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325 CHAPTER SIXTEEN End Game WAITING FOR THE STORM Most operational studies of the Great Patriotic War prepared by the Soviet General Staff are candid and objective, limited only by the political sensitivity of certain subjects. Subconsciously, therefore, the reader develops an image of the Soviet leaders as cold-blooded and calculating as they closed in for the kill. In fact, everyone from Stalin down to the lowest soldier was emotionally and mentally preoccupied with seizing Berlin. After more than three years of enormous destruction and horrendous casualties, the Soviet forces were determined to destroy the enemy regime and bring the war to an end. Moreover, having expended so much blood and energy to defeat the German Army in the field, Soviet commanders were in no mood to allow their Western Allies to seize the final triumph. Quite apart from Stalin’s desire to dominate postwar central Europe and the Allied agreement that the Soviets should seize the city, this emotional preoccupation drove the Red Army forward toward Berlin, albeit in April rather than February. The German defenders were equally determined and desperate. Only the most fanatical of adherents of National Socialism retained any hope of ultimate victory, but the brutality of the Red Army in the eastern provinces boded ill for the safety of anyone, civilian or soldier, who fell into Soviet hands. Indeed, German accounts of the final campaigns have given the Red Army a justified reputation for atrocities. Indiscipline became so rampant that the invaders even raped Soviet women who were in Germany as slave laborers.1 The equal, if not greater, horrors perpetrated by the Wehrmacht in Russia—horrors that help explain but do not excuse Soviet vengefulness— have been all but forgotten in the West. Hitler’s regime made a final convulsive effort to gather strength for its own defense. Leaving only limited forces to face the Western Allies, OKW assembled an estimated eighty-five divisions and numerous smaller units for the final struggle on the Eastern Front.2 Many of these organizations were composed of old men, boys, and soldiers whose wounds or ailments made them unsuited for active service. Volkssturm (Home Guard) troops of this kind had only limited training and fighting capacity and had significant shortages in heavy weapons and communications. Moreover, even though 326 Chapter Sixteen Germany could still muster thousands of aircraft and armored vehicles, the Allied air superiority and shortages of fuel limited the effectiveness of these weapons. Still, the defenders were well equipped with small arms and shortrange antitank weapons such as the panzerfaust. As the Allies closed in, the Germans were also able to divert thousands of antiaircraft guns, previously aimed skyward at B-17 and Lancaster bombers, to ground defense. Perhaps most significantly, the vastly shortened front and the wealth of half-trained infantry troops formed around a core of hardened veterans permitted the German commanders to man two and even three successive defensive lines simultaneously. This proved to be a significant advantage, especially because, on 30 March, Adolf Hitler approved an OKH decision specifically authorizing a defense in depth rather than the stand-fast orders of the previous months.3 During the battles of 1944 and early 1945, Soviet commanders had acquired a habit of breaking through a thin German defensive crust and exploiting so rapidly that, even when Hitler authorized a withdrawal , the enemy was unable to pull his troops back to the next defensive line in time. Now, however, the Red Army lacked the operational depth in which to maneuver. With the city of Berlin only 60 kilometers to their front and with the forward lines of their Allies only 100 kilometers beyond Berlin, the Soviets faced the unwelcome prospect of conducting repeated penetration attacks against successive, fully manned defensive lines anchored on increasingly urbanized terrain. Neither side remained passive while the Red Army built up supplies and forces for the inevitable assault on Berlin. In early March, hard on the heels of the Soviet Lower Silesian operation, Field Marshal Ferdinand Schörner, commander of Army Group Center, launched a series of local counterattacks in Silesia. Schörner concentrated particularly at Lauban, where a multidivision attack on 2–5 March took the city back from Rybalko’s surprised 3rd Guards Tank Army. However, Schörner lacked both the time and the forces needed to achieve significant results against Konev’s 1st Ukrainian Front. In addition, heightened Soviet activity in Silesia and Hungary prompted Hitler to assess correctly...


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