The Battle of the Seelow Heights was fought April 16-19, 1945, during World War II (1939-1945). Part of the larger Battle of the Oder-Neisse, the fighting saw Soviet forces attempting to capture Seelow Heights to the east of Berlin. Known as the "Gates of Berlin," the heights were assaulted by Marshal Georgy Zhukov's 1st Belorussian Front. Lasting three days, the battle saw extremely bitter fighting as German troops sought to defend their capital. The German position was finally shattered on April 19, opening the road to Berlin.
Since fighting began on the Eastern Front in June 1941, German and Soviet forces were engaged across the width of the Soviet Union. Having halted the enemy at Moscow, the Soviets were able to slowly push the Germans west aided by key victories at Stalingrad and Kursk. Driving across Poland, the Soviets entered into Germany and began planning for an offensive against Berlin in early 1945.
In late March, Marshal Georgy Zhukov, commander of the 1st Belorussian Front, traveled to Moscow to discuss the operation with Soviet leader Joseph Stalin. Also present was Marshal Ivan Konev, commander of the 1st Ukrainian Front, whose men were positioned to Zhukov's south. Rivals, both men presented their prospective plans to Stalin for the capture of Berlin.
Listening to both marshals, Stalin elected to back Zhukov's plan which called for an assault against the Seelow Heights from the Soviet bridgehead over the Oder River. Though he supported Zhukov, he informed Konev that 1st Ukrainian Front should be ready to strike against Berlin from the south should the 1st Belorussian Front become bogged down around the heights.
With the fall of Königsberg on April 9, Zhukov was able to rapidly redeploy his command to a narrow front opposite the heights. This corresponded with Konev shifting the bulk of his men north to a position along the Neisse River. To support his build up in the bridgehead, Zhukov constructed 23 bridges over the Oder and operated 40 ferries. By mid-April, he had assembled 41 divisions, 2,655 tanks, 8,983 guns, and 1,401 rocket launchers in the bridgehead.
As Soviet forces massed, the defense of the Seelow Heights fell to Army Group Vistula. Led by Colonel-General Gotthard Heinrici, this formation consisted of Lieutenant General Hasso von Manteuffel's 3rd Panzer Army to the north and Lieutenant General Theodor Busse's 9th Army in the south. Though a sizable command, the bulk of Heinrici's units were badly under strength or composed of large numbers of Volksturm militia.Colonel-General Gotthard Heinrici. Public Domain
A brilliant defensive tactician, Heinrici immediately began fortifying the heights as well as constructed three defensive lines to defend the area. The second of these was located on the heights and featured a variety of heavy anti-tank weapons. To further impede a Soviet advance, he directed his engineers to open dams further up the Oder to turn the already soft floodplain between the heights and the river into a swamp. To the south, Heinrici's right joined with Field Marshal Ferdinand Schörner's Army Group Center. Schörner's left was opposed by Konev's front.
Battle of Seelow Heights
- Conflict: World War II
- Dates: April 16-19, 1945
- Armies & Commanders:
- Soviet Union
- Marshal Georgy Zhukov
- approximately 1,000,000 men
- Colonel-General Gotthard Heinrici
- 112,143 men
- Soviets: approximately 30,000-33,000 killed
- Germans: approximately 12,000 killed
The Soviets Attack
At 3:00 AM on April 16, Zhukov commenced a massive bombardment of the German positions using artillery and Katyusha rockets. The bulk of this struck the first German defensive line in front of the heights. Unknown to Zhukov, Heinrici had anticipated the bombardment and had withdrawn the bulk of his men back to the second line on the heights.
Surging forward a short time later, Soviet forces began moving across the inundated Oderbruch Valley. The swampy terrain, canals, and other obstructions in the valley badly impeded the advance and the Soviets soon began to take heavy losses from German anti-tank guns on the heights. With the attack bogging down, General Vasily Chuikov, commanding the 8th Guards Army, attempted to push his artillery forward to better support his men near the heights.Soviet artillery during the Battle of Seelow Heights, April 1945. Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-E0406-0022-012 / CC-BY-SA 3.0
With his plan unraveling, Zhukov learned that Konev's attack to the south was having success against Schörner. Concerned that Konev might reach Berlin first, Zhukov ordered his reserves to move forward and enter the battle in the hope that added numbers would bring a breakthrough. This order was issued without consulting Chuikov and soon the roads were jammed with 8th Guards' artillery and the advancing reserves.
The resulting confusion and intermixing of units led to a loss of command and control. As a result, Zhukov's men ended the first day of battle without achieving their goal of taking the heights. Reporting the failure to Stalin, Zhukov learned that the Soviet leader had directed Konev to turn north towards Berlin.
Grinding Through the Defenses
During the night, Soviet artillery successfully moved forward. Opening with a massive barrage on the morning of April 17, it signaled another Soviet advance against the heights. Pressing forward throughout the day, Zhukov's men began to make some headway against the German defenders. Clinging to their position, Heinrici and Busse were able to hold until nightfall but were aware that they could not maintain the heights without reinforcements.
Though parts of two SS Panzer divisions were released, they would not reach Seelow in time. The German position at the Seelow Heights was further compromised by Konev's advance to the south. Attacking again on April 18, the Soviets began to push through the German lines, though at a heavy price.
By nightfall, Zhukov's men had reached the final line of German defenses. Also, Soviet forces were beginning to bypass the heights to the north. Combined with Konev's advance, this action threatened to envelop the Heinrici's position. Charging forward on April 19, the Soviets overwhelmed the last German defensive line. With their position shattered, German forces began retreating west towards Berlin. With the road open, Zhukov began a rapid advance on Berlin.
In the fighting at the Battle of the Seelow Heights, the Soviets sustained over 30,000 killed as well as lost 743 tanks and self-propelled guns. German losses numbered around 12,000 killed. Though a heroic stand, the defeat effectively eliminated the last organized German defenses between the Soviets and Berlin. Moving west, Zhukov and Konev encircled the German capital on April 23 and the former began the final battle for the city. Falling on May 2, World War II in Europe ended five days later.