Final battle for Berlin was brutal, but by May 1, the Soviet flag flew"> globeandmail.com: Mussolini shot, Himmler suggested surrender

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Mussolini shot, Himmler suggested surrender

The final battle for Berlin was exceedingly brutal, but by May 1 the Soviet flag flew over the city

Globe and Mail Update

The end was coming so quickly it must have been hard to separate one significant historical moment from another. Every day in the last part of April, 1945, the newspapers carried headlines that chronicled the certain demise of the Nazi empire and there was no time to pause to reflect on what was happening.

One day brought news that Soviet troops had surrounded Berlin and the next that they had linked up with U.S. soldiers to bisect Germany.

At the same time, the Italian dictator, Mussolini, was captured and executed and Heinrich Himmler, declaring Germany to be a madhouse, was negotiating a surrender.

But the Second World War was not over yet despite the pell-mell sequence of events. Commanders of British, U.S. and Canadian forces may have been reluctant to commit their troops when the outcome was so inevitable and German soldiers were surrendering in the tens of thousands.

But there were still enough Nazi loyalists to put up a vigorous fight and the Soviet Army was their match.

The battle for Berlin was exceedingly brutal. By April 24, two great Soviet armies that had fought their way from Stalingrad had linked up in the capital and were within a mile of the city centre.

Cut off from the possibility of reinforcements, the German defenders fought viciously, hurling reckless counterattacks at the Red Army. Boys as young as 13 were manning anti-aircraft guns, according to German broadcasts and there were an estimated 8,000 German dead in the 24 hours before the 1st Ukrainian and 1st White Russian armies met.

Soviet artillery units rained destruction on every side; the Associated Press describing it as "a creeping barrage, destroying everything in the line of advance and then moving on to the next block."

By April 26, the sixth day of battle, the Red Army controlled two-thirds of Berlin's pulverized territory but it was finding it difficult to dislodge defenders who were dug into the rubble.

Nevertheless, by May 1, the Soviet troops were flying their flag over the gutted shell of the German parliament, the Reichstag, after taking 54,000 prisoners and discovering the aftermath of what Izvestia newspaper called "an epidemic of suicides" among high-ranking enemy officers. The streets of Berlin were said to be filled with discarded Nazi Party badges, emblems and uniforms. The Soviets immediately laid siege to Hitler's underground fortress in nearby Tiergarten.

"A heroic, gruesome fate has befallen Berlin," said a Hamburg radio station. "The free world is watching with unreserved joy the death struggle of Nazi Germany, that loathsome monster," The Globe and Mail thundered in an editorial.

Just as significant as the destruction and capture of Berlin was the quiet linkup, devoid of ceremony, of Soviet and U.S. troops on the Elbe River near Leipzig.

There had been rumours for days about the encounter of two armies from half a world apart. But the official announcement of the April 25 meeting that cut Germany in half did not come until two days later.

By all accounts, the unofficial meeting was a low-key affair. A 21-year-old U.S. Army lieutenant from Texas greeted the Soviets across the river by waving a Union Jack he had picked up from freed British PoWs. Then, he commandeered a small sailboat to cross to the east bank where the Soviet troops from the 1st Ukrainian Army, their medals gleaming in the spring sun, were shouting: "Americanski." The battle-weary soldiers then shared their meagre combat rations.

An Associated Press story filed on April 27 noted that the two armies had fought across the breadth of Europe in the previous 11 months and had defeated one of the mightiest fighting forces ever assembled. "There was no longer a Western front and an Eastern front."

On April 28, newspapers also carried stories about the dramatic capture of Mussolini at Lake Como by Italian partisans as he tried to flee to Germany. The next day came word that the dictator, along with his mistress and a dozen officials of his deposed government had been executed after a summary trial. Mussolini's last words before being shot in the head, as reported by New York Times correspondent Milton Bracker, were a very undignified "No, no."

Within hours, the corpses were dumped without ceremony in a Milan square where angry Italians took turns spitting at and kicking their former leader. He was later hung by his heels. "The manner of his ending was a fitting epilogue to the life of violence he preached during most of his dictatorship," The Globe said.

Meanwhile, Canadian troops were hitting targets in northwestern Germany and the northeastern Netherlands. The Germans were determined to hold on to their positions in the north of their country in order to accommodate civilians fleeing the advancing Soviet troops. But Field Marshal Sir Bernard Montgomery was just as determined, even though the advance into northern Germany made little sense since the Red Army was already patrolling Berlin.

Canadian troops drove to the North Sea port of Emden toward the Ems River estuary without the amphibious Buffalo vehicles that they had used months earlier in the Rhineland. At the same time, other Canadian units were attempting to reduce the size of a German pocket around the Dutch town of Delfzijl. Faced with the task of fighting over flat country with little cover, Canadian commanders chose to attack only at night.

In both offensives, fields flooded by persistent rain, minefields and fortified gun batteries slowed the advance. Resistance by German troops was not well organized but they had plenty of ammunition and the Canadians suffered heavy casualties. Fighting in the Netherlands ceased long enough for the RAF to drop food to civilians behind German lines.

The hopelessness of the Nazi cause was recognized by Himmler, the powerful SS chief, who attempted in the last days of April to mediate a surrender through a Swedish aristocrat, Count Folke Bernadotte. He told the diplomat that his country had become a madhouse, with Hermann Goering stoned constantly on morphine and Hitler preoccupied with his plans for postwar reconstruction of London and, particularly, Buckingham Palace, where he planned to live after the Germans occupied England.

"I am the only man in the Reich who is sane," Himmler was reported as telling Count Bernadotte.

He offered to surrender to Britain and the United States in the hope that they would join the remnants of Germany's army in fighting the Soviets. However the Allies held firm, insisting that any unconditional surrender offer would be considered only if it was tendered to the Soviet Union as well.

But Stalin looked to be in no mood to end the fighting before complete victory.

"The downfall of Hitlerism is very near," he said after his troops had captured the Reichstag. "Mortally wounded, the fascist beast is at his last breath. The task now is to finish him off."

Please e-mail the Dominion Institute at staff@dominion.ca if you have any letters or photos from Canadian soldiers who died in the final months of the Second World War.

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