov and the military authorities in the dark, but also to have side-lined Abakumov's rival, General Serov, the NKVD chief of the 1st Belorussian Front.
The SMERSH team, which had its own signals detachment, had probably been listening in to 5th Shock Army wavelengths. They arrived within minutes of the report that the objective had been attacked.
General Berzarin had promised the gold star of Hero of the Soviet Union to the soldier who discovered Hitler's body, so the troops who had taken the Reich Chancellery were less than happy when SMERSH officers turned up and ordered them out. Only Berzarin's outer cordon round the complex was left in place. As an added insult to the 5th Shock Army, the counter-intelligence group had brought in a sapper detachment from the 3rd Shock Army to check the Reich Chancellery for explosives and booby traps.
Captain Shota Sulkhanishvili, who commanded these sappers, was uneasy to find that they were working with SMERSH. 'My comrades and I tried to keep as far as possible from them,' he said. 'We were afraid of them.' But SMERSH were afraid of being blown up, and they did exactly what the sappers told them until the place was thoroughly checked. In fact, the only explosives found were reserve stores of panzerfausts, ready primed in packages of three. The sappers were also amazed at the storerooms full of champagne and 'orange briquettes of bread in cellophane packs'. Sulkhanishvili, who had fought at Stalingrad, immediately thought of the frozen bread there which they had not even been able to chop with an axe. In the garden they came across two badly charred corpses which appeared to have 'shrunk in size and looked like puppets'. The sappers, having completed their task, were rapidly sent away. The SMERSH officers recognized the outsize head from caricatures in the Soviet press, and the orthopaedic boot confirmed whose body it was. Alongside, lay the body of Magda Goebbels, with the gold cigarette case and Hitler's party badge.
The SMERSH detachment, closely supervised by Lieutenant General Aleksandr Anatolievich Vadis, the chief of the SMERSH directorate with the 1st Belorussian Front, was naturally more preoccupied with finding Hitler's body. The pressure from Moscow was intense. That morning Pravda had declared that the announcement of Hitler's death was just a fascist trick. One can reasonably assume that such a statement was made at Stalin's instigation, or at least with his approval. The whole question of Hitler's fate had begun to assume immense political significance before the facts were clear. Marshal Zhukov, well aware of Stalin's intense interest in the matter, went to visit the Reich Chancellery that very day, even before the firing in the city had stopped. 'They did not let me go down,' Zhukov said twenty years later, when he finally learned the truth. 'It wasn't safe down there,' they had told him. He was also informed on that first visit that 'the Germans had buried all the corpses, but who buried them and where, nobody knew'. Yet Goebbels's body had not been buried. It had been found immediately on the surface. Zhukov was apparently again refused access two days later. The headquarters of the ist Belorussian Front was informed of the discovery of Goebbels's corpse, but no more. General Telegin, the chief of the political department, urgently requested the Stavka in Moscow to send forensic experts.
The closest the SMERSH officers seemed to get to Hitler was going through his tunics in his room and looking at the portrait of Frederick the Great at which he used to stare. Rzhevskaya, meanwhile, had started work on Reich Chancellery documents. She discovered ten thick notebooks containing Goebbels's diaries up to July 1941. (Vadis claimed the discovery as his own.) She also found Raya, their signaller, trying on a white evening dress of Eva Braun's, but rejecting it as indecent because of the décolletage. The young woman soldier selected no more than a pair of her blue shoes.
In the cellars, Professor Haase and Dr Kunz continued to look after the wounded lying in the corridor. They had only a couple of nurses left. Many of the young female BdM helpers, who had come from assisting their Hitler Youth counterparts at the Reichssportsfeld, had rushed up the Wilhelmstrasse to evacuate the wounded from the cellars of the blazing Hotel Adlon. SMERSH did not disturb the hospital section at all. One of the nurses described the officers' behaviour as 'exemplary'. A senior officer even advised the women to lock their doors that night because he 'could not vouch for his soldiers'.
SMERSH officers soon began filtering their prisoners. Those selected for interrogation were escorted to the Reich Institute for the Blind, on the Oranienstrasse. But the counter-intelligence investigators refused to believe what they were told about Hitler's suicide. Vadis brought in more and more men to complete a minute search, but it was not easy underground. The electricity generator had broken down, so there was no light, except from torches, and the air in the bunker became heavy and damp without the ventilation system.
The lack of success prompted Stalin to order Beria to send another NKVD general, in theory representing the Stavka, to oversee the search and report back constantly. Even the officers in the SMERSH operational group were not allowed to know his name. Major Bystrov and his colleagues found themselves having to repeat every single interrogation in front of this new general. As soon as each interview was over, the general immediately went to telephone Beria on a secure line to report. The obsession with secrecy was so great that Rzhevskaya was made to sign each interview transcript with the acknowledgement that she would be guilty of betraying state security if she repeated a word of what had been said.
When the 350-strong garrison of the Zoo flak tower finally emerged, Colonel Haller apparently tipped off one of the Soviet officers that there were two generals hidden inside who hoped to slip out of Berlin. One of them had already committed suicide by the time Soviet soldiers found him on the fourth floor. They directed the writer Konstantin Simonov to him.
Simonov had just reached Berlin early on that morning of 2 May, and he found sporadic firing, mainly Soviet guns firing at buildings where the SS still refused to surrender. He described these as 'post-mortal convulsions'. In the flak tower there was no more light, so they made their way by torchlight. A lieutenant showed him the small concrete room. 'On the bunk, with his eyes open, lay the dead general, a tall man of about forty-five, with short hair and a handsome, calm face.
His right hand lay alongside his body, clutching a pistol. With his left hand he held, by the shoulders, the body of a young woman lying next to him. The woman lay with her eyes closed, young and beautiful, wearing, I remember it very well, a white English blouse with short sleeves and a grey uniform skirt. The general was wearing an ironed shirt, high boots, his high-collared jacket was not buttoned. Between the general's legs stood a bottle of champagne, one-third full.' It was part of the tawdry end to what Simonov called 'the bandit glory of the former fascist empire'. He also found it fitting that the man who took the surrender of the capital of the Reich was General Chuikov, who had commanded the defence at Stalingrad. 'It seemed as if history itself had tried its best to bring this army to Berlin and make the surrender of Berlin look particularly symbolic.'
German civilians, however, were in no mood for symbolism. They covered the faces of dead soldiers with newspapers or a piece of uniform and queued at Red Army field kitchens, which began to feed them on Berzarin's orders. The fact that there was a famine in Soviet Central Asia at that time, with families reduced to cannibalism, did not influence the new policy of attempting to win over the German people. But the change in the Party line had still not filtered down.
Soviet soldiers entered the improvised field hospitals armed with sub-machine guns and prodded each man in the chest threateningly: 'Du SS?' they asked. When one of them came to a Swedish Waffen SS volunteer with the Nordland, he prodded him hard in the pit of the stomach and asked the same question. The Swede claimed that he was just an ordinary Wehrmacht soldier. 'Da, da. Du SS!' the Red Army soldier insisted. The Swede, who had destroyed his papers, including his passport, which showed that he had fought for the Finns against the Soviet Union, somehow managed a smile as if to say how ridiculous.
The soldier gave up, not noticing that he was in a cold sweat. It took another six months before the NKVD discovered that members of the SS had 'their blood group tattooed on the inside of their left arm'.
In both the Alexanderplatz and the Pariserplatz, the wounded were laid in the street wrapped in blankets. German Red Cross nurses and BdM girls continued to treat them. Just to the north, Soviet guns blasted into submission a group of doomed SS still holding out in a building on the Spree. In all directions, smoke from ruins continued to deform the sky. Red Army soldiers flushed out Wehrmacht, SS, Hitler Youth and Volkssturm. They emerged from houses, cellars and subway tunnels, their faces almost black with grime and stubble. Soviet soldiers shouted, 'Hände hoch!' and their prisoners dumped their weapons and held their hands as high as possible. A number of German civilians sidled up to Soviet officers to denounce soldiers who continued to hide.
Vasily Grossman accompanied General Berzarin to the centre of the city. He was staggered by the scale of destruction all around, wondering how much had been wrought by American and British bombers. A Jewish woman and her elderly husband approached him. They asked about the fate of Jews who had been deported. When he confirmed their worst fears, the old man burst into tears. Grossman was apparently accosted a little later by a smart German lady wearing an astrakhan coat.
They conversed pleasantly. 'But surely you aren't a Jewish commissar?' she suddenly said to him.
The German officers who had signed demobilization papers for all their men so that they could avoid prison camp had wasted their time. Anybody in any sort of uniform, even firemen and railwaymen, were rounded up for the first columns to be marched eastwards.
'I had a terrible mass of impressions,' Grossman noted down. 'Fires and smoke, smoke, smoke. Huge crowds of prisoners of war. Faces are full of tragedy and the grief on many faces is not only personal suffering but also that of the citizen of a destroyed country.' The personal suffering and dread of the future were indeed great, both for the men and boys about to be marched away and for the women and girls left behind.
'Prisoners,' he jotted. 'Policemen, clerks, old men and schoolboys, almost children. Many of the men are walking with their wives, beautiful young women, some of whom are laughing and trying to cheer up their husbands. One young soldier with two children, a boy and a girl. The people around are very nice to the prisoners. Faces are sad, they give them water and bread.' In the Tiergarten, Grossman saw a wounded German soldier sitting on a bench with a girl medical assistant, hugging her. 'They don't look at anyone. The world around has ceased to exist for them. When I walk past them an hour later they are still sitting in the same position.'
'This overcast, cold and rainy day is undoubtedly the day of Germany's collapse in the smoke, among the blazing ruins, among hundreds of corpses littering the streets.' Some of the dead, he noted, had been crushed by tanks, 'squeezed out like tubes'. He saw a dead old woman, 'her head leant against the wall, sitting on a mattress near a front door with an expression of quiet and everlasting grief. And yet a short distance away, Russians were amazed by the thoroughness of the German hausfrau: 'In the streets which are already quiet, the ruins are being tidied and swept. Women are sweeping pavements with brooms as if they were indoor rooms.'
Grossman must have walked round and round for most of that day. In the 'huge and powerful' Reichstag, he found Soviet soldiers 'making fires in the entrance hall, rattling their cooking pans and opening tins of condensed milk with bayonets'.
While SMERSH carried on its work in the cellars and in the Führer bunker, Grossman was allowed, like other visitors, into the gigantic reception rooms of the Reich Chancellery. In one of them, Hitler's huge metal globe of the world was crushed and broken. In another, 'a dark-skinned young Kazakh with wide cheekbones' was learning to ride a bicycle. Grossman, along, it seems, with almost every other visitor, collected a few souvenirs to take back to Moscow.
In the Zoo, where there had been heavy fighting close to the great flak tower, he found 'broken cages, the corpses of monkeys, tropical birds and bears. On the island of baboons, babies are gripping their mothers' bellies with their tiny hands.' In front of a cage with a dead gorilla, he spoke to the old attendant, who had spent the last thirty-seven years looking after the monkeys.
'Was she fierce?' Grossman asked.
'No, she just roared loudly,' the primate keeper replied. 'Humans are much fiercer.'
Grossman encountered many people that day. Released foreign labourers sang songs but also shouted curses at German soldiers. It was only later in the day, when the firing finally stopped, that 'the colossal scale of the victory' began to sink in. Spontaneous celebrations took place round 'the tall woman' - the Siegessäule victory column in the Tiergarten. 'The tanks are so covered in flowers and red banners that you can hardly see them. Gun barrels have flowers in them like trees in spring. Everyone is dancing, singing, laughing. Hundreds of coloured signal flares are fired into the air. Everyone salutes the victory with bursts from sub-machine guns, rifles and pistols.' But Grossman learned later that many of those celebrating were 'the living dead'. In their desperation for alcohol, soldiers had drunk from metal barrels containing industrial solvent which had been found nearby. They took at least three days to die.
South-west of Berlin, General Wenck's soldiers continued to transport the shattered survivors of the Ninth Army in trucks and goods trains to the Elbe. Twelfth Army soldiers hoped that they too, with the civilian refugees, would be able to cross over to the Americans during the next few days. There were over 100,000 soldiers and almost as many civilian refugees moving south of Brandenburg towards the Elbe. Increasingly strong Soviet attacks further north, especially between Havelberg and Rathenau, risked cutting them off.
On 3 May, news of events in Berlin arrived. General Wenck immedi- ately issued an order reinstating the military salute instead of the Nazi version. 'It's over!' wrote Peter Rettich, the battalion commander with the Scharnhorst Division. 'Hitler is dead, expired in the Reich Chancellery. Berlin taken by the Russians. Images of the collapse pile up. It's deeply shocking but nothing can be done.' He and his few remaining men were now marching back to the Elbe and the Americans as fast as they could go. As they went through Genthin, he saw the canal full of empty bottles of schnapps. Soldiers ahead had obviously looted some store or depot. 'Signs of disintegration!' Rettich noted in his diary.
General Wenck's staff issued orders to Twelfth Army divisions for a fighting withdrawal to the river, where they would have to defend a perimeter against Soviet attack. Wenck also ordered one of his corps commanders, General Baron von Edelsheim, to negotiate with the US Ninth Army. On 3 May, Edelsheim and his staff crossed the Elbe near Tangermünde in an amphibious vehicle and made contact with the local American commander. Surrender negotiations took place next day in the town hall of Stendal. The American commander, General William Simpson, was in a difficult position. He had to consider not just the humanitarian concerns, but also the United States's obligations to its Soviet ally, as well as the practical problem of feeding and dealing with such a huge influx. He decided to receive wounded and unarmed soldiers, but he refused Edelsheim's request to help build and repair bridges to assist the evacuation. He also refused to accept civilian refugees. They were in any case supposed to return home at the end of the war.
The next morning, 5 May, the crossing of the Elbe began in earnest at three points: the very badly damaged railway bridge between Stendal and Schönhausen; the remnants of the road bridge near Tangermünde; and the ferry at Ferchland, a dozen kilometres to the south. The survivors of the Ninth Army were given first priority. Everyone remaining on the east bank wondered how long they had left. The Twelfth Army's defensive perimeter was already being reduced under Soviet attack. It had a frontage on the river of under twenty-five kilometres long and was about eighteen kilometres deep in the middle. Soviet artillery fire started to inflict heavy casualties on civilian refugees as well as soldiers.
The feelings of Twelfth Army soldiers at this time were very mixed. They were proud of their rescue mission, loathed the Red Army, were furious with the Americans for not having advanced further and detested the Nazi regime which had betrayed its own people. It all seemed to be summed up for them on the road of refugees to Tangermünde. By the side of it a Nazi Party hoarding still proclaimed, 'It is thanks to our Führer!'
US Army detachments controlled and filtered the flow of soldiers on to the bridges, searching for SS, foreigners and civilians. Some of them relieved German soldiers of watches and medals as well as their weapons.
Many German soldiers gave their steel helmets and greatcoats to women in an attempt to smuggle them over, but the majority were discovered and pulled out of the queue. Other threatened groups also tried to slip across. Soviet-born 'Hiwis' still in their Wehrmacht uniform attempted to infiltrate the queues. They knew that they faced a terrible retribution if taken by Soviet troops. There had been 9,139 Hiwis on the ration strength of the Ninth Army at the beginning of April on the Oder, but no more than 5,000 could have survived to reach the Elbe.
Soldiers of the Waffen SS heard that the Americans would hand them over to the Red Army, so they destroyed their papers and ripped off their badges. Some of the foreign Waffen SS pretended to be forced labourers. Joost van Ketel, a dentist with the SSNederland Division, had managed to escape arrest when stopped by Red Army soldiers in the forest near Halbe. 'Nix SS,' he had said. 'Russki Kamerade-Hollandia. 'He had shown a red, white and blue striped pass, and this was accepted. Ketel managed the same trick with the Americans further south near Dessau, but his German companion was caught out immediately.
General Wenck had established his headquarters in the park at Schönhausen, the seat of Prince Bismarck. The irony that it should end there of all places was plain, since it had been Bismarck's firm belief that Germany should avoid war with Russia at all costs. By 6 May, the surrounding bridgehead had been compressed to eight kilometres wide and two deep and the battalions defending the perimeter were virtually out of ammunition. Soviet tank, artillery and katyusha rocket bombard- ments were killing thousands of those still queuing to cross the single- track bridges. It was a question of 'Kriegsglück' — 'the fortunes of war' - whether you were killed in the last moments. But the increased onslaught on 6 May also put the American troops filtering the refugees in danger. The US Ninth Army, anxious not to lose men to Soviet fire, withdrew them across the river and pulled back a little way from the Elbe. This presented just the opportunity the refugees needed. They surged across.
'Quite a few people who were not able to cross the Elbe killed themselves,' said Wenck's chief of staff, Colonel Reichhelm. Others tried to get across the broad, fast-flowing river using dinghies and rafts fashioned out of planks of wood or fuel cans lashed together. Colonel von Humboldt, the operations officer, remembers canoes, skiffs and every sort of craft imaginable being used. 'The real problem,' he pointed out, 'was that one person had to bring the boat back, and among people escaping, there were few volunteers.' American detachments on the far side still tried to send them back, but they would try again. General von Edelsheim claimed that American troops were given orders to shoot at boats with civilian refugees, but this is uncertain. Strong swimmers took across the end of a line of signal cable held in their teeth, then fastened it to a tree or root on the far bank. Weaker swimmers and women and children hauled their way across on these makeshift lines, but they often broke. Scores of soldiers and civilians drowned in their attempts to cross, maybe even several hundred of them.
On the morning of 7 May, the perimeter started to collapse. The last few artillery pieces of the Twelfth Army fired off their remaining shells and then blew up their guns, 'by far the hardest moment for any artilleryman', wrote Rettich. He was shocked by the disintegration of some units and took great pride in the soldierly bearing of his cadets in the Scharnhorst Division - 'probably the last formation of the Wehrmacht still in battle order in northern Germany'. Prior to pulling back across the river, they destroyed their last stores and vehicles. He dealt with his 'faithful Tatra jeep' by pouring a can of petrol over it and then lobbing in a hand grenade. Hundreds of abandoned horses ran around nervously. Men tried to chase them into the water in the vain hope of forcing them to swim the river. It was 'a pitiful sight'.
Rettich assembled his remaining men near the Schonhausen bridge for a farewell address about the hard road which they had travelled together. In bitter defiance of defeat, they voiced 'a thundering "Sieg Heil" to Germany' before they left, 'to be parted for ever'. As they crossed the twisted iron bridge, they threw their weapons, binoculars and other remaining equipment into the dark waters of the Elbe.
That afternoon, General Wenck crossed the river close to his headquarters at Schonhausen. He and his staff had left it until the last moment. Soviet troops opened fire on his boat, wounding two NCOs, one fatally.
In Berlin, meanwhile, the search for Hitler's corpse continued without success. The bodies of the six Goebbels children were not discovered until 3 May. They were found under blankets in their three sets of bunk-beds. A dark blush lingered on their faces from the cyanide, making it look as if they were still alive and asleep. Vice-Admiral Voss, Hitler's Kriegsmarine liaison officer, was brought in by SMERSH to identify them. Voss, apparently, looked absolutely devastated when he saw them.
A strange event occurred that day when generals from the 1st Belorussian Front visited the Reich Chancellery. The body of a man with a small toothbrush moustache and diagonal fringe was found. The corpse was subsequently eliminated from the investigation because its socks were darned. The Führer, it was agreed, would not have worn darned socks. Stalin was far more concerned to hear that some ordinary soldiers had been allowed to see Goebbels's corpse. The officers responsible were punished.
The interpreter Rzhevskaya, writing about the veil of secrecy thrown over the identification of Hitler's body, emphasized that 'Stalin's system needed the presence of both external and internal enemies, and he feared the release of tension'. The double was presumably to be used as evidence of some sort of anti-Soviet plot. Even when Hitler's real body was found on the very next day, orders immediately came from the Kremlin that nobody was to breathe a word to anybody. Stalin's strategy, quite evidently, was to associate the west with Nazism by pretending that the British or Americans must be hiding him. Rumours already circulated at a high level that he had escaped through tunnels or by aeroplane with Hanna Reitsch at the last moment, and was hiding in American-occupied Bavaria. This was almost certainly the black propaganda extension of Stalin's suspicion that the Western Allies would do a deal with the Nazis behind his back.
On 5 May, the corpses of Hitler and Eva Braun were finally found after more interrogations. It was a windy day with an overcast sky. A renewed and more thorough search of the Reich Chancellery garden was made. A soldier spotted the corner of a grey blanket in the earth at the bottom of a shell crater. Two charred corpses were exhumed. The bodies of a German shepherd dog and a puppy were found in the same pit. General Vadis was immediately informed.
Before dawn the next morning, Captain Deryabin and a driver wrapped the corpses of Hitler and Eva Braun in sheets and smuggled them out past Berzarin's cordon. They drove them to the SMERSH base at Buch, on the north-east edge of Berlin. There, in a small brick clinic, Dr Faust, Colonel Kraevsky and other pathologists summoned to examine Goebbels's corpse began work on the most important remnants of the Third Reich.
According to Rzhevskaya, the forensic experts were upset when ordered to maintain absolute and everlasting secrecy about their work on Hitler's corpse. Whether or not Telegin knew of its discovery is uncertain. He was in any case arrested by Beria on another charge later. But neither Berzarin nor Zhukov was informed that Hitler's body had been found. In fact Zhukov felt deeply betrayed when he finally found out two decades later.
Vadis, to be absolutely sure that they had the true corpse before he informed Beria and Stalin, ordered further checks. His men found the assistant of Hitler's dentist. She examined the jaws from Hitler's skull and confirmed that they were indeed the Führer's. She recognized the bridgework. The jaws had been specially detached for the purpose and were kept in a red satin-lined box - 'the sort used for cheap jewellery', observed Rzhevskaya. On 7 May, Vadis felt confident enough of his facts to write his report.
The death of Hitler, although it did not bring an immediate end to the war in Europe, certainly precipitated its terminal events. German forces in northern Italy and southern Austria, nearly a million men, surrendered on 2 May. Churchill wanted to dash for Fiume and secure Trieste before Tito's Yugoslav partisans seized it. The race for the Baltic coast of Schleswig-Holstein was won by the British 2nd Army's dash north of the Elbe to Lübeck and Trävemunde. Allied troops prepared to move rapidly in to liberate Denmark. Rokossovsky's 2nd Belorussian Front, now cut off from the prize of Denmark, had occupied almost all of Mecklenburg by then. His armies had, however, taken comparatively few prisoners. To Soviet fury, the remnants of Manteuffel's Third Panzer Army and General von Tippelskirch's Twenty-First Army had moved westwards to surrender to the British. These mass surrenders to the Western Allies deprived the Soviet Union of slave labour in compensation for war damage during the Wehrmacht's invasion. Just after the final surrender, Eisenhower, still unwilling to upset the Kremlin, informed the Stavka that all German troops, including Schörner's, would be handed over to the Red Army. This was 'accepted with great satisfaction' by Antonov.
On the afternoon of 4 May, General Admiral von Friedeburg and General Kinzel, Heinrici's former chief of staff, arrived at Field Marshal Montgomery's headquarters on Luneburg Heath to sign an instrument of surrender for all German forces in north-west Germany, Denmark and Holland. When General Bradley met Marshal Konev on 5 May, he handed him a map marking the position of every US Army division. Bradley received nothing in return, except a warning that the Americans should not meddle in Czechoslovakia. Soviet signals were unashamedly hostile, if not brutal. In San Francisco, Molotov told a shaken Edward Stettinius, the Secretary of State, that the sixteen Polish negotiators sent to discuss matters with the Soviet-controlled provisional government had been charged with the murder of 200 members of the Red Army.
Konev's 1st Ukrainian Front had received orders to turn south to take Prague. There, the Czech resistance, aided by General Vlasov's troops in a doomed turnaround, rose in revolt against Field Marshal Schörner's troops. Churchill had asked the Americans on 30 April to send in General Patton's Third Army to secure the city before the Red Army reached it, but General Marshall refused. Vienna, Berlin and Prague were all falling into Soviet hands and the whole of central Europe with them. Soviet occupation authorities in Austria had set up a provisional government without consulting the Allies. Breslau, the capital of Silesia, surrendered on 6 May after its appalling siege lasting nearly three months.
Vlasov himself had initially rejected the idea of betraying the Germans at the twelfth hour, but he stood no chance whatever he did. 'On 12 May 1945, near the town of Pilsen, Czechoslovakia,' reported the chief of the political department of the 1st Ukrainian Front, 'tankists of 25th Tank Corps captured traitor of the Motherland General Vlasov. The circumstances were as follows: one of the lieutenant colonels of the 25th Tank Corps was approached by a man from the Vlasov army with the rank of captain who stated, pointing at a car moving alone on the road towards the west, that General Vlasov was in this car. A pursuit was organized immediately and tankists from 25th Tank Corps caught the traitor.' Vlasov, who apparently attempted to hide under some blankets, was said to be found carrying an 'American passport in his name' (an item which may have been added to the list for reasons of anti-western propaganda), 'his Party card, which he had preserved, and a copy of his order to his troops to stop fighting, lay down their weapons and surrender to the Red Army'. Vlasov himself was flown from Konev's headquarters back to Moscow. There, boasts were later made of his death under terrible and prolonged torture. On 13 and 14 May, 20,000 of his men were rounded up in the region of Pilsen and sent to specially prepared camps for interrogation by SMERSH.
In the south, meanwhile, the Americans had pushed on eastwards and south-eastwards from Munich, as well as southwards into the Tyrol, but then halted on Eisenhower's orders. The French had captured Bregenz on Lake Constance. General von Saucken, with the remains of the Second Army, still held out in the Vistula delta on the edge of East Prussia. In Courland, the divisions which Guderian had wanted to bring back to defend Berlin continued to resist, despite heavy bom- bardment from the Soviet armies surrounding them. And the Kriegs- marine, although short of fuel, continued its evacuations by sea from the Hela Peninsula, as well as Courland and the Vistula estuary. But the most intense activity continued round Prague, with Field Marshal Schörner's Army Group Centre resisting the attack of three Soviet Fronts.
In the early hours of 7 May, General Jodl, on behalf of Dönitz and the OKW, signed an instrument of surrender at Eisenhower's headquarters at Rheims. General Susloparov, the chief Soviet liaison officer with SHAEF, signed 'on behalf of the Soviet high command'. Stalin was furious when he heard. The surrender had to be signed in Berlin and it had to be taken by the Red Army, which had borne the brunt of the fighting. To make matters more provoking for him, the Western Allies wanted to announce victory in Europe the next day, because they would not be able to prevent newspapers publishing the details. Stalin, not surprisingly, considered this premature. Despite Jodl's signature in Rheims, Schörner's army group in Czechoslovakia continued to resist fiercely, and neither General von Saucken nor the huge force still trapped in Courland had surrendered. But the crowds already gathering to celebrate in London prompted Churchill to insist on an announcement on Tuesday 8 May. Stalin, despite compromising a little, now wanted it to be made at just past midnight, the very start of 9 May, following a full surrender in Berlin.
The Soviet authorities, however, could not prevent their own troops from jumping the gun with their celebrations. Koni Wolf, with the 7th Department of the 47th Army, fiddled with wireless dials for most of the day on 8 May. He picked up the announcement in London and yelled it to his comrades. News spread fast in Berlin. Young women soldiers wasted no time in washing their clothes, while Red Army soldiers went on a frenzied hunt for alcohol. SMERSH officers shouted to Rzhevskaya to get ready for a party. Having been told that she would 'answer with [her] head' if Hitler's jaws were lost, she spent an awkward evening, pouring drinks for others with one hand, while clinging on to the fancy red box with the other. It was a wise decision to entrust the evidence to a woman that night.
For those who had been fighting up to the very last moment, the news was even more joyously received. Those attacking the Twelfth Army's perimeter round Schb'nhausen on the Elbe had suffered heavy casualties. Yury Gribov's battalion lost nearly half its strength on 5 May, when attacking the remnants of the Scharnhorst Division. Their regimental commander, a Hero of the Soviet Union, had been killed two days later, in the last skirmishes. But by the evening of 8 May, the firing had stopped. 'We celebrated victory in the forest. We all lined up in a broad clearing and did not let the division commander finish his excited speech, with bursts of firing into the sky. Our hearts were happy and tears streamed down our cheeks.' Relief was always mixed with sadness too. 'The first toast to victory,' Red Army men said. 'The second to dead friends.'
The writer Konstantin Simonov watched the final drama in Berlin. Late in the morning of 8 May, he lay on a patch of grass at Tempelhof aerodrome, which had now been cleared of wrecked German aircraft. A Soviet guard of honour 300 strong was being drilled in presenting arms again and again by 'a fat, small colonel'. Zhukov's deputy, General Sokolovsky, then arrived. Soon, the first aircraft appeared. Andrei Vyshinsky, the prosecutor at the Moscow show trials and now the deputy foreign minister, arrived with a retinue of Soviet diplomats. He was to be Zhukov's political supervisor.
An hour and a half later another Dakota landed, bringing Air Chief Marshal Tedder, Eisenhower's deputy and representative, and General Carl Spaatz, the commander of the US Air Force in Europe. Tedder, Simonov noted, was slim, young and dynamic, 'smiling frequently and somehow in a forced manner'. Sokolovsky hurried to greet him and led his party towards the guard of honour.
A third aircraft landed. Keitel, Admiral Friedeburg and General Stumpff, representing the Luftwaffe, emerged. General Serov hurried over and escorted the Germans round the other side of the guard of honour, in case it might be thought it was there to welcome them too. Keitel insisted on leading the way. In full uniform, holding his marshal's baton in his right hand, he walked with large strides, deliberately looking straight ahead.
Smart traffic controllers, young women soldiers with berets worn on the back of the head and sub-machine guns slung across their backs, had halted all vehicles to allow the staff cars a free passage to Zhukov's new headquarters in Karlshorst. The convoy of staff cars churned up thick dust-clouds as Germans watched from side streets and crossroads. Simonov imagined their thoughts as they saw their generals on the way to sign the final surrender.
Just before midnight the representatives of the allies entered the hall 'in a two-storey building of the former canteen of the German military engineering college in Karlshorst'. General Bogdanov, the commander of the 2nd Guards Tank Army, and another Soviet general sat down by mistake on seats reserved for the German delegation. A staff officer whispered in their ears and 'they jumped up, literally as if stung by a snake' and went to sit at another table. Western pressmen and newsreel cameramen apparently 'behaved like madmen'. In their desperation for good positions, they were shoving generals aside and tried to push in behind the top table under the flags of the four allies. Eventually Marshal Zhukov sat down. Tedder was placed on his right, and General Spaatz and General de Lattre de Tassigny on his left.
The German delegation was led in. Friedeburg and Stumpff looked resigned. Keitel tried to look imperious, glancing almost contemptuously from time to time at Zhukov. Simonov guessed that a rage was boiling within him. So did Zhukov, who also noted that his face had red blotches. The surrender documents were brought to the top table. First Zhukov signed, then Tedder, then Spaatz, then General de Lattre.
Keitel sat very straight in his chair, with clenched fists. He threw his head further and further backwards. Just behind him, a tall German staff officer standing to attention 'was crying without a single muscle of his face moving'.
Zhukov stood up. 'We invite the German delegation to sign the act of capitulation,' he said in Russian. The interpreter translated, but Keitel, by an impatient gesture, signalled that he had understood and that they should bring him the papers. Zhukov, however, pointed to the end of his table. 'Tell them to come here to sign,' he said to the interpreter.
Keitel stood up and walked over. He ostentatiously removed his glove before picking up the pen. He clearly had no idea that the senior Soviet officer looking over his shoulder as he signed was Beria's representative, General Serov. Keitel put the glove back on, then returned to his place. Stumpff signed next, then Friedeburg.
'The German delegation may leave the hall,' Zhukov announced. The three men stood up. Keitel, 'his jowls hanging heavily like a bulldog's', raised his marshal's baton in salute, then turned on his heel. As the door closed behind them, it was almost as if everybody in the room exhaled in unison. The tension relaxed instantaneously. Zhukov was smiling, so was Tedder. Everybody began to talk animatedly and shake hands. Soviet officers embraced each other in bear hugs. The party which followed went on until almost dawn, with songs and dances. Marshal Zhukov himself danced the Russkaya to loud cheers from his generals. From inside, they could clearly hear gunfire all over the city as officers and soldiers blasted their remaining ammunition into the night sky in celebration. The war was over.