Red Army Assault at Seelow Heights – Sidebar: May ’99 World War II Feature

8/19/1999 • World War II

Savage Fighting on Berlin’s Outskirts

The Soviet drive into the German Reich was a strange and unlikely success story. The main thrust was stalled at Breslau, where the Silesian capital held out until Berlin capitulated, tying up several Red Army divisions that would have been free to assist in the drive on Berlin. Without these units, Marshal Georgi Zhukov had no choice but to dispatch Marshal Ivan Konev to the Seelow Heights. This would provide a secure left flank for Zhukov’s effort and place the Red Army in a strategically advantageous position. Konev, should the situation dictate, would be able to drive on Berlin as a relief element or shift to the south should assistance be needed in the attacks into Czechoslovakia.

Stalin, already livid at the failure to subdue Breslau, would hear no excuse from Zhukov about his progress toward Berlin. The diversion in the Kurland, where 300,000 men were bottled up with their backs to the Baltic, had been time-consuming. Those German forces continued to fight, remaining a very real threat to Zhukov’s rear. The two problem areas created a logistical nightmare, and later battles were no doubt influenced by those holdups.

Seelow was to become an obscure battle, with the attention instead going to Breslau, Kurland and the Berlin struggle. However, to the men who fought there on both sides, it was some of the most savage fighting many of the hardened veterans had ever seen. For the Soviets it was do or die, literally. They had unyielding orders, and many Red Army soldiers were in fact shot for not showing proper enthusiasm.

For the Germans, the Battle of Seelow Heights was their death knell. Konev, for his failure to dislodge the German defenders in a timely manner, would fall into obscurity after the war. Many would blame him for the delay in helping Zhukov. Most of the charges against Konev were no doubt fomented in Zhukov’s camp, just as Konev had accused the commanding general at Breslau of malingering there.

Probably the most heart-wrenching part of the bitter struggle was the suffering of the civilians at the hands of the Soviets. During the advance into Prussia, word of the rape and murder of women, the destruction of homes and the killing of children in retribution for Nazi atrocities terrified the Germans. This in itself explains much of the “fanaticism” encountered by the Soviets as they approached each stronghold. The men at the Seelow Heights were fighting not for the preservation of Germany, or even to save their own lives. In their minds, they knew that their actions might save a few more civilians, most of whom became refugees whose only hope of survival was the delaying actions of their fighting men.

Historians can only wonder how the pages of history would have been rewritten if the Anglo-American forces had continued on to Berlin, forgetting the Yalta Conference. Many Germans believe that there would have been virtually no strong-armed resistance to a Western invasion, given the unpalatable alternative. It would have most probably changed the map of Europe and the course of human history.[ TOP ] [ Cover ]