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The Bitter Battle for Berlin - Sidebar: March '98 World War II Feature

Originally published by World War II magazine. Published Online: August 19, 1998 
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The capture of Berlin was left to the Soviets, but the Western Allies nevertheless occupied zones in the German capital.

Berlin was considered by many of the Western Allies to be one of the prime objectives of the war. While plans to seize the capital city included an airborne assault by the 82nd and 101st Airborne divisions and a brigade of the British 1st Airborne, the drops were never attempted. Fearing that the Western Allies would make the attempt, the Soviets conducted their offensive more hastily than they probably should have. They pushed their men hard, resulting in a greater number of casualties than might have occurred in a more deliberate offensive. The Western Allies' failure to attempt an airborne assault was a disappointment to many of the Western soldiers and politicians, not to mention many Germans. In retrospect, the decision was probably the correct one for the Allies, even though some of the reasoning was flawed.

It would have been a great race but a costly one. The nearest Western unit, the American 5th Armored Division, was at Tangermunde, a scant 53 miles from Berlin. Its advance was stopped on April 12 when a bridge across the Elbe that it was trying to capture was blown up. The closest Soviet units were approximately 31 miles from the city, and their offensive did not start until April 16. Could the Western Allies have beaten the Soviets to Berlin? Perhaps. Units of the U.S. Ninth Army had already traveled more than 200 miles in 13 days, and many German troops of the same caliber that were surrendering to the Western Allies were fighting stubbornly against the Soviets.

It was at Yalta on February 11, 1945, that Soviet Premier Josef Stalin, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt formally accepted the four postwar zones of occupation after long and divisive discussion. Berlin was also divided into four sectors, the original three sectors having been increased to four in order to include France. Since the Soviets were not willing to give any of their sector to the French, the British and Americans each gave up some of theirs. No agreement was reached, much less discussed, on who was to conquer what territory. Consequently, it was left to the military commanders to decide when to stop their advances.

The decision for the Western Allies rested with Supreme Commander General Dwight D. Eisenhower, who had no real interest in political objectives and viewed his mission to be the destruction of the German military. General Eisenhower's decision was based on experience and, unfortunately, faulty intelligence. Intelligence had incorrectly identified strong German forces in southern Germany, in a rumored "Alpine redoubt." Experience indicated that if an exact line was not identified for the linkup of Western and Soviet forces, accidental fighting could take place and approximately 100,000 casualties could be expected in an attempt to seize Berlin.

The Alpine redoubt was never confirmed by any reliable Intelligence source, but it became very real to many at the Supreme Headquarters of the Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF). There were reports that as many as 200,000 to 300,000 predominantly SS and mountain troops were moving into the area. The fear was that Hitler would make one last stand in the mountainous terrain of southern Germany. This fear was confirmed by Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall in a message to Eisenhower in which he said: "…rapid action might prevent the formation of any organized resistance areas. The mountainous country in the south is considered a possibility for one of these."

Linkups between two military forces must be carefully planned to prevent accidental fighting. In 1939, there had been some severe fighting between German and Soviet forces during their cooperative campaigns in Poland. Eisenhower knew that if Western forces were rapidly moving to the east, and Soviet forces were rapidly moving to the west, they would eventually clash. If the Western forces remained stationary at an easily identifiable location, however, clashes could be minimized or even eliminated. Why should men die at the end of a war in a needless battle with an ally?

The fear of large numbers of casualties was very real. While many German troops had been surrendering to the Allies, the SS had all too frequently been fighting to the bitter end. Resistance would certainly be fierce in an assault on Berlin. In fact, Captain Arie D. Bestebreurtje of the Dutch Intelligence Service briefed members of the 82nd Airborne, stating, "The army, the SS and the police will fight until the last bullet, and then they will come out with their hands in the air, tell you that the whole thing was really a dreadful mistake, that it was all Hitler's fault and thank you for getting to the city before the Russians." General Omar N. Bradley, commander of American ground forces, estimated that the capture of Berlin would cost the British and Americans 100,000 casualties.

The number of expected casualties sealed Eisenhower's decision. The Western Allies would occupy a portion of the German capital without firing a shot in its streets.[ TOP ] [ Cover ]

One Response to “The Bitter Battle for Berlin - Sidebar: March '98 World War II Feature”

  1. 1
    Larry C says:

    Any Western Allied action would have been a waste of men as the Westerners would have had to back out and give the territory to the Russians as Patton had to do in Czechoslovakia.
    In Yalta, Roosevelt had given Eastern European countries to "Uncle Joe (Stalin) as a gift to do with as he pleased. Roosevelt "gift" amounted to the enslavement of those countries and the death of millions from those countries.

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