In May 1945, as the triumphant Red Army crushed the last pockets of German resistance in central Berlin, French soldiers fought back. They were the last surviving members of SS , the Waffen SS division made up of French volunteers. They were among the final defenders of the city and of Hitler’s bunker.
Their extraordinary story gives a compelling insight into the dreadful climax of the Battle for Berlin and into the conflicts of loyalty faced by the French in the Second World War. Yet, whatever their motivation, the performance of these soldiers as they confronted the Soviet onslaught was unwavering, and their fate after the German defeat was grim. Once captured, they were shot out of hand by their French compatriots or imprisoned.
In the final months of the Second World War in 1945, the German Army was in full retreat on both its Western and Eastern Fronts. British and American troops were poised to cross the River Rhine in the west, while in the East the vast Soviet war machine was steam-rolling the soldiers of the Third Reich back towards the capital, Berlin. Even in retreat, the German Army was still a force to be reckoned with and vigorously defended every last bridge, castle, town and village against the massive Russian onslaught.
Tony Le Tissier has interviewed a wide range of former German Army and SS soldiers to provide ten vivid first-hand accounts of the fighting retreat that, for one soldier, ended in Hitler’s Chancellery building in the ruins of Berlin in April 1945. The dramatic descriptions of combat are contrasted with insights into the human dimensions of these desperate battles, reminding the reader that many of the German soldiers whose stories we read shared similar values to the average British ‘Tommy’ or the American GI and were not all crazed Nazis.
Illustrated with photographs of the main characters and specially commissioned maps identifying the location and course of the battles, is a fascinating read for anyone who is interested in the final days of the Second World War.
How did top Red Army commanders see the assault on Berlin in 1945 – what was their experience of the last, terrible battle of the Second World War in Europe? Personal accounts by the most famous generals involved – Zhukov, Koniev and Chuikov – have been published in English, but the recollections of their principal subordinates haven’t been available in the west before, and it is their role in the final Soviet offensive that is the focus of Tony Le Tissier’s fascinating book. These were the officers who were responsible for the execution of the Red Army’s plan for the assault, in immediate touch with the troops on the front line of the advance. They saw most clearly where the operation succeeded and where it failed. Their recollections, publication of which was long banned in the Soviet Union, throw a new light on the course of battle and on the inner workings of the Red Army command in the final phase of the conflict.
The unexpected arrival of Soviet troops at the end of January 1945 at the ancient fortress and garrison town of Küstrin came as a tremendous shock to the German High Command—the Soviets were now only 50 miles from Berlin itself. The Red Army needed the vital road and rail bridges passing through Küstrin for their forthcoming assault on the capital, but flooding and their own high command’s strategic blunders resulted in a sixty-day siege by two Soviet armies which totally destroyed the town. The delay in the Soviet advance also gave the Germans time to consolidate the defenses shielding Berlin west of the Oder River. Despite Hitler’s orders to fight on to the last bullet, the Küstrin garrison commander and 1,000 of the defenders managed a dramatic breakout to the German lines.
Operation Berlin, the Soviet offensive launched on 16 April, 1945, by Marshals Zhukov and Koniev, isolated the German Ninth Army and tens of thousands of refugees in the Spreewald ‘pocket’, south-east of Berlin. Stalin ordered its encirclement and destruction and his subordinates, eager to win the race to the Reichstag, pushed General Busse’s 9th Army into a tiny area east of the village of Halbe. To escape the Spreewald pocket, the remains of 9th Army had to pass through Halbe, where barricades constructed by both sides formed formidable obstacles and the converging Soviet forces subjected the area to heavy artillery fire. By the time 9th Army eventually escaped the Soviet pincers, it had suffered 40,000 killed and 60,000 taken prisoner. Teenaged refugees recount their experiences alongside Wehrmacht and Waffen-SS veterans attempting to maintain military discipline amid the chaos and carnage of headlong retreat. While army commanders strive to extricate their decimated units, demoralised soldiers change into civilian clothing and take to the woods.
Relating the story day by day, Tony Le Tissier shows the impact of total war upon soldier and civilian alike, illuminating the unfolding of great and terrible events with the recollections of participants.