By early April 1945, Allied forces in the west had crossed the Rhine into Germany and were advancing rapidly. The U.S. First and Ninth armies executed a double envelopment on 1 April 1945 in the northern Ruhr, trapping 325,000 German soldiers. The U.S. Third Army drove southeastward into Bavaria, Czechoslovakia and Austria alongside the Seventh Army. After a hard fight at Heilbronn, Seventh Army took Nurnberg after a three-day battle ending on 20 April. The French swept through the Black Forest to take Stuttgart on 22 April. The war in the west was nearly over.
Red Army soldiers place flag on Reichstag building in Berlin, 30 April 1945. Multiple banners and flags were hoisted on the Reichstag, many shot down as the battle continued. Photo: Sovfoto. Note: By 2015 this photo was known to be staged by Yevgeny Khaldei, a Soviet Army photographer.
U.S. and Soviet troops connected on 25 April at Torgau on the Elbe River about 60 miles southwest of Berlin. Munich fell on 30 April. Organized resistance by German forces in the west was near an end as many Germans rushed to surrender to the Americans, the English, and their Allies, expecting humane treatment. In the east it was very different.
On 6 February 1945, the Soviet Army stood on the Oder river, about 60 miles east of Berlin, the line reached after their massive attack from the Vistula River in Poland, starting 12 January. Marshall Zhukov was preparing a final drive on Berlin and its expected collapse would end the war. The Allies had just concluded agreements at the Yalta Conference that gave Stalin control over the countries east of Germany and split control of Germany with the other Allies. Stalin called Zhukov that day and ordered him not to drive on Berlin, but to first deal with the remaining German forces in the east.
Stalin's orders for the redirection temporarily saved Berlin but ultimately resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands more Red Army soldiers. The Soviets descended on the areas of eastern Germany with a viciousness born of a desire for vengeance for what the Germans had done inside Soviet territory during Operation Barbarossa. Rape, destruction and death were inflicted on Germans in unimaginable numbers, especially in East Prussia. The result was a flood of refugees who added to the defenses of Berlin and created a mindset among the defenders that surrender was impossible since death was preferable to the Soviet treatment of conquered Germans.
By early April, Soviet forces had overrun and had their vengeance on Pomerania, West and East Prussia, and were driving through the Balkans, nearing Vienna. Now came the final assault, across the Oder toward Berlin.
Assault on Berlin
Stalin wanted desperately to get to Berlin ahead of the western Allies, but he didn't have to hurry. Eisenhower's forces were still 300 miles west of Berlin when the Red Army reached the Oder. Eisenhower had decided that Berlin was too far away and had little value in ending the war, so American armies were ordered to stop at the Elbe River, not ordered toward Berlin. But by April it was time for the Red Army to go ahead and finish the job. Stalin created a competition between his two field commanders, Marshall Georgi K. Zhukov in the center and Marshall Ivan Konev in the south to capture Berlin and to establish the line of contact between the Soviet and Allied armies as far west as possible.
On 15 April 1945, preceded by an artillery barrage of one million shells, Zukhov's troops advanced across the Oder River. The found that the Germans, alerted by intelligence, had retreated to strongly prepared positions on the Seelow Heights further west. In three days of powerful attacks by human waves and tanks, with losses of perhaps 30,000 Soviet soldiers, Zukhov broke through the German lines and moved west to surround Berlin.
German units retreated to Berlin or headed west to surrender to the Americans, ignoring fantasy orders coming from Hitler's bunker. But by 24 April the IX German Army was caught in a pocket in the Spree Forest near the town of Halbe, between Zukhov and Marshall Konev's army coming from the south. Bitter and confused fighting in the dense forest continued through the end of April. Some Germans managed to slip through the Soviet lines to Berlin while an estimated 30,000 were killed in the fighting. Total military and civilian losses were at least 50,000 dead in the area.
Fighting in Berlin
The first Soviets reached the Berlin suburbs on 21 April and during the last week of April both Zuhkov and Konev had forces inside Berlin itself, the vanguard of millions of Soviet troops pouring in, by now largely unopposed. Soviet T-34 tanks roamed the rubble filled streets and troops assaulted pockets of resistance. Fighting raged block by block, building by building. Artillery continued to rain down on any strong point and tanks or antiaircraft guns were used to take out snipers. Allied bombers from the west continued to pound what was left of the city. The 90,000 German defenders, old men of the Volksturm or Hitler Youth, the shoddy remnants of the once-invincible Wehrmacht, waged a desperate defense from the rubble, from the interior of destroyed buildings, from subway tunnels, and from anywhere they could, reminiscent of Stalingrad when the Russians were defending.
Rape became a tactic of war. Soviet troops raped an estimated 100,000 women in Berlin and two million in Germany. Female prisoners, including Russian women found in Berlin, were systematically raped. Gang rape was common for civilian women, or even young girls, found on the streets or in dwellings. Many killed themselves to escape it, others went insane.
The rape was accompanied by cruelty and looting that left no German untouched. The atrocities equalled anything committed by German or Japanese soldiers. To the Soviets, it was simple payback for German actions since 1941.
The Battle of Berlin ended 2 May 1945 when General Helmuth Weidling surrendered the city to Soviet troops. By the time it was over, barely a building was left standing, none undamaged, in the once beautiful and celebrated city of Berlin. The battle cost the Soviets over 300,000 casualties with 70,000 dead, many of them due to the hasty, careless tactics of the Soviet generals now in a rush to claim Berlin. German military losses are estimated at 150,000 to 175,000 with an additional 150,000 civilians dead. Close to a half million German soldiers became prisoneres with 100,000 German POWs marched to prison camps in the Soviet Union, most never heard from again.
The End of Nazi Germany
On 29 April, as fighting raged around the Reichstag, Chancellery and along nearby streets, Hitler and his mistress Eva Braun were married. The next day, 30 April 1945, Adolf Hitler, Eva Braun, propaganda minister Joseph Göbbels, his wife and five children committed suicide in Hitler's Führerbunker under the Reich Chancellery in Berlin. Hitler took poison, then shot himself. The bodies were burned to avoid public humiliation, but were recovered by the Soviets and kept for decades inside Russia.
Martin Bormann, Hitler's right hand man and the highest ranking Nazi unaccounted for, probably died in the streets of Berlin trying to break through the Soviet lines after Hitler's suicide. A few dozen top Nazis, including Reichsmarschall and Luftwaffe Chief Hermann Göring, were apprehended and put on trial for war crimes.
Italy officially surrendered on 2 May. On 4 May Salzburg fell, Hitler's mountain retreat at Berchtesgaden was captured, and American forces coming from Austria and Italy's Po Valley met in the Brenner Pass. Also on 4 May, German Grossadmiral Karl Dönitz surrendered all forces in the north, including Denmark and the Netherlands.
On 7 May, German military leaders surrendered unconditionally to a representative of General Eisenhower at Supreme Headquarters, Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF) at Reims in northeastern France. A document of surrender was signed. A day later, at 0001 on 9 May, German officials in Berlin signed a similar document, explicitly surrendering to Soviet forces in the presence of Marshall Zhukov, winner of the Soviet competition for Berlin. 8 May 1945 became VE Day (Victory in Europe), a day of celebration for the victorious Allies in the U.S. and Europe. SHAEF had concluded its mission and was officially inactivated 14 July 1945.
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