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A tough job: defending Berlin in 1945


Street scene in Berlin following the onslaught by the Red Army in May 1945


I have been reading Antony Beevor’s superb book Berlin – the Downfall 1945.  This is an account of the final months of World War II in Europe, starting with the Russian winter offensive and ending a few months later with the destruction of Berlin and the collapse of the Third Reich.


Beevor is a British military historian, specialising in the Second World War. I have a number of his books, including D Day – the battle for Normandy and (his masterpiece) Stalingrad – the fateful siege 1942-1943. I am fascinated, in a horrible way, with military history, and I especially love Beevor’s work: his research is meticulous and his writing lucid.


Berlin is terrific because of the trademark breadth and the depth of Beevor’s perspectives. These range from the desperate plight of the women and children in Berlin, to the work of the frontline soldiers on both sides, the cunning manoeuvrings of Stalin, the ruthlessness and cruelty of the political machines on both sides, the despair of the German generals and the ultimate descent into paranoid madness of Hitler in his bunker, divorced from reality, but still calling the shots.


Early in 1945 with the Red Army sweeping through eastern Europe and advancing on the German heartland, Hitler appointed General Hellmuth Reymann as Commander of the Greater Berlin Defence Area.


General Helmuth Reymann, in his Wehrmacht uniform


This was a tough job, by any standards.


By early-1945, the German Army was in chaos; Hitler had sacked most of his best and most experienced Generals, and his troops lacked ammunition and military supplies of all sorts, especially fuel for tanks. On the Eastern Front, the Red Army was advancing irresistibly and was already into Germany. On the Western Front, the Americans and the British had survived the battle of the Ardennes, were back on the offensive and had reached the Rhine. The Luftwaffe was completely overwhelmed in the sky on both fronts, almost non-existent, and British, American and Russian bomber fleets were pummelling German cities and industrial areas by day and night. 


There was not a lot of room for optimism in the German camp. Not among realists, anyway.


However, General Reymann was an experienced and competent professional soldier. He had commanded an Infantry Division in Russia until the situation had become hopeless in the face of the bitter winter, lack of supply of essential materiel, and massed and well-supplied Russian armies. His infantry suffered terrible losses in the retreat from Leningrad, before being caught and encircled in Latvia, after which they took no further part in the war.


At this point, Hitler relieved Reymann of his command and instructed him to go to Dresden and command its defence. Reymann was puzzled by this order. He knew that Dresden had already been annihilated by the RAF and there was nothing there to defend. Hitler finally accepted the Dresden situation and ordered Reymann to Berlin to command its defence. His basic instruction was “Berlin is to be a fortress and it must never be surrendered”.


Reymann got down to work, but immediately discovered that almost no preparations had been made to defend Berlin before his arrival. There was no plan, no command structure and no coordination of the various parties that would need to mount a defence. No food reserve had been created in the event of a siege of the city. Worst of all, he found that he had little independence of decision-making, but was expected to report to, and was subject to orders from, seven different people or entities. These were:


  • Adolf Hitler (on all military decisions);

  • Joseph Goebbels (on propaganda and communications);

  • Heinrich Himmler on operational issues (Himmler was the SS chief, and although he had no military experience or training, had been appointed by Hitler as commander of all elements of the German Army on the eastern front);

  • Hermann Goering (on all matters to do with the Luftwaffe),

  • The Gestapo (who were busy rounding up and executing any Germans suspected of wanting to surrender); and

  • The local Nazi Party HQ under Martin Borman, which controlled the Hitler Youth and the Volkssturm.


None of this was made easier by the fact that Goebbels, Himmler, Borman and Goering despised each-other, refused to work together cooperatively, and competed with each-other for Hitler’s favours.


[An aside.  The historian Hugh Trevor-Roper has pointed out that the Third Reich never operated as a government in the modern conventional sense, that is, with a chief minister and a cabinet of ministers, working together towards a common aim. On the contrary it was more like a medieval court, with an all-powerful ruler surrounded by courtiers, each driven by personal ambition, seeking personal advancement and undermining each-other. Nazi politics and administration was a confusion of private empires, private armies and private intelligence services. Hitler ruled over all this as an undisputed despot, the equivalent of an oriental sultan, fully aware that his power derived partly from the fact that his courtiers were too busy intriguing against each-other to intrigue against him.


There was, in fact, a Riech Cabinet. But it had no influence and it never met once in the ten years of the Third Reich. There was an amusing comment on this by the Nazi functionary Hans Lammers, who revealed, at the Nuremberg Trials, that he had once tried to get the members of Hitler’s Cabinet to meet each-other informally over a beer, but Hitler had got wind of this and had forbidden it, on the grounds that it was a dangerous experiment.]


The principal Berlin defence force, General Reymann discovered, was the Volkssturm (which roughly translates as “the people’s storm”). It was newly recruited, and comprised old men, many of whom were over 60 years of age, and veterans of the first World War, and boys aged 12-14 who had been indoctrinated through membership of the Hitler Youth. Their main weapons were hand-made grenades (explosive encased in concrete rather than steel, and with a pencil fuse which rendered their use mostly suicidal), bicycle-mounted anti-tank rockets (known as panzerfausts) and captured rifles for which they had almost no ammunition.


Youthful members of Berlin’s Volkssturm, with anti-tank panzerfausts clipped to the front of their bicycles, ride out to attack Red Army tanks


Other than the Volkssturm, Hitler provided Reymann with no regular army troops or artillery.  The one spark of light was that during March, the defence was augmented by “real” soldiers who had retreated into Berlin in the face of the Russian approach. However, their life span and military usefulness was tenuous. Soldiers who had been separated from their units and arrived in Berlin singly or in twos or threes were treated by the Gestapo as deserters. They were then summarily hanged or shot, rather than put to work on the defence of the city.


The fate of the civilians in Berlin


One of Reymann’s first recommendations was that all civilians be evacuated from Berlin. This was considered to have propaganda implications and so was initially dealt with by Goebbels. He rejected the plan on the grounds that it suggested defeatism. Reymann then took his proposal to Hitler, who also rejected it. Hitler’s belief was that German soldiers would fight harder if the city still contained its civilian population.


Furthermore, right up to the moment the Russian attack was launched, Hitler was still maintaining that the move on Berlin was a feint, and that the real objective of the Russians was Prague in Czechoslovakia.. In the end there was no evacuation of civilians before the attack, rendering thousands of non-combatant Berliners victims to the resulting carnage.



Members of the Volkssturm, one an old man and other a mere boy, man the defences of Berlin with rifles and a single anti-tank Panzerfaust


The Russian Army launched its attack on Berlin on April 16th, 1945, not quite a month after Reymann had been given the job of mounting its defence. Consider for a moment what he faced: the Russian attack force comprised 2.5 million soldiers, 41,600 guns and heavy mortars, 6250 tanks and self-propelled artillery. There were 270 heavy guns per kilometre on each of the sectors planned for breakthroughs, in other words there was. a field gun roughly every 4 metres.  In fact, the density of the artillery offensive was to the Russian disadvantage, it was not well coordinated, and they managed to kill Russian attackers just as easily as German defenders.


[Another aside: as the Red Army drew closer, Goebbels ordered that "no man capable of bearing arms may leave Berlin". Only General Reymann, as commander of the Berlin Defence Area, could issue an exemption.  All at once there was a rush of Nazi Party officials, including those who had publicly condemned members of the army for retreating, to Reymann's headquarters seeking his authorisation to leave Berlin. Reymann was happy to sign over 2,000 passes to get rid of them. His chief-of-staff, Hans Refior, commented, "The rats are leaving the sinking ship".]


During March and early April, the remnants of the German army from the eastern front finally retreated into Berlin in some form of military order. They fought with heroic desperation, almost to the last man. By this time the fate of German men captured by Russian frontline soldiers was well-known. Individuals were shown no mercy even if they surrendered, being killed on the spot, while captured groups went straight into labour camps, mostly never to return. The Russian soldiers were merciless in their treatment of German women encountered in Berlin in the wake of the battle. This story of mass rape, looting and terror has never been admitted by the Russian Communist Party, and is only today beginning to emerge.


Red Army artillery and infantry destroying Berlin


The battle had no sooner commenced than Hitler announced that he was dissatisfied with General Reymann, describing him as “a pessimist”. Reymann was summarily sacked.  He was replaced by Ernst Kaether, a former Nazi party commissar. Kaether never took command, and his orders were cancelled the next day. As a result, when the Red Army entered the suburbs of Berlin, there was no German commander to coordinate the city's defences, such that they were.


Hitler was now effectively in command. His first move was to call up his reserve divisions. They would descend on Berlin and drive out the Russians, he announced. However, as Reymann had been well-aware, these were “phantom divisions” which existed in name and on paper only. The actual divisions had been almost completely wiped out earlier in Poland and East Prussia by the Red Army on its way through to Berlin.  It is possible that Hitler had been told this but chose to deny it, but also possible that the two most senior Wehrmacht officers in the bunker (Field Marshals Jodel and Keitel, both yes-men to their bootstraps) were incapable of giving the Fuhrer this sort of unwelcome information.


The fate of Berlin and Berliners could have been very different. The American and British armies could have reached Berlin before the Russians and negotiated a settlement (Goering, at about this time mistakenly believed Hitler was dead and that he, Goering was now Fuhrer. He would have surrendered to the Allies, had not Hitler got to him first). However, for political reasons, including the desire to minimise American casualties, General Eisenhower deliberately held back. Virtually unchallenged, the Red Army then set about destroying Berlin and most of its inhabitants, driven by an enormous hunger for revenge. The few survivors eked out a living in ruins and without basic services. Suicide, starvation and disease usually finished what the Red Army had started.


The destruction of Berlin was the ultimate culmination of Hitler’s invasions of Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and then Russia itself, and of the treatment of the peoples of eastern European countries and Russia by the SS and the Gestapo. And in the end, it was the ultimate statement of Stalin’s political ambitions. He wanted eastern Europe as part of his empire, and he was quite prepared to sacrifice as many Russians as it took to achieve this ambition. In the battle for Berlin, it is now known that more Russians died than Germans.


Berlin - the Downfall 1945 is a superb chronicle of one of the defining events in the military history of World War II.  But at the same time it is a horrifying story. The final collapse and pitiless destruction of a beautiful city and its people, are related in ghastly detail.


Yet in exposing the horrible behaviour of humans during total warfare, it performs a salutary role. It reminds us that the civilisation of which we are often proud, is indeed a thin veneer.


And what happened to General Reymann? After being dismissed by Hitler as commander of the Berlin defence he was sent to Potsdam where, with the ragged remnants of an infantry division, he was ordered to defend the city. They failed to do so.


At this point, Reymann disappears from history (as far as I can tell) either killed in Potsdam or captured and sent to a labour camp in Siberia, from which he might never have returned.




General Reymann (second from left) probably as he would not have liked to be remembered: inspecting elderly members of the Volkstrum digging a trench in the expectation of the advance of Russian tanks.


I ended up feeling almost sorry for Reymann. He was a professional soldier and not a Nazi. Commanding the defence of Berlin in 1945 had not just been a tough job, it had been an impossible and utterly thankless one.





Beevor, A (2008):  Berlin - The Downfall 1945. Penguin Books, London


Trevor-Roper, H.R. (1952): The last days of Hitler. Pan Books, London


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