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Book Review: Berlin Battlefield Guide

Simply spell-binding! In the words of that mangler of English, George W Bush, “unputdownable”.

Former British Army military policeman Tony le Tissier is arguably the finest English-language historian of the Battle of Berlin. As the last British commandant of Spandau prison he had the opportunity to live in Berlin and thoroughly explore its surrounds.

 

This, combined with an interest in history, resulted in several excellent books on the climactic battle of the European section of World War Two: the 1945 Battle of Berlin. Notable among these are Zhukov at the Oder about the battle before the city; Race for the Reichstag about fighting in the city; and Slaughter at Halbe about the destruction of the German 9th Army in the Spreewald (Spree forest) south of the city. I addition edited survivors' accounts With our backs to Berlin as well as Death was our Companion and translated Helmut Altner's Berlin Totentanz (Berlin Dance of Death).

 

All of that knowledge is synthesised into this must-have book – and more. Berlin Battlefield Guide is very literally a tour guide to the Oder and Berlin battlefields. Organised into 15 day trips, it can only be described as indispensable to anyone visiting the city and wishing to experience Zhukov's triumph and Hitler's Götterdämmerung; and, perhaps more importantly, can be considered critical to understanding the battle.

 

Amply supplied with extracts of topical topographic maps and well illustrated with photographs – both then and now – the book is an almost perfect substitute for understanding the geography of the battle for those of us who have not had the pleasure of visiting the German capital.

 

Maps are generally the main weakness of most campaign histories, being monochrome, partial and sometimes inaccurate. Le Tissier's detailed, full-colour and scaled, maps are therefore a joy to study. Even better, they are fully-annoted: the author has marked visiting spots as well as points of interest. Both are fully described in the accompanying text.

 

To illustrate: Tour “A” is a day-trip to the Seelow heights and Reitwein spur in the Oderbruch, scene of Zhukov at the Oder. Stop “A1” is at the Seelow Museum, just east of the town with the same name. Here is a former East German museum and Soviet monument as well as a well-tended war cemetery. “In the far corner is an observation point overlooking the Oderbruch valley below with a small concrete table model of the terrain. The photographs show a typical Soviet memorial and an impeccable graveyard. The view from the observation spot is indeed stunning – and helpful for it overlooks the former Reichstrasse 1, the main Soviet axis-of adcance. Le Tissier amplifies the experience by including a annoted topographic map of the same view showing the German defences (down to company/battalion level, using current map symbols) and the Soviet order of attack (at the regimental level).

 

Topographic maps are of less use in cities, and for the town tours Le Tissier substitutes sketch maps showing the routes he describes. He urges the visitor to obtain a tourist map of the city to augment these. Sadly they are not as detailed as the rural maps and less annoted. A pity, but still much better than anything this reviewer has ever seen. The text and photographs, however, make up for this

defect. One can thus follow the various Soviet attacks to the government district where Hitler awaited his fate beneath the wreck of the Reichskanzlei (Reich's Chancellery).

 

The massive Zoo and Humboldthain flak towers receive their due as does Army Headquarters along the Bendlerstrasse, headquarters of the botched July 20 coup against Hitler. In the courtyard here, now a memorial, Colonel Claus Graf von Stauffenberg and his fellow conspirators were shot early in the morning of July 21. A few months later the signals bunker in the same courtyard served as General Helmuth Weidling's headquarters. Weidling, commander of the 56th Panzerkorps of the 9th Army had the misfortune of being appointed Berlin defence commandant when his retreat from the Oderbruch took him into the city. (The bulk of the Army fell back south of the city to die in the Spreewald and one other corps retreated north.) It was he who surrendered the city to Zhukov on May 2.

 

The flak towers were impressive structures that deserve more recognition than they have to date received. These massive forts were fitted with artillery ranging from 20mm to 128mm and largely manned by teenaged Hitlerjugend (Hitler Youth) under Luftwaffe control. The Zoo (Tiergarten) towers were demolished, but the Humboldthain complex still exists, half buried in wartime rubble.

 

Le Tissier also provides a glimpse of Hitler's Germania – his plans for post-war Berlin as epicentre of a Nazi world. Also well documented is the area of the Führerbunker as well as the escape routes tried by its denizens, including Nazi party boss Reichleiter Martin Bormann, SS Brigadeführer (SS Major General) Wilhelm Mohnke and Traudl Junge, the latter Hitler's favourite secretary. (Mohnke commanded the government district). The Friedrichstrasse railway bridge looks rustic now but was a scene of utter carnage on the night of May 1st/2nd. A breakout attempt led by SS Brigadeführer Dr Gustav Krukenberg (commanding the 11th SS Panzergrenadierdivision) was slaughtered there.

 

Moving into the postwar era, Le Tissier also guides us to the the famous “Checkpoint Charlie”, the remnants of the Berlin Wall and Spandau prison where Nazis such as Deputy Führer Rudolf Hess and Germania architect (and armaments minister) Albert Speer were imprisoned.

 

Along the way we pass the scene of the 1953 anti-Soviet riots that Stalin had suppressed with T34 tanks, the German-Russian museum at Karlhorst where the final German was signed on the night of May 8, and the Schöneberg town hall balcony where US President said “Ich bin ein berliner (I am a jam doughnut. The correct German is: Ich bin Berliner.)

 

Out of town again, this time to Potsdam and the Wannsee. Here is the country house where SS Obersturmbannführer Adolf Eichmann in 1942 chaired the so-called Wannsee conference where the fate of Europe's Jews, gypsies and others were determined: extermination. Nearby is Schloss Cecilienhof, venue in July 1945, of the Potsdam conference. The lawn outside is still graced by a large flowerbed in the shape of a red Soviet five-pointed star in a white circle. (Le Tissier photographed it while it was flowering.) Literally down the road from here is the Glienicke bridge where Cold War spy exchanges took place ad the KGB prison where those destined for exchange were kept prior to release.

 

Back in Berlin, those wishing to learn about repression in the German Democratic Republic can visit Stasi headquarters in Normannenstrasse and the camouflaged Hohenschönhausen Prison in Genslerstrasse.

 

South-east of the city is the Spreewald and the grave of the 9th Army as well as that of their foes. The forests also cover the German Army General Staff's headquarters (the “Zeppelin” and Maybach” complexes at Waldstadt near Zossen) as well as the nearby post-war headquarters of the Soviet Group of Forces Germany at Wünsdorf. Further away, at Falkenhagen, towards Seelow, lies Speer's Tabun and Sarin nerve gas factories. The underground Tabun factory with its 5m thick walls became the Warsaw Pact's nuclear blast proof command bunker during the Cold War.

 

All this and more in one volume! Have you ordered yours yet?

 

 

 

 

Berlin Battlefield Guide – Third Reich &Cold War

Tony le Tissier

Pen & Sword

Barnsley, South Yorkshire, UK

2008

 

 

 

 

 

 

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