On April 16th, 1945, the biggest battle on German territory of World War II began at 3:00 AM. At the Seelow Heights, located in the Province of Brandenburg on the western side of the Oder River, just 70 kilometers east of Berlin, hell broke loose.
More than 9,000 Soviet cannons, rocket launchers and howitzers, placed only three meters away from each other on a length of 30 kilometers, opened fire as part of the Red Army’s final offensive against Germany in the middle section of the Eastern Front. Stettin to the north and Forst to the south were the other river crossing points.
About one million well-rested and well-equipped Russians soldiers, commanded by Marshall Georgy Zhukov, one of the defenders of Stalingrad, were supposed to rush through the Oderbruch riverscape as the fastest way to Berlin. For propagandistic reasons, they were expected to be there before April 20th, Adolf Hitler’s birthday, and take it before May 1st, International Worker‘s Day at any cost.
Marshall Zhukov had a “brilliant” idea in the best sense of the word: after 20 minutes of heavy artillery fire, at 3:20 AM anti-aircraft headlights lit up the battlefield to blind the enemy. As the German defenders, which were outnumbered one to ten and short even of ammunition, had withdrawn from the bombardment, the very visible Russian attackers ran straight into the fire of Wehrmacht and Volkssturm units, a militia home defense force established in October 1944.
The losses were appalling: on each meter of the front one Russian died, without even achieving a breakthrough. Due to this grave mistake, Zhukov came under enormous pressure and had to take the Seelow Heights at any sacrifice in order not to enrage Stalin. He finally succeeded in the evening of April 19th, when the third and last German line of defense broke down, for which soldiers had even been transported from Berlin by bus.
Soviets tanks at the end rolled northwards and actually managed to reach the outskirts of the German capital at Bernau. The incipient shelling of the city center was Hitler’s birthday gift. Berlin eventually capitulated on May 2nd. 100,000 combatants from both sides died in this preparatory fighting, including those missing in action.