Berlin, fall of
(see Map 16). To Germany's opponents, Berlin was the centre of Prussian, Imperial, and Nazi militarism from which Hitler had directed his drive for European and world hegemony; hence, its capture would deal a decisive blow to the Germans' passion for national aggrandizement. Hitler had proposed some day to make Berlin the architectural symbol of Germany, but preferring his field headquarters and his retreat in Berchtesgaden, he had spent little time there during the war. On 15 January 1945, he returned from his Western Front headquarters to the Reich Chancellery in Berlin, where bombing soon forced him to move into an underground bunker.
Soviet Marshal Zhukov's First Belorussian front (army group) and Marshal Konev's First Ukrainian front, completing the initial phase of an offensive during the battle for Germany which had begun three weeks earlier, closed to the River Oder in early February. From his position at Küstrin, on the Oder 57 km. (35 mi.) east of Berlin, Zhukov could in all likelihood have overrun Berlin and gone on to the River Elbe and beyond in another three weeks, but Stalin delayed the second phase. On the city's direct approaches, Hitler had only the shattered remnants of Third Panzer and Ninth Armies under a newly formed headquarters, Army Group Vistula, and he lacked the troops and matériel to exploit fully the time Stalin allowed him. An advance across the Oder to the River Neisse which Konev made against the Fourth Panzer Army in February also created a threat to Berlin from the south. In March, Hitler ordered that regardless of what happened at the front, the city would be defended ‘to the last man and the last shot’ on concentric rings. The outermost lay about 32 km. (20 mi.) from the city centre, the next 16 km. further in, then one following the S-Bahn, or suburban railway. The innermost, designated ‘Z’ for Zitadelle (citadel), embraced the government district and the Führerbunker.
On 31 March, alarmed at the progress the Americans and British were making east of the Rhine, Stalin ordered Zhukov and Konev to regroup and resume the offensive into Germany. Zhukov would have the honour of taking Berlin, Konev would support him on the left and strike towards Dresden, and Marshal Rokossovsky Second Belorussian front would deploy on the lower Oder to give support on the right. Together, the three fronts had 2.5 million troops, 6,250 armoured vehicles, and 7,500 aircraft.
Zhukov, expecting to make a frontal sweep to and over Berlin, mounted an assault against the Seelow Heights west of the Oder before dawn on 16 April. He had deployed batteries of searchlights to blind the Germans and illuminate their positions, but in the ensuing smoke and glare, his own attack collapsed. The next day, six armies, two of them tank armies, failed again. On 18 April, after the armies had made two fairly deep dents in the line but no breakthrough, Stalin ordered Zhukov to shift weight to the right and go around Berlin on the north. Konev, who had crossed the Neisse on 16 April, was ordered to aim his two tank armies at and around Berlin from the south; and Rokossovsky would bear south to help Zhukov complete the encirclement. Hitler imagining he might yet win the battle, ordered the Ninth Army to stand fast on the Oder—and thereby eased the way to Berlin for Konev.
On 20 April, Konev's tanks reached Jüterbog, the German Army's largest ammunition depot and were approaching Zossen, its communications centre. Hitler gave those of his entourage who came to congratulate him on his birthday that day permission to leave Berlin before all the roads were closed. He, he said, would see the battle through where he was.
Three of Zhukov's armies reached the Berlin outer defensive ring on 21 April, and his and Konev's armour closed the encirclement on 25 April. Hitler then set about trying to organize a relief, but his largest force, the Ninth Army, was itself encircled and being destroyed and Wenck's Twelfth Army approaching from the west, in an attempt to break through to the capital, was far too weak to help. Berlin was being defended by regular troops unlucky enough to have been pushed back into the city and by recently enlisted old men and boys (see Hitler Youth). On 29 April the city commandant, Lt-General Karl Weidling, reported that ammunition would probably run out the next day. Early on 30 April, the chief of the Armed Forces High Command (OKW), Field Marshal Keitel, reported from outside the pocket that the relief was not progressing at any point. That afternoon, while Soviet troops were storming the Reichstag building 400 m. (440 yd.) away, Hitler killed himself. During an impromptu cease-fire the next day, the Chief of the General Staff, Lt-General Krebs, tried unsuccessfully to bargain for less than unconditional surrender. On 2 May, Weidling surrendered the city.