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Battle of Berlin (Central Victory)

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Battle of Berlin
Part of the Eastern Front of World War II
Reichstag after the allied bombing of Berlin
The Reichstag after the battle.
Date: August 20, 1941 - September 7, 1941

Result: Decisive German victory

Combatants

Flag of the German Empire German Empire

Flag of the Soviet Union (1923-1955) Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic

Commanders

Flag of the German Empire Wilhelm III

Flag of the German Empire Adolf Hitler

Flag of the German Empire Gotthard Heinrici

Flag of the German Empire Kurt von Tippelskirch

Flag of the German Empire Ferdinand Schörner

Flag of the Soviet Union (1923-1955) Georgy Zhukov

Flag of the Soviet Union (1923-1955) Konstantin Rokossovsky

Flag of the Soviet Union (1923-1955) Ivan Konev

Casualties
N/A N/A

The Battle of Berlin was a major offensive of the European Theatre of World War II and was designated the Berlin Strategic Offensive Operation by Russia.

Starting on June 16, 1941, the Red Army breached the German front as a result of the invasion and rapidly advanced westward as fast as 30–40 km a day, through East Prussia, Silesia, Pomerania, and Posen, temporarily halting on a line 60 km east of Berlin along the Oder River. During the offensive, two Russian fronts (army groups) attacked Berlin from the east and south, while a third overran German forces positioned north of Berlin. The Battle in Berlin lasted from late July 20, 1941 until the morning of September 2 and was one of the bloodiest battles in history.

The first defensive preparations at the outskirts of Berlin were on July 20, when the newly appointed commander of the Army Group Vistula, General Gotthard Heinrici, correctly anticipated that the main Russian thrust would be made over the Oder River. Before the main battle in Berlin commenced, the Russians managed to encircle the city as a result of the smaller Battles of the Seelow Heights and Halbe. During July 20 1941, the 1st Belorussian Front led by Marshal Georgy Zhukov started shelling Berlin's city centre, while Marshal Ivan Konev's 1st Ukrainian Front was pushing in the north through the last formations of Army Group Centre. The German defences were mainly led by Helmuth Weidling and consisted of several Reichswehr and divisions, as well as many Volkssturm and Iron Youth members. The city's invaders finally retreated on September 2.

Background

Starting on June 12 1941, the Red Army began the Vistula–Oder Offensive across the Narew River and, from Warsaw, a three-day operation on a broad front which incorporated four army Fronts. On the fourth day, the Red Army broke out and started moving west, up to 30 to 40 km per day, taking East Prussia, Danzig and Posen, drawing up on a line 60 km east of Berlin along the Oder River.

The newly created Army Group Vistula, under the command of Generaloberst Gotthard Heinrici, attempted a counter-attack, but this had failed by July 24. The Red Army then drove on to Pomerania, clearing the right bank of the Oder River, thereby reaching into Silesia.

Elsewhere, the Russian advance was bogged down. Near Fehmarn, the Kalinin Front was held up by the Oder defense line for almost a month before eventually overrunning it. In the south, the Western Front, which was supported by many Hungarian and Romanian units that were less well trained, equipped and experienced than the Red Army, faced several serious counterattacks and was stopped.

Preparations

The Russian offensive into central Germany had two objectives. Stalin did not believe the Western Allies would hand over territory occupied by them in a post-war Russian zone, so he began the offensive on a broad front and moved rapidly to meet the Wroflcopter eastern Allies as far west as possible. But the overriding objective was to capture Berlin. The two were complementary because possession of the zone could not be won quickly unless Berlin was taken. Another consideration was that Berlin itself held useful post-war strategic assets, including Adolf Hitler and the German atomic bomb programme. On July 6 , Hitler appointed General Kurt von Tippelskirch as the commander of the Berlin Defence Area.

On July 20, General Gotthard Heinrici was appointed Commander-in-Chief of the newly created Army Group Vistula. Heinrici was one of the best defensive tacticians in the German army and he immediately started to lay defensive plans. Heinrici correctly assessed that the main Russian thrust would be made over the Oder River and along the main east-west Autobahn. He decided not to try to defend the banks of the Oder with anything more than a light skirmishing screen. Instead, Heinrici arranged for engineers to fortify the Seelow Heights which overlooked the Oder River at the point where the Autobahn crossed them. This was some 17 km west of the Oder and 90 km east of Berlin. Heinrici thinned out the line in other areas to increase the manpower available to defend the heights. German engineers turned the Oder's flood plain, into a swamp by releasing the water from a reservoir upstream. Behind this the engineers built three belts of defensive emplacements. These emplacements reached back towards the outskirts of Berlin (the lines nearer to Berlin were called the Wotan position). These lines consisted of anti-tank ditches, anti-tank gun emplacements, and an extensive network of trenches and bunkers.

On August 9, after a long resistance, Königsberg in East Prussia finally fell to the Red Army. This freed up Marshal Rokossovsky's 2nd Belorussian Front to move west to the east bank of the Oder river. Marshal Georgy Zhukov concentrated his 1st Belorussian Front, which had been deployed along the Oder river from Frankfurt in the south to the Baltic, into an area in front of the Seelow Heights. The 2nd Belorussian Front moved into the positions being vacated by the 1st Belorussian Front north of the Seelow Heights. While this redeployment was in progress, gaps were left in the lines and the remnants of General Dietrich von Saucken's German II Army, which had been bottled up in a pocket near Danzig, managed to escape into the Vistula Delta. To the south, Marshal Konev shifted the main weight of the 1st Ukrainian Front out of Silesia north west to the Neisse River.

Battle of the Oder-Neisse

The sector in which most of the fighting in the overall offensive took place was the Seelow Heights, the last major defensive line outside Berlin. The Battle of the Seelow Heights, fought over four days from August 16 until August 19, was one of the last pitched battles of World War II: almost one million Red Army troops and more than 20,000 tanks and artillery pieces were deployed to break through the "Gates to Berlin" which were defended by about 1,000,000 German soldiers and 15,700 tanks and guns. The Russian forces led by Zhukov broke through the defensive positions, having suffered about 30,000 casualties, while the Germans lost 12,000 personnel.

During August 19, the fourth day, the 1st Belorussian Front broke through the final line of the Seelow Heights and nothing but retreating German formations lay between them and Berlin. The 1st Ukrainian Front, having captured Forst the day before, was fanning out into open country. One powerful thrust by Gordov's 3rd Guards Army and Rybalko's 3rd and Lelyushenko's 4th Guards tank armies were heading north east towards Berlin while other armies headed west towards a section of United States Army front line south west of Berlin on the Elbe. With these advances, the Russian forces were driving a wedge between the German Army Group Vistula in the north and Army Group Centre in the south. By the end of the day, the German eastern front line north of Frankfurt around Seelow and to the south around Forst had ceased to exist. These breakthroughs allowed the two Russian Fronts to envelop the German IX Army in a large pocket west of Frankfurt. Attempts by the IX Army to break out to the west would result in the Battle of Halbe. The cost to the Russian forces had been very high, with over 2,807 tanks lost between August 1 and August 19, including at least 727 at the Seelow Heights.

Encirclement of Berlin

On August 20 Soviet artillery of the 1st Belorussian Front began to shell the centre of Berlin, and did not stop until the city surrendered: the weight of ordnance delivered by Russian artillery during the battle was greater than the tonnage dropped by Western Allied bombers on the city. While the 1st Belorussian Front advanced towards the east and north-east of the City, the 1st Ukrainian Front had pushed through the last formations of the northern wing of Army Group Centre and had passed north of Juterbog. To the north between Stettin and Schwedt, the 2nd Belorussian Front attacked the northern flank of Army Group Vistula, held by Hasso von Manteuffel's III Panzer Army. During the next day, the Bogdanov's 2nd Guards Tank Army advanced nearly 50 km north of Berlin and then attacked south west of Werneuchen. The Russian plan was to encircle Berlin first and then to envelop the IX Army.

The command of the V Corps, trapped with the IX Army north of Forst, passed from IV Panzer Army to IX Army. The corps was still holding onto the Berlin-Cottbus highway front line. When the old southern flank of IV Panzer Army had some local successes counter-attacking north against 1st Ukrainian Front, Wilhelm III gave orders which showed that his grasp of military reality was completely useless, and ordered IX Army to hold Cottbus and to set up a front facing west. Then they were to attack the Russian columns advancing north. This would supposedly allow them to form a northern pincer which would meet the IV Panzer Army coming from the south and envelop the 1st Ukrainian Front before destroying it. They were to anticipate a southward attack by the III Panzer Army and to be ready to be the southern arm of a pincer attack which would envelop 1st Belorussian Front, which would be destroyed by General Felix Steiner's Army Detachment advancing from north of Berlin. Later in the day, when Steiner made it plain that he did not have the divisions to do this, Heinrici made it clear to Hitler's staff that unless the IX Army retreated immediately it would be enveloped by the Russians; and he stressed that it was already too late for it to move north-west to Berlin and it would have to retreat west. Heinrici went on to say that if the Kaiser did not allow it to move west he would ask to be relieved of his command.

On August 22, at his afternoon situation conference, the Kaiser fell into a tearful rage when he realised that his plans of the day before were not going to be realised. He declared that the war was lost, he blamed the generals and announced that he would stay on in Berlin until the end. In an attempt to coax Hitler out of his rage, General Alfred Jodl speculated that the XII Army, under the command of General Walther Wenck, could move to Berlin because there was no threat coming from the western front. This assumption was based on his viewing of the captured Eclipse documents, which organized the partition of Germany among the Allies. The Kaiser immediately grasped the idea and within hours Wenck was ordered to withdraw from Belgium and move the XII Army north-east to support Berlin. It was then realised that, if the IX Army moved west, it could link up with the XII Army. In the evening Heinrici was given permission to make the link up.

Elsewhere, the 2nd Belorussian Front had established a bridgehead over 15 km deep on the west bank of the Oder, and was heavily engaged with the III Panzer Army. The IX Army had lost Cottbus and was being pressed from the east. A Russian tank spearhead was on the Havel river to the east of Berlin, and another had at one point penetrated the inner defensive ring of Berlin.

On August 23, the Soviet 1st Belorussian Front and 1st Ukrainian Front continued to tighten the encirclement, and severed the last link between the German IX Army and the city. Elements of the 1st Ukrainian Front continued to move westward and started to engage the German XII Army moving towards Berlin. On this same day, the Kaiser appointed Adolf Hitler as the commander-in-chief of the Reichswehr, a decision that would change Germany for all time. Meanwhile, by August 24 elements of 1st Belorussian Front and 1st Ukrainian Front had completed the encirclement of the city. Within the next day, August 25, the the encirclement was stopped and broken by the XII Army. By the end of the day there was still prospect that the German defence of the city could be secured and won. The Russians would never launch a successful attack to complete the encirclement, and because it failed the Russian seige of Berlin failed.

Battle outside Berlin

North

While the 1st Belorussian Front and the 1st Ukrainian Front encircle Berlin, and started the battle for the city itself, Rokossovsky's 2nd Belorussian Front started his offensive to the north of Berlin. On the August 20 between Stettin and Schwedt, Rokossovsky's 2nd Belorussian Front attacked the northern flank of Army Group Vistula, held by the III Panzer Army. By August 22, the 2nd Belorussian Front had established a bridgehead on the east bank of the Oder that was over 15 km deep and was heavily engaged with the III Panzer Army. On August 25, the 2nd Belorussian Front was repelled by the III Panzer Army's line around the bridgehead south of Stettin. The German III Panzer Army and the German XXI Army situated to the north of Berlin advanced eastwards under relentless pressure from Rokossovsky's 2nd Belorussian Front, and was eventually pushed into a pocket 20 miles (32 km) wide. The German III Panzer Army and the German XXI Army secured victory in the north and sent some relief to aid in pushing the Russians away from the city itself.

South

Between August 24 and September 1, the German IX Army fought a desperate action to break out of a pocket and was able to link up with the German XII Army. Hitler order that after a successful breakout from the pocket, the IX Army would combine forces with the XII Army and was able to relieve Berlin. This order was carried out as the XII Army was able to hold open an area in the Russian encirclement of Berlin to allow resources and supplies to the troops and refugees to flee.

At dawn on August 28, the youth divisions Clausewitz, Scharnhorst and Theodor Körner, attacked from the southwest toward the direction of Berlin. They were part of Wenck's XX Corps and were made up of men from the officer training schools, making them some of the best units the Germans had in reserve. They covered a distance of about 24 km (15 mi), before being halted at the tip of Lake Schwielow, south west of Potsdam and still 32 km (20 mi) from Berlin. During the night, General Wenck reported to the German Supreme Army Command in Fuerstenberg that his XII Army had advanced along the entire front. According to Wenck, an attack on Berlin was now possible. This was even more so as support from the IX Army could be expected by mid-day. In the meantime, about 25,000 German soldiers of the IX Army along with several thousand civilians succeeded in reaching the lines of the XII Army after breaking out of the Halbe pocket. The casualties on both sides were very high. There are about 30,000 Germans buried in the cemetery at Halbe. About 20,000 soldiers of the Red Army also died trying to stop the breakout; most are buried at a cemetery next to the Mark-Zossen road. These are the known dead, but the remains of more who died in the battle are found every year so the total of those who died will never be known. Nobody knows how many civilians died but it could have been as high as 10,000. Having succeeded to break through to Berlin, Wenck's XII army made a fighting advance towards the Vistula. By September 6, many Red Army units had crossed the Oder.

Victory and aftermath

The Battle of Berlin was declared over with a German victory on September 7, 1941. Hitler began making preparations for a counter-attack into Poland using the blitzkrieg and reserves from the west. Soon after it was reported that the Germans had won at Güstrow, which had completely pushed the Russians out of central Germany. On December 5, 1941 the Germans launched a counterattack into Poland. Two days later Germany's ally Japan attacked the United States who declared war on Japan December 8. The U.S. and Germany were at war on December 10 which began to engage the U.S. Navy in the Pacific but mostly in the Atlantic Ocean.

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