By Tatyana Shvetsova
By the beginning of 1945 the situation on the frontlines of World War Two testified to the fact that the war was entering its final stage. Soviet armed forces were attacking on a broad front from the Baltics to the Danube. It was clear that the Battle for Berlin was in the offing. The seizure of Berlin would signify total victory over Hitler’s Germany. But what a dear price we paid for that victory…
On January 12th Soviet forces embarked on the Vistula-Oder operation. They started it eight days earlier than had been planned at the express request of the USA and Great Britain, whose troops had found themselves in an extremely difficult situation in the Ardennes.
With one powerful fire assault Soviet forces broke through the enemy’s defenses in several directions. Recruited for this assault were armies of seven fronts, the Air Force and Navy. A participant of the action, commander of a Guards Rifle Corps Lieutenant-General Nikolai Biriukov later recalled:
“Those were fierce battles. The Nazis lost some 15-25, or even 30 tanks daily.
Our soldiers felt a tremendous responsibility not only before their Homeland, but the entire world for the outcome of every battle, every combat operation. A sense of patriotism and a feeling of international duty had blended together, forcing them to fight fearlessly and selflessly.
There was a Lieutenant technician in our mechanized artillery regiment by the name of Sergey Yermolaev. His unit had destroyed a good many tanks, yet had also lost many of its people in dead and wounded. The moment came when they were all out of ammunition and the German tanks kept coming at them. Then the Lieutenant grabbed some anti-tank grenades and walked right towards one of the closest tanks. He blew himself up together with the German tank… Sergey Yermolaev was posthumously awarded Hero of the Soviet Union.”
On January 17th the Soviet Army, jointly with units of the 1st Polish Army liberated the long-suffering Polish capital Warsaw. A one-time war correspondent Pavel Troyanovsky recalled:
“The Nazis’ positions were pierced in the very first hours of battle. I was present at Marshal Zhukov’s command post, and recall how when they reported to him that the enemy’s bridgeheads had been demolished, the Marshal gave two brief orders: to throw tanks into the breach and to send provisions and medical aid to Warsaw.
It was a terrible sight that we beheld: huge piles of rubble, brick and concrete in place of the once-enchanting old streets of the city; not a trace remained of the monument to Chopin, not even the pedestal; one could neither walk nor drive across the principal thoroughfare of Warsaw.
Even more terrifying was the emptiness of these ruins: there were no people or birds… It was a dead city that had only recently been heralded as one of the most beautiful in Europe…
Suddenly, on a wooden fence, miraculously survived in that furnace, we saw a chalk inscription in Polish that read: “Welcome, heroic sons of the Russian people! Long Live this day – January 17th! Long live free Poland!”
At the time it was hard to believe that amidst this rubble a brand-new city would soon spring up. While here it is – flourishing and a joy to behold!”
The Soviet Army didn’t just liberate the peoples of Europe, but did its best to provide food and medical assistance to them and help them bring order to the economy. Here are some recollections from a veteran of the war, Ukrainian writer Ivan Stadniuk:
“I first found myself in Budapest in early January 1945. This was at the time when our army was destroying the last of an encircled German-fascist group. At one of the crossroads I alighted and saw a dreadful sight: a group of city residents were using an axe to hack into pieces a dead horse. Budapest was in the throes of starvation. Suddenly a swelling whistling noise could be heard, coupled with exploding shells. Those were Hitler’s forces firing from the besieged part of Budapest. While up in the air we witnessed air combat… The streets immediately emptied of people. I likewise fled into the basement of a near-by building…
Soon the bombing and firing subsided. At this point a man rushed into the basement and shouted something. The people burst out excitedly and rushed to the exit. When I emerged from the empty cellar, I saw several of our trucks in the street. Crowds of Hungarians were flanking them, their hands outstretched. Our soldiers were handing out tinned food and loaves of bread to these starving people…”
The Soviet Army delivered swift and menacing blows in East Prussia, the interfluve of the Vistula and Oder rivers, in Silesia, Pomerania and the Carpathians on the territory of Hungary. After crushing Hitler’s armies in January-March 1945 the Soviet Army had paved the way for a final blow in the direction of Berlin.
On March 27th 1945 during a press-conference, in reply to a question from an American journalist - “Who will be the first to enter Berlin, the Russians or the Americans?” - Dwight Eisenhower answered that ‘just the distance already pointed to it being the Russians. They are 30 miles away from Berlin, while the American forces are at a distance of some 250 miles.’ However, Eisenhower refused to make any predictions, since our forces, despite being at a close distance from Berlin, nonetheless faced the bulk of the enemy’s defenses.
On April 1st the commander of the 1st Byelorussian front Marshal Georgy Zhukov and the commander of the 1st Ukrainian front Marshal Ivan Konev were summoned to the General Headquarters in Moscow.
Stalin asked them: “So who shall take Berlin, we or the allies?”
The fact is, Moscow had received reports that the western allies were speedily putting together an army group under Field Marshal Montgomery to capture Berlin.
Marshal Konev answered Stalin’s question: “We shall take Berlin, and will do so before the allies.”
Marshal Zhukov assured Stalin that forces of the 1st Byelorussian front were prepared to carry out the operation, since they boasted the required strength and were directed towards Berlin at the most convenient distance.
It so happened that on that same day, April 1st, Winston Churchill sent Franklin Roosevelt a telegram, where he expressed his apprehensions that if the Russians took Berlin they might ‘conceive an exaggerated notion of the magnitude of their contribution to the overall victory’. This, according to Churchill, ‘might leave the Russians in a disposition that would be fraught with serious consequences for the future.’ So Churchill deemed it politically expedient that the USA and Great Britain ‘advance in Germany as far as possible to the east’. In case Berlin is within their reach, the USA and Great Britain must, conceivably, capture it. Churchill voiced certainty that from a military viewpoint this would be ‘most wise’.
Stalin approved the final plan for the capture of Berlin on March 29th 1945. While the operation itself had been elaborated at the Soviet Army General Staff Headquarters back in November 1944.
Hitler’s Command had accumulated all of its reserve forces on the Berlin direction. We don’t want to overwhelm you with numbers and statistics, but take our word for it: it was no easy task for the Soviet Army to tackle such an aggregate enemy force.
Early morning on April 16th thousands of guns and mortars, hundreds of our planes led a massive fire assault on the enemy positions. This was the beginning of the Berlin operation. Taking part were troops of the 1st and 2nd Byelorussian fronts, the 1st Ukrainian front, the 1st and 2nd Polish Armies, vessels of the Soviet Navy. This is what a participant of those events, Marshal Ivan Konev related later:
“In scale this was the largest operation of the entire war. By achieving a swift and decisive routing of the enemy forces our Soviet command sought to bring the long-suffering peoples peace. In the case of the Berlin operation we were playing a wining game: never permitting the enemy to drag out the action, escape our blows or break through the encirclement. Under the raining blows of the Soviet forces the Berlin garrison was forced to cease all resistance on May 2nd, while all of Germany capitulated on May 8th.”
Marshal Georgy Zhukov summed up the import of the Berlin operation in the following way:
“As the concluding operation of World War Two in Europe the Berlin operation occupies a special place. This operation settled the outstanding military-political issues on which the entire future post-war order of Germany hinged, as well as its place in the political life of Europe.”
And one more thing. With the advent of the Soviet Army on the territory of the aggressor countries, extraordinary measures were speedily taken against the outrage that their civilian population was subjected to. Thus, on January 19th 1945 Stalin issued a decree that prohibited any violations against the local population. This order was got across to every single soldier. In follow-up, there were orders issued by the Military Councils of the fronts, army commanders, division commanders, etc. Thus, an order issued by the Military Council of the 2nd Byelorussian front, signed by Marshal Konstantin Rokossovsky, instructed that marauders and violators be executed on the spot.
It is also appropriate to recall at this point that Joseph Stalin had formulated the political position regarding the German population back in February 1942:
“History shows that Hitlers come and go, but the German people, the German state remains.”
Bear in mind that this was said at a time when the Wehrmacht was just 100 kilometers away from Moscow.
But back to the events of the Berlin operation. Here is an excerpt from a broadcast from the German capital made on Soviet radio:
“Our microphone is set up in a car driving across Berlin… Opening up ahead is a panorama of the southern part of the German capital. Vehicles are streaming in an endless line towards the frontline…
The Germans had built a huge bomb shelter almost in the very center of one of the squares, however, the tones of metal and concrete caved in after a square hit by our allies’ aviation.
Here is a block on General Webber Strasse. Amidst the greenery – a huge hulk of a 15-storey building. The top floor of the structure opens on a panorama of downtown Berlin, drifting in a haze of smoke from the fires. Our artillery has taken advantage of this convenient observation position to adjust their line of fire.”
Marshal Vasily Sokolovsky, a participant of the storming of Berlin, recalled:
“The battles in Berlin were the bloodiest of the entire war. In point of fact, million-strong armies had entered into mortal combat right in Berlin itself. Several thousand tanks, several thousand planes… The battles raged for ten days… Day and night, it was a veritable inferno!”
On April 25th 1945, in the heart of Germany, in the vicinity of the town of Torgau, on the Elbe River, the detachments of the Soviet Army that were advancing from the east linked up with the American forces coming from the west. Numerous American vessels and pontoons were heading in the direction of the soviet troops. The rendezvous was very joyous and sincere… Russians and Americans exchanges gifts, compensating for lack of fluency in each other’s languages by gestures, smiles and handshakes… This link up was a milestone in the history of the war. Both the Soviet and American soldiers regarded it as a forerunner of victory…
On April 30th the final assault began. Soviet sub-machine gunners ran towards the Reichstag under cover of pelting mortar and machinegun fire. Running ahead of the rest, bending low, were scouts Mikhail Yegorov and Militon Kantariya. They had been entrusted with the task of hoisting our Victory banner on top of the Reichstag. Mikhail Yegorov later recalled:
“We had just started ascending to the dome of the Reichstag when the Germans spied us and opened mortar and gun fire, aiming at the roof. We were forced to scramble away to the edge of the roof…
When we had finally reached the dome, fixed the banner in place and descended, we met our reconnaissance. They informed us that our regiment staff had already moved inside the Reichstag. We sought them out and reported that the Victory banner was streaming above the Reichstag. The Regiment Commander reported this to the Division Commander… They were reporting about this because there had been nine banners made especially for the operation and distributed among nine regiments. Whichever regiment was the first to burst into the Reichstag was the one to do the honors. The banner was to be a symbol of Victory.”
Soon our compatriots heard the following announcement from the Soviet Information Bureau, read out by the famous radio announcer Yuri Levitan:
“Divisions of the 1st Byelorussian front under the command of Marshal of the Soviet Union Georgy Zhukov, with assistance of troops of the 1st Ukrainian front under Marshal of the Soviet Union Konev after insistent street battles have completely routed the Berlin group of German armies. Today, on May 2nd, they seized the seat of aggression – the German capital Berlin.
The Berlin garrison that defended the city, headed by Artillery General Weidling and his staff, ceased all resistance at 15 hours on May 2nd and surrendered.”
Moscow saluted the glorious victory of our forces that had seized Berlin with 24 salvos from 324 guns.
However, a large group of enemy forces had not yet laid down arms in Czechoslovakia. The Czechs were vehemently resisting the enemy. Early on May 5th Prague witnessed a revolt. Languishing in ferocious uneven combat with the enemy, the leaders of the revolt issued a call for help over the radio to the Soviet forces:
“Attention! Attention! This is Czech Prague speaking! This is Czech Prague speaking! The Germans have treacherously reneged on capitulation negotiations! A large number of German tanks and aviation are presently attacking our city from all directions. We appeal to the heroic Red Army with a plea for help and support. Send us tanks and planes to help us fight until the last breath. We desperately need your assistance! Do not let out Prague perish!”
And help did arrive. Armies of the 1st, 2nd and 4th Ukrainian fronts were rushed to Prague. On May 9th the city was rid of the enemy scourge.
Nazi Germany was completely defeated. In Karlhorst, East Berlin, on May 8th representatives of Nazi Germany signed the Act of Unconditional Surrender. This “is how a report from Berlin narrated the event:
Marshal Zhukov proposes signing the Act of Unconditional Surrender… “Are you prepared to sign the Act of Unconditional Surrender?” he asks. “Yes, we are,” hurriedly reply German representatives Keitel, Frideburg and Stumpf.”
Victory! Humanity may take a deep breath of relief. The guns are now silent!
The leaders of the Allied States: the USA, Great Britain and Russia – determined the future of post-war Germany and Europe’s post-war alignment. They acted in accordance with the decisions of the Crimea conference, held in Yalta from the 4th to the 11th of February 1945. It was decided to set up the United Nations Organization. The USSR vowed to enter war with Japan, an ally of Hitler Germany, 2-3 months after the end of the war with Germany. This obligation was fully met to the day – exactly 3 months after Victory day.
In the USSR May 9th was declared Victory Day, a popular holiday. That day Moscow’s Red Square witnessed the celebrated Victory parade. Taking the salute was Marshal Georgy Zhukov, while commanding the parade was Marshal Konstantin Rokossovsky.
After inspecting the troops, Marshal Georgy Zhukov addressed all those gathered at the parade and the entire people of our country:
“After 4 years of fierce fighting we have entered a period of peaceful development. The Soviet State emerged from this bloody war even stronger than before, while the Red Army is acknowledged as the most powerful and advanced. However, we must not slide into a state of tranquil complacency. We need to further augment our military-economic might… We must tirelessly advance our military skill, studying the rich experience of the Patriotic war, develop our military science…
Long live Victory! Glory to the victorious soldiers who vindicated our Motherland’s honor, freedom and independence!”
To the strains of march music the regiments marched across Red Square… And then, 200 soldiers, accompanied by a drum roll, threw 200 standards of the routed Nazi Army to the threshold of the Lenin Mausoleum.
We have reminded you of the events of World War Two and its inalienable part – the Great Patriotic war of our people. Just 60 years have passed since – a trivial period by historical measures. However, already today we witness numerous attempts to rewrite history and talk down this country’s invaluable contribution to the Victory.
This country, that defended itself and Europe from Hitler’s invasion, is being called upon to turn celebrations of the 60th anniversary of Victory into a day of Penitence before Europe and a day of condemnation of Stalinism, as was done for example, by Zbignew Bzezinsky in the Wall Street Journal dated March 29th 2005. However, we shall always treasure the memory of our victory. We have no moral right to forget those, who laid down their lives in battles against those seeking to introduce fascist slavery on earth.
Source:The Voice of Russia