Seventeen year olds hold defences in burning Berlin

T-34-85 tanks of the 7th Guards Tank Corps in the suburbs of Berlin. In the foreground is the burning skeleton of a German car.

T-34-85 tanks of the 7th Guards Tank Corps in the suburbs of Berlin. In the foreground is the burning skeleton of a German car.

The Red Army were now in the outskirts of Berlin and a battle on the streets was beginning. Stalin was urging his Generals relentlessly on and there would be no attempt to limit Soviet casualties during the final assault on the German capital.

Inside the ruined city there were apocalyptic scenes as the various different groups of German armed resistance, from SS and regular Wehrmacht troops to the hastily recruited Volkssturm and Hitler Youth groups, were being organised into increasingly desperate lines of defence.

Seventeen year old Helmut Altner had just been called up and had began his Wehrmacht training on the 30th March. After less than two weeks in the barracks they were on the front line, continuing their training as they faced the Red Army from trenches east of Berlin. They had been lucky to survive the first attacks on the 16th and had then retreated back.

On the 23rd they were sent out again to join defences in the west of Berlin:

We come to Spandau, passing through the town’s ruins, and drive across a bridge; and turn towards Spandau-West. We are both tired and shattered. We have left the trailer sides open, so that every time we go round a bend we sway to and fro, in danger of falling off. The tractor stops almost without our noticing it.

Everyone grabs his things and we are standing on the street again. The tractor drives off, the sound of its engine gradually fading in the distance until it vanishes completely. Peace reigns over the streets, only our footsteps raising a loud echo from the walls of the passing buildings.

We march along the streets half asleep. Then we stop at an air raid shelter and rest for a minute before going on again. The buildings are set farther back from the street now and gardens begin to appear.The second lieutenant says that we are approaching Hakenfelde.

Slit trenches have been dug into the verges and the foundations of an anti-tank barrier await completion. On our left the wood piles and sheds of a large sawmill are burning fiercely, throwing a bright light across the street.

Another aircraft clatters over and we throw ourselves down and wait for the howling of the bombs, which hit the burning sheds and scatter sparks, sending burning planks whirling into the air. And again one hears the tacking of the engine as the plane flies at its target, the whistling and the exploding bombs.

The street is lit up as light as day. We press ourselves tight against the wire mesh fence, as if it could give us cover, clutching at the earth with our fingers. Across the street the bombs continue to strike into the flames, whipping them up even higher. Our hearts beat wildly, praying for it all to end. Then it quietens down as the humming of the aircraft engine dwindles in the distance.

We brush the sand off our uniforms and march on. An apartment block looms out of the night on the left, and on the right a vast building with hundreds of windows reflects the flames. A long, high brick wall separates the Hakenfelde Aircraft Instrument Factory from the street. Suddenly the hum of aircraft engines returns and they are overhead again.

The roaring resumes and we throw ourselves down, pressing tight against the brick wall and wait, wait as we have already done so often. Then come the bangs and splintering as the bombs strike the stone colossus next to us. Splinters and masonry shower down around us, falling on our steel helmets and our bodies. The explosions in the street go on and on. The lights in the stairwell of the building across the street suddenly come on. We shout, and it goes dark again, except for the fires burning everywhere, lighting up the street.

At last it is quiet. We run across the street and dive into the building, then go down the steps into the cellar, where a burning candle spreads a little light. The second lieutenant is sitting in a corner asleep, having fled into the cellar as soon as the bombing started. I sit down in a corner and try to sleep. Outside the bombing has started again.

A bright light comes from the entrance to an air raid shelter and a man comes out. A radio is quietly playing marches. Suddenly a voice comes from the set: ‘The fighting for the capital has intensified. . . Kopenick railway station, which had been lost, has been retaken by counter-attack and an enemy attack on it driven back. A breach by Soviet troops on Prenzlauer Allee has been contained. The enemy is pressing through the northern suburbs of Berlin.’

Then come marches again and ‘Deutschland, Deutschland uber alles!’ As Goebbels says: ‘The darkest hour comes before the dawn.’

The candle has gone out. The air raid shelter door is shut tight. Hearty snoring comes from a dark corner and someone is talking in his sleep. I curl up and try to sleep, but sleep will not come. My thoughts allow no rest, going on and on, swirling around. I look at the time. It is late. The old day has ended unnoticed and a new one has started while we have been lying here waiting. Why, I do not know.

See Helmut Altner: Berlin Soldier: An Eyewitness Account of the Fall of Berlin

Soviet tank T-34-85 accompanied by infantry moves down the street on the outskirts of Berlin.

Soviet tank T-34-85 accompanied by infantry moves down the street on the outskirts of Berlin.

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