It is April 12, 1945. The defeat of Hitler’s Third Reich is assured. The Soviet army is barely 30 miles from Berlin, the British have surrounded a German army group in the Netherlands, and the Americans have encircled another in the Ruhr valley. Spearheads of Lt. Gen. George S. Patton’s Third Army have crossed the border of Czechoslovakia. The U.S. Ninth Army, under Lt. Gen. William H. Simpson, has achieved a bridgehead across the Elbe River, just 50 miles from Berlin and an obvious springboard if the western Allies wish to capture the city.
This is not an option that Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, supreme commander of the Allied Expeditionary Forces, wishes to pursue. In his view, Berlin has been so devastated by Allied bombing that its military value is nil. Stalin, in a late March exchange with Ike, agrees (disingenuously, as history shows), and Eisenhower tells him he has no plans to advance to Berlin.
Ike is more concerned with seizing the Bavarian Alps in southern Germany, the location of Hitler’s famed Berchtesgaden retreat and the reputed site of the National Redoubt, a gigantic Alamo from which the Nazis might continue to resist indefinitely.
From a political standpoint the capture of Berlin seems equally pointless. Postwar occupation lines have already been established. Germany will be divided into four zones held by the Soviets, Americans, British, and French, as will its capital. Taking Berlin might cost up to 100,000 casualties, notes Gen. Omar Bradley: “a pretty stiff price to pay for a prestige objective, especially when we’ll have to fall back and let the other fellow take over.”
Some Allied commanders disagree, notably Patton, Simpson, and British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery. But neither the Combined Chiefs of Staff nor Roosevelt will second-guess Eisenhower. Churchill, however, favors grabbing as much of Germany as possible, including Berlin—to use as a bargaining chip to ensure that Stalin complies with the agreements he has made.
Churchill does not trust Stalin. Roosevelt seemingly does, but on April 12 he dies of a massive stroke. Vice president Harry S. Truman, a man in whom FDR rarely confided, takes the oath as president. Understandably, he relies on the counsel of his military advisers. Although Churchill leans heavily upon his British chiefs of staff, they cannot persuade their American counterparts that Berlin should be captured.
Then Eisenhower reverses himself and orders a drive on Berlin. He does so because rumors of the National Redoubt have been debunked by Allied intelligence reports, rendering a thrust into Bavaria pointless. American forces therefore need a new objective. Also, Truman’s accession to the presidency converts Eisenhower to Churchill’s idea that holding German territory east of the Elbe would buttress their negotiating power with the Soviets.
The change of plan has risks. It may antagonize the Soviets politically, and it carries the chance that the Allied and Soviet forces will mistakenly clash, con verting political distrust into military dis aster. But Ike assures Stalin that he wants to assist in what will be a bloody struggle for the heart of Nazi Germany. This assurance finds a receptive audience among Stalin’s top commanders, who are willing but not eager to fight their way into Berlin, and surprisingly from Stalin himself, whose reasoning parallels Bradley’s: If the Americans want to pay much of the price for a prestige objective they must then relinquish, he will not object.
Supported by the First Army, Simpson’s Ninth Army lunges toward Berlin. Resistance is heavy but not extreme. Continuing the pattern of recent months, German troops prefer to surrender to the western Allies rather than the Soviets. Indeed, some within the Nazi government entertain the fantasy that the Allies are rushing to aid them in their struggle to save western civilization from the Bolshevik hordes. Even so, it comes as a surprise when two American airborne divisions and one British airborne brigade parachute into Berlin’s Tempelhof Airport, less than three miles from the Reich Chancellery, and quickly establish a defensive perimeter. Then a stream of C-47s land at the airport, disgorge supplies and reinforcements, execute 180-degree turns, and depart.
There is no need for the paratroopers to advance. Hitler, enraged, orders attack upon attack against their enclave, removing units from the path of the Ninth Army in order to do so. But the para troopers, shielded by an umbrella of fighter-bombers as well as B-17s from the Eighth Air Force, have scant trouble holding their position. The Soviet army now attacks, but Hitler orders a bitter, block by-block resistance. The Ninth Army breaches the western suburbs of Berlin, and three armored divisions, under Maj. Gen. J. Lawton Collins, fight their way to the Reichstag. Hitler commits suicide in a bunker beneath the Chancellery, and the surviving Nazi leaders surrender.
The above scenario is only one of several that could have ensued had Eisenhower issued an order to drive on Berlin. Stalin might well not have acquiesced to such an operation. The Soviets, who historically launched their final offensive on April 16, could have done so even sooner. Ike’s fears of a clash between Allied and Soviet forces might have been realized. The Ninth Army might not have reached the outskirts of Berlin, much less the Reichstag, ahead of the Soviets—though the U.S. Army’s post war official history estimates that the Ninth Army could have gotten at least as far as Potsdam, a western suburb of Berlin.
But the most seemingly fantastic element in the scenario, an American airdrop on Berlin, is actually strongly plausible. Such a plan existed as part of Operation Eclipse, the plan for the occupation of Germany, and, in the event of an American overland drive on Berlin, would likely have been carried out. Airborne commander James M. Gavin describes it in detail in his 1979 memoir On to Berlin. The airdrop was carefully practiced and a scheme devised for the C-47s to land and discharge cargo in the manner described above. Supplies piled up so rapidly that it became obvious that the critical problem would be the removal of cargo from the field, not the act of flying it in.
Ike insisted in Crusade in Europe, his 1948 memoir, that he acted correctly in eschewing Berlin, but he opined in 1952 and again in 1958 that the decision was a mistake. Signs of a breakdown in the Soviet alliance were already apparent at that point in the war, and the advantages of the political leverage Churchill desired over the Russians became evident when Stalin failed to honor certain agreements made during the Yalta and Potsdam conferences, such as his promise to hold a free election in Poland. As for Gavin, immersed in the complexities of Berlin for years after the war, the failure to take the German capital was a lifelong source of regret. “I have never been able to satisfy myself as to why we did not seize it,” he wrote in 1979. “Now I know that we should have seized it.”
Originally published in the November 2009 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.