General Gotthard Heinrici, commander of Army Group Vistula, was given the unenviable task of defending Berlin against Marshal Zhukov's Red Army onslaught in April 1945. Facing overwhelming odds, Heinrici cobbled together a force that would make the German army's last stand....
Perhaps the most important single point in Heinrici's line of defense was the village of Seelow, located close to its southern end near the west bank of the Oder. Through the village, along the crest of the ridge, ran the Kustrin-Berlin highway, on which Zhukov was planning to launch his heaviest attack. Once the Red Army reached the top of the ridge, an almost open road would stretch before it all the way to Berlin.
Nothing could better illustrate the deplorable state of Army Group Vistula than the quality of the troops defending Seelow: young Air Force men of Goring's 9th Parachute Division with only two weeks' infantry training. Their company officers were former pilots, full of fighting spirit but with no knowledge of ground tactics.
Typical of the defenders was eighteen-year-old Gerhard Cordes, son of a grammer school principal. His hastily organized regiment had just dug positions at the east foot of the ridge. Armed only with hand grenades, machine pistols, rifles and bazookas, they were supported by half a dozen 4-in. flak guns and several antitank guns.
On the evening of April 15 sporadic Russian artillery fire began to fall on their positions, but they were told to dig in deeper. They had no inkling that the main German force was being clandestinely withdrawn to the ridge and that they were being left out front only to put on a show of strength. At two o' clock in the morning 22,000 long-range Russian guns and mortars suddenly burst into a roar on a seventy-five mile front. The heaviest concentration was just in front of Seelow, and it seemed to the terrified Cordes that every single square yard of earth was churned up.
The artillery fire stopped abruptly and a blaze of light hit either side of the Kustrin-Berlin highway. Hundreds of tanks roared toward the ridge. In the gray predawn light, men in the first foxholes, about 600 yards out front in the flat, marshy land, began to run back past Cordes, yelling, "The Russians are coming!" Cordes peered out of his foxhole and saw a terrifying sight: a swell of big tanks stretched as far as he could see. When the first wave loomed closer he saw a second, followed by hordes of loping infantrymen.
All at once there was a tremendous roar. From the top of the ridge hundreds of German flak guns, with lowered barrels, poured their deadly fire into the Russians. Tank after tank burst into flames, their riders blown off. The surviving infantrymen kept running forward with strident shouts. The airmen fired into their ranks and the Red Army men began to falter. A few T-34s broke through on the flanks, but were blasted as they tried to climb the ridge along the road to Berlin. By dawn the attackers, savagely mauled, fell back.
The young airmen had suffered few casualties and were confident, almost cocky. This is not too bad at all, Cordes thought. But he and his comrades were grateful when an order was passed from foxhole to foxhole to crawl back to the ridge. Halfway up they were led to positions in the woods. Down front was a good field of fire, and behind was the protective covering of trees. They felt secure and didn't realize that even after this withdrawal they were still Heinrici's front line of defense -- and within hours would again be Khukov's principle target.
By pulling back his main force just before the opening barrage, Heinrici had not only saved thousands of lives but gained time. Finding almost empty foxholes and emplacements, the Russians apparently feared some trap and hesitated instead of pressing an attack up the ridge which would probably have succeeded.
....Late that afternoon Cordes saw a single Red Army tank cautiously push its nose around a bend in the road and start up toward Seelow. It was obviously trying to draw fire to reveal the German positions. But nothing happened as it climbed farther and farther. It got so close that Cordes could see the grim expression on the tank commander's face as he stood resolutely in the hatch. All at once there was a screech, then an explosion, as an 88-mm. shell tore into the tank's tracks. The crew scrambled out the hatches and down the hill.
An order filtered down the slopes from foxhole to foxhole: Hold your fire and keep quiet. As minutes passed the men out front grew increasingly nervous and almost wished for something to happen. Then in the red glare of sunset Cordes saw a column of tanks snake out of the woods near the bottom of the ridge and start up the hill. A single German flak gun fired. The column turned around clumsily and hid among the trees.
There was an eery silence for two hours and Cordes felt as if all life on earth had somehow stopped .... From an 88-mm. gun emplacement just behind him Cordes heard a gunner call out, "I want those bastards in front of my guns before the first round is fired!"
....Now Cordes could see more shapes. The din of motors and clank of treads was tremendous. The earth trembled. He picked up a panzerfaust. From behind came an abrupt, heavy-throated chorus; 88-mm. shells screeched overhead and smashed into the first tanks. Flames shot up, parts of metal and shell fragments rained over the foxholes. At least six tanks were on fire, but others kept coming on and on. In the reddish glare they stood out with clarity and were helpless before the withering fire of big guns. Red Army infantrymen began erupting from the middle of this massive conflagration. There must have been 800, and they scrambled up the hill shouting, Cordes thought, like madmen.
The airmen fired rifles and burp guns, and hundreds of Russians toppled over. The rest came on, still yelling. More fell and at last, like a great wave that has shattered its strength against a jetty, the attackers fell back.
Cordes slumped back exhausted -- at last he could rest. Suddenly a German tank destroyer passed in front of him and crossed the highway. It fired and in the glare Cordes could see the twenty tanks on the other side of the road. The first smoldered and awkwardly turned around, but the rest advanced slowly. Russian infantrymen darted from behind them and began to lead the way up toward the big German guns.
Cordes and the others on the left side turned and fired. Rounds from a four-barreled flak gun swished over his head with a piercing sound. They exploded in the middle of the Russian infantrymen and a dozen toppled over like tenpins. A second German tank destroyer crossed the road and began raking the survivors with its machine gun.
"Hell, there are four more!" Cordes' companion shouted and pointed at a cluster of tanks on the other side of the road.
...."Get those damn tanks with a panzerfaust!" a voice shouted behind Cordes.
He and two others crawled down the hill. The four tanks were moving now, and as they rumbled up toward Seelow their silhouettes stood out boldly. A man to his left fired. The round flared across the highway like a toy rocket and splattered into the turret of the first tank. There was a flash, then a great roar as the ammunition inside exploded.
Cordes fired at the second tank. It burst into flames. Someone else hit the third tank; it too caught on fire. The commander of the fourth tank gesticulated; the big machine swirled abruptly and started down the hill. Cordes raised his carbine and fired. The commander tumbled onto the road as the tank rumbled off.
At least fifteen of the forty tanks on Cordes' side of the road had broken through and were approaching the top. They began dueling with the emplaced guns at almost point-blank range, and the entire ridge seemed to erupt. There was wild confusion and Cordes had no idea what was going on. Red Army tanks appeared, but what with the roar of shells and motors he was so bewildered that he had no idea where they were going.
Forget the tanks and only shoot infantrymen! someone shouted. Cordes leaped back into his foxhole and fired at moving shapes. Suddenly a Russian hurtled into his hole. His eyes were wild and blood gushed out of a great hole that had once been a chin. Cordes held out his first-aid pack, but when the Russian realized he was with an enemy he scrambled out of the hole and stumbled down the hill.
....At eleven-thirty there was sudden silence. Not a rattle of gunfire, no clatter of tire tracks. When Cordes became accustomed to the relative quiet he heard moans of wounded out front and the faraway rumble of retreating tanks. It was incredible, but the line had held. To his left and right, foxholes were filled with the dead or dying. Just behind, it was almost as bad. At least 30 percent of the airmen had been killed, and of all the big guns only two 88s were left. There were no replacements for guns or men, but all Cordes and his comrades could do was wait in their foxholes for the next attack.
....At five o' clock in the morning of April 17 it was still dark on the ridge at Seelow. The drowsy Cordes came to life when he made out dim forms coming up the right side of the highway. He waited for the comforting explosion of big guns behind him -- but none came. The roar of oncoming tanks was suddenly deafening.
As the sky lightened he could see hundreds of T-34s, covered with infantrymen, crawling up both sides of the road. Dust rose in clouds. Cordes fired two panzerfausts. Behind he heard someone shout, "Get out of here! No more ammo!"
The airmen, who had fought so well in the dark, were seized with panic. As one, they swarmed out of their foxholes and fled back pell-mell to the top of the ridge. Cordes threw away his carbine, his belt, even his helmet, as he dashed through the empty village of Seelow.
Minutes later Red Army men stood on top of the ridge and looked west down the open highway to Berlin. Forty-five miles away lay Hitler's bunker.