Battle for the Seelow Heights

Ralph Zuljan

In April 1945 there was little doubt in the Allied camp about ultimate victory over the Third Reich. For Stalin and the Soviet Union the only real goal now was to capture Berlin before the western Allies got there. Stalin was painfully aware of the limited resistance the Allies were meeting in their advance and he knew how desperately the Germans fought against his forces on the Eastern Front. Eisenhower's assurance that there would be no western drive on Berlin merely made Stalin more suspicious of his allies' intentions.

Marshal Zhukov, Stalin's (almost) trusted second in command, was positioned to become the conqueror of Berlin. After loyal and successful service on all sectors of the Eastern Front, the boisterous Marshal of the Soviet Union now commanded 1st Belorussian Front which was poised a mere fifty kilometers from Berlin, along the Oder River. The sheer quantity of Soviet artillery, tanks, planes and men massed into the 1st Belorussian Front seemed enough to assure a quick and decisive victory over the hastily assembled German forces opposite it. Even so, Stalin is reputed to have hedged a couple of weeks before the offensive. He removed the previously established boundary of operations in the Berlin area between 1st Belorussian Front and its southern neighbor, 1st Ukrainian Front, commanded by Marshal Konev. Some have since interpreted this as a none-too-subtle hint to the marshals that what mattered most was that the battle be completed quickly. However, Konev was at a clear disadvantage in this race to Berlin as he had a much longer distance to cover.

Opposite Marshal Zhukov and his forces stood Army Group Vistula, commanded by Colonel General Heinrici. He had replaced Reichsfuhrer Himmler as commanding officer near the end of March and was assigned the unenviable task of preventing a Soviet drive to Berlin from the east. Heinrici's army group consisted of 3rd Panzer Army under General Manteuffel to the north and 9th Army under General Busse in the south, where Zhukov intended to break through. Neither army had any substantial combat value - their units consisted of already depleted army units, numerous divisions of the Volksturm and a myriad of hastily assembled formations that did not have significant combat training or even enough weapons for the individuals pressed into the ranks. There seemed to be little available to Heinrici to offer any significant resistance to a Soviet thrust anywhere along his front line.

Heinrici, however, was probably the most brilliant defensive tactician to fight in World War II. Over time he had acquired a reputation for being unbreakable in a defensive battle. He commanded 4th Army before Moscow during the Soviet winter offensive of 1941-42 and had managed to hold. For two years he continued to hold against what are now known to have been important Soviet attempts to break through his army. They never did.

During the devestating Soviet onslaught in the fall of 1944, Heinrici commanded 1st Panzer Army which resisted the Soviet advance so stubbornly that Heinrici was credited with their hesitation to advance further and the subsequent restoration of a stable German front. Equally important was the fact that Heinrici made do with whatever he was given. He was never favored by Hitler and his commands never received generous quantities of replacements or material. The battle Heinrici was now expected to fight would be no different - Hitler had other priorities.

Ever since the unsuccessful conclusion of the Battle of the Bulge, Hitler had turned his attention southwards to Hungary and its scanty oil resources. In March, the last panzer reserves were used in an attempt to recover the Hungarian oil fields. It failed. Hitler continued to see the threat from the southeast as greater than that from the east, regardless of what his senior generals advised, and he showered what little reserves were left to the German armed forces (including some from Army Group Vistula) on Field Marshal Schorner, Heinrici's southern neighbor.

Schorner, the devout Nazi, commanded Army Group Center facing Marshal Konev's 1st Ukrainian Front. The Soviet leadership had hoped for precisely this. They wanted Konev to appear more menacing and draw German units south away from their intended axis of advance along the Berlin highway. Hitler apparently fell for the deception, leaving Heinrici's command with even less to resist a Soviet assault.

It was a situation that Heinrici had faced before and his four years of command experience on the Eastern Front had prepared him well for the coming battle. Heinrici firmly believed in a defense in depth. When his forces were not engaged in combat they were utilized for building lines of communication and further defensive lines behind the front. Doing so facilitated the movement of units from quiet sectors of the front to the focal point of a battle and it allowed for the ability to fall back in the face of overwhelming forces without losing the advantages of a prepared defense. There were some serious risks involved in the manner in which Heinrici fought back against a Soviet attack.

Heinrici tended to aggressively thin out quiet sectors in order to provide enough forces to the sectors targeted for a breakthrough. Given the generally inadequate number of troops he had available, it was the only way to compensate for Soviet numerical superiority but it left quiet sectors virtually defenseless. That was one reason Heinrici emphasized tactical reconnaissance - it allowed such thinning to take place with reasonable confidence that nothing would happen in the depleted areas. Intensive local reconnaissance provided Heinrici with an accurate and up-to-date picture of the tactical situation along his front. With this he would derive an estimate of when to expect a Soviet offensive to begin and would judiciously order a withdrawal of his main forces to a second line (the main defensive position) hours prior to the time he calculated for Soviet artillery to begin firing. Heinrici never erred in his calculations.

The focal point of this Soviet offensive was the Seelow Heights...

Zhukov concentrated his forces in the bridgeheads established around Kustrin - opposite the Seelow Heights. His plan of attack was essentially conventional for Soviet operations of this period, though somewhat grander in scale. The battle was set to start on April 16th, before dawn; the unique difficulties of nighttime operations were to be overcome by the use of searchlights. An earth shattering artillery barrage would signal the beginning and rifle divisions would move forward in its wake to develop a breakthrough for the tank armies to exploit. Searchlights were to provide artificial light for the units advancing in the dark while blinding any defenders left alive. These troops were not expected to encounter any significant resistance as the preceding artillery bombardment was believed to be sufficient to eliminate any German forces that might offer a defense. The goal for the first day of operations was to capture the Seelow Heights and open the road to Berlin.

Heinrici reinforced the focal point of Zhukov's advance with every unit he could muster. Facing Zhukov on the primary route to Berlin were three defensive belts, stretching to a total depth of about forty kilometers. The Oder River's flood plain along the Seelow Heights, already soaked from the spring runoff, was turned into a swamp by releasing the waters of an artificial lake upstream. This made the terrain unsuitable for the employment of tanks -- blunting the effect of the massive Soviet advantage in armor. Anti-tank ditches, AA guns and generous quantities of Panzerfaust reinforced the troops in the extensive network of trenches. Heinrici used everything available for this final battle on the Eastern Front.

When the attack broke in the pre-dawn hours of April 16th, Heinrici was prepared. Zhukov's rifle armies failed to capture the Heights on schedule. Instead of marching over dead Germans, Soviet troops encountered stiff resistance to their advance -- thanks to Heinrici's tactical withdrawal shortly before the Soviet artillery obliterated his first line of trenches. The massive artillery barrage had fallen on empty earthworks and, to make matters worse for the Soviet soldiers, the searchlights, intended to create artificial daylight, produced blindness and confusion in the ranks, while creating useful silhouettes for the German defenders. Soviet casualties were enormous.

Frustrated by the slow pace of the advance, Zhukov committed his armor to the breakthrough battle (1st and 2nd Guards Tank Armies). It was a serious tactical error. These units had been held in reserve to exploit the anticipated breakthrough so they had not been allotted space in the front line; no coordination between the rifle armies and the tank armies now entering the battle area had been prepared. The swampy terrain forced the armor to use the overburdened roads that the rifle divisions were already using. A giant traffic jam ensued.

An advance of almost six kilometers had been achieved in some areas but the German lines remained intact. Zhukov reported his failure to breech the German lines to Stalin around 1500hrs. It was an unpleasant conversation. Stalin informed Zhukov that Konev's forces, unlike his own, were advancing rapidly and asked him to report back in the evening. That second call was even less reassuring. Stalin correctly accused Zhukov of bad judgement in employing his tank armies so early in the battle. Worse still, Stalin told Zhukov that Konev would be given permission to wheel his tank armies towards Berlin from the south. The battle of the Seelow Heights was proving to be a serious blow to Zhukov's prestige.

On the second day, further advances into the German defensive positions were achieved -- at a heavy cost in casualties. Soviet rear area services were now being combed out to find the replacements needed at the front and doubts about the viability of traditional Soviet tactics of massed attack were quietly expressed by some of the Soviet commanders engaged in the battle. The German front before Zhukov remained unbroken at the end of the day. Heinrici's forces were holding on, but only just.

To the south of Army Group Vistula, the battles were not going nearly as well. 4th Panzer Army, the left flank army of Schorner's Army Group Center, was being battered westward by the forces of Marshal Konev's 1st Ukrainian Front. A gap had already opened by April 17th. Busse's 9th Army, the right flank army of Heinrici's Army Group Vistula, was faced with having to fall back in order to avoid an envelopment from the south. In effect, Konev's successful attacks on Schorner's poor defenses, to the south of the battle of the Seelow Heights, was unhinging Heinrici's brilliant defense.

By the end of the third day, the German defense was beginning to falter. The few remaining Army Group reserves arrived too late to occupy prepared positions, which fell into Soviet hands. The time and resources necessary to establish a new defensive line did not exist. On this day Soviet losses were again substantial but they managed to reach the third German defensive line. There was little available to stop their further progress towards Berlin.

On the fourth day, the Soviets finally effected a breakthrough against the 9th Army. The epic battle of the Seelow Heights was over. After three days of fierce resistance there were no German forces left to offer a defense and the road to Berlin was open to Zhukov. Heinrici's method assured that everything available to stop a Soviet thrust had been used. Nothing but depleted remnants of once powerful German armies stood in Zhukov's way. It would not be a German version of Stalingrad.

German defeat in this final battle of the Eastern Front seemed to have been a forgone conclusion. Yet, Heinrici managed to do what no-one else could have done under the circumstances. He delayed Zhukov by three days, embarrassing the best commander in the Soviet army in the final days of the war. It turned what was to be Zhukov's triumphant march to Berlin into a race against Konev, who had faced a far lesser opponent.

Part I originally published in "World War II" at on April 1, 1999. Part II originally published in "World War II" at on May 1, 1999.
Revised editions published in "Articles On War" at on July 1, 2003.

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