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Masterful Defense at Seelow Heights

WWII

Masterful Defense at Seelow Heights

WORLD WAR II: POLISH TANK. 
A JSU-152 tank of the Polish 1st Army crossing a pontoon bridge over the Oder River during the Battle of the Seelow Heights, 19 April 1945. Full credit: Bildarchiv - ullstein bild / The Granger Collection.

A carefully crafted German plan caught an overconfident adversary off guard at the gates of Berlin, but overwhelming odds ensured a Russian victory.

By William E. Welsh

The officers huddled in a candlelit cellar in an abandoned farmhouse midway between the Oder River and Berlin. Outside the walls could be heard the steady pounding of artillery explosions and the whoosh of rockets to the east. Sixty-year-old General Helmuth Weidling, a holder of the Knights Cross with Oak Leaves and Swords, listened to reports of the three-day-old battle from his subordinates. Weidling’s LVI Corps had been tasked with the most difficult assignment given to any of the four corps in the German Ninth Army: defend the most direct approach to Berlin against Vasily Chuikov’s reinforced Eighth Guards Army.

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Disorder on the Front

On April 15, 1945, one day before Marshal Georgi Zhukov launched his First Belorussian Front against the Ninth Army defending the middle Oder, Weidling had arrived to take command of 15,000 soldiers in three divisions tasked with holding the high ground behind the village of Seelow against vastly superior Soviet forces. It was a tall order but one befitting a veteran of campaigns in Poland, France, and Russia.

The reports were as dark as the unlit corners of the basement. The most ominous and disturbing was that delivered by Colonel Hans Wohlermann, Weidling’s artillery commander. Having returned from the front, now no more than a few kilometers to the east, Wohlermann told how soldiers from the 9th Parachute Division “were running away like madmen” and that not even the threats of officers with drawn pistols could compel the frightened troops to stand their ground. The paratroopers were “a threat to the course of the whole battle,” Wohlermann said. Even the arrival of the crack 11th SS “Nordland” Panzergrenadier Division from Third Panzer Army the night before could not stem the steady unraveling of the German front.

Hitler Youth and a Lost Cause

Earlier that day, Weidling had received several high-level visitors from Berlin, one of whom was Hitler Youth leader Artur Axeman, who was half Weidling’s age. When the zealous, one-armed youth leader offered to commit the last of his teenage warriors to the final defense of the Third Reich, Weidling could not control his anger. “You cannot sacrifice these children for a cause that is already lost,” he seethed.

To Weidling’s disgust, his order prohibiting the boys from entering the battle was not heeded, and many of the underage soldiers perished that afternoon fighting in a belt of forest not far from Weidling’s headquarters. The imminent destruction of the Ninth Army and the tragic death of the boy soldiers were part of Adolf’s Hitler’s quest to bring about, along with his own demise, the destruction of Germany and its people.

As the Red Army advanced westward in March 1945, Soviet troops were sometimes required to pause and deploy their weapons against pockets of German resistance.

As the Red Army advanced westward in March 1945, Soviet troops were sometimes required to pause and deploy their weapons against pockets of German resistance.

A Bleak Strategic View

The situation facing the Germans on the Eastern Front at the outset of 1945 was grim. The Germans had bled heavily for their folly in invading Russia in the summer of 1941 and had suffered staggering losses in men and equipment after countless retreats and rearguard actions following the Battle of Stalingrad. In contrast, the Russians boasted at the outset of 1945 that they had finally driven the Germans out of Mother Russia. As the Russians prepared to clear Poland of the enemy and invade the German heartland, the odds were overwhelmingly in their favor.

On January 12, Soviet leader Josef Stalin unleashed the First Belorussian and First Ukrainian Fronts with a combined strength of 2.2 million troops and more than 4,500 tanks against the battered and bruised German Army Group Center. Russian armored columns pierced the German lines and raced west, leaving follow-on forces to execute mop-up operations. Soviet armor averaged 25 miles a day, and Soviet infantry nearly 18 miles a day. Pockets of Germans fought desperately as they began a general retreat toward the Oder River.

In a fortnight, the Soviets had cleared Poland and reached the Oder. During the Vistula-Oder offensive, Hitler had turned a deaf ear on the warnings of General Heinz Guderian, chief of the Army general staff and commander of Eastern Front forces, dispatching against his advice two panzer corps away from the Oder line to protect Hungarian oilfields. In Guderian’s mind, Hitler’s strategy was both ignorant and foolhardy.

The Germans Reorganize

On January 25, as the remaining German forces in Poland and East Prussia were fighting for their survival, Hitler renamed three of his army groups on the Eastern Front caught up in the Vistula-Oder offensive. Henceforth, Army Group North trapped in Courland became Army Group Courland, Army Group Center in East Prussia became Army Group North, and Army Group A in Lower Silesia became Army Group Center. To cover Pomerania and the Baltic corridor, Hitler established Army Group Vistula, composed of untested reserves, and placed it under the command of SS Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler, who lacked the skills necessary to direct troops in battle. Hitler also redrew the boundary between Army Group Center and Army Group Vistula, giving the latter the German Ninth Army commanded by General Theodor Busse.

On January 31, Zhukov’s forces reached the Oder near Kustrin and rushed troops across the river to establish bridgeheads on the west bank. The bridgehead north of Kustrin was established by Col. Gen. Nikolai Berzarin’s Fifth Shock Army, while the bridgehead south of Kustrin was carved out by forces belonging to Col. Gen. Vasily Chuikov’s Eighth Guards Army. Complicating the situation for Zhukov were two German bridgeheads remaining on the east bank of the Oder at Kustrin and Frankfurt-an-der-Oder.

To solidify their bridgeheads, the Russians dragged artillery across the frozen Oder to positions in the soft ground of the Oderbruch. The wide floodplain stretched for 60 kilometers along the west bank from Bad Freienwalde to Frankfurt-an-der-Oder. The Oderbruch was between 10 kilometers to 15 kilometers wide and was bordered on the west by the Seelow escarpment, which formed the eastern edge of a wide plateau and stood 40 to 60 meters above the floodplain. The following day Chuikov’s men seized the only high ground in the Oderbruch when they occupied the Reitwein Spur. With the Russians on the west bank, Hitler ordered the organization of new infantry divisions for the Ninth Army formed from Luftwaffe ground units, guard and police battalions, and Volkssturm.

Two Armies Trapped

In mid-February, the Germans counterattacked from Stettin with three panzer corps, hoping to take advantage of the gap between Zhukov’s and Marshal Konstantin Rokossovsky’s fronts. Operation Sonnenwende failed largely because a spell of warm weather turned to impassable mud the ground over which the German armor would attack. A bad situation turned worse for the Germans when Stalin, realizing that Zhukov’s right flank was vulnerable, called off a full-scale attack across the Oder toward Berlin until Pomerania had been cleared.

Hitler, who mistakenly believed the Russians would launch their main offensive toward Prague, ordered the transfer of three panzer divisions from Army Group Vistula to Army Group Center. On February 18, Marshal Ivan Konev’s First Ukrainian Front reached the Neisse River, thus securing Zhukov’s left flank. The stage was now set for Zhukov and Rokossovsky to clear German forces east of the Oder from Pomerania.

Soviet operations to secure Pomerania would delay the drive on Berlin until early April. Zhukov temporarily diverted six of his nine armies north to clear West Pomerania, while Rokossovsky focused on East Pomerania. Working in tandem, the two fronts were able to isolate the German Second Army and Third Panzer Army from the Oder forces.

Guderian had repeatedly urged Hitler, to no avail, to evacuate Army Group Courland by sea and rescue the remnants of Army Group North trapped in the East Prussian fortress of Konigsberg. The ongoing feud between the Führer and his chief of staff got worse as the days dragged on and more German forces stationed along the Baltic were surrounded and annihilated.

Against overwhelming odds, German forces concentrated at the Seelow Heights in a last-ditch effort to block the Red Army advance on Berlin. Despite fierce resistance, the Germans were eventually forced to retreat. Within two weeks of the breakthrough by the 1st Belorussian Front, Hitler was dead.

Against overwhelming odds, German forces concentrated at the Seelow Heights in a last-ditch effort to block the Red Army advance on Berlin. Despite fierce resistance, the Germans were eventually forced to retreat. Within two weeks of the breakthrough by the 1st Belorussian Front, Hitler was dead.

Change in Command for Army Group Vistula

As part of a reorganization of frontline forces, the 25th Panzergrenadier Division withdrew on March 22 from a key position it held maintaining the supply corridor to Kustrin before its replacement unit was in position. As a result, the Soviets completed their encirclement of the Kustrin garrison. Following an unsuccessful attempt to relieve the fortress on March 27, the garrison successfully managed to escape through enemy lines three days later. At odds with each other over the defense of the Oder line, Hitler and Guderian argued again the following day about the Kustrin debacle, and, as Guderian prepared to leave, Hitler instructed him to take a leave of absence for health reasons. Guderian was succeeded as chief of staff by Hitler loyalist, General Hans Krebs.

As one of his last actions before he was relieved, Guderian persuaded Himmler to resign as leader of Army Group Vistula so that a more competent commander might oversee the defense of the most direct route to Berlin. Himmler’s successor was an unassuming, decorated practitioner of defensive warfare who had ensured the survival of the German Fourth Army against repeated Russian counterattacks following the bungled drive on Moscow in 1941. Called Unser Giftzwerg, meaning tough little bastard, by those who served under him during those grim days, General Gotthardt Heinrici was a recipient of the Knights Cross with Swords and Oak Leaves who preferred low-cut boots, leggings, and a sheepskin coats to the jackboots and overcoats sported by more preening German generals.

Army Group Vistula is Bolstered

Bracing for the inevitable Soviet assault were the two armies that constituted Heinrici’s Army Group Vistula. General Hasso von Manteuffel’s Third Panzer Army held the lower Oder, while the four corps belonging to Busse’s Ninth Army had the difficult assignment of blocking the direct route to Berlin along the middle Oder. The reconstituted and new divisions that made up each of the four corps had no previous experience fighting together, nor did the divisional commanders have experience working with the headquarters staffs that would direct them in the upcoming battle. The Ninth Army deployment from north to south was CI Army Corps, LVI Panzer Corps, XI SS Panzer Corps, and V SS Mountain Corps.

The two sides skirmished in the first week of April as the Soviets continued to construct railroads through Poland over which to move reinforcements and supplies necessary to sustain the planned attack across the Oder. On April 4, Heinrici drove into Berlin to confer with Hitler on the Oder defenses. Having lost several divisions that Hitler had transferred south to Army Group Center, Heinrici beseeched Hitler for additional forces.

In an effort to curry Hitler’s favor, Himmler, Reichsmarshal Hermann Göring, and Admiral Karl Dönitz all stepped forward to pledge what amounted on paper to upward of 100,000 additional soldiers from their respective commands for Heinrici’s army. But raw troops of the kind offered did not appease the seasoned commander. Hoping to get a few more experienced troops, Heinrici received permission to remove one-third of the 14,000 troops manning the Frankfurt Fortress and deploy them in critical sectors such as Seelow Heights. In the end, Heinrici received about 35,000 untrained Luftwaffe troops and sailors transferred to ground combat.

Setting the Defense

The Ninth Army’s total strength at the outset of the battle was about 84,000 men organized into 14 divisions and the Frankfurt garrison. Another 60,000 Volkssturm troops were stationed in and around Berlin, and they would be fed piecemeal into the battle as it developed. Backing the troops were 512 tanks, 243 self-propelled guns, 340 pieces of regular artillery, and more than 300 antiaircraft guns that would serve in the role of tank killers. Distributed in an antitank belt that stretched from Mullrose in the south through Seelow and north to Neutrebbin were five regiments of the 23rd Flak Division.

 German Brandenburger commando troops firing at Soviet troops on a bridge over the Oder River with an 8.8 cm Flak anti-aircraft cannon.


German Brandenburger commando troops firing at Soviet troops on a bridge over the Oder River with an 8.8 cm Flak anti-aircraft cannon.

To ensure that the Ninth Army would be able to prevent an armored breakthrough similar to what occurred during the disastrous retreat through Poland, Heinrici devised a complex defense-in-depth strategy for which he received Hitler’s approval. The Germans constructed three defensive positions, each 10 kilometers wide, that served various purposes. Each of the defensive positions contained several lines that offered protection and a rallying point to retreating troops. The purpose of the layered defense was to slowly wear down enemy resources and establish rallying points for counterattacks.

The first position stretching back from the forward edge of the battlefield contained mines, trenches, and antitank ditches. The second position, which was the most heavily fortified of the three, contained more trenches, artillery emplacements on reverse slopes, and interlocking strongpoints. The third position contained more antitank ditches and tank obstacles to thwart enemy armor and prevent an armored breakout. The first and second lines of the second position were known as the Hardenberg-Stellung and Stein-Stellung, respectively. The entire third position was known as the Wotan-Stellung.

To ensure German frontline troops survived the artillery bombardment that typically preceded a major Soviet attack, Heinrici planned to withdraw the men from forward positions the night before the attack and have them wait out the bombardment nearly 10 kilometers behind the front line.

The Soviets Draw Their Plans

Stalin chose April 16 as the start date for Operation Berlin in which Zhukov’s and Konev’s fronts would attack west simultaneously. If everything went well, the Soviet leader hoped to capture Berlin by April 22, Lenin’s birthday. Zhukov, who issued final orders to his front commanders four days before the operation was scheduled to begin, planned to start the battle in the darkness and use 143 searchlights transported from the antiaircraft defenses of Moscow to illuminate lines of advance for the attacking infantry.

The final plan of attack for the First Belorussian Front called for three thrusts toward Berlin. The Eighth Guards and Fifth Shock Armies would make a massive single thrust directly toward the German capital through Seelow Heights, while the Third Shock and Forty-seventh Armies would make two secondary thrusts through the German defenses that paralleled the Alte Oder. The First Belorussian Front’s armored and artillery assets would be consolidated to support the three major attacks. The Soviets positioned nearly 600,000 troops in the Kustrin bridgehead alone. The First Belorussian Front had 3,100 tanks and self-propelled guns and 17,000 artillery pieces.

Reconnaissance-in-Force

The Soviets launched limited attacks from the northern bridgehead opposite Wriezen and the Kustrin bridgehead on April 14. These reconnaissance-in-force attacks were intended to locate German strongpoints and artillery emplacements and also to further expand the two large bridgeheads opposite Wriezen and Kustrin. Although a limited attack against Seelow was repulsed, the 20th Panzergrenadier Division suffered substantial casualties in the fight, and this forced the Germans to bring forward the Muncheberg Panzer Grenadier Division to reinforce that sector of the line. In anticipation of the pending Soviet assault, Hitler issued an order of the day on April 14 to the German soldiers on the Eastern Front exhorting them to stand fast to protect their homes and families from the Bolsheviks.

“Like a Ship in a Force 10 Gale”

The Russian guns opened up at 3 am on April 16. The eastern sky flashed orange as 9,000 artillery pieces blasted the German positions atop Seelow Heights and along the Alte Oder to the north. The force of the Russian guns shook the ground, “like a ship in a force 10 gale,” wrote Friedhelm Schoneck, who was stationed with the 309th “Berlin” Infantry Division about 15 kilometers north of Seelow. A short time before the attack was scheduled to begin, Zhukov joined Chuikov in his bunker halfway up the Reitwein Spur. The two commanders watched the attack unfold from an observation post atop the ridge.

Heinrici expected the attack to occur on April 16 based on interrogations of captured Russian soldiers and had taken the necessary steps to shield the Ninth Army from the full fury of the Russian artillery. For the most part, the German infantry stationed in forward positions had pulled back to the third line of the first position the night before and, therefore, survived the rain of Soviet shells. Afterward, Zhukov was roundly criticized by his fellow generals for sticking to the doctrine of using a lengthy preliminary artillery bombardment.

“As usual, we stuck to the book and by now the Germans know our methods,” said Colonel General Vasili Kuznetsov, commander of the Third Shock Army. “They pulled back their troops a good eight kilometers. Our artillery hit everything but the enemy.”

The Soviets Advance

After 20 minutes, the Russians illuminated the battlefield with their gigantic searchlights. At that point, the Russian artillery switched to a rolling barrage as the infantry rose to their feet and advanced across the floodplain. Further west, throughout the Oderbruch, Soviet heavy bombers and ground attack aircraft pounded German towns and villages that might serve as strongpoints. The bombers managed to destroy an ammunition train with 17,000 artillery shells near Furstenwalde and three 280mm railroad guns stationed on a track behind Seelow. The Soviets flew more than 6,500 sorties against German positions on the first day alone.

A T-34 Soviet tank crossing the Oder River during the Battle of the Seelow Heights, 18 or 19 April 1945.

A T-34 Soviet tank crossing the Oder River during the Battle of the Seelow Heights, 18 or 19 April 1945.

Six armies were assigned to assault German positions north of Reichsstrasse 1, while the other four moved against German forces south of the autobahn. From the expansive Kustrin bridgehead, Col. Gen. Nikolai Berzarin’s Fifth Shock Army advanced on the right, while Chuikov’s Eighth Guards Army advanced on the left. Their opponents were the left and right wings, respectively, of SS General Mathias Kleinheisterkamp’s XI SS Panzer Corps.

The Russian advance was no better than a crawl as the infantry had to negotiate soft ground, large shell craters, and countless dikes that laced the Oderbruch. While the infantry pushed forward with grim determination, Russian tanks advancing in support were bottled up on the few roads that traversed the floodplain. Moving the armor off the roads onto the soft ground was pointless, as the Soviets soon found out. Even the Soviet antitank crews had difficulty pushing their guns forward to support the infantry. As for the searchlights, they illuminated large Soviet infantry formations, providing German artillery crews with easy targets.

Progress on the First Day

On the first day of the fight, the Sixty-first Army and the First Polish Army had to cross the icy waters of the Oder and attempt to establish bridgeheads from which to launch attacks on the German lines. Opposing them were three divisions of the CI Corps led by General Wilhelm Berlin. Two of the German infantry divisions, the 309th and 606th, were composed almost entirely of police, trainees, and officer candidates. However, the 5th Light Division under General Freidrich Sixt contained predominantly veterans. Sixt’s troops held the front together by aggressively counterattacking and containing the Sixty-first Army’s bridgehead.

Meanwhile, the Soviet Forty-seventh Army attacked from the advantage of an established bridgehead opposite Wriezen. Despite the presence of countless water obstacles in that area, the Forty-seventh had advanced nine kilometers from its bridgehead by day’s end. As the fighting heated up on the southern edge of the CI Corps sector, Berlin sent reserve forces Kampfgruppe Nachte and a portion of the 560th SS Tank Hunting Battalion into the fray. When nearly two dozen Russian tanks attempted to breach CI Corps lines near Wriezen, they were turned back by low-silhouetted Hetzer self-propelled tank destroyers.

Just south of Wriezen, the Soviet Third Shock Army also made considerable progress on the first day against the weak 309th Infantry Division, comprising guard and trainee units who would thoroughly exhaust their ammunition in protracted fighting on the first day. As the 309th fell back before the Soviet onslaught of infantry and armor, Hitler gave permission for the crack 25th Panzergrenadier Division, which had been shifted by rail from Alsace in January, to go to its support. After suffering repeated attacks throughout the day on its position in the rear, the 25th pulled back south of Wriezen at dusk to regroup.

From the large bridgehead north of Kustrin, the Fifth Shock Army launched a massive assault on General Bruno Brauer’s 9th Parachute Division, which was attached to Weidling’s LVI Panzer Corps. After a series of counterattacks that achieved little, at midday the parachute troops fell back to a railway embankment, where they were able to temporarily check the enemy advance. After a two-hour firefight in the early afternoon, the Soviets gained the embankment and the fighting spread to the Werbig railway station. Just west of the station, the Germans had parked a train with five flatcars loaded with Tiger tanks that had no fuel for independent action. The immobile tank crews and the flak gunners in the sector knocked out nearly 90 Russian tanks by the end of the day. The Werbig station changed hands several times before the Russians finally gained control of the rubble.

Chuikov’s Slow Advance

The initial objective of Chuikov’s Eighth Guards Army was to clear the Oderbruch in front of Seelow Heights in preparation for an assault on the heights themselves. Backed by six tank and four self-propelled gun regiments, the Russians in that sector faced three German divisions guarding the approaches to the heights. In the center was the heavily armored Muncheberg Panzergrenadier Division commanded by Maj. Gen. Werner Mummert. On the left was the 20th Panzergrenadier Division led by Colonel Georg Scholze, and on the right was the 303rd Doberitz Infantry Division led by Colonel Hans Wolfgang Scheunemann.

To blunt the Soviet armor pointed at Seelow Heights, the Germans were relying on the 1st Battalion of the Muncheberg Panzergrenadier Division, which boasted 31 Panther and Tiger tanks. In addition, the 303rd was strengthened by four artillery batteries, three of which contained dreaded 88mm guns in the tank-killer mode. Although manned by boys younger than regular military age, the crews were supervised by veteran noncommissioned officers. Two self-propelled gun brigades also were ready to assist in blunting the Soviet advance.

From the Reitwein Spur, Zhukov observed the advance with clear disgust. The Russian marshal fumed and paced throughout the day, frequently berating Chuikov for his soldiers’ slow advance. At 3 pm, nearly 12 hours after the Soviet attack, Zhukov phoned Stalin to apprise him of the situation. Stalin rebuked Zhukov for underestimating the strength of the German position at Seelow and chided him that Konev, commanding the First Ukrainian Front, had crossed the Neisse River at daybreak and already advanced 10 kilometers into the German lines. “Things have started more successfully for Konev,” said Stalin.

The news of his rival’s success was a bitter pill for Zhukov to swallow. Eager to breach the German position, Zhukov altered his original plans following the phone call to allow armor from the First Guards Tank Army behind Chuikov’s men and the Second Guards Tank Army behind Berzarin’s men to try to punch a hole in the German lines. In response to the front commander’s orders, the Guards tanks advanced with hatches closed, signaling they did not wish to cooperate with the infantry. Rather than improving the situation, the confusion on the battlefield became even greater as the Guards’ armor forced the infantry’s trucks and artillery off the roads and into the marshland. This not only interrupted communications between coordinated infantry operations but also deprived the infantry of the artillery support necessary to reduce enemy strongpoints.

German soldiers with Panzerfaust anti-tank artillery in foxholes near the Seelow Heights.

German soldiers with Panzerfaust anti-tank artillery in foxholes near the Seelow Heights.

Heavy Casualties on Both Sides

By late afternoon, the Soviets had cleared the German forward positions and reached the outskirts of Seelow, but not without losing as many as 50 tanks to the fearsome Panthers and Tigers. Fighting was particularly heavy on the German right flank where the 303rd fell back in the face of tenacious Soviet attacks. Unsure that his troops could hold the line, Scheunemann requested assistance from the XI Corps reserve. In response, he received immediate support in the form of the 1st Company of the 502nd SS Heavy Tank Battalion, whose Tiger IIs rumbled toward the Dolgelin railway station in the late morning. A fierce tank battle erupted, pitting a half dozen Tigers against three times as many Soviet tanks. The Tigers easily dominated the contest, transforming nearly a dozen T-34 medium tanks into smoldering wrecks.

At dusk the Germans at the base of the Seelow escarpment pulled back onto the heights that were part of the Hardenburg-Stellen. Although the Soviets captured the village from which the heights took its name, they failed to gain the escarpment, the approaches to which were guarded by camouflaged gun emplacements. Before these emplacements could be silenced, the Soviets would need to bring forward their heavy guns. Still, the Soviets estimated that in the Seelow Heights sector alone they had killed 1,800 Germans and captured another 600, which amounted to the loss of half of a division.

Success for the Soviet Sixty-ninth

South of Dolgelin, the Soviet Sixty-ninth Army initially made considerable progress against the XI SS Panzer Corps’ right flank. Although the 169th Division was made up of veteran troops who had served in Scandinavia, the 712th was much weaker as its ranks were filled with military cadets. When the Soviets punched a hole in the XI Corps right flank, Kleinheisterkamp sent the 2nd Company of the 502nd SS Heavy Tank Battalion and a battalion of panzergrenadiers from the Kurmark Panzergrenadier Division to stabilize the line. On the far end of the German Ninth Army’s line, the fighting was much lighter than in the other sectors. The Russian Sixty-ninth and Thirty-third Armies in the southern sector deliberately bypassed the 14,000-strong Frankfurt Fortress, preferring instead to allow it to fall once it was completely surrounded.

In an effort to slow the flow of men and supplies across the Oder once the battle was under way, the Germans flew a small number of suicide attacks using Focke-Wulf Fw-190 fighter planes laden with heavy ordnance against a handful of the 32 makeshift and intact bridges used by the Soviets. In a lucky strike, one of the suicide pilots managed to sever the pontoon bridge at Zellin at dusk. The first day of the battle “was a great defensive success in view of the unequal strength of the two sides,” Busse wrote afterward.

Zhukov’s Blunders

Zhukov’s blunders on the first day were many. Among the most glaring were the useless pre-attack artillery bombardment, the searchlight scheme, and poor armored tactics. Stalin seethed with anger when Zhukov phoned at midnight to inform him that his troops had failed to capture Seelow Heights as planned on the first day. To punish Zhukov for his miscalculation and send a clear message to him to produce better results on the battlefield, Stalin told Zhukov that he was considering rerouting a portion of Konev’s First Ukrainian Front toward Berlin. Zhukov learned shortly afterward that the Soviet leader had carried through on his threat and ordered two of Konev’s tank armies to swing north toward Berlin.

Second Day, More Delay

The second day of the battle dawned with clear skies. Soviet Ilyushin Il-2 Shturmovik aircraft swept down on the German trenches and batteries atop Seelow Heights just after daylight. Following an artillery barrage, the Russians resumed their sluggish advance. Fearful that the Russians would break through the Ninth Army’s line at either Wriezen or Seelow, Hitler ordered the veteran 25th Panzergrenadier and 18th Panzergrenadier Divisions to advance to Wriezen and Seelow, respectively, to buttress frontline forces.

As the day wore on, the 606th Infantry Division began to unravel, a development that threatened the entire northern sector. The 25th Panzergrenadier Division went into action at Wriezen to hold back lead elements of the Forty-seventh Army that sought to capture the key town. Just south of Wriezen, at Bliesdorf, the 560th SS Tank Hunting Company, which had three dozen Hetzers, helped blunt the Soviet advance by knocking out large numbers of Russian tanks.

The advance of the Third Shock Army south of Wriezen was delayed considerably when Soviet engineers had to erect structures for tanks and vehicles to cross the Friedlander Strom Canal. Worse for the Soviets, two battalions of the 119th Panzergrenadier Regiment together with Luftwaffe trainees from the 309th Infantry Division backed by 10 Hetzers fought desperately to delay the Soviet advance from fortified positions in the village of Neutrebbin on the east bank of the Alte Oder to the southeast of Wriezen. Using panzerfausts and Hetzers, the Germans at Neutrebbin racked up a large number of tank kills throughout the day. The two sides fought face-to-face as opposing infantry fired on each other from parallel trenches at close range.

“We held on to Neutrebbin with our wild mob until the morning. Ivan was not able to advance a single step,” wrote Schoneck of the 309th Division. The fighting continued throughout the night, and some German units fought to the last man. Those that survived withdrew before dawn to Kundersdorf west of the canal.

Less than 100 miles east of Berlin, Soviet tanks race through a breach in the German lines. Infantrymen often rode atop the tanks to advance more rapidly and provide support for the armor during combat.

Less than 100 miles east of Berlin, Soviet tanks race through a breach in the German lines. Infantrymen often rode atop the tanks to advance more rapidly and provide support for the armor during combat.

The Soviets Make Gains at Seelow

At the headwaters of the Alte Oder, the massive weight of the Fifth Shock Army backed by the Second Guards Tank Army forced the 9th Parachute Division to give considerable ground. The 25th and 26th Parachute Regiments clung to the villages of Neuhardenberg and Platkow but were outflanked by large formations of Soviet infantry advancing into the upland forest at Neuhardenberg. The parachute troops fell back to the fortifications of the Stein-Stellung. The fighting took its toll on the Luftwaffe support troops who had little or no formal combat training, and many formations lost the little cohesion they had in the face of the veteran Soviet forces. To the south of Neuhardenberg, two regiments from the 18th Panzergrenadiers advanced to plug the gap, taking up positions around Wulkow before the Russians could exploit their advantage.

In the Seelow sector, the Soviets launched concentrated artillery barrages on April 17 at dawn and again at 9 am to soften enemy positions. Chuikov’s 4th Guards Rifle Corps pushed with determination toward the village of Gusow on the left flank of Seelow Heights. Soviet riflemen, backed by armor, overwhelmed the inexperienced parachute regiments and worked their way behind the 90th Panzergrenadier Regiment of the crack 20th Panzergrenadier Division, forcing it to fall back. The panzergrenadiers found protection in a forest where 88mm guns held the Russian armor at bay into the afternoon.

To their immediate south, Chuikov’s 29th Guards Rifle Corps, well supported by the 11th Tank Corps of Col. Gen. M.I. Katukov’s First Guards Tank Army, gained the Seelow escarpment and drove the Germans out of the Hardenberg-Stellen. By nightfall the Russians had not only secured Seelow at the base of the escarpment but had also seized the village of Dierdorsdorf six kilometers west of it.

The XI SS Panzer Corps Holds

By noon on the second day, the battle directly south of Seelow had escalated considerably as the 258th Guards Rifle Corps tried to dislodge German units of the XI SS Panzer Corps from Dolgelin, which constituted the right flank of Seelow Heights. Although the remnants of the 303rd Infantry and Kurmark Panzergrenadier Divisions found themselves outflanked to the north, they stubbornly refused to withdraw, preferring instead to establish a front to the north and also to the east.

In an attempt to neutralize the Tiger tanks stationed around the village, the Soviets unleashed ferocious Katyusha rocket attacks on the steel monsters. Wave after wave of Russian infantry swept forward, but the Germans shifted four Panzer IV Wirbelwinds, each equipped with four 20mm antiaircraft guns, to mow down the advancing enemy riflemen. In response, the Soviets unleashed another 45-minute artillery barrage on Dolgelin at around 3 pm and ordered air strikes on the German positions. Still, the tenacious defenders at Dolgelin managed to hold out until nightfall, subsequently withdrawing to the west.

 

Farther south, the 69th Army made little headway against the right flank of the XI SS Panzer Corps largely because Zhukov had ordered its artillery shifted north to support the advance of Chuikov’s troops. The 561st SS Tank Hunting Battalion, which had 16 Hetzers, launched determined counterattacks in an attempt to keep the Soviets from making substantial gains. The threat in the southern sector was so minimal as to allow half of SS Colonel Hans Kempin’s 32nd SS January 30 Panzergrenadier Division to redeploy north to assist the hard-pressed XI SS Panzer Corps.

Heinrici Receives Reinforcements

Heinrici had hoped to use the 18th and 25th Panzergrenadier Divisions as a concentrated counterattack force, but Hitler had undermined that effort by dispatching them to separate sectors. At the end of the day, Heinrici and his staff reviewed the situation, concluding that their chances for halting the Soviets were very thin. With the Ninth Army’s forces on the left flank and center having fallen back to the Stein-Stellung and suffering substantial attrition by the end of the second day, Busse pleaded for additional reinforcements from Army Group Vistula’s reserves.

In response, Hitler allowed some elements of General Fritz Steiner’s III Panzer Corps stationed on the lower Oder to redeploy behind Ninth Army. The 11th SS “Nordland” and 23rd SS “Nederland” Panzergrenadier Divisions would reinforce the left flank and center of 9th Army. Those regiments of Nordland and Nederland that had sufficient fuel to make the trip started south after midnight.

The armored assets of the Nordland Division would make a substantial difference when they arrived on the battlefield the next day. Nordland’s 11th SS Panzer Battalion consisted of a mix of Panzer IVs and Sturmgeschutz III self-propelled artillery, and the attached 503rd SS Heavy Tank Battalion boasted nearly a dozen Tigers and more than a half dozen Panzer IVs outfitted with flak guns. More aerial suicide attacks on the Oder crossings at the end of the second day resulted in heavy damage at Kustrin to two railway bridges that the Russians were repairing in the hope of eventually moving supplies and equipment across the river by rail.

Casualties of the Second

As night descended on the battlefield on April 17, the Germans faced crises in the center and northern sectors. The collapse of the 606th Infantry near Wriezen prompted the Germans to reinforce that sector, but to the south an ominous situation developed as General Bruno Brauer’s 9th Parachute Division on XI Corps’ left flank was decimated by the Fifth Shock and Second Guards Tank Armies. The German death toll continued to climb precipitously on the second day with the Soviets claiming to have killed 3,200 Germans in the Seelow sector alone. The scene of heavy fighting the second day, Wriezen was engulfed in a firestorm on the night of April 17 as a result of shelling and airstrikes.

Soviet Frustration on the Third Day

When the sun rose over the charred and cratered landscape on the third day, the Soviets still had not completely secured Seelow Heights, an objective they had hoped to secure the first day. Furious at the stout German resistance, Zhukov ordered officers at all echelons of command to survey their positions from the front line and advance their artillery as far forward as possible before resuming the attack. Following a preparatory artillery bombardment and aerial ground strikes that caught some of the Nordland Division’s troops moving up to the front, the Soviets resumed their attacks along the entire length of the battle line.

Throughout the third day Lt. Gen. Arnold Burmeister’s 25th Panzergrenadier Division, reinforced by the 118th Panzergrenadier Regiment from the 18th Panzergrenadier Division, held the north-south axis between Wriezen and Kunersdorf against three rifle corps of Lt. Gen. F.I. Perkhorovich’s Forty-seventh Army. Supporting the drive on Wriezen was Kuznetsov’s Third Shock Army, which had altered its angle of advance to the northwest in an effort to capture Kunersdorf.

Lending weight to the German resistance were more than two dozen Panthers belonging to Burmeister’s 5th Panzer Battalion and as many as three dozen Hetzers belonging to the 560th SS Tank Hunting Battalion. Burmeister’s forces turned in a solid performance that day, but the troops were forced to withdraw several kilometers west at nightfall to a new position at Ludersdorf because of the success of the Fifth Shock Army in overrunning Brauer’s parachute troops defending the left flank of Seelow Heights.

“Today is a Moment of Crisis”

At noon on April 18, Heinrici received a phone call from Busse. “Today is the moment of crisis,” Busse said. The Russians had breached the German line in several places, he explained, notably in the gap between LVI Corps and XI Corps south of Neuhardenberg and also on Seelow Heights. Lead elements of the Fifth Shock Army backed by units of the Second Guards Tank Army had advanced unopposed onto the ridgeline west of the Oderbruch after Brauer’s parachute troops withdrew without orders from their positions that morning. Soviet tank columns were at that time advancing west toward Muncheberg.

Busse’s call prompted Heinrici to phone Hitler and request additional reinforcements. The only remaining troops left in Berlin were several Volkssturm units. They would march the next day to the assistance of Weidling’s LVI Corps.

As Soviet units exploited the Seelow breach, German units still holding firm found the enemy had gotten behind them. As the parachute troops fled west through a forested belt, they eventually ran into the 11th SS Panzer Regiment of the Nordland Division, which had arrived at Reichenberg at midday.

Soviet Armor meets Resilient Panzers

After conferring with officers of the retreating 9th Parachute, Lt. Gen. Paul Kausch issued an order for teams of Tigers paired with tank-killing Sturmgeschutz IIIs to take up ambush positions and lie in wait for Russian armor to appear. The ensuing shootout between the 11th SS Panzer Battalion and the 503rd SS Heavy Tank Battalion against the Fifth Shock and Second Guards Tank Armies in the vicinity of Reichenberg resulted in the destruction of at least 50 Russian tanks that afternoon.

Also checking the Soviet advance in the Neuhardenberg gap was the 23rd SS “Norge” Panzergrenadier Regiment, another Nordland unit. While trying to deploy at Buckow, the Norge soldiers came under intense bombardment and were quickly outflanked by the advancing Soviets. Nearby, the 27th Parachute Regiment attempted to reform at Wulkow but Soviet artillery thwarted the effort. Survivors of the 27th Parachute and the 18th Panzergrenadier Division withdrew to Hermersdorf, a key crossroads situated in the Wotan-Stellung.

Upon the collapse of the 9th Parachute Division, Brauer had quite unrealistically asked permission to stand down the unit for 24 hours. When Göring learned of the request, he was furious. Göring phoned Heinrici shortly after 4 pm and ordered Brauer relieved of duty.

Fortunately for the Germans, the 1st Battalion of the Muncheberg Panzer Regiment had been rearming away from the front lines and returned to the outskirts of Trebnitz several miles south of Hermersdorf, where it took up a defensive position behind a railway. From there, the battalion’s Panthers and Tigers knocked out several dozen Soviet tanks moving west from Seelow Heights. Southwest of Trebnitz, the 20th and Kurmark Panzergrenadier Divisions also were in retreat. Helping to stabilize the situation, Tigers from the 502nd SS Heavy Tank Battalion and Panthers from the Kurmark Division’s Brandenburg Panzer Regiment destroyed large numbers of Soviet tanks advancing from Dierdorsdorf.

Following their repulse of a German counterattack, Soviet infantrymen and tanks pursue the retreating enemy toward their capital in March 1945. Berlin fell to the Red Army weeks later.

Following their repulse of a German counterattack, Soviet infantrymen and tanks pursue the retreating enemy toward their capital in March 1945. Berlin fell to the Red Army weeks later.

German Forces Fall Back

The sheer weight of the 8th Guards armor and infantry on the afternoon on April 18 steadily pushed back German forces in the Seelow sector. Before the end of the day, the Germans would lose a half dozen key villages north and east of Muncheberg. Despite being outflanked on both sides, the 2nd Battalion of the Kurmark Panzergrenadier Regiment continued to hold onto the village of Dolgelin against overwhelming odds throughout April 18. The regiment finally withdrew at midnight for fear of being encircled. To the south, Germans defending the line between Dolgelin and Frankfurt gave up little ground despite increased pressure.

If the third day of battle was the critical day for the Ninth Army, then the fourth day was one of reckoning. On April 19, the Soviet Third and Fifth Shock Armies supported by the Second Guards Tank Army exploited the northern breach south of Wriezen. The unraveling of the Ninth Army’s line compelled Heinrici to shift his headquarters north where it would be better protected by the Third Panzer Army.

The 5th Light Division had fallen back to the Wotan-Stellung where it managed to hold out for most of the day. Unable to check the Soviet advance to its south, the 5th Light watched helplessly as large numbers of T-34s rumbled unopposed through the Wriezen breach and fanned out behind German lines. The 5th Light Division and CI Corps headquarters would withdraw during the course of the day toward Ebers- walde on the Hohenzollern Canal, while the remainder of CI Corps fell back toward Bernau near the Berlin autobahn.

A chaotic situation developed as disrupted German units from the CI and LVI Corps retreated west. Having abandoned their radios, many units lost contact as each focused on its survival. West of Wriezen, the survivors of the 25th Panzergrenadier Division backed by Hetzers fought a rearguard action against the full weight of the Soviet Forty-seventh Army as they retreated into the forest west of Ludersdorf. Survivors of Weidling’s LVI Corps fleeing from the Third Shock and Second Guards Tank Armies made a stand at Batzlow, and with the help of Volkssturm and Hitler Youth reinforcements they held on throughout the afternoon against determined enemy attacks. Most of the flak regiments in the Wriezen and Seelow sectors were overrun by the Soviets.

Without the presence of the 11th SS Nordland Panzergrenadier Division to fight a delaying action, the entire left flank of the Ninth Army would have completely disintegrated on April 19. With their morale intact, units of the Nordland Division engaged the Soviets and rallied retreating troops. However, their wide dispersal made it impossible for them to launch a concerted counterattack, much to Weidling’s disappointment.

When units of Third Shock Army swept past Batzlow to the north, the Nordland’s engineer and flak battalions, which were backed by Panzer IVs and Hetzers, engaged the advancing Russians near Herzhorn. As a result, a heated battle dragged on into the afternoon. Likewise, the Norge panzergrenadiers fought tenaciously against armor and infantry of the Fifth Shock Army at Pritzhagen.

Near the key crossroads of Buckow, the 24th SS “Danmark” Panzergrenadier Regiment, bolstered by a contingent of Hitler Youth committed to battle by Axeman without Weidling‘s approval, took refuge from Soviet air strikes in the Pritzhagen Forest while the 11th SS Armored Reconnaissance Battalion rounded up retreating survivors of the 9th Parachute and Volkssturm reinforcements in an effort to temporarily check the Soviet advance.

The Soviet T-34 tank crews remained at a safe distance and fired rounds into Pritzhagen Forest, which brought treetops and deadly splinters cascading down on entrenched Germans. A great fire broke out in the forest, and many German soldiers were burned alive. Those who survived escaped west along forest roads and paths where they regrouped after nightfall in Strausberg.

Steady Soviet Progress on the Fourth Day

The Soviet Eighth Guards and First Guards Tank armies set out from Dierdersdorf to seize Muncheberg on the morning of the fourth day. Unbeknownst to Chuikov, the 48th SS Panzergrenadier Regiment of the 23rd SS Nederland Division, along with the divisional headquarters, had arrived during the night in the German center. By mid-morning, the Soviets had closed to within two kilometers of Muncheberg and severed communications between the German LVI and XI Corps.

Even so, the Guards Eighth rapid advance along Reichsstrasse 1 had left its left flank exposed as XI Corps forces still controlled a large swath of territory south of the highway. Taking advantage of the opportunity, the Nederland Panzergrenadiers counterattacked Russian forces near Marxdorf, seizing the high ground north of the town and recapturing flak guns lost to the Soviets the day before. However, the regiment soon found itself outflanked and withdrew west.

At 5 pm on April 19, the Russians attacked Muncheberg. Rather than launching a frontal assault through the antitank ditches of the Wotan-Stellung, the Russians sent small groups of infantry to outflank the Germans occupying the town. When the Germans in Muncheberg discovered substantial enemy forces behind them, they withdrew west toward Rudersdorf at 6 pm to avoid being encircled.

As the 9th Army’s left flank and center were swept away by the Soviet juggernaut, the right flank anchored by the stalwart Kurmark Panzergrenadier Regiment supported by 88mm guns continued to fight off Soviet attempts to dislodge it from the section of the Stein-Stellung between Marxsdorf and Dolgelin. Making a front to the north and also to the east, the panzergrenadiers covered the withdrawal of remnants of XI Corps units to the south. After nightfall, Kurmark’s 2nd Battalion destroyed its vehicles and withdrew to the safety of the 169th Division lines a few kilometers south at Libbenichen. As for the V SS Mountain Corps, it held steady against the Soviet Thirty-third Army.

At the Gates of Berlin

Soviet forces were poised to strike at Berlin from three sides on April 20, following the four-day battle along the Oder. The Russians had paid a heavy price in men and armor for underestimating the strength of the German position west of the Oder. Soviet losses in the battle were 33,000 men and 740 tanks. The Germans lost 12,000 men and most of their armor and artillery.

On April 20, the Second Guards Tank and Third Shock Armies captured Bernau just outside the Berlin autobahn and prepared to fight their way into Berlin from the north. The Fifth Shock Army prepared to advance into the city along Reichsstrasse 1, and the Eighth Guards and First Tank Armies were ordered to cross the Spree River to strike into the city from the southeast. As for the Sixty-ninth and Third Armies, they were instructed to pursue and destroy the largest remnant of the Ninth Army in the Spree Forest. By that time, Konev’s Third and Fourth Guards Tank Armies had closed to within striking distance of the Wehrmacht high command’s headquarters at Zossen. Also on April 20, Rokossovsky’s Second Belorussian Front attacked General Hasso von Manteuffel’s Third Panzer Army on the lower Oder.

A low-level aerial view of Berlin taken four months after the war gives an idea of the total devastation. The building with the tower (left) is the Rotes Rathaus (Red City Hall).

A low-level aerial view of Berlin taken four months after the war gives an idea of the total devastation. The building with the tower (left) is the Rotes Rathaus (Red City Hall).

On April 23, Hitler appointed Weidling to oversee the defense of Berlin. Most Ninth Army commanders were not interested in staying to defend Berlin, but rather focused on how to get their troops to the Elbe where they might surrender to the Americans and British. The armored brigade of the 20th Panzergrenadier Division had managed to fight its way alone to the Elbe immediately after the battle. The 5th Light Infantry and 25th Panzergrenadier Divisions, having previously joined forces with the Third Panzer Army, also were able to successfully withdraw to the Elbe where they surrendered to the Western Allies. The 11th SS Nordland and the bulk of the 20th Panzergrenadier Division tried to break out of the Berlin encirclement separately but were surrounded and compelled to surrender.

Busse stayed in the field with survivors of the XI SS Panzer Corps, V SS Mountains Corps, Nederland Division, and V Corps, which had been cut off from Army Group Center by Konev’s advancing forces. Konev’s and Zhukov’s fronts had linked up behind Busse’s army on April 24, trapping it in the Spree Forest southeast of the capital. The forces trapped in the Spree pocket began moving west on April 26 along forest roads in an attempt to link up with General Walther Wenck’s Twelfth Army, which had marched from the Elbe to Potsdam in an unsuccessful attempt to relieve Berlin.

To facilitate the breakout, Wenck agreed to attack east in an attempt to open a corridor for the Ninth Army through Soviet lines. In heavy fighting on April 28, the Ninth Army rear guard was cut off from the main body and annihilated. About 40,000 survivors of the Spree pocket managed to join Twelfth Army and continue west, where both armies surrendered to the Americans on May 1, the day after Hitler committed suicide.

Aftermath

Although the defeat of the outnumbered Ninth Army along the Oder was inevitable, Busse’s entrenched forces exacted heavy losses on the Soviets. Zhukov severely miscalculated the strength of the Seelow Heights position and paid a heavy price in men and equipment to open the most direct road to Berlin. The demanding timetable that Stalin set for the capture of Berlin, and the Soviet leader’s decision to fuel the rivalry between Konev and Zhukov, led the latter to make rash tactical decisions in the opening hours of the battle.

In contrast, Heinrici’s inspired defensive strategy exacted a substantial toll on the enemy and imbued the Ninth Army with a fighting spirit that allowed it to hold steady for a short time against overwhelming odds. Although a clear defeat for the Third Reich, the Battle of Seelow Heights showed that the fighting élan of the German soldier had not been completely extinguished as the fire of Nazism was died down in the belly of the Third Reich.

Originally Published September 2010

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