By Paul Comben
Even as American troops were still fighting to maintain their foothold on the east bank of the Rhine at Remagen, several hundred miles to the east, Josef Goebbels was touring portions of the German front along the Oder/Neisse line. Newsreel cameras followed him, ready to capture moments of steely defiance and resolve for the benefit of those audiences watching Der Deutsche Wochenschau. Goebbels tarried in the town of Lauban, recently recaptured from the Soviets. In the square, he addressed soldiers from the Lauban battle, including a diminutive sixteen year-old Willi Hubner. Hubner would survive the war and find himself being interviewed for various documentaries decades later. As for Goebbels, after greeting the new martial favourite of the Reich, Ferdinand Schörner, he moved on to Gorlitz, where he rallied the faithful in the last sizeable Nazi rally of the war.
Wochenschau presented the rally on film a few days later. Predictably, with nothing of material consequence to offer his audience, he concentrated on the atrocities committed by Soviet troops upon German civilians, and linked these to a growing resolve among “new divisions”, that would move to a mass offensive with icy determination, neither expecting nor granting quarter, and with their panzerfausts at the ready, proceed to exact a terrible retribution on the eastern invader.
And what of the Führer? Ordinary Germans had not seen Hitler for a long time; and they had last heard him on January 30th, when the radio carried his speech on the twelfth anniversary of the Nazi’s coming to power. Goebbels, to compensate, resorted to a rhetorical device. He referred to what was essentially an entirely fictitious meeting with Germany’s leader, wherein, for the benefit of his mouthpiece, and therefore the Greater Reich, the Leader supposedly reaffirmed his belief that the present crises would be overcome, and that victory remained a certainty… if only the people kept faith and fuelled that faith with absolute fanaticism.
These were, of course, Goebbels’ words, not Hitler’s; though ironically, Hitler would be seen at the Oder front only a few days later, visiting troops belonging to Busse’s 9th Army, and seeking to instill senior officers with the appropriate resolve when he visited the army headquarters at Prenzlau. This is close to being the last film we have of Hitler – the film of his decorating Hitler Youth in the grounds of the Berlin Chancellery, although often attributed to his birthday on 20th April, was actually shot in March – photos from the same event appeared in a March edition of one of the last Nazi journals. As for the Oder Wochenschau report, it provides a few moments of revelation into Hitler’s state of health at the time – his left arm is awkwardly drawn across his leather trench coat, and at the headquarters, we see him seated at a map table, a figure with glazed eyes and obvious frailty. Physically, the Führer was pretty close to being a complete wreck, but mentally it is unwise to see him as being in a continual state of raging fury. The “chew the carpet” Hitler, who, in varying degrees of parody, was presented in film after film (Guinness, Finlay, Carlyle) can be safely discarded by audiences. Bruno Ganz in Downfall probably came closest to realizing the Hitler of the final days – albeit a man broken by despair and perceived and actual “treachery” rather than delusions bred in a world no one else was privy to.
1000 Hours Left: The Last War Plans of Adolf Hitler
Gain time and keep hold of resources was the essence of Hitler’s strategy as the spring of 1945 beckoned. Gaining time meant keeping the war going, which in turn meant armies capable and willing to fight, and a civilian population ready to persevere through an increasing toll of hardship. Ideological dedication might motivate the SS and the young, but for the rest, the Führer understood that he needed a victory that would boost domestic morale and shake the West/East alliance against him. He hoped for a signal victory on the Oder to provide that; but as our period begins, the 6th SS Panzer Army was the one force aiming for a victory by attacking around Lake Balaton, and this with the principle objective of securing the few remaining oilfields still held by German forces.
As for national morale, whether applied to the armed forces, or to the civilian population, it was the classic case of carrot and stick. Morale in the years of triumph had largely looked after itself; but by 1945, the stick was needed to perform more than an occasional prod. Although the Nazis could instill a sense of obligation or dutiful obedience upon the nation, the stick was present not only in the edicts and proclamations of the Gauleiters, but in the propaganda-rich spectacle of the pillaging Russians entering German territory.
In the final phases of the war, Goebbels certainly looked to the Nazi version of commissars to stiffen the backbone of the fighting front, and was willing, with near the rest of the Nazi leadership, to exact immediate revenge for any sign of capitulation. Nothing however, was overlooked in the effort to maintain the spirit of the people. Terror had its uses, but in his more esoteric moments, Goebbels was ready to employ any and every example from history of a nation refusing to surrender. In his diaries, he considers using the Second Punic War as one ideal of a nation enduring catastrophes before emerging triumphant; and indeed, in the version of the later diaries most readily available, the first entry, for the end of February 1945, dutifully notes that: “We must be like Frederick the Great” – a reference to the many trials and misfortunes the king suffered before emerging victorious.
But in the end, Hitler still needed an army, and an army with effective weapons. In terms of finding the manpower, he looked to formations to be created out of the Reich Labour Service and the Hitler Youth. For weaponry, there were the first Mark XXI electric submarines entering service, hope still for the jet program, and the belief that an odd combination of wonder weapons and mass-produced armament laced with new technology (like the People’s Fighter) might yet turn the tide.
Ultimately, Hitler was aware that the war could last only a short while longer before the clock finally gave out on his regime. Defending the Rhine and the Oder might delay the reckoning; defending the last industrial areas of the Reich was essential to keep an army in the field, a semblance of a navy, and the prospect of a more effective air force. But sooner or later, the means had to be found to translate stubborn German resistance into a real negotiating position; and that, in turn, meant snapping off at least one part of the alliance from the other constituent parts. We can see this today as hopeless flight of fancy, and indeed, given that the one thing that held the Allies together was a hatred of the Nazi state, their aspirations in this quarter appear completely wide of the mark. But that is not how the German leadership saw it in 1945 – there was speculation that the British had tried to “engineer” the Soviets out of as much Balkan control as possible by “allowing” German units to move out of Greece and favoring more western orientated partisan movements over the communist variety. At the same time, German diplomacy sniffed out the possibility that Stalin, forever wary of his western allies, might still be interested in a deal, and efforts were made to contact official and semi official Soviet channels via their ambassador to Sweden.
Undoubtedly, Hitler was also sustained in his hope by the more credible of the statistics placed before him. The Soviet advance to the Oder, and the subsequent fighting in Silesia and Pomerania, had proved very costly. German figures suggested that Stalin was now losing thousands more tanks than he was capable of replacing. Furthermore, in both Silesia and the northern regions of the former Czechoslovakia, Schörner’s Army Group Centre had successfully withstood, and in some places actually pushed back, the Soviet formations sent against it. Schörner himself certainly embodied the sort of spirit Hitler was looking for – he held ground, he did not retreat, abandon designated fortresses, or allow his rear areas to become a clutter of stragglers and out and out deserters. Although often presented, not without justification, as an avid Nazi automaton, it is hard to argue against his record in holding ground, and doing a more than reasonable job against the Soviet automatons sent against him. At the very end, Hitler would describe Schörner as the only true warlord Germany possessed.
Among the Gauleiters, the stand-out figure in terms of dedication to the cause was Karl Hanke, who took up the defence of the “fortress” city of Breslau after the Soviet offensive across the Vistula, and was still defending the city after Berlin fell. Wochenschau eagerly showed Hanke and his city as the defence effort stepped up, but other intended examples of National Socialist ardor in action proved way short of the mark. Grohé, Gauleiter of the Cologne area, was featured organizing the defence of his Gau; but only a little later, Goebbels was to bemoan what he saw as his Gauleiter’s utterly shambolic and weak efforts beyond the propaganda image. Even worse was Koch in East Prussia. Filmed in his Konigsberg citadel dutifully pointing at his maps, he was, by this time, largely engaged in nothing more than a scheme of self-preservation. His indifference to the needs of civilians, and especially the swelling numbers of refugees, had precious little to do with enforcing the martial priorities of National Socialist will, and everything to do with ensuring that no one had a safer spot than he had, or was further ahead in the queue for a boat. In blunt terms, Koch was, as his entire record shows, a thoroughly disgusting individual of no combat or administrative merit whatsoever.
By now already playing his own double game was Heinrich Himmler. Hitler had brought Der Treue Heinrich into army group command in the hope that his eccentric “merits” would breathe life into the forces under his control. There is some evidence to suggest that Hitler had come to regret favoring the army ahead of the SA during the period of Röhm’s agitation and eventual execution. This tied in with his growing belief that Stalin, far from committing a near fatal error in purging his own officer corps during the years leading up to the war, had in fact created an army of ideological fanatics and hard men who would ruthlessly act as the leader wanted them to. Hitler now looked to the miserable examples of Kluge, Paulus, Halder etc., and concluded he should have done the same. But in terms of military capacity, Himmler was far more like a Budenny than a Koniev – that is, the old political comrade given something to do, rather than a military hard man with an utter indifference to setbacks and casualties.
The failure of Himmler in army command, alongside his seeing the dire state of Germany’s military situation on the maps in his own headquarters, no doubt helped persuade the SS chief to further his own self preservation plans. A fantasist who could readily combine his own airy meanderings into Arthurian legend with grotesque schemes of mass murder, by his own reckoning it was entirely possible to park his genocides in the long grass, whilst he and the representatives of the western powers got down to the serious business of creating a pan European bulwark against the Bolshevik east. This remained Himmler’s furtive agenda right up to his capture in May.
And what of Goring? Rarely at any Führer conference, for fear of what might be said of his personal failures and of the Luftwaffe’s decline under his command, Hitler’s discredited deputy lingered out at his country residence to the north of Berlin, now heavily camouflaged. There, with a small group of cronies, he wiled away the hours doing very little save hunt on his estate (Goebbels mocked his presenting of a bison to German refugees trudging westward) and plan the occasional more distant excursion. In fact, as our clock begins to run, Goring was travelling in his own personal train to visit his wife and family deep in Bavaria.
It fell to the ordinary German soldier, airman, sailor, to defend this tottering wreck of a state, and to provide whatever cutting edge to whatever plan the will of the Führer might yet provide them with. Not all those in the ranks had lost faith in Hitler by any means; but at this stage of proceedings, most who were in any sense positively motivated, were either determined to spare Germany the terror of the Russians to the east, or were sufficiently enraged by the bombing of German cities to maintain resistance in the west.
But any form of coherent struggle on either main front depended on the continued supply of arms, food, medicines, and oil. The Nazis had left it far too late to prepare irregular warfare via the Werewolf project – the one notable action of which was the assassination of the American-installed mayor in Goebbels’ hometown. Elsewhere, Werewolf units achieved very little, and despite Eisenhower’s odd fixation on the possibility of the Germans retreating to an Alpine Redoubt, that too was hopelessly late in instigation, and existed far more as fantasy than fact.
As for the more orthodox forces left to the Reich, the Germans maintained a structure of armies and army groups on all fronts, but by the latter part of March 1945, what a corps or an army purported to be, and what it actually consisted of, were often two very different things. Any available headquarters staff might receive anyone and anything that could be retrieved by another scrape round the bottom of the barrel. Two examples often quoted, and both from the Oder front, was the Third Panzer Army, holding the area northeast of Berlin to the coast near Stettin. Despite possessing the headquarters of the 46th Panzer Corps, the army possessed no actual panzer formation – assault guns here and there, the odd tank with this or that odd unit, but the corps and the rest of the army was filled out with infantry, including recently “converted” naval troops. The other example, from Busse’s army, was the 5th SS Mountain Corps, which had about as many mountain troops in the ranks as had a battalion of Dutch border guards from 1940.
That is not to say that this army was incapable of resistance. Many units were led by officers and NCO’s who had merited the highest awards for valor, and could be counted on to be more tactically adept than many of the enemies they faced. The problem was that there was next to nothing behind the lines to keep a major battle going for more than a few days – not just in terms of reserve formations, but also everything down to the most basic forms of ammunition and essential spare parts for guns and vehicles. The one thing that might improve the defence beyond what has been already quoted was the terrain, and the improvement of the terrain, along the Western and Eastern fronts – whatever the events in Italy, they really do not have a relevance here.
The most obvious barrier in the west remained the Rhine, and the difficult approach to the river from its left bank. In additional to the Westwall and its switchback positions along and behind the Moselle, the terrain was difficult in itself; whilst further north, flooding had aided the defence between the Roer and the Rhine, and of course, much of the Netherlands had been deliberately flooded – at great cost to its population. Although, by late March, much of the land west of the Rhine had been lost, the river itself still appeared a serious obstacle along much of its length, and especially in the area where Montgomery’s 21st Army Group was yet to make its major assault crossing.
In the east, the Germans had the Oder and the Neisse rivers blocking the direct approach to Berlin, whilst the more stubbornly defended of the cities previously declared fortresses, and now considerably behind Soviet lines, provided some diversion of Soviet strength and supply from the main objective. On the direct route to Berlin, there was the Seelow heights, where the Germans were constructing a semi fortified line backed up by dug-in tanks and tunnels mined into the reverse side of the heights to help protect German troops from the inevitable Soviet bombardment. The approach to the heights on the Russian side was crisscrossed by marshland and ditches, which would cause the advancing Russians plenty of trouble once their offensive was underway. Elsewhere, the Oder line was bolstered by several fortified cities, Cottbus and Frankfurt an der Oder being the most notable examples. But beyond this line there was only Berlin itself – if the Oder line failed, the fight would inevitably be taken into the city.
Goebbels held weekly defence meetings with the city commandant and sundry party figures. However, although it was staring them all in the face that Berlin could well become a battleground, the Nazi administration left certain aspects of what that would ensue criminally disregarded. No thought at all beyond speculative concepts was put into how to feed the civilian population, or where that population should go if they were not to be sustained within the city boundaries. As for the garrison, although, on paper Berlin had an array of Volkssturm battalions, many of these were infamously underprepared, and no better armed than were the British Home Guard in its earliest days. Stories abounded of the paucity of rifles being apparently remedied by the supply of Italian weapons and sundry other pieces of foreign weaponry; but matching a gun to its appropriate ammunition was often overlooked, or was plain impossible, even when some stock of ammunition might exist.
However ineffectual the Volkssturm might be in an actual fight, they did have use in helping to construct the defences around the city’s main lines. Street cars filled with rubble were hauled across roads “mit Fanatismus” as the Wochenschau narrator declared, and certainly, throughout March and into April, efforts were made to improve the capital’s defence capability, although one suspects that much of this was merely aimed to give the population something to do, rather than in any appreciable sense, improve the lot of a weakening nation.
The last event to be mentioned here takes us back to Hitler and what was to prove his last piece of fateful and misguided intuition. Despite the fact that the Soviets were no more than fifty miles from Berlin, Hitler preferred to envisage a Russian thrust towards Prague. This flawed perception also fuelled one of his last disagreements with Heinz Guderian. Four panzer divisions, by Hitler’s command, were detached from the defence of Berlin and sent to defend Prague. Hitler’s reasoning for this was that Stalin would want the industry of the former Czech capital as part of his Soviet empire, and would also see Prague as key to establishing Soviet power in the heart of Europe. When Guderian objected to the moving of the German panzers, Hitler cited the German lunge towards Moscow in late 1941, when a better strategy might well have left the Wehrmacht less compromised. Stalin, he was certain, would not lunge at Berlin when the real key to future power, as he saw it, lay first and foremost with Prague.
But this was flawed logic. It ignored what territory Allied pre-arrangements were due to give Stalin anyway, and it erroneously equated the Nazi’s shrinking Reich of 1945 with the vast unconquered territories of Russia at the end of 1941. It was a serious mistake, as the Russians really did hit difficulties on the Oder, and as Heinrici, overall commander of Army Group Vistula later stated, had he still possessed those four near complete panzer divisions, the Russians would have been given an extremely unpleasant time. Whether that experience might have prompted the sort of political crisis Hitler was hoping for among the Allies was still very unlikely, but as his one semi sensible hope was to fight to a tradable victory in front of Berlin, it made no sense to deprive his commanders of the sort of force that might just make it happen.
Hours 999 to 750 – Of the Rhine and Rages
Potentially, the Rhine was a daunting obstacle to an attacking army – if it were defended adequately. Preventing the Germans from doing that, apart from the considerable material advantage of the Allies, was the amount of men and material the Germans had lost west of the Rhine. Declaring “No Retreat!” was all very well, but it effectively helped to impoverish and denude the forces that might have otherwise defended the east bank of the river. The situation was further exacerbated by the transfer of forces to the east – probably unavoidable given the state of German collapse between the Vistula and the Oder, and the need to defend the oilfields in Hungary. The inevitable conclusion was that Montgomery’s set piece assault along the lower Rhine met determined but utterly inadequate resistance. It was the same story, and rather more than the same story, in the Remagen area, where a Führer situation conference became concerned with a paltry handful of tank destroyers that could/might be sent against American forces now filling the Rhine’s eastern bank.
And increasingly, whatever German soldiers were still capable of and willing to perform, the civilian population in the west was ready to hang out flags of surrender the moment it seemed likely that the next column of troops to appear in the streets would be either British or American. Looking at Goebbels’ diaries for this period, one senses a desperate longing to hear of some town, somewhere, that had put up anything like a decent level of resistance. But with such examples practically non-existent, propaganda relied far more on highlighting the individual effort and triumphs from the “front in miniature” than anything pertaining to a broader theme. Thus, there was an infamous radio broadcast made even as Montgomery’s forces were sweeping north of the Ruhr conurbations. This broadcast, by a senior Nazi, extolled the actions of one German boy, who had been seen by Allied soldiers lying by the side of the road in an apparent state of distress. One Commonwealth soldier approached, and heard the boy mewling for chocolate. Taking pity, the soldier reached into his pocket for some petty treat and then bent over towards the figure in front of him. However, when close enough, the boy then produced a concealed weapon and killed the soldier outright – an act utterly approved of by the Nazi commentator, who forcibly declared that if more Germans had followed the example of this one boy, the Reich’s forces would not now be fighting deep in their own territory against an increasingly confident invader.
In the east, the fight for a few blocks in the town of Güben occupied much of one Nazi newsreel. Examples of Soviet terror and individual German heroism were frequently resorted to, alongside a theme regularly quoted in the final days that Germany was fighting Europe’s fight. When Hitler visited the Oder front in mid-March, the film presented him not just as Germany’s leader, but the eventual leader of Europe. All this was part of trying to get anyone of any status in any “acceptable” part of Europe to see things the way the Nazis saw them – and for the Nazis, the unfolding reality in Europe, and what it would mean for the western powers, should have been staring those selfsame powers straight in the face… only it was not, but the Nazis never stopped believing that it must.
The encircling of the Ruhr left a massive gap in the German line, with the surrounded forces totaling greater than the tally at Stalingrad. Advances by the Americans and British could now only really be slowed by logistical drag or a plain simple matter of a column’s MPH. The German forces in the Ruhr cities were effectively stuck, both owing to their limitations logistically, and to an increasing extent, through the lethargy of the army group commander, Walter Model. Model had been one of the most dynamic of German commanders during the latter half of the war, but by the early spring of 1945, like many a soldier he commanded, he was thoroughly dispirited and looking for an end. He failed at several key moments to counterattack against the threatening encirclement, nor to make the slightest effort to keep any sort of cohesive front linking to the formations south and north of the Ruhr. He thus did more than a little to degrade the fighting worth of over 300,000 men to the Wehrmacht’s order of battle.
When it came to logistical drag on the Allies, there was one other aspect to the German defence that must have consideration – Hitler’s scorched-earth policy. This has long been presented as another aspect of Hitler’s demented hatred towards the people who had let him down – the Germans themselves. But the contradictions in Hitler’s outlook are worthy of mention – for while, on the one hand, there were occasions when he offered the most callous opinions on the failure of the German people to match the challenge of the times, there were other, witnessed instances, where the Führer was driven distraction by the inability of the regime to defend its people. In early April 1945 he implored General Koller of the Luftwaffe to get the air force in some sort of shape, saying: “You must help me – we can’t go on like this. What am I to do against this terror-bombing and the murder of our women and children?”
In reality, Hitler’s scorched-earth policy was actually driven far more by intentions to slow the enemy advance and deny that same enemy assets than by any desire to punish the German people for failing to live up to National Socialist expectations. In the east, Stalin’s forces had already captured key economic/industrial facilities near intact, and Hitler clearly wanted no more of that. Furthermore, the capture of plant and factories, transportation hubs and the like in workable condition hardly presented a picture of a nation still ready to fight – rather, it smacked of a capitulatory mindset that was hardly going to present to the world a Germany still ready to dictate its own way and only come to the negotiation table when it had proved to that world that it could still endure and prevail. The Russians after all, had just captured the Hungarian oil fields near intact – but in summer 1942, they had left the Maikop oil fields utterly ablaze as the Germans advanced in the unfolding stages of Fall Blau.
That Hitler’s scorched-earth policy has received the colour it has over years owes not a little to the postwar statements of Albert Speer. As someone who was closer to Hitler than many, and was part of the Nazi elite, what he had to say after his period of post-war imprisonment as well as his answers during interrogation and trial have naturally been pored over ever since. The problem is, the difference between Speer the Nazi architect/Industrial co-ordinator, and Speer the contrite reference to prior excess and transgressions, is too stark. Speer had really done too much as a regime potentate to avoid capital justice at Nuremberg, such as fully endorsing the use of mass slave labour and feeding the Nazi war machine with the squalid misery of countless numbers of people. But somehow, whilst the likes of Alfred Jodl were executed, Speer ended up writing books and contributing to documentaries. If one gets really cynical about it, Speer was an ardent Nazi when the regime’s ascendency flattered him; was an interested Nazi when the later challenges engaged him; and was the doubting dissident, thwarting his leader’s last orders, the moment it came to abandon ship. He was certainly not alone, as there was a gaggle of generals and other Nazi high-ups who were ready to blame every last fault and excess on one man alone – Adolf Hitler.
The pattern is clear – Speer readily blamed Hitler for wanting the collapse of German infrastructure and contributing to the creation of a social and industrial wasteland (Allied bombing seemed conveniently forgotten); and likewise, generals lined up postwar to complain of Hitler’s incompetent strategy. It is hard to see it other than that Speer, who had exploited oppressed and terrified people for the regime’s benefit, was now, in these last weeks, preparing some mitigation for his defence case before anything got to trial. As for the generals, with Hitler conveniently dead, just about any failure of German strategy could be assigned to him rather than any fault of their own.
With the generals, it all came to a head towards the end of March 1945. Hitler had ordered an offensive operation out of the Frankfurt bridgehead on the east bank of the Oder. The aim of this attack was to destroy Soviet formations preparing for the expected attack towards Berlin. The attack was sound in concept, but ended in failure – the infantry fell too far behind the armour, and the German garrison in Küstrin totally ignored their own orders to hold position and instead cut their way out – through Russian defences Hitler had been told were unassailable. According to recollections gathered post-war, including from Chief of Staff Heinz Guderian, Hitler came near to throwing a total fit – foaming at the mouth, raging, throwing accusations into the faces of those present that the commanders and the soldiers had all failed.
It is highly likely that Hitler was fuming – there were serious aspects of incompetence about the handling of the attack; and the situation would probably have not have been helped by the demeanour of Guderian, who worked on a pretty short fuse, and whose relationship with Hitler had been poor for a considerable while. But if one sifts through the transcripts of the military situation conferences that survived the war (and they run into many hundreds of pages) there is precious little sign in any of them of stand up, uncontrollable rows between Hitler and those commanders present, whatever the news. Nevertheless, resentments at that late March 1945 meeting were boiling over – with no victories to palliate either the swelling distemper of the officer class, or of a leader who was running out of generals in whom he had any trust whatsoever. Little wonder that the friction of events led to more than a few sparks. Accounts are uncertain as to who then helped, or played the main part, in calming proceedings, though certainly Guderian left for his subsequent sick leave without any sense that he was seriously under threat from a disturbed madman. It might well have been a different matter had he been working for Stalin.
Hours 749 to 500: The Banks of The Elbe and The Danube
The story of the German armed forces in these last weeks is as much a story of the dissolution of its commanders’ will as it is of actual battlefield defeat. Alongside Model, there were to be numerous instances of generals, up to the most senior level, either failing to make any effort to act on the orders they had received, or, in the absence of orders, doing nothing but drift aimlessly towards the inner regions of the Reich.
One way to understand the story of such events, is that they represented the passing of some sort of psychological tripping-point, whereby Hitler’s authority lost near all its power either to persuade or coerce commanders to act as he wished. One further aspect of this, which would certainly manifest itself in the very last days, was that many senior commanders were now secretly formulating their final escape plans when collapse was inevitable. On the Oder front, Heinrici together with his two army commanders, Manteuffel of the 3rd Panzer and Busse of the 9th Army, had all formulated plans, which, to a greater or lesser degree, were designed to get the forces out of the clutches of an advancing Soviet tide and into the captivity of the British and Americans. Elsewhere, one does not need layers of deep investigation simply to understand that the German forces had suffered too much for too long in order to fight with their former spirit. This might explain the complete disarray that accompanied the German retreat into, and then through Vienna – not so much the execution of covert plans for survival, but the confusion of forces beyond their limit. The Vienna episode, linked to the failings of the 6th SS Panzer Army in Hungary and eastern Austria, also saw a further diminution of Hitler’s faith in his forces and commanders – all the more significant in this case as it involved the SS. Himmler was ordered to Austria to strip the culpable divisions of their armbands – the response of the ranks and the senior officers left no doubt that even they were at the end of their tether with the regime.
The erosion of the authority of the central government had differing effects on Hitler, Goebbels and Bormann. Hitler alternated between periods of apathy and detachment on the one hand, and moments of censorial outrage on the other. Some commanders got away with actions they would have thought twice about in former days; but there would be other occasions when he, Hitler, would be ready to voice threats of disgrace and execution to any commander who failed to do exactly as he was told. Perhaps it speaks volumes however, that despite all these blandishments, no senior field officer in these days came that near to being put up against the wall and shot. And with even the basics of command slipping through his shaking fingers, the Führer had to resort to farcical bureaucratic procedures to exercise even the semblance of authority. The prime example of this was the order, repeatedly ignored by those on the receiving end of it, that permission to withdraw from any position had to be sought from Führer HQ in good time for Hitler to countermand any such manoeuver.
Clearly, this can all be see merely as the hapless comedy it was, but it is important to understand that this sort of complete breakdown in Germany’s higher military leadership had been in the air for some long time, before the war in fact, though its first real manifestation was the mass sackings that had followed in the wake of the disaster in front of Moscow at the end of 1941. Faced with commanders who had been intent on retreat then, Hitler had told them to stay put – and in 1941 he still had the authority to make that largely stick. But years of subsequent retreats, bungled opportunities, and out and out calamities eroded Hitler’s authority drastically, leaving him relying on near unenforceable strictures to try and impose his will.
For Goebbels, the only course that was in any way achievable by way of restoring the party’s authority over the armed forces was for Hitler to address the nation. Through March and into early April 1945, his diary entries make regular reference to the need for Hitler to speak on the radio. He did not expect some major address, but merely a form of words that would help bind the Leader to his people at the moment of supreme crisis. It was about re-establishing Hitler’s authority by part inspiring, part shaming the army back into line. Goebbels diary entries refer to this as worth a victory in the field, and a word from the Führer “being as necessary as our daily bread”. But Hitler did not want to speak – leastways, not until he had a military victory of any real sort he could announce. Whether this was just an excuse is hard to tell. He had not shirked from telling the Gauleiters in early 1943 that Stalingrad was turning into a disaster of massive proportions, but bomb plots, injuries, and his own progressive heart and neurological conditions, plus the endless military defeats, must have made it increasingly difficult to say anything that might resound. The January 1945 speech had a temporary effect on morale, but he could hardly repeat that again as the Reich continued to shrink.
As for Bormann, as he could no longer shout at people in person, he did so via endless missives sent all over the remnants of the Reich – he called for fanaticism, for executions, for energy, for belief. But one only has to see the wording of some of the last telegrams that left his office in the bunker to perceive someone who, to an increasing extent, was waging war on defeatist Germans rather than the triumphant Allies. In time, the exhortations gave way to score- settling, and finally, to the aggrieved valedictories of someone who was being totally ignored.
One odd episode in the countdown that must now be mentioned occurred at the very end of March. With the Soviets across the Oder in places, Vienna about to fall, and the Allies over the Rhine, Germany had its Easter holiday. It must be remembered that the country was still suffering from round-the-clock bombing, to which was added harassing raids by Mosquito bombers over the streets of Berlin. But in the midst of this, Germany had its “religious” holiday – businesses closed, people had their time off, and amongst other effects, the railways went on some kind of alternative timetable for the period. What this meant, in practical terms, was that the railways were not employed (because the staff were not there!) to shift the Reich’s gold reserves and national treasures from their former place of security to one now rather less likely to be overrun by the Americans. Thanks to this inaction, the whole lot was lost – and among the treasures that fell into American hands was the Nefertiti bust, which Goebbels particularly lamented.
The opening days of April saw puny attempts at German reorganization of their front in the west totally overwhelmed before any measure could take effect. In the area of the Harz Mountains, there was an effort to replenish and then attack with the 11th Army (reforming after bloody fighting in the east), with the hope of re-establishing a link with the Ruhr. The various divisions in the Harz were, however, surrounded and broken up before they could effect anything. Vague plans to attempt an attack into the long southern flank of the American forces advancing towards the Elbe also came to nothing. The only remotely effective countermeasure in these days was the formation of the new 12th Army east of the Elbe. This army was formed around an experienced headquarters staff under the command of the very capable Walter Wenck. Wenck had been attached to Himmler’s former command in Pomerania, largely at Guderian’s instigation, in order to supply Himmler with someone who knew what he was doing. Unfortunately for the Germans, Wenck had subsequently been injured in a motor accident at a key stage of the German counterattack at Stargard, and had only now come back to active service.
Wenck’s new command consisted of several new divisions all reflecting a sudden preference of the Nazis to give formations names rather than numbers – “Theodor Körner”, “Ulrich Von Hutten”, “Schlageter” etc. These were not truly elite divisions, but they were capably led by instructors taken from the cadet schools, whilst the actual manpower came from both from those schools or from the Reich Labour Service. The army formed close to the city of Magdeburg, and allowing the conditions in which it operated, its performance over the next two weeks was exceptional.
On the Eastern Front, the Oder remained relatively quiet as the Russians continued to clear the last German forces from the Baltic coast as well as seeking to press through Silesia. Schörner, however, continued to hold firm against the attacks made against his Army Group Centre, though further south, Vienna fell at the end of the first week in April, with the remnant of German forces now seeking the refuge of the Alps.
In Italy, which really falls outside of this study, suffice it to say that what was meant to be a front dissolved into a mix of retreating Germans, bewildered Fascists, militant pro-communist partisans, and somewhere in the middle of it all, the Duce was swept along with his mistress until their final apprehension and subsequent execution.
On April 7th, in the skies above Germany, there took place one of the most bizarre events of the entire air war in Europe. Some weeks earlier, there had been a call made around the Luftwaffe squadrons for volunteers. A not inconsiderable number of pilots came forward, and the three hundred selected discovered that they were being presented with an intended suicide mission. Although the Luftwaffe had been on the receiving end of one rebuke after another as Allied bombing hit home, there could be no doubting the courage and endurance of pilots who had had no leave from their squadrons for months at a time. The mission itself was intended, alongside its military objective, as a statement of German resolve, though it was also an admission that the Luftwaffe was totally incapable of resisting the bombing of German cities by any orthodox means.
Songs of the Nazi movement sounded over the pilots’ radios as they went into action, interspersed with a woman urging the pilots to remember and avenge the dead of Dresden. However, apart from a few moments of drama involving a relatively small number of planes, the attack, although spectacular and terrifying for the period it lasted, had precious little material effect, and not a few suicide pilots returned to base.
Back on the ground, as the clock neared the 500 mark, Wenck’s army was called into action as the Americans threw several bridgeheads across the Elbe. Wenck’s army successfully counterattacked and destroyed these bridgeheads, and was holding its position on the river’s east bank as the Soviet offensive across the Oder began. Goebbels made one last visit to Busse’s army on 12th April. Busse himself expressed confidence that he could resist the Russian attack, although he was clearly aware that the Americans were not that far away behind him. Just how much resolve Busse had is open to question – in fact, he probably had even then, and certainly a little later, reached his own tipping point whereby the desire to defend the Reich capital would be subordinated to getting as many of his units as possible into American captivity.
When Goebbels returned to Berlin that night, he was greeted with the news that Roosevelt had died. To a regime looking for any sign that the coalition might be thrown out of kilter by some miraculous event, the news was greeted with rejoicing. Goebbels ordered the best champagne and hastened to the Führer with the news. In the bunker, he insisted that the turning point had been reached, though any logic behind such an assertion belonged to Goebbels’ flights of fancy. In fact, it is doubtful Goebbels really believed this tosh himself, and more than that, if we do believe Speer was thinking of survival beyond the National Socialist exit door, Goebbels by contrast was intent on a martyrdom to last the ages. A little earlier in 1945 he had addressed Nazi high-ups, and bade them think of how posterity would judge them if they forsook the opportunity to die as heroes for their cause. He was applauded, but not a few of those present thought he had totally “lost it”.
Hours 499 to 250: Berlin and Betrayals
Just how many Germans with how much equipment stood on the approaches to Berlin has been open to considerable conjecture. We can, however, readily dismiss the Soviet official histories, that had the forces of the Soviet Union having to overcome more than a million men, over a thousand tanks, and an imposing air fleet stationed around the city. If the Germans had had anything like that strength, the Russians would have still been stuck on the Vistula.
The actual numbers were far smaller, with the best estimate being found in by far the most accomplished study of the battle – “Bloody Streets” by A. Stephen Hamilton (a book which is offered today on Amazon at truly enormous prices, and I paid just £50 for when it first appeared). On the Oder itself, the 3rd Panzer Army and the 9th Army probably had little more than 250,000 men between them, with the 9th having about 150,000 of that. Behind the line, the few reserves and various bits and pieces may have brought the sum figure to 350,000 – but as Hamilton correctly points out, there is a considerable difference between manpower that actually had some proper sense of military training and combat credibility as opposed to old men with old rifles, boys with panzerfausts, and sailors and aircraft-less airmen filling in the gaps. Paper strengths totaling anything more than this ceiling figure can thus be readily discounted.
There were also, among these units, a few ad hoc panzer formations, foreign contingents determined to make a stand (and having nowhere else to go anyway), headquarters here and there without any actual troops to command, but with these accounted for, that was essentially it.
The main potential for German reinforcement had lain with bringing back the German troops in Courland, but despite Guderian’s repeated insistence that Courland be abandoned, Hitler had continually refused to countenance it. The more viable reasons for this was that their presence tied down more troops than were holed up, and, albeit rather more dubiously, that it gave the Germans some ports along the Baltic coast – though to what purpose one might struggle to answer. One can also only conjecture as to whether Hitler’s flat refusal to return the bulk of these troops was linked to whom it was making the plea. The struggle of wills between supreme commander and senior staff undoubtedly showed itself in more than heated tiffs over certain points of command etiquette – deployments, attacks, re-deployments, supply, all were likely to be the subject and currency of the Third Reich’s military disputes.
As for the Soviets, they certainly had the material, but not all the troops were of the highest order – or any order. Stalin had ordered his “boys”, when, to use his words, they had finished “having fun with girls” (that is, wholesale rape) to spruce themselves up in order to make some sort of favorable impression (a suitably intimidating one) when they met Allied troops. The Soviet material was of high order, however – artillery, tanks, self-propelled artillery were largely of the best designs around, and usually far easier to maintain than equivalent German equipment. The Soviet air force was also well equipped, with some of the best fighters and fighter-bombers in the theatre.
As for the higher and lower echelons of command, here one has to question what precisely was going on. The opening months of the war in Russia had seen the Red Army suffer massive losses; now, as they reached touching distance of their final objective, the “Lair of the Fascist Beast” as it was put, casualties were again mounting to enormous levels – and this against German forces that were strained to the limit. In the campaign between the Vistula and the Oder, the Soviets lost in excess of five thousand tanks, and that in addition to the actual manpower losses. Considering the quality of Soviet equipment, which now included the Josef Stalin tank, one cannot help but wonder what kind of tactics these forces were employing. The Oder attack would again display the sort of ham-fisted clumsiness of earlier Soviet operations, whereas Bagration and the Vistula attack, at its higher levels of planning, had been conducted with a fair to high amount of operational skill. But irrespective of the quality of the planning, the army had perhaps been too long in the habit of tactical profligacy when on the attack to change their methods at the last; and so, even against the Hitler Youth and Luftwaffe and Marine oddments, it could not gain ground save by the crudest applications of force.
Hitler brought Army Group Vistula commander, Heinrici, to one last conference before the attack, and went through all of the defensive preparations along both the Oder and Neisse. Then, with the attack predicted for the next forty-eight hours or so, Hitler readied his last order of the day, which called for the invader “to suffer the ancient fate of Asia”, whilst certain that his intelligence was correct, Heinrici signaled for the men to be withdrawn to a prepared second line just ahead of the opening Soviet bombardment.
Early on the morning of April 16th 1945, the Red Army began its attack – though its artillery was hitting largely vacated positions, and the initial attacks soon ran into serious difficulty. The Russians had intended to employ searchlights to blind the defenders and ease their own soldiers’ advance – but the light reflected off the morning mists and both blinded their own troops as well as illuminating them. German fire from the Seelow heights, opposite Zhukov’s main line of attack, caused devastation among the exposed Soviet formations of infantry, and typical of his character, Zhukov insensibly reached for the next biggest thing he could get hold of and threw his tank armies into the already confused massacre at the base of the Heights. His mood was not helped by having had Stalin roaring in his ear about the lack of success along his front.
Further south, Koniev forces made better progress, but the only significant breakthrough was at Wriezen, where the Soviets broke through the indifferent troops of the 9th Parachute division. Busse began feeding his limited reserves into the fight; but from the early stages the concern was the expenditure of ammunition – stocks being limited, and their transport to the front precarious. During the day, the Luftwaffe made repeated attempts to destroy the bridges the Russians had thrown across the Oder, including by diving into the structures in suicide attacks.
In Berlin that day, despite the proximity and scale of the fighting, the city’s wartime life went on more or less as usual. Here and there, troops had the chance to watch a film, children played in the streets, and the queues formed around the water pumps and shops. Of course, the sound of artillery could be heard thundering in from the east; but to a population that had faced months of bombing, distant noise was nothing to get that bothered about.
Far more bothered that day were the Nazi high-ups. It was still uncertain whether Hitler would remain in Berlin; but while he was there, and with his birthday looming, not everyone with a badge, an armband and a large car could afford to keep that far away from the Leader’s presence, even if their personal agendas dictated otherwise. Himmler and Goring were looking to be permanently clear of Berlin as soon as possible, and certainly no later than straight after offering the Führer felicitations for the day. Speer was one last farewell away from becoming as ineffectual as his assassination attempt on Hitler’s life. Bormann was still spewing out papers to no great effect; yet as someone who only had power when close to Hitler, deep down perhaps he understood that he could not leave even if he wanted to.
As for Goebbels, as the one exception, having decided to immolate himself in Berlin’s battle pyre, he had it all worked out – but, as it turned out, he was sent along a somewhat different path to his end. Originally, he had intended to shift his propaganda operations and his dabbling in military matters to one of the massive and near impregnable flak towers in the city. With the Soviet offensive now underway, playing out his script began with his shipping several battalions of the city’s Volkssturm to the front line. This of course, denied these old men the once advantage they might have had, and with that, the main reason they had been called to arms in the first place – to defend their own neighbourhoods. The garrison of Berlin was scant enough; shipping off a sizeable portion of its strength to a boiling front line was hardly going to help matters.
Left with nothing to counterattack with, Heinrici’s armies eventually began to buckle. The 9th Army faced serious breaches that threatened it with the prospect of the encirclement of its main strength, and, to make matters worse, when Zhukov’s forces finally managed to overcome the Seelow position, Busse’s army lost contact with the 3rd Panzer. However, at this stage, the Germans were still clinging onto a large portion of the lower Oder, and Zhukov’s push north of Berlin was thus on a relatively narrow frontage.
By April 20th, the roads by which Berlin was linked to the rest of the Reich were limited to those entering the city from the northwest, west and southwest. These were the routes that the Nazi elite used to make the obligatory birthday visit to Hitler in his bunker… and then get out again. Himmler headed into northern Germany; Goring hurried south, followed by his looted assemblage of other people’s art treasures. Goebbels, in the meantime, broadcast to the nation to eulogize the Führer in words that had more than a sniff of obituary about them, and then returned to whatever “normal” work the day presented him with.
For Hitler, the ensuing forty-eight hours saw events that finally caused him to crack. He believed that the Oder front could be restored, providing Busse remained in place, that Schörner was able to exert pressure from the south, and Zhukov’s forces were cut into by a thrust in the region of Oranienburg. To command this attack, he selected SS Obergruppenführer Felix Steiner. Steiner was an experienced commander, but was essentially another general and staff hanging around waiting for some troops to be attached. Those forces under his immediate command may have numbered no more than 10,000 men. To bolster them, Hitler ordered Steiner and Heinrici to pull in everything last German serviceman, of whatever uniform, and send them against Zhukov’s forces.
In Hitler’s mind, this might have put 50,000 men into the attack; but as Steiner was painfully aware, it would have been a force replete with men who had no frontline combat experience, were meagerly equipped, and had next to no armour or air support. The Führer might also have fancied that Himmler and Göring would help muster the necessary forces; but neither of them did anything, to include parting with any of their own personal guard battalions. In these circumstances, it was hardly surprising that Steiner prevaricated and Hitler waited vainly for his cherished counterblow to begin. Matters came to a head just a couple of days after Hitler’s birthday, when it finally became clear that the offensive had never truly begun, and that the Führer was being fed just about any excuse to keep him quiescent. In a passage of events captured dramatically (and via countless Youtube spoofs, comically) in the film Downfall, Hitler blamed just about everyone in the entire officer class for the imminent ruin of Germany. The last straw was clearly the failure of the SS to launch and lead the Oranienburg attack. In all likelihood, Hitler now suffered a complete nervous breakdown, in whose moments of coherency he rejected any notion of leaving Berlin and announced his intention to kill himself now that the war was irrevocably lost.
Jodl and Keitel did what they could to raise their chief’s spirits, and Goebbels and his family, by way of engendering some sort of positive response from Hitler, were now ushered into the bunker for the final days of their lives. Hitler’s spirits did indeed lift somewhat, but they were to receive another blow when word came of Göring’s infamous telegram asking if he should now assume full power within the Reich, what with Hitler having decided to stay, essentially cut off, in Berlin. Göring’s message was not in any sense clumsily worded, but in the febrile atmosphere of the bunker, it was easy for Bormann to put the worst possible slant on it. Just what Göring was thinking of may be open to conjecture, but having made so many errors of judgment over the previous few years, it was hardly surprising he miscalculated the mood in Berlin, or the reach those entombed therein still had. Göring was stripped of all his offices and the order was made for his arrest – soon after, he would move to American captivity.
Hours 249 to 0: Gotterdammerung
The intention had been to conduct the defence of Berlin along the Oder/Neisse line – the city itself was, in many respects, not truly prepared for a siege. Although Goebbels had held weekly defence meetings in his office, the product of these occasions could hardly be called noteworthy in terms of seriously improving the capability of the city to withstand direct attack. The city’s effective military garrison was small, and supplements of Hitler Youth and Volkssturm were not a viable solution; neither was the propaganda minister’s bright idea of herding large numbers of cattle from the countryside to the city parks once fighting began. And then there was the substantial city population, who had nowhere to go now the fighting had reached Berlin’s outer suburbs, and were now to be subjected to the horrors of street fighting first hand, as well as the vengeful and carnal inclinations of the Soviet forces. In the face of this, it is hardly surprising that suicides occurred all over the city.
That Berlin had any defence at all in these last days was largely due to the formations that fell back into the city from the fighting on the perimeter. Most notable of these was the 56th Panzer Corps under Weidling – a general threatened with execution for supposed dereliction for having betrayed his oath etc, but after storming into the bunker to explain his true and loyal purpose as a soldier fighting right at the front, he found himself appointed as Berlin garrison commander. Among other units that drifted into Berlin from the fighting to the east, or else somehow heeded the call to reinforce the city from wherever, were formations of French and Scandinavian SS.
But if Berlin was to be spared from Soviet conquest, the only forces that could possibly achieve that were those still on the outside. Having rediscovered his equilibrium, Hitler looked to effect one last relief effort. This, in terms of how it shaped on the map, was a far more complex and ambitious scheme than the original Oranienburg project. What Hitler called for was the about-turn of the 12th Army, that would abandon the Elbe front given that the Americans showed no further desire to cross it (they were already rather far into the Soviet sphere of influence according to the intended postwar boundaries). The objective for the 12th Army was Potsdam, with the intention that they would there effect a series of crucial junctions – with the 9th Army along the southern boundary of Wenck’s forces; with Holste’s Panzer Corps moving in from northwest of Berlin alongside a re-launch of the Orienburg effort, and then along a front encompassing close to a half of the city’s circumference, link up with the troops in Berlin and thus bring the Soviet attack on Berlin to an ignominious stop.
Like a good many of Hitler’s plans, it all looked fine on paper; but like many a plan before it, the generals concerned had their own ideas as to where they were going and how their own objectives were to be framed. Wenck did indeed make a fighting advance to Potsdam, but the 9th Army, struggling in a drifting cauldron, and the tracks of its units interspersed with hordes of refugees, had little thought now but to reach the Elbe and get into American captivity. North of Berlin, the German front was dissolving for much the same reasons. Keitel left the bunker just a few days before the end, seeking to get Heinrici and Manteuffel to turn about and come to Berlin’s aid. But what credibility did he have? The fractured German fronts could not be repaired with new units, because that time was well and truly over. Wanting the war to be over was, for the majority of Germans, far more important than hoping that an attack here or there might enable the whole sorry process to go on that much longer. As for Himmler and Göring, they might accept more war, but not the war their Führer was still attempting to fight. The disgraced Göring and the soon-to-be-disgraced Himmler each in their own way looked to an alliance with the west against the Soviets, with themselves playing a leading role. As for Hitler, within the shrinking perimeter around the bunker, his world was now limited to operators phoning random numbers around Berlin and trying to ascertain the position of the front line by whether the answering voice was German or Russian.
For a brief while, hope was lifted by the success of Wenck; but even then, Hitler remained mystified as to the direction of “attack” adopted by the 9th Army. Best intelligence had it moving more or less due west, into what was described as a void. The truth was, of course, that Busse’s forces were simply hastening towards Wenck and out of harm’s way – it was not an attack, but a clamour of desperate people, some in uniform, many not. The bunker was then rocked by news of Himmler’s machinations. Hitler raged in despair, and Bormann sent off his final telegrams of reproof and thwarted vengeance. As if he did not already know the answer, Hitler sent one last telegram himself, demanding to know the whereabouts of the various formations supposedly moving to the relief of the capital. When the answer came, a few hours later, to the effect that everything was either stalled or going in reverse, the end had clearly come; and so, after marrying Eva Braun, Hitler committed suicide with her in the afternoon of April 30th 1945. Goebbels, his wife, and his unsuspecting children followed the Leader a few hours later. Bormann was meant to be part of the new Nazi administration, but despite all the fanciful stories over the years, he never made it out of Berlin. Hanke was also to be part of the new Nazi government, and so left Breslau only to die before he could do anything. Close to the Danish border, Himmler joined Dönitz, who was not even remotely happy to see him; and Göring, who had probably sensed it was all going to end in ruin as soon as Hitler turned on Russia, nevertheless displayed far more fight at Nuremburg than he had during the war years, and by managing to establish a rapport with certain of his captors, was able to obtain a cynanide capsule, which he took shortly before he was due to be hanged.
The fighting would finally end a few days into May 1945 – enough time for some German units to cut through to the west; for Dönitz to assess, and then finally dismiss, any notion of continuing the fight from Scandinavia and the Alps; and for German U Boats still at sea to sink their final victims.
Could these last thousand hours gone any different way? The apparently obvious answer is of course not: the Nazis simply lacked enough strength on any front to provoke the crisis they hoped for – but that is not quite the whole story. With the wartime allies facing each other across much of central Europe, what inevitably brought them to the brink of war, and at the least, to the enduring enmity and mistrust over ensuing decades, was the end of the one thing that had held them together – Hitler’s Germany. It is tempting to wonder if the continued existence of even some vestige of the Third Reich might have had the same effect? Cracks were appearing within the alliance before the Oder battles; and while no one was ever going to approve of the Nazi regime given its record of mass slaughter, one only has to contemplate the present situation in Syria and Iraq, to see how a former enemy regime, steeped in blood and hideous excess, can be transformed to a spectator to other events even while its power and territory remains entirely shattered.
About the Author
Paul has been involved in the hobby since the early 1970s. Of largely Belgian ancestry on his father’s side, and English (Yorkshire) on his mother’s, after finishing his education he worked in tourism and student services, and also spent some time in the former West Germany. He met his wife Boo in 1990, and they married a couple of years later.
Paul hails from a long line of former servicemen – one grandfather was a sergeant in the BEF of 1914, whilst two of his great grandfathers were killed serving with the Royal Navy. His own father, who was born in Britain, served with the army in Malaya in the early 1950s.