Wednesday, May 6, 2020

Der Krieg ist vorbei...

Devastated street in the center of Berlin, July 1945

Yes, in 1945, seventy-five years ago, the Germans could finally say, "Der Krieg ist vorbei...", the war is over.

The Chant's Polish correspondent Paweł reminded me the other day that 75 years ago this month, Berlin fell to the advancing Soviet armies. Well, not all of the troops involved in capturing Berlin were Soviets. In the advance, which ended the war in the East, two Polish armies were involved, the First Polish Army, commanded by Lieutenant General Stanislav Poplavsky, was involved directly in the Battle of Berlin. This army was attached to the 1st Belorussian Front under Marshal Georgy Zhukov. The Second Polish Army, commanded by Lieutenant General Karol Świerczewski, fought south of Berlin, advancing towards Dresden. The Second was attached to the 1st Ukrainian Front under Marshal Ivan Konev. The map below shows these two armies in relation to the Soviet armies involved.

(Source)
The Polish First Army on their way to Berlin, 1945.
That would be the fellows on the left with tanks.
The folks on the right, with horse, wagon, and bicycles, are defeated Germans.

I'm sure all of you have seen this picture of Soviet troops raising the red flag atop the Reichstag in Berlin -


But until Paweł mentioned it the other day, I had never seen this picture -


That's a Polish soldier atop the Siegessäule (Victory Column) in Berlin. Here's what the Siegessäule looked in 1900 (when it was near the Reichstag) and now (the Nazis moved it in 1939 and also made it taller).

In 1900.
Today
(Source)
While the Reichstag was badly damaged during the war (it started the war damaged, see Reichstag Fire for more details on that), the Siegessäule suffered only minor damage. I didn't know about the Poles' being there for the kill in 1945 until Paweł brought it up. The things I learn from you readers...


My Dad entered the United States Army in November of 1945, at the age of seventeen. He had wanted to sign up on his 17th birthday, one year to the day after the Normandy invasion. He was the youngest of three brothers. No doubt with two boys already serving overseas (my Uncle Louis was in the Pacific with the USAAF, my Uncle Charlie was an infantryman in the ETO, Seventh Army) I'm sure my grandparents were reluctant to let their youngest sign up with fighting still raging in the Pacific. So he had to wait.

He was indeed sent overseas, to Berlin, where he spent most of his three years in the Army. Dad had a lot of pictures of Berlin right after the war, all of them looked like that opening photo, the city was a vast ruin. It was also a graveyard. The Soviets and Poles had suffered over 360,000 casualties in the fight for the city, German losses are estimated to have been over 800,000. No one really knows how many casualties the Germans took, they weren't keeping very good records at that point. Inside the Berlin Defense Area near the center of the city, it was estimated that the Germans suffered roughly 44,000 dead - not killed, wounded, or missing - dead. Of those, half were civilians caught up in the fighting.

Oddly enough, in my seven plus years living in Germany, I never went to Berlin. I wanted to get my parents to come to Germany for a visit, but Mom dislikes flying. A lot. If they'd come over I have no doubt we would have taken Dad to see what had become of his old stomping grounds. No doubt Mom would have been eyeing each likely Frau and wondering if Dad knew her. Seems Dad had sown a lot of wild oats in that town. Heck, he was, after all, only a teenager when he was there! Perhaps that's why they didn't come to visit?


The war had been raging in the East since the 1st of September, 1939. But the front had been a long ways from Berlin when the Germans had gone into Russia at the beginning of the summer of 1941. Now it was getting closer by the day. Horror stories from refugees from East Prussia were making the rounds. The German soldiery had behaved very badly in Russia. Burning and pillaging, executing civilians and captured soldiers as well. Now it was payback time.

Stalin wanted to push the Red Army as far west as possible, even though the Allies had agreed that the Western Allies would halt at the Elbe River, Stalin didn't trust them to do so. (If you're an untrustworthy bastard, you tend not to trust others.) On Hitler's birthday, Soviet artillery began to shell the city. They wouldn't quit until the Germans did. I can't imagine Berlin being a very nice place to be in the spring of 1945.

I recall a line from Band of Brothers where Captain Nixon commented to Captain Winters during Operation Market-Garden that he thought the German Army had been reduced to nothing but old men and boys. This was after a very bitter fight in the Netherlands where the enemy was anything but old men and boys. This was before the Ardennes Offensive in December of 1944 where the Germans basically threw away their last reserves.

By spring the German military was made up of a lot of old men and young boys. Though they still fought hard!

16-year-old Willi Hübner is awarded the Iron Cross 2nd Class¹ for his actions in the defense of Lauban.
(Source)
A member of the Volkssturm², armed with a Panzerschreck³, outside Berlin, April 1945.
(Source)

Most regular German divisions had been reduced to small battle groups consisting of maybe 500 to a thousand men with a few vehicles. Gasoline was in short supply, so what few vehicles (including tanks) which the Germans had, weren't going to travel very far. Not that they had that far to go!

Front lines 1 May (pink = Allied occupied territory; red = area of fighting; white = still under Nazi control)

Seventy-five years ago, May 1945, saw the end of the Nazi Third Reich, after over five years of fighting and millions of deaths. The repercussions of that war can still be felt today. Millions died, the war nearly destroyed the Jewish people. Poland shifted further west geographically (Russians don't like giving back territory), Germany was much reduced, and millions lost their homes forever. We lived with nearly fifty years of the Cold War. The threat of mutually assured destruction is something many of us grew up with.

Millions in Eastern Europe lost their freedom to the scourge of Communism, trading one dictator (Hitler) for another (Stalin and his successors).

Are things unsettled, some might say bad, these days? Sorry, not even close to what things were like in Europe on this date seventy-five years ago.

Not even close.



Battle of Berlin Photos:
  • Monovisons, Historic photos of The Battle of Berlin Link
  • English Russia, The Battle of Berlin In Pictures Link
  • The Battle of Berlin Link
  • The Battle in Berlin Link (No, that's not a typo.)


¹ The official criteria for the award was a single act of bravery in the face of the enemy, or actions that were clearly above and beyond the call of duty. (Source)
² Volksturm, People's Militia. It was set up, not by the traditional German Army, but by the Nazi Party on the orders of Adolf Hitler on October 18, 1944. It conscripted males between the ages of 16 to 60 years who were not already serving in some military unit as part of a German Home Guard. (Source)
³ Officially known as the 88mm Raketenpanzerbuechse 54. This 88 mm rocket-propelled, hollow-charge, anti-tank grenade, which was fired from a tube, became operational with German Army and SS field units in August 1944. Nicknamed the Panzerschreck (Tank Terror), this weapon's development had been heavily influenced by American bazookas of 2.4 inch caliber captured in North Africa in spring 1943. (Source)

40 comments:

  1. As usual our viking friends in the Sabaton have song for the occassion... Attero Dominatus. Check YT for few nice music vids including some with original war footage...

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  2. Hey Old AFSarge;

    After Stuttgart, I have blogged the most about Berlin, I was attached to FSB(I have the Army of Occupation metal, go figure) I spent a bit of time in Berlin. It was a unique city when I was there, the west was 24 hour party, the east was dour, when i walked around in my class A's I would see scaffolding where they were rebuilding, remember image is everything to the godless communist honecker government, but unfortunately they were better communist than the soviets, go figure, I figure it was the Teutonic mindset. Well anyway, I would see all this scaffolding like they were improving thing, but the scaffolding was rotted, and I saw bullet holes in the buildings where the Soviets took the city in 1945. The Germans called the Tiergardens where the Soviets had the memorial for their dead "The tomb of the unknown rapist". There was no love lost there. I recall a story where an American dependent onknowingly paid a ostmark fine of 5ostmark something like 1 dollar. Well when the SACBerlin heard about it, he immediately had her and her husband declared "person non grata" and sent back to the states. when she paid the fine, she recognized the authority of the East German government. Big NoNo. Remember,We recognized the West Germans as the Legal Government, the East Germans were Puppets of the Soviets, and the Soviets recognized the East Germans as the Legal Germans and the West as the Imperial lackeys of the West kinda thing. We were told when going to Berlin, if we hassled, immediately ask for a Soviet Officer because the Soviets were responsible for that sector of Berlin and not to deal with the East Germans. "Ich Muste Mit Eine Soviet Officer Mit zum Sprechen Bitte". And Yes I used that. I had a East German policeman hit the side of my mustang with a nightstick and tell me to move my car and verbally went upside and down the other like a sewing machine in German and finished with that phrase, I by that time could speak pretty good German. He knew he screwed up. If he had asked nicely, I would have done it, but he decided to be a dick about it and pissed me off. I could go on and on...I enjoyed my time visiting Berlin. I want to go back and see how things have changed. I was in Stuttgart when the wall fell and it was surreal. I never went back since I left in late 1987.

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    1. Berlin has always been a unique city. I'm kind of sad that I didn't go visit. But I'm not much of a tourist, I like to live in a place, rather than just visit.

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  3. My buddy's dad was there at the end. He was in Patton's army the last 6 months. He has some funny stories. And some really rough pictures. He had some heartbreakers too. De-arming the population included going house to house, and relieving old men of their ceremonial swords... I think he was a sower as well. But he was an amazing man. Someone that I have a lot of respect for. I don't know where he was stationed during occupation, though.

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    1. Well, the American Occupation Zone was Bavaria, Baden-Wurttemberg, Hesse, and a couple of small enclaves in the British zone, all four powers had a slice of Berlin. Odds are your Dad was in southern Germany where most American forces are still stationed, with the exceptions of the air bases at Spangdahlem and Bitburg, the latter may be closed by now, it was in the process of shutting down when I left Germany in 1999. They may have kept the housing area as Bitburg isn't far from Spangdahlem.

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    2. STxAR,
      You mentioned the other day that you were writing for your blog. I enjoy reading and answering your comments, would you publish the URL so I (and I'm sure others) might read it.

      Only been to Germany twice, once for a TDY that got extended by maintenance issues, the other holding hands for a Marine General who didn't bring his passport on a day off. Exciting times.

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    3. Yes, STxAR do share the URL!

      (Now I have to go and try to shed the mental picture I have of juvat holding hands with a Marine general. I fear strong drink may be necessary...)

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    4. Staff officer terminology, my friend, staff officer terminology.

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    5. After my head injury, I slowed down quite a bit. But here it is, I present you:

      https://budgetmachining.blogspot.com/

      And I got an all clear for the Neuro today, so watch out... I'll be running the roads soon!!

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    6. You have been officially added to the Blog Roll under "Stuff I Haven't Placed Yet, But Like to Read."

      Welcome aboard!

      Glad to hear your noggin is better. Remember, life is hard, wear a helmet!

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    7. juvat - I forget that you did time at the Puzzle Palace.

      Hand holding is a staff thing, innit?

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  4. It is best not to lose when you start something. But the whole partition of Germany, well, that sucked, sucked bad, sucked real bad. All the joy of war without the constant aerial bombardment. But again, don't want none, don't start some.

    And then, in June 24th, 1948, we Americans got the audacious idea that we could supply the western portion of Berlin with everything they needed, via air. And we did.

    Some of the photos from the airlift, showing the western side rebuilding while the eastern side wasn't, are very interesting.

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    1. My Dad was actually there for that, didn't talk about it though, it probably interfered with drinking bier and chasing Fräuleins!

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    2. During a former life, I worked for some time in a couple of nursing homes. Sometimes difficult work, but also rewarding in a way (not monetarily, though). One gentleman, known as Colonel Tracy, took part in the Berlin Airlift, as well as Operations Overlord, Market-Garden, and Varsity (crossing the Rhine). He had a form of dementia, but if you asked him about, he would wax rhapsodic about what a great plane the C-47 Gooneybird was. That was wartime, though. Following that, he moved to C-54s. He was a really nice guy. Late winter flu took him. The funeral home director who came to pick him up after he passed turned out to have been a P-38 pilot in the Mediterranean, and he dearly loved that plane and its two engines. Twice, he depended on one remaining engine to get back home over open ocean.

      I was in Berlin once 11 years ago for a couple of weeks for training. Late February is not the time to visit Berlin. There was one nice clear, but cold day (only 20 degrees F for the high) just before I left. The rest of time, it was gray, foggy, and/or snowy. It was the worst winter in a number of years, I was told. They made sure to point out the clock tower in Siemensstadt (the division we'd acquired was sold off by Siemens), which had been used to mount a number of flak guns. Somehow, that main building and tower were pretty much unscathed, despite Siemens being a major target of bombing (~30,000 people worked there). They had a pretty neat elevator that when it was active ran continuously like something filling a corn silo. On one side they ran upward and on the other downwards. They never stopped, you just stepped on as a platform passed your level, and held on to the side guardrails. But the German version of OSHA shut them down.

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    3. Very interesting, WWII veterans were everywhere when I was young, I worked with quite a few. I can't help but think of the stories being lost as they gradually enter the clearing at the end of the path.

      I've seen that sort of elevator in the Netflix series Babylon Berlin in the building which was supposed to be the Polizeipräsidium Berlin (think Police Headquarters). I thought they were practical but could see why a safety minded person would freak out over that setup. No doubt ample opportunities for the clumsy folk to injure themselves. (Babylon Berlin is a pretty damned good series BTW. It's basically about a policeman, WWI vet, from Cologne sent to the big city to solve a crime. But there is so much more! I highly recommend it!)

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    4. Those flakturm took a tremendous amount of explosives from the inside to destroy. I think the British finally just stopped trying after the war, instead choosing to seal them off, which, of course, didn't work very well.

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    5. That particular tower isn't one of those purpose-built Flakturm, looks like a regular clock tower. Of course, you can mount light AAA (boo, hiss) just about anywhere.

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  5. I was with the 1st BG, 19th Inf, 24th Inf Division 1960 to 1963. We were the second BG to go into Berlin to augment the Berlin Brigade after the wall went up. The stark division between east and west was mind boggling. A vibrant city in the west and ruins with wild rabbits running around in the east. I vividly remember a tour bus ride into the East Berlin via Checkpoint Charlie. We were of course very recognizable in our Class A's as well as was the OD green bus. We passed a corner where an older woman was standing with a young boy, probably 6 or 7 years old. When he saw the bus he started waving enthusiastically whereupon the woman grabbed his arm, yanking it down, and turning to look over her shoulder to see if anyone was watching. Chilling...

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    1. In many ways the Ossies had it worse under the Communists than the Nazis. The DDR was a true dictatorship under foreign rule, a true police state.

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    2. And so unified Germany elected Frau Merkel, a devout East German, as their Chancellor. And she acts like a Reichs-Chancellor, doesn't she?

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  6. You wrote: "Sorry, not even close to what things were like in Europe on this date seventy-five years ago. Not even close."
    And that's a good thing!

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  7. In Anthony Beevor's book The Fall of Berlin, there is a description of a soldier telling a bunch of people in a trolley car (S-Bahn) that if the Russians do to the Germans only a fraction of what the Germans did to the Russians, there wouldn't be a German left alive in a few weeks.

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    1. I like Mr. Beevor's work. I read his book on Stalingrad. I may have to go looking for that one!

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  8. That kid doesn't look 16, he looks like he's 12. Total war sucks. Good thing we haven't experienced it in about 150 years.

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    1. That's what I thought. He's just a wee lad!

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    2. Starvation and deprivation stunted the growth of many children during the war years.

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    3. There is that. Good point.

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  9. (Don McCollor)… (a little vignette I play in my mind on the meeting on the Elbe)..They could hear thunder rumbling in a cloudless sky. The sound of battle as the Russian Army fought westward to meet them. Then on an April morning the met. There all that remained of an evil empire was the stretch of green spring grass shrinking between their advancing boots. Soldier of East and West, they had fought together through terrible years of war meeting for the first time. Shaking hands, hugging each other. Not speaking each other's language, just Joe, Comrade, Mac, Ivan. Overcome with joy - there would be hard fighting left - but they knew how it was going to end

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    1. They could feel the end was coming. They had the victory sealed.

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  10. A guy is served with years ago spoke fluent German because his mother was born in Germany. She lived in southwestern Germany and at the end of the war she was Czech. To the victor goes the spoils.

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    1. As far as I know Germany didn't cede any land to Czechoslovakia, but they did have to give back the lands they stole from the Czechs. The Sudetenland was a portion of Czechoslovakia with a large number of ethnic Germans. Hitler claimed that they were being "repressed" (they weren't) and a conference was held in Munich to "resolve" the issues. Essentially the British and the French gave Hitler carte blanche in the area. The Wehrmacht rolled in, annexed the Sudetenland to Germany and eventually took over the rest.

      It was Neville Chamberlain's "Peace in our time" comment after returning to England which most people remember. It's the why that they miss. No doubt your friend's mom was a Sudeten German. Officially they were always Czechs. A lot of them were driven from their homes after the war. The Czechs did not forget, they did not forgive.

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  11. Interesting. He didn't mention that but it has been 15 years since he told me about it over beers when we were at Grafenwohr for an exercise.

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    1. I could be wrong. It happens from time to time. (More often that I care to admit!)

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  12. Very informative post. Quite introspective of history as it relates to the annoyances of today. Thank you very much for posting.

    Question, the German militia man (Volkssturm) with the 88mm anti-tank weapon. Was he to sit there to wait for enemy tanks to come close enough? Then what? Tanks don't travel by themselves, there are tank formations and accompanied with infantry. I doubt this man could get off a 2nd round. If he ran after his first shot it's likely he would be shot by one of either sides. So was his position not much more than his final eternal resting place?

    Rick

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    1. Wait until they get close enough, kill the enemy tank, then wait to die. Pretty much sums it up. Of course, a lot depends on what sort of support he's got around him, and the picture doesn't really convey that. Toss in an MG-42 firing on the infantry, some more Panzerschrecks and Panzerfausts zinging through the air and the chap in the photo might have a chance. Might.

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  13. ...could get off a 2nd round before taking fire on his unfortified position.

    Rick

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    1. Dontcha hate hitting publish then seeing a typo? WordPress has a comment editing feature, I wish Blogger would incorporate that.

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