16 April 1945: On this day in Berlin history, the Soviet Union unleashed three fronts from 45 miles east of Berlin to launch the “Battle of Berlin” – the last major offensive of WWII in Europe.
Under the command of Marshal Georgy Zhukov, the unyielding 1st Belorussian Front began its strategic offensive around 3:30AM with a devastating amount of artillery bombardment at the Seelow Heights on the banks of the Oder River (today’s natural border between Germany and Poland). Over 900,000 Red Army soldiers – with more than 20,000 tanks and artillery pieces – fought tenaciously against some 100,000 German soldiers and their over 1,000 tanks and guns.
After four days of fighting and after suffering tremendous losses of over 30,000 soldiers, Zhukov’s Front had forced its way through the outer defensive ring around Berlin and prepared to make a pincer attack to the north of the city. Meanwhile, Ivan Konev’s 1st Ukrainian front was moving up with support from the southeast (the goal was to link up the 1st Belorussian with the 1st Ukrainian to establish a full encirclement of the city).
In short, taking a look at the total numbers as they were at the onset of the Battle of Berlin 75 years ago today, the 3 fronts (2nd and 1st Belorussian Fronts and the 1st Ukrainian Front) consisted of around 2.5 million men – with over 6,000 tanks, 25,000 pieces of heavy artillery and more than 7,500 planes – to attack the capital of Hitler’s Third Reich.
On the German side, their forces consisted of around 1 million ‘men’ (many of whom were teenagers or younger), 1,500 tanks and armored vehicles, around 10,500 artillery pieces and backed by more than 3,000 fighter planes.
The imbalance in forces was compounded by the fact that – according to the British historian Ian Kershaw, “Many Germans were young, ill-trained recruits, while the air-strength was purely nominal since so many planes were grounded through lack of fuel. Only the three concentric rings of deep-echeloned fortifications barring the path to the capital gave an advantage to the defenders.”
By the early morning hours of April 20th, Zhukov’s forces had taken Bernau bei Berlin (just outside the northern borders of Berlin) and at around noon, his units’ guns opened up fire directly on Berlin. It’d now only be a matter of days before the capital of the “Thousand Year Reich” would fall to the Red Army.