The Battle of Berlin was the fierce battle for the German capital at the end of the Second World War from the end of April to the beginning of May 1945. The total number of casualties (military and civilian) is difficult to determine precisely, but is probably well above 200.000 . Several Nazi leaders, including Adolf Hitler himself, committed suicide. On May 2, 1945, the last defenders of Berlin surrendered. A few days later, the Second World War in Europe came to an end.
The Soviet offensive in central Germany - what became the Soviet zone of occupation in Germany after the conquest and after 1949 was called East Germany or the German Democratic Republic (GDR) - had two goals. Stalin did not believe that - as agreed at the Yalta Conference - his Western allies would hand over their occupied territory to the Soviet Union after the war, so he launched a broad and swift offensive to meet them as far west as possible. The main objective, however, was the capture of Berlin. These two objectives complemented each other because the capture of Berlin was necessary for control of the region. Another consideration was that Berlin itself had 'useful post-war strategic assets', notably the 'grand prize' Adolf Hitler himself but also, for example, the German nuclear bomb program.
On March 6, Hitler appointed Lieutenant General Helmuth Reymann as commander of the Berlin defensive area. Reymann replaced General Bruno Ritter von Hauenschild.
On March 20, General Gotthard Heinrici was appointed commander of the Weichsel defense group. He replaced Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler. Heinrici was one of the best defenders in the German army. Heinrici correctly ruled that the main Soviet attack across the Oder River and along the main East-West Autobahn from Breslau to Berlin could be expected. He decided to defend the banks of the Oder with only a thin screen of soldiers and to concentrate the main force at the Seelow Heights, 90 kilometers east of the capital. Heinrici there commissioned the engineers to strengthen the heights. Also, the engineers began to turn the river Oder behind, already swollen by the spring thaw, into a swamp by releasing the water from an upstream reservoir. Behind this, three defensive positions were built. These positions extended to the outskirts of Berlin (the lines close to Berlin were called Wotan position). The lines consisted of anti-tank guns and an extensive network of trenches and bunkers.
On April 9, Koningsberg in East Prussia fell permanently into the hands of the Red Army, after the capitulation by Festungskommandant Lasch. This allowed General Konstantin Rokossovsky's 2nd Belarusian Front to move westward to the eastern bank of the Oder.
During the first two weeks of April, the Red Army carried out its fastest regrouping of the war. General Georgi Zhukov regrouped his 1st Belarusian Front, which had been deployed along the Oder from Frankfurt in the south to the Baltic Sea, to an area just off the Heights of Seelow. The 2nd Belarusian Front was moved to the positions vacated by the 1st Belarusian Front, north of the Seelow Heights.
During this regrouping, openings were opened in the lines and the remnants of General Dietrich von Saucken's 2nd German Army, concentrated close to Danzig, managed to escape to the Vistula. To the south, Marshal Ivan Konev shifted the main weight of the 1st Ukrainian Front from northwestern Upper Silesia to the Neisse. The area around the Festung Breslau was avoided, because Breslau had remained a fighting area and was to be defended until 6 May 1945 by fanatical German units including the Hitlerjugend and Volkssturm.
The three Soviet fronts collectively comprise 2.5 million soldiers (including some 200.000 soldiers from the 1st Polish Army), 6.250 tanks, 7.500 aircraft, 41.600 artillery pieces and mortars, 3.255 truck-mounted Katyushar missile launchers (nicknamed 'Stalin organs') and 95.383 motor vehicles.
Soviet Red Army
Date of the battle
Duration of the battle
Reason for the battle
Commanders of the Battle of Berlin
Georgy Konstantinovich Zhukov
Kurt von Tippelskirch
In January 1945 the Russians took over the Polish capital of Warsaw. After an offensive that resulted in the crossing of the Narew, they advanced rapidly: 30-40 kilometers a day. The River Oder briefly formed a new front line. A counterattack by the Germans, led by Heinrich Himmler around February 24 had failed. Budapest fell on February 13 after three unsuccessful German relief attempts. A German attack with the impossible goal of restoring the Danube as a front failed on March 16. On March 30, the Russians entered Austria and on April 13 Vienna fell.
On April 16, the Red Army marched to Berlin. On April 20, 1945, Adolf Hitler was awakened by the thunder of Russian artillery. Men had crossed the Oder and was about ten kilometers from Berlin. Hitler issued a special order in which Berlin was designated as a front city. The city would be defended to the utmost and the administrative apparatus would settle in Northern Germany with the necessary and destruction of the other documents. Perhaps Hitler hoped to gain time to make an alliance with the Allies. Other historians argue that Hitler met as many people as possible wanted to drag himself into his downfall.
While high-ranking Nazis such as Hermann Goering and Heinrich Himmler fled to the north and south, the Russians under General Zhukov closed in on Berlin further and further. Fierce resistance made the encirclement more difficult, but the Russians did everything they could to close the ring and occupy the city, also from the - justified - assumption that the German troops would otherwise surrender to the western Allies. Hitler had forbidden any evacuation of civilians. The three million civilians were starving and trying to survive. Usually they avoided both Russian and German soldiers. The German "flying courts of war" were particularly feared: death squads who executed and hanged on lamp posts anyone they suspected of desertion. The Wehrmacht, SS and Volkssturm had to defend themselves to the utmost. Russian army units, which had surrounded a machine gun nest or resistance hearth, were surprised to see that it sometimes consisted of crying children.
The sector in which most of the fighting in the all-out offensive took place was the Seelow Heights, the last major line of defense outside of Berlin. The Battle of the Seelow Heights, which lasted four days from April 16 - 19, was one of the last battles of World War II: nearly a million Red Army soldiers and more than 20,000 tanks and artillery pieces were deployed to the Gates to Berlin ", which were defended by about 100.000 German soldiers and 1.200 tanks and guns. The Soviet forces led by Zhukov broke through the defensive positions after suffering about 30.000 dead, while 12.000 German personnel were killed.
On April 19, the fourth day, the 1st Belarusian Front broke through the last line of the Seelow Heights; and nothing but broken German formations lay between them and Berlin. The first Ukrainian front, which Forst had captured the day before, fanned out into open country. A powerful thrust from Gordov's 3rd Guards Army and Rybalko's 3rd and Lelyushenko's 4th Guards Tank Armies moved northeast toward Berlin, while other armies moved west toward part of the US Army front line southwest of Berlin on the Elbe. With this advance, the Soviet forces cut a wedge between Army Group Vistula in the north and Army Group Center in the south. By the end of the day, Germany's eastern front line north of Frankfurt around Seelow and south around Forst had ceased to exist. These breakthroughs allowed the two Soviet fronts to encase the German 9th Army in a large pocket west of Frankfurt. Attempts by the 9th Army to break out to the west resulted in the Battle of Halbe. The cost to the Soviet forces was very high, with more than 2.807 tanks lost between April 1 and 19, including at least 727 at the Seelow Heights.
Encirclement of Berlin
On 20 April 1945, Hitler's 56th birthday, Soviet artillery of the 1st Belorussian Front began shelling Berlin and did not stop until the city surrendered. The weight of ordnance delivered by Soviet artillery during the battle was greater than the total 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 pushed through the last formations of the northern wing of Army Group Centre and passed north of Juterbog, well over halfway to the American front line on the river Elbe at Magdeburg. 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. The next day, Bogdanov's 2nd Guards Tank Army advanced nearly 50 km (31 mi) north of Berlin and then attacked south-west of Werneuchen. The Soviet plan was to encircle Berlin first and then envelop the IX Army.
The command of the German V Corps, trapped with the IX Army north of Forst, passed from the IV Panzer Army to the IX Army. The corps was still holding on to the Berlin-Cottbus highway front line. Field Marshal Ferdinand Schörner's Army Group Centre launched a counter-offensive aimed at breaking through to Berlin from the south and making a successful initial incursion (the Battle of Bautzen) in the 1st Ukrainian Front region, engaging the 2nd Polish Army and elements of the Red Army's 52nd Army and 5th Guards Army. When the old southern flank of the IV Panzer Army had some local successes counter-attacking north against the 1st Ukrainian Front, Hitler gave orders that showed his grasp of military reality was completely gone. He ordered the IX Army to hold Cottbus and set up a front facing west. Then they were to attack the Soviet columns advancing north. This would supposedly allow them to form a northern pincer that 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 be ready to be the southern arm of a pincer attack that would envelop 1st Belorussian Front, which would be destroyed by SS-General Felix Steiner's Army Detachment advancing from north of Berlin. Later in the day, when Steiner explained 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 Soviets. He stressed that it was already too late for it to move north-west to Berlin and would have to retreat west. Heinrici went on to say that if Hitler did not allow it to move west, he would ask to be relieved of his command.
On 22 April 1945, at his afternoon situation conference, Hitler fell into a tearful rage when he realised that his plans, prepared the previous day, could not be achieved. He declared that the war was lost, blaming the generals for the defeat and that he would remain in Berlin until the end and then kill himself.
In an attempt to coax Hitler out of his rage, General Alfred Jodl speculated that General Walther Wenck's XII Army, which was facing the Americans, could move to Berlin because the Americans, already on the Elbe River, were unlikely to move further east. This assumption was based on his viewing of the captured Eclipse documents, which organised the partition of Germany among the Allies. Hitler immediately grasped the idea, and within hours Wenck was ordered to disengage from the Americans 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 15 km (9 mi) 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 Soviet 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. The capital was now within range of field artillery. A Soviet war correspondent, in the style of World War II Soviet journalism, gave the following account of an important event which took place on 22 April 1945 at 08:30 local time:
On the walls of the houses we saw Goebbels' appeals, hurriedly scrawled in white paint: 'Every German will defend his capital. We shall stop the Red hordes at the walls of our Berlin.' Just try and stop them!
On 23 April 1945, the Soviet 1st Belorussian Front and 1st Ukrainian Front continued to tighten the encirclement, severing 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, Hitler appointed General Helmuth Weidling as the commander of the Berlin Defence Area, replacing Lieutenant General Reymann. Meanwhile, by 24 April 1945 elements of 1st Belorussian Front and 1st Ukrainian Front had completed the encirclement of the city. Within the next day, 25 April 1945, the Soviet investment of Berlin was consolidated, with leading Soviet units probing and penetrating the S-Bahn defensive ring. By the end of the day, it was clear that the German defence of the city could not do anything but temporarily delay the capture of the city by the Soviets, since the decisive stages of the battle had already been fought and lost by the Germans outside the city. By that time, Schörner's offensive, initially successful, had mostly been thwarted, although he did manage to inflict significant casualties on the opposing Polish and Soviet units, slowing down their progress
Battle in Berlin
The forces available to General Weidling for the city's defence included roughly 45.000 soldiers in several severely depleted German Army and Waffen-SS divisions. These divisions were supplemented by the police force, boys in the compulsory Hitler Youth, and the Volkssturm. Many of the 40.000 elderly men of the Volkssturm had been in the army as young men and some were veterans of World War I. Hitler appointed SS Brigadeführer Wilhelm Mohnke the Battle Commander for the central government district that included the Reich Chancellery and Führerbunker. He had over 2.000 men under his command. Weidling organised the defences into eight sectors designated 'A' through to 'H' each one commanded by a colonel or a general, but most had no combat experience. To the west of the city was the 20th Infantry Division. To the north of the city was the 9th Parachute Division. To the north-east of the city was the Panzer Division Müncheberg. To the south-east of the city and to the east of Tempelhof Airport was the 11th SS Panzergrenadier Division Nordland. The reserve, 18th Panzergrenadier Division, was in Berlin's central district.
On 23 April, Berzarin's 5th Shock Army and Katukov's 1st Guards Tank Army assaulted Berlin from the south-east and, after overcoming a counter-attack by the German LVI Panzer Corps, reached the Berlin S-Bahn ring railway on the north side of the Teltow Canal by the evening of 24 April. During the same period, of all the German forces ordered to reinforce the inner defences of the city by Hitler, only a small contingent of French SS volunteers under the command of SS Brigadeführer Gustav Krukenberg arrived in Berlin. During 25 April, Krukenberg was appointed as the commander of Defence Sector C, the sector under the most pressure from the Soviet assault on the city.
On 26 April, Chuikov's 8th Guards Army and the 1st Guards Tank Army fought their way through the southern suburbs and attacked Tempelhof Airport, just inside the S-Bahn defensive ring, where they met stiff resistance from the Müncheberg Division. But by 27 April, the two understrength divisions (Müncheberg and Nordland) that were defending the south-east, now facing five Soviet armies - from east to west, the 5th Shock Army, the 8th Guards Army, the 1st Guards Tank Army and Rybalko's 3rd Guards Tank Army - were forced back towards the centre, taking up new defensive positions around Hermannplatz. Krukenberg informed General Hans Krebs, Chief of the General Staff of (OKH) that within 24 hours the Nordland would have to fall back to the centre sector Z (for Zentrum). The Soviet advance to the city centre was along these main axes: from the south-east, along the Frankfurter Allee; from the south along Sonnenallee ending north of the Belle - Alliance - Platz, from the south ending near the Potsdamer Platz and from the north ending near the Reichstag. The Reichstag, the Moltke bridge, Alexanderplatz, and the Havel bridges at Spandau saw the heaviest fighting, with house - to - house and hand - to - hand combat. The foreign contingents of the SS fought particularly hard, because they were ideologically motivated and they believed that they would not live if captured
Battle for the Reichstag
In the early hours of 29 April the Soviet 3rd Shock Army crossed the Moltke bridge and started to fan out into the surrounding streets and buildings. The initial assaults on buildings, including the Ministry of the Interior, were hampered by the lack of supporting artillery. It was not until the damaged bridges were repaired that artillery could be moved up in support. At 04:00 hours, in the Führerbunker, Hitler signed his last will and testament and, shortly afterwards, married Eva Braun. At dawn the Soviets pressed on with their assault in the south-east. After very heavy fighting they managed to capture Gestapo headquarters on Prinz-Albrechtstrasse, but a Waffen-SS counter-attack forced the Soviets to withdraw from the building. To the south-west the 8th Guards Army attacked north across the Landwehr canal into the Tiergarten.
By the next day, 30 April, the Soviets had solved their bridging problems and with artillery support at 06:00 they launched an attack on the Reichstag, but because of German entrenchments and support from 12.8 cm guns 2 km (1.2 mi) away on the roof of the Zoo flak tower, close by Berlin Zoo, it was not until that evening that the Soviets were able to enter the building. The Reichstag had not been in use since it had burned in February 1933 and its interior resembled a rubble heap more than a government building. The German troops inside made excellent use of this and were heavily entrenched. Fierce room-to-room fighting ensued. At that point there was still a large contingent of German soldiers in the basement who launched counter-attacks against the Red Army. On 2 May 1945 the Red Army controlled the building entirely. The famous photo of the two soldiers planting the flag on the roof of the building is a re-enactment photo taken the day after the building was taken. To the Soviets the event as represented by the photo became symbolic of their victory demonstrating that the Battle of Berlin, as well as the Eastern Front hostilities as a whole, ended with the total Soviet victory. As the 756th Regiment's commander Zinchenko had stated in his order to Battalion Commander Neustroev "the Supreme High Command and the entire Soviet People order you to erect the victory banner on the roof above Berlin"
On April 30, shortly before 11 pm, Soviet soldier Mikhail Minin hoisted a red cloth on the roof of the Reichstag. There is no photo of this. Stalin was not satisfied with that. He wanted a real Soviet flag to fly on the Reichstag. He therefore ordered a Soviet flag to be hoisted on the building under the eye of the cameras on 1 or 2 May. Private Minin was not given the honor of posing. It was awarded to Sergeants Meliton Kantaria and Mikhail Yegorov. Minin fell into obscurity. However, there is still a painting in Russia in which he and his comrades hoist the red cloth on the Reichstag.
Raising the red army flag over the Reichstag
On 2 May 1945, Yevgeny Khaldei (an army photographer) scaled the now pacified Reichstag to take his picture. He was carrying with him a large flag, sewn from three tablecloths for this very purpose, by his uncle. The official story would later be that two hand-picked soldiers, Meliton Kantaria (Georgian) and Mikhail Yegorov (Russian) raised the Soviet flag over the Reichstag and the photograph would often be used as depicting the event. Some authors state that for political reasons the subjects of the photograph were changed and the actual man to hoist the flag was Aleksei Kovalev. However, according to Khaldei himself, when he arrived at the Reichstag, he simply asked the soldiers who happened to be passing by to help with the staging of the photoshoot; there were only four of them, including Khaldei, on the roof: the one who was attaching the flag was 18-year-old Private Kovalev from Kiev, the two others were Abdulkhakim Ismailov from Dagestan and Leonid Gorychev from Minsk. The photograph was taken with a Leica III rangefinder camera with a 35mm f3.5 lens.
After taking the symbolic photo, Khaldei quickly returned to Moscow. He further edited the image at the request of the editor-in-chief of the Ogonyok, who noticed that Senior Sergeant Abdulkhakim Ismailov, who is supporting the flag-bearer, was wearing two watches, which could imply he had looted one of them, an action punishable by execution. Using a needle, Khaldei removed the watch from the right wrist. Later, it was claimed that the extra watch was actually an Adrianov compass and that Khaldei, in order to avoid controversy, doctored the photo to remove the watch from Ismailov's right wrist. He also added smoke in the background, copying it from another picture to make the scene more dramatic.
Hitler's Nero Decree
The city's food supplies had been largely destroyed on Hitler's orders. 128 of the 226 bridges had been blown up and 87 pumps rendered inoperative. "A quarter of the subway stations were under water, flooded on Hitler's orders. Thousands and thousands who had sought shelter in them had drowned when the SS had carried out the blowing up of the protective devices on the Landwehr Canal." Workers had sabotaged and prevented the blowing up of the Klingenberg power station, the Johannisthal waterworks, and other pumping stations, railroad facilities, and bridges prepared with dynamite by the SS in the last days of the war.
Battle outside Berlin
At some point on 28 April or 29 April, General Heinrici, Commander-in-Chief of Army Group Vistula, was relieved of his command after disobeying Hitler's direct orders to hold Berlin at all costs and never order a retreat, and was replaced by General Kurt Student. General Kurt von Tippelskirch was named as Heinrici's interim replacement until Student could arrive and assume control. There remains some confusion as to who was in command, as some references say that Student was captured by the British and never arrived. Regardless of whether von Tippelskirch or Student was in command of Army Group Vistula, the rapidly deteriorating situation that the Germans faced meant that Army Group Vistula's coordination of the armies under its nominal command during the last few days of the war was of little significance.
A treasonous telegram from No. 2 Nazi Hermann Göring to none other than the Führer himself dated 23 april 1945, which probably changed the course of the war, was kept for years inside a safe in South Carolina. A message that, along with the advancing Allied troops on all fronts, helped drive Adolf Hitler to swallow cyanide and shoot himself inside his underground Berlin bunker together with his wife Eva Braun. The message came during the last gasps of the war, nearly a year after D-Day. Hitler had issued a secret command that if anything bad happened to him, Goering would take over. In the telegram, Goering responds to that decree, despite the fact that their relationship had cooled to below zero at that point.
Translation: My Fuhrer: General Koller today gave me a briefing on the basis of communications given to him by Colonel General Jodl and General Christian, according to which you had referred certain decisions to me and emphasized that I, in case negotiations would become necessary, would be in an easier position than you in Berlin. These views were so surprising and serious to me that I felt obligated to assume, in case by 22:00 o'clock no answer is forthcoming, that you have lost your freedom of action. I shall then view the conditions of your decree as fulfilled and take action for the well being of Nation and Fatherland. You know what I feel for you in these most difficult hours of my life and I cannot express this in words. God protect you and allow you despite everything to come here as soon as possible. Your faithful Hermann Goring".
People like Martin Bormann who were close to Hitler used the telegraph to turn the Führer further against Göring, calling it "high treason" and he eventually spiraled into depression. Hitler dismissed Göring, telling him if he gave up his power, he'd be spared his life. A few days later, Hitler committed suicide. Göring was convicted at Nuremberg, but killed himself before his execution. After the war ended US troops cleared out the Nazi bunker where Hitler was hiding. Captain James W. Bradin took some souvenirs off a desk and brought them back to South Carolina including the telegram.
After the suicide of Hitler and Joseph Goebbels on April 30, Wehrmacht officers, realizing that fighting was pointless, decided to surrender on May 1, but many SS men continued to fight. If the French SS would not surrender, Zhukov threatened to blow up the Reichstag. At the beginning of the afternoon of April 30, the Russians launched an attack on the German Reichstag. After a fierce battle, however, the Russians were unable to continue this attack and they waited for darkness to fall. In the end, after very fierce fighting, they managed to take one tower of the building and hoist a red flag.
On the night of 1 - 2 May, most of the remnants of the Berlin garrison attempted to break out of the city centre in three different directions. Only those that went west through the Tiergarten and crossed the Charlottenbrücke into Spandau succeeded in breaching Soviet lines. Only a handful of those who survived the initial breakout made it to the lines of the Western Allies - most were either killed or captured by the Red Army's outer encirclement forces west of the city.
Early in the morning of 2 May, Soviets forces captured the Reich Chancellery. General Weidling surrendered with his staff at 06:00 hours. He was taken to see General Vasily Chuikov at 08:23, where Weidling ordered the city's defenders to surrender to the Soviets. The 350 strong garrison of the Zoo flak tower left the building. There was sporadic fighting in a few isolated buildings where some SS troops still refused to surrender, but the Soviets reduced such buildings to rubble. German General Helmuth Weidling ordered his troops to lay down their weapons. It took until noon for the last German defenders of the Reichstag to surrender to the Red Army, it should be noted that of the nearly 2.000 foreign volunteer SS men who stubbornly defended this building not one alive in the hands of the Soviets. Nearly 2.200 people were killed on the Russian side. After the German surrender, the Russians managed to occupy the ruins. The Führerbunker was also occupied. Here the corpses of Hitler, Eva Braun, Goebbels and his wife Magda an their six children were found and people still alive were taken prisoner of war.
On the night of 2 - 3 May, General von Manteuffel, commander of the III Panzer Army along with General von Tippelskirch, commander of the XXI Army, surrendered to the US Army. Von Saucken's II Army, that had been fighting north-east of Berlin in the Vistula Delta, surrendered to the Soviets on 9 May. On the morning of 7 May, the perimeter of the XII Army's bridgehead began to collapse. Wenck crossed the Elbe under small arms fire that afternoon and surrendered to the American Ninth Army.
According to Grigoriy Krivosheev's work based on declassified archival data, Soviet forces sustained 81.116 dead for the entire operation, which included the battles of Seelow Heights and the Halbe; another 280.251 were reported wounded or sick during the operational period. The operation also cost the Soviets about 1,997 tanks and SPGs. Krivosheev noted: "All losses of arms and equipment are counted as irrecoverable losses, i.e. beyond economic repair or no longer serviceable". Soviet estimates based on kill claims placed German losses at 458.080 killed and 479.298 captured but German research puts the number of dead at approximately 92.000 - 100.000. The number of civilian casualties is unknown, but 125.000 are estimated to have perished during the entire operation.
During and immediately following the assault, in many areas of the city, vengeful Soviet troops engaged in mass rape, pillage and murder. Nikolai Berzarin, commander of the red army in Berlin introduced penalties up to death penalty for looting and rape quickly. Nevertheless red army soldiers kept an infamous reputation even in the years after surrender.
Archival research (operational total)
- 81.116 dead or missing
- 280.251 sick or wounded
- 1.997 tanks and SPGs destroyed
- 2.108 artillery pieces
- 917 aircraft
- 92.000 - 100.000 killed
- 220.000 wounded
- 480.000 captured
- Inside Berlin Defence Area:
- about 22.000 military dead
- 22.000 civilian dead