|Breaking the Seelow Heights:
the Zenith of Combined Arms Warfare
by Major James T. McGhee
Nearly four years after the commencement of Operation Barbarossa, the German
Army stood on the verge of annihilation. What Adolph Hitler expected in 1941 to
be a quick victory for National Socialism over its archenemy, "Jewish
Bolshevism", had become a brutal war of attrition. By April 1945, the remnants
of the German war machine had been pushed back into the Fatherland where they
would fight a final battle for survival against the endless masses of the Red
Army. The Germans constructed their last prepared defensive positions before
Berlin along the Seelow Heights over looking the level plain of the Oder River
valley. From their positions on the high ground, the German defenders faced the
largest concentration of force to space in the history of warfare. Looking up
to the Heights, the restless soldiers of the 1st Byelorussian Front commanded
by Marshal G. K. Zhukov were positioned to destroy the German defenders and
demonstrate their proficiency in modern combined arms operations to the rest of
the world. During this devastating battle, the weight of Soviet combined air
and ground operations proved successful despite tactical errors and personality
conflicts within the Soviet command structure. Along the Seelow Heights and in
the Oderbruch Valley, the new methods of modern combined arms operations
reached their zenith as the largest concentration of force in the history of
modern warfare opened the final offensive of World War II.
The early years of World War II in Europe saw the evolution of a new kind of
warfare exemplified by Germany's decisive victories over Poland, France and the
Balkans. The new tactics of the German armed forces utilized a revolutionary
doctrine known as Blitzkrieg or lighting war. Blitzkrieg as
defined by author and Eastern Front historian Christopher Duffy was, "an
offensive way of fighting, which uses the combined efforts of tanks, mechanized
infantry, mobile artillery and combat engineers, and calls on the greatest
possible close air support." These same tactics were used with great success
against Stalin's armies in the opening days of Operation Barbarossa. By the end
of 1941, German Army Group North had surrounded and begun a siege of the city
of Leningrad, and Army Group Center was approaching the gates of Moscow.
Subsequent German offensives in the spring of 1942 by Army Group South drove
the Soviet Army back to the City of Stalingrad. The power and effectiveness of
the Blitzkrieg seemed unstoppable. However, Soviet leadership above all had
learned from their costly mistakes, and by the winter of 1942/43 they were
ready to unleash their own version of Blitzkrieg on the Nazi invader.
In November 1942, the Soviets launched a surprise offensive, which completely
encircled the German Sixth Army and a large part of the German Fourth Panzer
Army at Stalingrad. The encirclement and subsequent surrender of the German
forces at Stalingrad were the first signs of a new Soviet confidence and
competence in conducting successful combined arms operations. Eastern Front
Historian, David Glantz states that the encirclement of Stalingrad, "wrested
the strategic initiative from the German hands." However, the Soviets in the
summer of 1943 went on the strategic defensive in anticipation of a German
attack. The earlier Soviet victories had created a bulge in the front lines
near the city of Kursk. Called the Kursk Salient, this large concentration of
Soviet forces became the target of Hitler's 1943 summer offensive.
The resulting battle at Kursk in July 1943 was a massive defeat for the German
army, which lost a substantial portion of its remaining armoured reserves. This
was precisely what Soviet leaders were trying to achieve. The Soviets had also
planned in the summer of 1943 to accomplish much more than just win a defensive
victory. Soviet planners prepared massive offensive counterattacks to be
unleashed once the Germans had been defeated at Kursk. These offensives were a
resounding success. The tide had indeed turned in the East. The Correlation of
forces, according to Glantz, "had shifted decisively in favor of the Soviets.
From August 1943 on, the Soviets maintained firm control of the strategic
Beginning in January of 1944, the Soviets conducted the first in a series of
successful offensives that would drive the German Army further back to the
Vistula River. To accomplish this enormous feat, the Soviets made extensive
preparations and concentrated enormous quantities of men for their offensives.
Massive use by the Soviets of combined arms including artillery, infantry,
armour and close air support ensured a rapid penetration of the German
defensive line. This penetration was quickly exploited by Soviet tank armies,
which rapidly moved through German rear areas creating fear and confusion. The
soviet tank armies were able to advance into the operational depths of 150km or
as far as the strategic depths of up to 400km. In general, the Soviets were
able to overcome the first line of German defenses on the first day of their
offensive and the second line of defense by the second or third day. Duffy
states that Zhukov, during these offensives, "held back until the infantry, the
engineers and the close-support tanks and assault guns had chewed a way clear
through the tactical zone of defense to the open country, and he did not commit
his tank armies until the second and third days of the offensive." This
strategy of penetrating the enemy defenses, exploiting the penetration and then
quickly surrounding enemy forces proved extremely successful. A summery of the
1944 offensives by Glantz describes them as having, "considerable maneuver, and
demonstrated Soviet mastery of the problem of coordinating the use of all types
of combat arms." The success of the 1944 offensives would lay the foundation
for the future planning of the 1945 offensives and ultimately for the final
battle of Berlin.
The Soviet 1945 winter offensive began on 12 January. Aided by the frozen
ground and ice covered rivers, this offensive proved as equally successful as
the offensives of the previous year. The German defenses were penetrated
quickly. On 17 January, Warsaw fell. The city of Posen was reached and
surrounded on the 22nd. Zhukov's troops of the 1st Byelorussian Front crossed
the 1939 German boarder on 26 January. The first Soviet troops reached the
river Oder on 30 January near the city of Kienitz. At 0600 hours the following
day, Soviet infantry crossed the ice on the Oder River and established a small
bridgehead four kilometers wide and two kilometers deep. Further south, a
second bridgehead was established near the town of Reitwein. These bridgeheads
were only 60 miles from Berlin and there were no organized German defenses in
place to prevent a Soviet advance on the German capital city. The Vistula-Oder
Operation had been a resounding success. However, the Soviets needed time to
secure their flanks and reduce German strong points. The speed of the advance
had also created supply problems. Supply trucks had to travel great distances,
and railroads had to be repaired. Stocks of fuel and ammunition were running
low. The Soviets needed time to replace battle casualties and to rebuild
airfields. For these reasons, the Soviets chose to halt their advance along the
Oder River, and to build up and expand their existing bridgeheads in
preparation for a final assault on Berlin. The 5th Shock Army, part of the 1st
Byelorussian Front, received specific orders from the Front commander, Marshal
Zhukov on the 4th of February, which read:
"Attention of the Military Council, Corps Commanders and Division
Commanders of the 5th Shock Army:
The 5th Shock Army has been assigned an especially important mission,
that of holding the bridgehead on the west bank of the Oder and expanding it at
least up to 20 km in frontage and 10 to 20 km in depth.
I ask that you all understand your historic role in carrying out your
mission and, after explaining this to your men, to demand that they display the
utmost fortitude and courage.
Unfortunately, we cannot yet help you with aircraft, because all the
airfields have been turned into bogs and the planes cannot take off. Enemy
planes are flying from Berlin aerodromes with concrete runways. I recommend:
1. to dig in deep;
2. to organize massive anti-aircraft fire;
3. to move to night combat operations, launching each attack with a
limited objective; to repulse enemy attacks during the day. In another two or
three days the enemy will be wiped out.
I wish you and your troops historic success which you not only can, but
The next three months were a flurry of activity for both sides. The German
forces hastily organized a new defensive front and launched costly counter
attacks to drive the Soviets back across the Oder. The Soviets tenaciously
defended their bridgeheads while simultaneously building up enormous quantities
of men and materiel for the final offensive.
Key to the Soviet build up was the difficult task of expanding of the
bridgeheads. Hitler ordered the 9th Army commanded by General Busse to destroy
the Soviet bridgeheads. Throughout the month of February and into March, the
9th Army conducted several unsuccessful counter attacks against the Soviet
positions along the Oder River. These futile attacks cost the 9th Army as many
as 35,000 casualties; casualties which could not be replaced by the German High
Command. Unable to throw the Soviets back across the Oder, General Busse's
attention turned to holding the German position blocking the main avenue of
approach to Berlin. Located between the Reitwein and Kienitz bridgeheads was
the ancient, fortress city of Kustrin. It was a formidable obstacle centered on
the main road to Berlin, Reichsstrasse 1. Holding this fortress
severely restricted Marshal Zhukov's ability to advance on Berlin.
The bitter contest over Kustrin was a costly one for both sides but the Soviets
eventually surrounded the fortress and slowly began to squeeze the pocket
closed. The German defenders were finally forced to surrender the fortress on
March 30th. The defense may have cost the Germans and the Soviets as many
20,000 casualties each. The loss was more significant for the German
defenders. The Soviets were now able to consolidate and expand their bridgehead
to a size of 50 km wide and 7-10 km deep. On the eastern bank of the Oder
River, the main road to Berlin, Reichsstrasse 1 was secured. The
geographic stage was now set for the final offensive. On 27 March, Stalin
ordered his Front Commanders to Moscow to finalize plans for the attack on
Marshal Zhukov arrived in Moscow on 29 March followed by the commander of the
First Ukrainian Front, Marshal Koniev two days later. They both met with Stalin
to present their plans for the final offensive. The two marshals were fierce
rivals. Each wanted to be the one to capture the German capital city. Marshal
Zhukov had clearly earned the right but Stalin decided to use the rivalry as a
motivation between his two commanders. Stalin's orders to Zhukov gave him the
primary mission of taking Berlin and pushing on to meet the allied armies on
the Elbe River. The operation was to begin no later than 16 April and Berlin
was to be surrounded by the 21st. However, Stalin opened the door of
opportunity to Marshal Koniev by saying, "In the event of stiff enemy
resistance on the eastern approaches to Berlin and a possible hold-up of the
offensive of the First Byelorussian Front, the First Ukrainian Front is to be
in readiness to strike at Berlin with its tank armies from the south." The
final offensive would be a race between Zhukov and Koniev to see who would be
the first into Berlin. This race would significantly impact Zhukov's operations
against the Seelow Heights.
Zhukov had two weeks to make his final preparations for the great offensive to
take Berlin. The logistics requirements in preparation for the attack were
immense. "On the whole the work done to prepare the Berlin Operation had no
parallel in scale or intensity. Concentrated on a fairly narrow sector of the
front and within short time-limits were 68 infantry divisions, 3,155 tanks and
self propelled guns and about 42,000 artillery and mortar pieces." Of these,
41 infantry divisions, 2,655 tanks and SPGs, 8,983 guns and 1,401 rocket
launchers were located in the bridgehead. This concentration of force was
unprecedented compared with other well-known operations. Hitler had deployed
3,332 tanks to invade the Soviet Union along a total frontage of 930 miles. For
the attack against the Kursk Salient, "Operation Citadel", he would deploy
2,700 tanks and assault guns along a front sixty miles wide. In Normandy
during the West's great invasion of Europe, by D-Day +3, Allied forces ashore
were scheduled to number only 13 divisions.
Soviet supply and transportation services hastily brought forward thousands of
replacements and tons of supplies of every variety. Millions of gallons of
fuel, for the thousands of tanks and tens of thousands of trucks, were required
along with tons of food, ammunition, bridging materiel, medical supplies, and
other equipment. Zhukov reported, "In terms of artillery ammunition alone
7,147,000 shells were required by the start of the operation."
Twenty-three bridges were constructed to support the Oder River crossings. An
additional forty ferries supplemented these bridges. Zhukov had 194 engineer
battalions and 14 military construction units supporting the bridging
operations. These engineer units performed brilliantly, building and rebuilding
the bridges after many were destroyed by German air and artillery attacks.
The extensive preparations and build-up of the Soviet air forces matched the
enormous concentration and build-up of Soviet ground forces. Zhukov's 1st
Byelorussian Front was supported by a total of 4,188 combat aircraft. Immense
amounts of fuel and ammunition were required to support these aircraft. In
addition, Soviet engineers had to build or repair enough airfields to
accommodate them. In all, some 290 airfields were constructed to accommodate
Zhukov's massive air forces.
Zhukov's attack plan was simple. Using the proven tactics of the previous 1944
and January 1945 offensives, he would utilize his overwhelming concentration of
force to breach the German defensive lines on the first day of battle and then
exploit the breakthrough using his reserve tank armies, which would race ahead
to encircle the city of Berlin. In his own words, "We decided to hurl ourselves
upon the defending enemy forces with such strength as to stun and shake them to
the very foundations right from the start, using for that purpose a mass of
aircraft, tanks, artillery, and material supplies."
The offensive would begin during the early morning hours of darkness and be led
by a short, intensive artillery barrage utilizing the over 40,000 available
guns. The number of guns squeezed into the narrow front meant that there were
270 guns of 76-mm and higher per kilometer of front. Soviet armies contained
more artillery than any other army in the world. They deployed artillery
regiments and independent artillery divisions. According to Soviet Marshal
Koniev, "We saw well-organized artillery as the embodiment of our army's power.
We held that whatever we would do with gunpowder rather than the bayonet would
be to our great advantage and would safeguard our troops against superfluous
losses. Hence we should spare neither time nor effort in preparing the
To overcome the darkness, Zhukov introduced an unconventional plan to utilize
123 searchlights. Immediately following the artillery strike, these lights were
to switch on in order to have the dual effect of providing the Soviet infantry
and tanks with artificial light and to create fear among the German defenders.
The lead element in the attack was the Soviet 8th Guards Army commanded by
General Chuikov. His army was to breach the first German defensive belt
utilizing his tanks and infantry, supported by close support aircraft, and then
push forward and take the Seelow Heights by the end of the first day. It was
planned that once the 8th Guards Army breached the Seelow Heights Zhukov would
release his reserve tank armies to exploit the breach and move on towards
The remnants of the German Army facing Zhukov, commanded by Colonel General
Heinrici, were determined to prevent a Soviet breakthrough not with the
expectation of defeating the Soviets but in the hope of delaying them long
enough for the Western Allies to capture Berlin. They constructed defensive
positions in depth for 40 km separated into three defensive belts. The first
defensive belt was located in the Oderbruch and provided very limited
advantages with regard to terrain. The second defensive belt consisted of three
defensive trench lines. The first of these ran along the front edge of the
Seelow Heights. Subsequent trench systems were located in positions on the
reverse slopes of the Seelow Heights. Located in this second defensive belt
were five flak regiments deploying the formidable German 88mm Flak Gun in an
anti-tank role. The 88mm gun was used throughout the war and up to the summer
of 1942 it was the most effective weapon available to stop the Soviet T-34 and
KV tanks. It could kill a T-34 out to 4,000 yards. With a high rate of fire and
optics designed to track aircraft, it crushed slow moving tanks with ruthless
All the German infantry divisions lacked superior combat effectiveness. They
were all either under strength or had not received proper combat training. Many
of the units manning the front lines were Volksturm units, consisting
of old men, many of whom were veterans of the First World War. Others were
untrained sailors or Luftwaffe personnel hastily thrown into the line
by the senior leadership of the Reich to impress upon Hitler their loyalty and
fanaticism. There was also an extreme shortage of small arms and artillery
ammunition. Many soldiers arrived and were sent to the front armed with a
variety of old captured rifles or only with a Panzerfaust.
The Panzerfaust was anti-tank weapon carried by a single infantryman.
Used since late 1943, it proved to be a highly effective tank killer capable of
destroying any Soviet tank. However, in order destroy a Soviet tank the
individual infantryman only had one projectile and was required to fire the
hand-held weapon at almost point blank ranges not to exceed 100 meters. The Panzerfaust,
when fired, generated a large flash of sparks and a plume of smoke, which
immediately gave away the tank hunters' position. Regardless of the dangers,
infantrymen armed with this formidable weapon proved highly efficient at
destroying Soviet armour, creating fear among all those in the Soviet tank
The real strength of the German defense was the terrain. Once the Soviets began
to move forward of their positions in the bridgehead, they would have to cross
the flat and open landscape of the Oderbruch. This terrain contains several
small canals acting as natural tank ditches. In addition, the Germans drained a
natural lake allowing the water to flood the low areas turning much of the
ground into a marsh incapable of supporting tanks and forcing all vehicles to
remain on the few available roads. While moving through this part of the
battlefield, soviet tanks and infantry were under constant observation from
German artillery spotters positioned on the high ground. The German 88mm
anti-tank guns could engage Soviet tanks in the open, over extended ranges, and
all the approaches were heavily mined. The forces that made it through the
killing fields of the Oderbruch would then have to assault the Seelow Heights
The Seelow Heights slope up to 30 meters above the valley bed and contain
inclines too steep for Soviet tanks to climb. Hidden within the trees and
twists of the terrain were German anti-tank guns, machinegun nests, and Panzerfaust
teams. Beyond the heights the last remaining German armoured reserves waited.
These tanks were positioned to conduct counter attacks against any Soviet
breakthrough in order to reestablish the German line of defense. The Seelow
Heights represented the last strong defensible position between the Soviets and
Berlin. According to General Busse, "the retention or loss of the Seelow
Heights, dependent upon the situation and strengths, would decide the result of
the coming battle."
On 14 April, Hitler issued his order of the day. He believed that the recent
death of the American President, Franklin Roosevelt on April 12th was a sign
that all was not lost and that the war would turn in favor of Germany.
"Soldiers on the German Eastern Front:
The Jewish Bolshevik arch-enemy has gone over to the attack with his masses for
the last time. He attempts to smash Germany and to eradicate our nation. You
soldiers from the east today already know yourselves to a large extent what
fate is threatening, above all, German women, girls, and children. While old
men and children are being murdered, women and girls are humiliated to the
status of barracks prostitutes. Others are marched off to Siberia.
We have anticipated this thrust, and since January of this year everything has
been done to build up a strong front. Mighty artillery is meeting the enemy.
Our infantry's casualties were replenished by countless new units. Reserve
units, new formations and the Volksturm reinforce our front. This time the
Bolsheviks will experience Asia's old fate. That is, he must and will bleed to
death in front of the capital of the German Reich.
Whosoever does not do his duty at this moment is a traitor to our nation. The
regiment or division that leaves its position acts so disgracefully that it
will have to be ashamed before the women and children who are withstanding the
bombing terror in our towns.
Above all, look out for the treacherous few officers and soldiers who, to
secure their own miserable lives, will fight against us in Russian pay, perhaps
even in German uniforms. Whosoever gives you a command to retreat is, unless
you know him well, to be arrested immediately, and if necessary to be executed
immediately, irrespective of his rank.
If in these coming days and weeks every soldier on the Eastern Front fulfills
his duty, Asia's last onslaught will collapse just as in the end our enemies'
penetration in the west will despite everything, come to naught. Berlin remains
German, Vienna will again be German and Europe will never be Russian.
From one community, sworn to defend not a vain conception of a fatherland, but
to defend your homeland, your women, your children and thus your future.
In this hour the entire German nation looks to you, my soldiers in the east,
and only hopes that by your fanaticism, by your arms and by your leadership,
the Bolshevik onslaught is drowned in a blood bath.
At the moment when fate has taken the greatest war criminal of all times from
this earth, the war will take a decisive turn.
Adolph Hitler 
To observe and control the battle, General Chuikov had an elaborate bunker
system built on top of the only high ground occupied by the Soviets West of the
Oder, the Reitwein Spur. From this position Chuikov was able to observe all the
approaches his forces were to use for their attack. This position was so
favorable that the Front Commander, Marshal Zhukov co-located his headquarters
on top of the Reitwein Spur. This move irritated General Chuikov who wrote,
"Unexpectedly the observation post of the front commander (Zhukov) was also
transferred here. Frankly speaking many officers, including myself, did not
particularly welcome the presence of superior officers at their command and
observation posts; it was easier to control the course of an action without
By the night of 15-16 April, all the preparations had been made, orders had
been given, and the time for the attack had come. Zhukov arrived in his bunker
along with Chuikov shortly before the three o'clock start time. They each had a
cup of tea served by a young female soldier who according to Zhukov had a very
non-Russian name. In the bridgehead Soviet soldiers stood ready. The fear and
excitement of moment was overwhelming but they were ready. The Berlin
Operation, as described by Zhukov, "was to be the crowning point of the
triumphant road traveled by the heroic Soviet troops who had battled their way
over thousands of kilometers, grown wise with the experience of major battles
and become steeled in ferocious fighting. They were aflame with the desire to
deal the enemy the final blow and to end the war as swiftly as possible."
At three o'clock on the morning of 16 April 1945, the largest artillery barrage
in the history of warfare was unleashed on Zhukov's order. From his position on
the Reitwein Spur, Zhukov watched as the firepower of 40,000 guns (including
mortars and rockets) began their orchestra of death. Zhukov remembers the
opening barrage, "In that same instant the entire area was brilliantly lit up
by the fire of many thousands of guns, mortars and our legendary Katyushas
followed by the deafening thunder of the explosions of shells, mines, and
aerial bombs." Chuikov describes his witness to the awesome firepower of
the Soviet Army, '. . . in an instant it became light as day. In the flashes of
artillery fire we saw the unfurled Guards colors moving forward along the
trenches to the assault positions. A volcanic rumble resounded as 40,000 guns
began to fire. The Oder valley seemed to rock. Fountains of dust and smoke shot
up into the air."
From atop the Seelow Heights, a German officer, Lt. Tams observed the artillery
barrage. He provides a first hand account of this event seen from those who
were the object of this destruction. "It seemed as if the dawn was suddenly
upon us, then vanished again. The whole Oder valley bed shook. In the
bridgehead it was as light as day. The hurricane of fire reached out to the
Seelow Heights. It seemed as if the earth was reaching up into the sky like a
dense wall. We were soon covered in sand, dirt, and glass splinters. None of us
had experienced anything like it before, and would not have believed it
possible. There was no escape. The greatest concentration of artillery fire in
history was directed immediately in front of us. We had the impression that
every square yard of earth would be ploughed up." Another German soldier,
Friedhelm Schoneck provides a vivid recollection of this terrifying event, "It
is 3 o'clock but still night. The night has gone mad. An ear-deafening din
fills the air. In contrast to what we have experienced previously, this is no
bombardment but a hurricane tearing apart everything in front of us, over us
and behind us. The sky is glowing red as if it will crack open at any moment.
The ground rocks, heaves and sways like a ship in a Force 10 gale. We crouch
down in our defensive positions, our hands grasping our weapons in deadly fear,
and our bodies shrunken into tiny crouching heaps at the bottom of the trench.
The bursting and howling of the shells, the whistling and hissing of shrapnel
fills the air or what remains of it for us to breathe. Screams and orders are
choked by steel, earth, and the acrid smoke of the volcano that has suddenly
opened up on top of us with incredible force. Our trench system has
disappeared, collapsed or been flattened by thousands of shells and bombs. The
dugout we are sitting in has become even narrower, the walls driven inward,
packing us together like sardines in a tin can. We tremble and pray, the beads
of rosaries slipping through soldiers' dirty hands. We have lost all shame.
Dear God, hear us calling to you from this hell!"
During this first bombardment, the Soviets fired the majority of the 1,236,000
artillery rounds fired on the first day of attack. Zhukov describes this number
as being 2,450 railway carloads of shells. Very often, the First World War
is considered to have been the zenith for artillery. The massive use of
artillery by the Soviets in their final offensives proves otherwise when
compared with the enormous bombardment described during the British Somme
Offensive of 1916. The British utilized only 1,437 guns along an 18-mile front;
the bombardment taking seven days to fire 1,500,000 shells.
At 0320 hours, the searchlights were turned on and the combined infantry and
tank assault of the 8th Army began. Unfortunately for the Soviets the
searchlights had never been used in combat. The massive artillery barrage
produced a cloud of smoke and dust so thick that the beams of light could not
penetrate it. Visibility was reduced to zero. Front line commanders requested
that the lights be turned off. Zhukov, seeing the lights turned off immediately
ordered them turned back on. Confusion reigned as the fog of war overcame the
troops moving through a fog of dust and debris. Many units elected to wait
until daylight before proceeding forward. The Soviets had lost all the
advantages of attacking in the darkness.
The Soviet ground attack was moving slowly but the full might of their Air
Force was not. The 18th Air Army joined the attack utilizing 743 heavy bombers
to drop 884 tons of bombs on German strong points. At daybreak over 1600 ground
attack Sturmoviks and bombers of the 16th Air Army screamed in low
over their heads to attack positions on the Heights. The main task of the air
forces was to provide close air support to the main strike force during the
breakthrough battle. There were 6,500 sorties flown on the 16th alone.
The combined artillery and air attacks of the morning of the 16th had
completely devastated the first German defensive belt. Only a few strong points
located in the small towns were able to resist the Soviet masses. What Zhukov
and Chuikov didn't know was that the German commander Heinrici, a seasoned
veteran of the Eastern Front, had anticipated the attack and had moved the
majority of his forces off the front lines and back to the second defensive
belt. The vast majority of Zhukov's initial strike had fallen on empty
positions. Few of those who remained in the front line positions survived to
describe the attack. For those positioned on top of the Seelow heights, the
site of the Soviet Army moving forward that morning was chilling. Lt. Tams
writes, "Cautiously we risked a peep over the Heights down into the Oderbruch,
and what we saw made the blood run cold. As far as we could see in the grey
light of dawn came a single wave of heavy tanks. The air was filled with the
noise of tank engines and the rattling of tank tracks. As the first row came
closer we saw behind them another, and then hordes of running infantry."
East Front veteran Heinz Landau remembered, "I was watching the Ivans
approaching from the top of our position, (the Seelow Heights) and it sent
shivers down my spine. Tanks of assorted sizes but mostly T-34s in vast
numbers, probably outnumbering our guns, How does one describe the sight of the
Russian army on the move? I for one do not know. Even an army of ants is an
The Soviet assault appeared invincible but their movement through the Oderbruch
was not easy. Small streams and canals crossing attack routes stopped the
Soviet tanks and Self-propelled guns while forcing them to wait for engineer
support. The infantry, proceeding through these obstacles became separated from
the supporting armor and began to take heavy casualties from German artillery
and machine gun fire. Chuikov reported, "The troops were unable to move until
the engineers had set up crossings. Any kind of maneuver by motor vehicles or
tanks was impossible for the roads were jammed, and to try and move across
country, in this marshy valley with its well-mined fields, would have been
impossible." Casualties mounted as the German Flak 88's decimated Soviet
tanks in the open. German artillery was able to provide devastating fire
support. Again, the Soviet Airforce began pounding German rear areas in an
attempt to cover the attacking ground forces. They were able to silence a large
number of German artillery batteries. It was noon before Chuikov's tanks made
it to the foot of the Seelow Heights. However, the terrain made it impossible
for the tanks to move up to the Heights. Chuikov was bogged down and needed to
move his artillery forward, in order to provide better support the attacking
tanks and infantry during an attempt to take the Heights.
The original Soviet plan of attack was in chaos. It was about to get worse.
While Chuikov ordered his artillery to move forward, Zhukov was becoming
displeased with the progress of his troops. Fearing that Marshal Koniev, whose
attack in the South was proceeding favorably, would beat him to Berlin, Zhukov
without confronting his commanders ordered his two tank armies to move forward
at 1430 hours to break the Seelow Heights. He was certain the weight of forces
alone would be enough to achieve a breakthrough. Zhukov's interference during a
critical period of the battle proved disastrous. Further congestion on the
roads made movement almost impossible and severely hindered Chuikov's artillery
from moving forward to re-deploy. Added confusion ensued along with an
ever-increasing loss of command and control as these new tank armies became
intermixed with those forces already engaged. Zhukov's order to send in his
tank armies failed to achieve the decisive breakthrough he had hoped for. By
the end of the day the Seelow Heights were still occupied by the stubborn
German defenders. General Busse reported that April 16th, "was a great
defensive success in view of the unequal strength."
That evening, Stalin called Zhukov for an update. He was unhappy with Zhukov's
progress and warned that Koniev was making good progress in the South and that
perhaps Koniev's tank armies should be sent towards Berlin. Zhukov assured
Stalin that the Heights would be taken the following day.
By morning the large quantities of Soviet artillery had had time to deploy
forward within range of the Seelow Heights. The next morning began with another
devastating barrage of artillery fire and close air strikes. Lt. Tams
remembers, "Dawn brought yet another blast of artillery fire, which was
supplemented and supported by wave after wave of bombing attacks by heavy
aircraft. It was horrific." The German defenders stubbornly held onto their
positions as Zhukov's tank armies made another advance against the Seelow
Heights. Once again, the 88mm Flak Guns and the tank hunting infantry armed
with deadly panzerfausts destroyed many Soviet tanks. However, the
Soviets began to make some progress. German casualties were mounting and no
replacements were coming. Soviet tanks made small breakthroughs but were thrown
back by the few German Panzer reserves. By the end of the day, the German
defense was precarious but Soviet casualties had once again been tremendous
caused in a large part by Zhukov's tactics of attacking in mass. Zhukov was
losing the race for Berlin.
General Heinrici and General Busse were well aware that they could not continue
to hold the positions along the heights for another day without immediate
reinforcements. Elements of the two SS Panzer Divisions, Nederland and
Nordland , were eventually released but they were unable to arrive in
time. Hans Hansen was positioned behind the Heights near the city of Seelow and
remembers the events of the morning of 18 April in his sector, "We were thrown
into a sector of the front line a bit further to the north, between Seelow and
Muncheberg. One could hardly talk of a front line, for, apart from two heavy
flak batteries from our battalion and several infantry stragglers, there was
nothing else available. No sooner had we arrived than the Russians attacked
head-on with a large armored force. It looked dangerous, as the fire-spitting
monsters rolled slowly toward us, the 88mm flak was superior, and the Soviets
changed their direction of attack further to our left, where they found no
resistance worthy of the name, and rolled past us. There was no doubt where
they were going: to Berlin!" Soviet tanks were able to breach the German
positions in numerous places and threatened to flank others. Still, the
remnants of the German Army continued to fight through the day and hold were
they could as other units ambushed Soviet tanks. The Soviets may have cracked
the dike but the cost was high.
The following morning, the final defenses were torn apart by the powerful
Soviet forces. The survivors began a general retreat. Lt. Tams was one of those
survivors and remembers, "the depression that came over us as we moved back
defeated and exhausted through the countryside. The overwhelming might thrown
against us had broken our backbone. Our regiment had ceased to exist as a
regiment. It was the first time that I had experienced such a loss of
self-confidence among our troops, as we recognized our powerlessness against
this steamroller from the east. I was reminded of a line from our regimental
song: 'A Hanseatic regiment knows only victory-or death!'" The decisive
battle for the Seelow Heights was over. Over 12,000 German soldiers had been
killed and the last reserves had been used up. Germany would continue to
conduct a fighting retreat back into the city of Berlin and those who survived
would fight in the streets of the once great German capital city until the end.
Zhukov would win the race to Berlin, despite entering the city after Marshal
Koniev's tanks. With two army fronts converging in the streets of Berlin,
Stalin ordered Koniev back giving Zhukov the prize. The price in blood paid by
the Soviet people to win Zhukov his place in history was enormous. During the
breakout from the Oder, the Soviets had lost a reported 33,000 dead along with
743 tanks and self-propelled guns. Although we shall never know the final
answer, it can be estimated that the total casualties sustained in killed and
wounded may have exceeded 150,000 soldiers over four days in Zhukov's 1st
Byelorussian Front alone.
For most of the Soviet and German leadership, the success of the operation,
given the overwhelming Soviet superiority in manpower, armor, and air power
seemed a certainty. Clearly, Zhukov expected much greater success. The
unexpected high casualties may have come as a result of Zhukov's pride and
determination to beat Koniev into Berlin or perhaps it was the lack of surprise
and the overall ineffectiveness of the opening attacks. Chuikov wrote, ". . .
we also underrated the specific features of the terrain, which abounded in
canals, streams, lakes and other natural obstacles. Lack of roads restricted
our freedom of maneuver and made it impossible to commit large forces during
As in every battle, what Clausewitz called friction came into play making even
the best plans and the most overwhelming advantages less so. What cannot be
denied is the fact that the outnumbered German Army positioned along the Seelow
Heights confronted the largest concentration of forces in the history of
warfare in a final battle for their country. Given the advantages the terrain
offered them in these positions, it took far more than just the sheer weight of
the Soviet forces to overwhelm them. It required the combined arms of Soviet
infantry and tank forces supported by artillery, engineers, supply troops, and
the Soviet Air Force. Combined arms operations have been the standard doctrine
for all modern military forces fighting in theaters of war around the world
through the second half of the twentieth century. However, none of the battles
fought since April 1945 equaled Zhukov's overwhelming use of force. The
decisive battle for the Seelow Heights remains the zenith of combined arms
Show Footnotes and
. Christopher Duffy, Red Storm on the Reich: the Soviet March on Germany,
1945, (New York: Maxwell Macmillan International, 1991) 313.
. David M. Glantz,, The Military Strategy of the Soviet Union, (London:
Frank Cass and Company, 1992), 132.
. Glantz, 154.
. Duffy, 337.
. Glantz, 150.
. Tony Le Tissier, Zhukov at the Oder, (Connecticut: Praeger
Publishers, 1996), 41.
. Ibid, 97.
. G. K. Zhukov, The Memoirs of Marshal Zhukov, (New York: Delacorte
Press, 1971) 590.
. Zhukov, 599.
. Mark Healy, Kursk 1943: The Tide Turns in the East, (Great
Britain: Osprey Publishing, 1993), 19.
. Zhukov, 598.
. Tissier, Zhukov on the Oder, 145.
. Zhukov, 598.
. Duffy, 315.
. Tissier, 120.
. Adolph Hitler, "Chancellor Hitler's Order for a Last Stand in the East,"
(Article on-line) New York Times, 16 April 1945, accessed 19 August
2002, http://www.ibiblio.org/pha/policy/1945/450416b.html, Internet.
. Chuikov, 145.
. Zhukov, 592.
. Ibid, 603.
. Tissier, Zhukov at the Oder, 158.
. Tissier, With Their Backs to Berlin, 101.
. Tissier, Zhukov at the Oder, 159.
. Zhukov, 604.
. Antony Beevor, The Fall of Berlin 1945, (New York: Viking
Penguin, 2002), 221.
. Tissier, With Our Backs to Berlin, 101.
. Russ Schneider, Gotterdammerung 1945: Germany's Last Stand in the East,
(Philomont: Eastern Front/Warfield Books Inc., 1998), 462.
. Tissier, Zhukov at the Oder, 178.
. Tissier, Zhukov at the Oder, 187.
. Tissier, With Our Backs to Berlin, 103.
. Tissier, Zhukov at the Oder, 219.
. Tissier, With Our Backs to Berlin, 106.
. Duffy, 377.
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Copyright © 2008 James T. McGhee.
Written by James T. McGhee. If you have questions or comments on this
article, please contact James T. McGhee at:
About the author:
Major James T. McGhee is a native of Dexter, Missouri, and now serves in the
active Army as an Operations Officer assigned to the 101st Sustainment Brigade,
Ft. Campbell, KY. He studied history at Southeast Missouri State University, is
a graduate of the Army Command and General Staff College, and holds a Maters
Degree in Military Studies from American Military University. In his spare
time, Todd enjoys researching and writing military history with emphasis on
World War II on the Eastern Front.
Published online: 06/14/2008.