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The Battle of the Halbe

The Battle of the Halbe: The destruction of Hitler’s 9th Army

Wreckage of a German convoy near Spreewald during the Battle of Halbe | Public Domain

The Battle of Halbe resulted in the destruction of Hitler’s 9th Army, a field army of the German Wehrmacht that was active from 1940 to 1945.

Halbe, a small village of about four hundred inhabitants in the Spreewald forests south of Berlin, was the eye of the needle through which, in late April 1945, the troops of the German 9th Army had to pass if they wished to escape Soviet captivity with a break-out to the west.

The 9th Army’s primary goal in the last months of WW2 between April and May of 1945 was to join with the 12th Army to defend a battered Berlin against Red Army forces that appeared unstoppable as they encroached into Germany’s territory during the last days of Hitler’s leadership. Having been driven into a pocket in the Spree Forest and surrounded by Soviet forces, the 9th Army’s attempts to break out and make its way westwards became known as the Battle of Halbe, with bloody devastating consequences for Germany’s military machine, that eventually led to its surrender and where some 40,000 people, soldiers and civilians, are said to have been killed in the tragic episode.

The German 9th Army

Under the command of Johannes Blaskowitz, a Colonel-General of the Wehrmacht armed forces, the 9th Army was activated from 15 May 1940 until 1 May 1945. It initially served as a strategic reserve along the Siegfried Line (a series of forts protecting Germany from invasion by Allied Powers) during a blitzkrieg campaign invading France through the Ardennes Forest of Belgium. Before the 9th Army’s eventual annihilation in May 1945 when it faced Soviet forces determined to occupy Berlin, the army had experienced several battles, such as Operation Barbarossa, where it had been heavily strengthened and fortified.

Having lost 40% of its forces during a Soviet counterattack in the summer of 1944, the 9th Army was rebuilt by German units from Italy.

Reduced to 100,000 men and 800 tanks with General of Infantry Theodor Busse commanding the troops, the force faced its final task in early 1945 to defend an area known as the Seelow Heights, the last defensible region before Germany’s capital, and where Hitler and his Nazi party commanders remained besieged but active in an underground bunker.

The Seelow Heights

This swampy flood plain lay outside the German town of Seelow and was at the epicentre of the Berlin Strategic Operation Offensive, where a pitched battle played out between Soviet and Communist Polish Army troops against a battered and much depleted German 9th Army. The terrain was where some of the most bitter fighting in the overall battle took place, as the 9th Army fought in vain to prevent Soviet and allied troops from entering Berlin. But it was only one of several crossing points along the Oder and Neisse rivers where the Soviets attacked.

German fear of the Soviets

The 9th Army soldiers saw themselves as the last bastion against the Soviet Bolsheviks in an ideological war. But the increasingly vicious and destructive manner of war on the Eastern Front, conducted by both sides, left German soldiers in no doubt as to the kind of savage fate Soviet captivity would bring them. Such fears provided a powerful incentive for the 9th Army to engage in a final desperate struggle to break out from being encircled by the enemy and seek captivity with the Western Allies.

This was very much Hitler’s orders for the 9th Army. Part of the reason German troops feared what may happen to them if captured by Soviet soldiers was due to the atrocities German forces had carried themselves out against ordinary Russians.

The brutality and ruthlessness on the Eastern Front gave the German soldiers little hope of mercy if captured by the enemy. Soviet atrocities in East Prussia served as a pertinent reminder stoking up such fears, which Nazi propaganda did not fail to use to goad the troops on.

Red Army attack

Stalin initiated the battle of Berlin on the 16 April 1945 ordering the Red Army to carry out a three Front attack across the Oder-Neisse line (the international border between Germany and Poland) which, five days later, managed to break through the German front line and surround the besieged German capital. The German 9th Army covered the defences of the Seelow Heights against the Soviet Army’s, Marshal Zhukov’s 1st Belorussian Front and Marshal Ivan Konev’s 1st Ukrainian Front. Zhukov and Konev were adversaries where a history of rivalry and one-upmanship had plagued their relationship adding to the complexity of taking Berlin.

Marshal Zhukov’s main blow against the 9th Army was struck from an established bridgehead across a flat valley bottom to reach the bulk of the German defences strung out along the barrier of the 100 foot high Seelow Heights.

Stalin summoned both Zhukov and Konev to Moscow to finalise the planning for the capture of Berlin. Despite the agreements reached at the Yalta Conference in February 1945 about the zoning of post-war Germany, the Soviet leaders generally expected that the Western Allies would try to get to Berlin ahead of them. The Soviets were fully aware of the political significance of taking the German capital, a point that General Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Commander in the West, and his superior, General George C. Marshall in Washington, failed to grasp, despite urging from their British allies.

Pincer Movements

Marshal Zhukov’s orders gave him the primary task of taking Berlin by 21 April and pushing on to Elbe by 1 May while Marshal Konev would support the Berlin operation by destroying the German forces to the south of the city. The main problem for Zhukov in the breakthrough battle would be the clearing of the commanding Seelow Heights. He proposed doing this with a simultaneous attack from his bridgehead in the Oderbruch valley bottom by four reinforced combined-arms formations to clear breaches in the defences. This action would enable his two tank armies to pass through and take Berlin in a classic pincer movement. The 2nd Guards Tank Army would penetrate the heart of Berlin from the north-east, while 1st Guards Tank Army would bypass Berlin and Potsdam to the south, pushing on to the west.

Because of the high-speed advance of Marshal Konev's forces, the 9th Army was threatened with envelopment by the two Soviet pincers that were heading for Berlin from the south and east. The southern pincer consisted of the 3rd and 4th Guards Tank Armies, which had penetrated the furthest and had already cut through the area behind the Ninth Army's front lines.

Breaching Seelow Heights

Marshal Zhukov utilised 143 searchlights to guide and light the way for the advancing troops while simultaneously blinding the enemy. The downside of this tactic was the unexpected after effect of night-blindness among his own troops, who were silhouetted to the enemy against a white mist.

Marshal Konev’s attack involved an assault river crossing, and his lengthy opening barrage set fire to the woods on the far bank, to the added distress of the defence. With the coming of daylight, Konev lay a smokescreen for a considerable distance up and down the river to conceal the actual crossing points. By the end of the day his infantry had advanced 13 kilometres on a 29 kilometres front.

By 1500 hours, as recorded in Zhukov’s personal diary, his forces breached the first and second enemy lines of defence, despite encountering serious resistance from the Seelow Heights where the German 9th Army defences appeared to be intact. Marshal Konev’s Front proved to be weaker even though it crossed the Neisse River without difficulty and without encountering resistance. Zhukov assured Stalin that he would breach the Seelow Heights by 17 April and that ‘the more troops the enemy throws against us here, the quicker we will take Berlin, for it is easier to defeat the enemy on an open field than in a fortified city’.

Hitler’s bunker

At the time of the Soviet forces approaching Berlin and threatening to invade the city, Adolf Hitler was directing operations from a new command bunker beneath the Old Chancellery building in the Wilhelmstrasse. He and his commanders, their wives and families, lived and worked in an oppressive atmosphere of noisy air-conditioning and concrete walls, with no distinction between night and day. The Fuhrerbunker also suffered the serious defect of being inadequately equipped with communications facilities for its role. Accommodation was extremely cramped in the Fuhrerbunker and the only communications facilities installed in the bunker were a one-man switchboard, one radio transmitter and a radio telephone, which was dependent upon an aerial suspended from a balloon.

Battle of the Halbe

After Marshal Khukov’s troops broke through the German line situated 70km from Berlin on the 19th April, the German 9th Army had little choice but to withdraw and move westwards. The plan was to join Hitler’s 12th Army which was under the control of General Walther Wenck and consolidate forces while moving to the West Bank of the Elbe river. But by the 22nd April the 9th Army soldiers found themselves encircled by the Soviet Army near the village of Halbe in the Spreewald area. In this pocket area the German units found themselves between Marshal Zhukov’s 1st Belorussian Front and Marshal Ivan Konev’s 1st Ukrainian Front, both of which pushed further towards the outskirts of Berlin. Caught in a constricted zone the German 9th Army, led by General Theodor Busse, found itself entirely encircled. As well as German soldiers, the besieged unit also included refugees and local civilians totally between 150,000 to 200,000.

Desperately aiming to reach the German 12th Army, General Busse gave the order for his unit to break out of the pocket at Halbe. The first attempt was taken on the 24th April followed by several more bloody excursions resulting in massive air attacks by Soviet troops devastating German troops where 40,000 soldiers died in the Halbe pocket, even though some 25,000 German soldiers from the 9th Army managed to break out and make it to the Elbe where they surrendered to American forces.

9th Army defeated

Hitler’s 9th Army was reduced to an impotent collective of the wounded and exhausted. All the reserves had been burnt up and some 12,000 men killed in the four days of fighting with no possibility of re-establishing any force capable of standing up to the Soviet onslaught.

Hitler’s earlier insistence that the 9th Army’s right wing hold on to the Oder line had prevented any flexibility to face the Soviet attack, as the bulk of the army was isolated south of Berlin and incapable of preventing Soviet advance.

The German formations had fought a decisive battle and lost and resigned themselves to simply preserving their remaining forces by maintaining a fighting front against the Soviets. In reality the regime was finished and accepted that they could no longer try to continue the struggle, whatever orders Hitler may have barked at them. A direct violation of Hitler’s orders for the 9th and 12th Armies to push on and continue to fight Soviet troops managed to save up to 25,000 soldiers and several thousand civilians.