by Ed McCaul, World War II magazine
Berlin was a stout place for a fight. It was large, modern and well-planned, which had allowed it to remain less damaged than other German cities, even though it had been heavily bombed. Still, by 1945, approximately 25 percent of Berlin had been destroyed by air raids, but its essential services had never been overwhelmed. Because of its sturdy construction, a great effort would be required to capture the capital city.
The same factors that made Berlin so bomb-resistant also helped it resist ground attack. Throughout the city, large apartment buildings stood on strong, deep cellars. Wide boulevards and avenues at regular intervals served as firebreaks and would also serve as killing zones against Soviet tanks and infantry. Natural obstacles within the city made it even more defensible. The Spree River cut from the northwest part of the city through its center to the southeast. Berlin’s southern approaches were guarded by the Teltow Canal. The center of the city, the heart of the capital, lay in a ‘V’ surrounded by the Spree River and the Landwehr Canal.
Many of the city’s defenders were fighting for survival in the hope that they could delay the Soviets long enough for the Western armies to occupy more of Germany and, hopefully, Berlin. That was a hope that would never be realized, however. Berlin was defended by the LVI Panzer Corps under General Karl Weidling. At the start of the Soviet offensive, the LVI Panzer Corps was still not fully manned and consisted of only two divisions, the recently formed Muncheberg Division and the 20th SS Panzer Division, whose strength had been severely depleted during futile counterattacks at Kustrin. Eventually, the corps would consist of five divisions. When it fell back into Berlin, it lost contact with one division, so the last battle was fought with four divisions, as well as those forces already in the city–a total of 60,000 men and 50 to 60 tanks.
The Soviet armies were well-trained and well-equipped. Their plan was to surround and capture the city on the sixth day of the offensive. By the 11th day, the Red Army was at the Elbe River. Contrary to the Soviet plan, Berlin did not surrender until May 2, a full 17 days after the offensive began. The American and Soviet troops first met on April 25 at the Elbe River, 10 days after the offensive began.
While it is difficult to say exactly how many Soviet soldiers actually participated in the assault on Berlin, the Berlin Medal was awarded to nearly 1,082,000 troops. That means the Soviet forces had more than 10 times the men the Germans had during the fight for the city itself. Even so, it took the Red Army from April 21, when it first reached the city, until May 2 to capture Berlin–a total of 12 days.
The length of time required to capture the city can be explained by the desperate German resistance, the difficulties involved in street combat and the Soviet soldiers’ knowledge that the war was all but over. Soldiers have no desire to die, and it is difficult to motivate them to take extra chances if they feel that their deaths would be meaningless. The Soviet soldier had nothing to gain or prove by dying for the motherland so late in the war. Even so, losses among the three Red Army fronts involved in the operation from April 16 to May 8 totaled more than 300,000 men–over 10 percent of their total strength.
One German soldier who fought during the battle for Berlin was Siegfried Knappe. At the time of the battle, he was a major and the operations officer of the LVI Panzer Corps. Knappe, along with Ted Brusaw, has recently written Soldat, a book on his experiences in the German army from 1936 to 1949.
WWII: How were the defenses of Berlin laid out?
Knappe: The defenses of the city consisted of three rings with nine sectors. The outer ring was about 60 miles in circumference and ran around the outskirts of the city. It mainly consisted of partially dug trenches and hastily emplaced roadblocks. The middle ring was about 25 miles in circumference and made use of already existing obstacles such as the S-Bahn [surface railway] and solidly built houses. The inner ring was the center of the city and consisted of massive government buildings. In addition, there were six bombproof flak towers. Eight of the sectors, labeled A through H, radiated in a pie shape through all three defensive rings. The ninth, Z, was located in the center of the city. Sector Z had its own defensive force consisting of Hitler’s SS guard units. Beyond the flak units there were no regular army units to speak of in Berlin until we arrived.
WWII: How many experienced soldiers did you have in the LVI Corps?
Knappe: I have a report here that gives a good answer to that question. It says that the fighting power when we had all five divisions was the equivalent of two divisions.
WWII: How many men would that be?
Knappe: About 40,000 men if both divisions had their full peacetime complement. The report also says that other units in Berlin were the equivalent of two to three divisions and that the Waffen SS was the equivalent of half a division. All together it says about four to five divisions consisting of 60,000 men with 50 to 60 tanks.
WWII: How good were the other units?
Knappe: Their fighting ability was limited. Some were Volkssturm [Home Guard] and Hitler Youth, and their equipment was very limited. Others, such as the anti-aircraft units, were limited in their mobility. They all tried but were not trained or equipped for infantry fighting. The Russians say in their literature [that we had] 180,000 men.
WWII: That would make it seem like a bigger victory.
Knappe: Yes. They may have come up with that number by taking the number of divisions and using their peacetime complement. But we were not even close to that.
WWII: Did you ever think that you had a chance to win the battle?
Knappe: No. It was clear from the beginning that we had no chance. We were only delaying until the Western powers could get to Berlin.
WWII: Did you ever talk among yourselves and say, ‘We can hold the Russians for a week,’ or some other time period?
Knappe: No, we didn’t put anything in time limits like that. We knew that we could hold out long enough for the Western powers to get to Berlin.
WWII: How did you, as a major, become a corps operations officer? In addition, you mention that the 20th Division was commanded by a colonel, but that is normally a major general’s position. Was that fairly normal during that time of the war–to have a much lower ranking officer in those positions?
Knappe: Yes, during that time of the war crazy things were happening. As I mention in my book, I almost became the commander of a division as a major!
WWII: In Berlin, how did you communicate with and control the troops?
Knappe: We started out with the Berlin civilian telephone system. As quickly as we could, we got our own net, but we did not have all of the communications equipment that we needed. So, we were glad to have the civilian telephone system available.
WWII: How much control did you really have over the troops?
Knappe: We had good control over the troops in Berlin. We lost control over the 20th during the fierce fighting outside of the city, just like the Ninth Army lost control over us. We just didn’t have all of the wireless that we should have had. All of our communications was with makeshift stuff, but we still could manage.
WWII: During World War II, the German army had a lot of ad hoc units. The Muncheberg Division was one of those, and they seemed to have done a very good job from the Seelow Heights, when they first entered combat, until the very end in Berlin. How was the German army able to do that?
Knappe: It was our training. There were still enough well-trained officers and noncommissioned officers that it could work, even at the end of the war. All of them had gone through the same training.
WWII: How could they develop unit cohesion when they were thrown together and then almost immediately sent into combat?
Knappe: That was a function of the officers and noncommissioned officers. Until Stalingrad we didn’t have to do that, but after it became a regular occurrence with all of the losses and retreats. Everyone knew that if they kept together and fought together they could evade captivity or being killed.
WWII: How was the Muncheberg Division formed? Did they take individual soldiers or did they try to keep them in groups?
Knappe: Everyone knew that there would be a big fight for Berlin, and the home units got orders to send everybody to the city of Muncheberg, which is where the name came from. The general staff decided what would be needed to start a new division there. The materiel, artillery, communication equipment and anything else that would be needed was identified and arranged to be sent to Muncheberg. A division staff had already been appointed, and they were there to receive the equipment. So, when the men arrived, the equipment was organized and waiting for them. I did this in France when the Sixth Army was lost at Stalingrad. I went to France, and the people that I needed of all ranks came for a battalion of artillery plus 250 horses and the guns.
WWII: You mention in your book that the Soviets lost an opportunity to seize Berlin sooner than they actually did. Could you expand on that?
Knappe: The time that I was talking about, when they could have had Berlin much earlier than they did, was after the initial breakthroughs in our outer defenses. There was a period of time where our defenses looked like a dumbbell. One end was circling the [Adolf Hitler’s] bunker and one end was circling the Olympic Stadium, which included the Pichelsdorf Bridge, where we were going to break out from, with a very long, narrow strip between the two on either side of Heerstrasse. They could have very easily attacked the bunker area by driving east, straight down Heerstrasse. In fact, they had individual tanks crossing Heerstrasse all the time. We were able to keep in contact with the units around the Olympic Stadium by the subway tunnel that ran under Heerstrasse. Every time I updated the situation map I always wondered why they didn’t realize what they could do. We just didn’t have enough troops to defend everywhere. The Russians just kept attacking where we were the strongest. They kept trying to get to the center of the city by the shortest way when the longer way would have been a lot easier.
WWII: You went into Hitler’s bunker a number of times during the battle. Initially, the guards took away your pistol, but toward the end they stopped searching you and you were able to take your pistol in. You say in your book that you had the opportunity to shoot Hitler, and while you thought about it you decided not to. Could you elaborate on that?
Knappe: If I had shot him it would not have changed anything because the fighting was all but over.
WWII: After all of those years of Hitler being Fuhrer, what caused you to change your mind about him? Did the change occur in a day or two, or was it something that you had been thinking about for some time?
Knappe: It was not a sudden change. It was something that had started right after Stalingrad. It was not just me but a general feeling among the front-line officers. We could see what was really happening.
WWII: What made you think about killing Hitler when the opportunity was presented?
Knappe: Probably his statement to General Weidling when Weidling was asking him for permission to break out and for him to go with us. General Weidling told me that Hitler had said that he did not want to die in the street like a ‘Landstreicher.’ Landstreicher does not have an exact translation into English, that is why my book uses the word ‘dog,’ but a Landstreicher is someone like a hobo or panhandler. Both of us had seen hundreds of German soldiers die in the streets during the war, and now Hitler was saying that he did not want to die like they died. My brother died from his wounds that he received in Russia. So, both of us were very upset by Hitler’s use of this word. It was just such an unbelievable comment, especially to make that type of comment to a soldier. It wasn’t until this time that I finally began to realize what sort of man we had been fighting for.
WWII: So, it was that one statement?
Knappe: Yes. I just had this impulse to shoot him. I wasn’t worried about being executed afterwards, for I thought that I was a dead man anyway. We had recaptured some places from the Russians during the war and whenever we did, we almost always found that the German officers had been executed. So, I thought that the Russians would execute me after I was captured. Unconsciously, I realized that I couldn’t afford to make Hitler into a martyr. This would have created another Dolchstosslegende or’stabbed-in-the-back legend.’ [Joseph] Goebbels [Hitler’s propaganda chief] would have made the most out of it. I’m sure that he probably would have said that if the Fhrer had not been killed by a general staff officer he would have found some way to save the German people.
WWII: You mention in your book that you ate in the bunker when everyone was eating their last meal, before they were going to try to break out, and that you sat at the same table as Martin Bormann, Hitler’s personal secretary. There have been stories for years that Bormann survived the war and has been seen. What do you think happened to him?
Knappe: He is dead. He was fat and untrained. If you are in a battle situation you have to be trained. You need to know what to do when someone is shooting at you. He would not have known what to do when the shooting started. I am sure that he was shot somewhere in the city. There have been several reports from people in that group that he was shot after crossing a bridge. But of course no one in the group checked on him. Everyone was just interested in themselves, and besides, no one had any love for him anyway.
WWII: You were the one who typed the order from General Weidling directing any German soldiers who were still fighting to stop after the surrender?
Knappe: That’s correct. A Russian writer, Ilya Ehrenburg, incorrectly reported that a blond female secretary typed the order. I was blond at the time, but that was the only similarity. [Ilya Ehrenburg was one of the Soviet Union’s top propagandists during the war.]
WWII: After the surrender, you went into a prison camp in Berlin and were transferred to a prison camp in Russia for five years?
Knappe: That’s correct, but that’s another story.