Marshal Zhukov recorded that, on that afternoon of 20 April, ‘the long-range artillery of the 79th Rifle Corps of the 3rd Shock Army opened fire on Berlin’. But in fact few people in the city were aware of the fact. Zhukov seemed to have no idea that it was Hitler’s birthday. He was desperate for something to show that he had attacked Berlin before Konev. The guns were firing at extreme range and only the north-eastern suburbs were affected.
When Zhukov heard for certain of Konev’s tank army advancing on Berlin from the south, he sent on that evening an urgent order to Katukov and Bogdanov, the commanders of the 1st and 2nd Guards Tank Armies. He gave them ‘a historic task: to break into Berlin first and to raise the banner of victory’. They were to send the best brigade from each corps to break through to an outskirt of Berlin by 4 a.m. the next day, and to report at once so that Stalin could be informed immediately and it could be announced in the press. In fact, the first of his tank brigades did not reach the outskirts until the evening of 21 April.
South-east of Berlin, meanwhile, Marshal Konev was whipping on his two tank armies across the Spreewald. His main interest was with the 3rd Guards Tank Army targeted at the southern flank of Berlin. Rybalko’s leading tank corps attempted at midday to rush the town of Baruth, just twenty kilometres south of Zossen, but failed at the first attempt. ‘Comrade Rybalko,’ Konev signalled, ‘you are again moving like a hose. One brigade is fighting while the whole army is stuck. I order you to cross the line Baruth-Luckenwalde via a swamp using several routes in an extended battle order. Inform me on fulfilment.’ The town was taken within two hours.
Lelyushenko’s 4th Guards Tank Army, further to the south and west, was heading in a roughly parallel line for Juterbog and then Potsdam. Stalin was still concerned that the Americans might suddenly advance again. The Stavka that day warned Zhukov, Konev and Marshal Rokossovsky of the possibility of encountering the Western Allies and passed on recognition signals. But what neither Konev nor the Stavka seems to have appreciated fully was that his 1st Ukrainian Front advancing from the south-east would run into Busse’s Ninth Army trying to withdraw round the southern side of Berlin. Konev, like Zhukov, had become obsessed with Berlin. That night he dispatched signals to his two tank army commanders: ‘Personal to Comrades Rybalko and Lelyushenko. Order you categorically to break into Berlin tonight. Report execution. Konev.’
Reconnaissance detachments of the 3rd Guards Tank Army had reached Kdnigswusterhausen the evening before. It represented an advance from the Neisse of 174 kilometres in less than six days. They were separated from Chuikov’s 8th Guards Army on the north bank of the Muggelsee by a network of lakes and waterways in between. The two Soviet armies and this barrier effectively meant that Busse’s remaining portion of the Ninth Army was now encircled.
Marshal Konev, warned by air reconnaissance of the mass of enemy troops in the Spreewald on his right, speeded up the 28th Army’s move forward in trucks. These divisions were intended to seal the gap between Gordov’s 3rd Guards Army, finishing off the German forces round Cottbus, and the 3rd Guards Tank Army, pushing on to Berlin. Konev decided to reinforce Rybalko’s tank army with an artillery breakthrough corps -’a powerful hammer’ - and an anti-aircraft division.
By the evening of 22 April all three of Rybalko’s corps had reached the Teltow Canal, the southern rim of Berlin’s perimeter defence line. The German defenders were ‘completely surprised to find themselves face to face with Russian tanks’. A 3rd Guards Tank Army report, in an unusually poetic phrase, described their arrival as unexpected ‘as snow in the middle of summer’.
German communications were so bad that even Army Group Vistula headquarters knew nothing of this advance. And ‘no steps were taken to remove the supplies’ from a large Wehrmacht ration store on the south side of the canal. ‘On the contrary, even when the first Russian tank was only a few hundred metres away, the administrator refused to let rations be distributed to the Volkssturm troops on the north bank of the canal because a regulation issue certificate had not been filled out.’ He set fire to the provisions instead.
The 9th Mechanized Corps had charged through Lichtenrade, the 6th Guards Tank Corps had captured Teltow and, just to its left, the 7th Guards Tank Corps had taken Stahnsdorf. Further to the west, part of Lelyushenko’s 4th Guards Tank Army was ten kilometres short of Potsdam. Further out, two more of his corps were snaking round the western end of Berlin and were less than forty kilometres away from Zhukov’s 47th Army coming from the north.
French prisoners in Stalag 111, close to the Teltow Canal, were enjoying a moment of spring warmth when there was a rush to the barbed-wire perimeter. ‘At about five in the afternoon,’ one of them recorded, ‘the first Russian soldier appeared. He was walking jauntily, quite erect, sub-machine gun at his waist, ready to fire. He was walking along the ditch beside the road. He did not even bother to look at our camp.’ A little later, however, Soviet officers entered the camp. The Russian prisoners there were ordered to fall in. They were handed a rifle or sub-machine gun and expected to go straight into action.
Stalin was still keeping the pressure on his two marshals by stimulating their rivalry. From dawn on 23 April, the boundary between Zhukov’s 1st Belorussian Front and Konev’s 1st Ukrainian Front was extended from Lubben, but now it turned northwards to the centre of Berlin. Konev’s right-hand boundary ran all the way up to the Anhalter Bahnhof. Rybalko’s tank corps at Mariendorf, on the Teltow Canal, was exactly five kilometres south of it. Zhukov had no idea that Rybalko’s army had reached Berlin until late on 23 April, when a liaison officer from Katukov’s 1st Guards Tank Army, approaching from the east, made contact. Zhukov was appalled.
Since reaching the Teltow Canal on the evening of 22 April, Rybalko’s three corps had been given a day to prepare for an all-out assault across it. The concrete banks of the canal and the defended warehouses on the northern side appeared a formidable barrier. And although the Volkssturm detachments opposite were hardly worthy opponents for the 3rd Guards Tank Army, they had been ‘corset-stiffened’ with the 18th and 10th Panzergrenadier Divisions. The breakthrough artillery formations had been ordered forward two days before, but there was such a jam of vehicles on the Zossen road, including horse-drawn supply carts, that progress was slow. If the Luftwaffe had still had any serviceable aircraft, the route would have presented a perfect target. Luchinsky’s 48th Guards Rifle Division arrived in time to prepare to seize bridgeheads across the canal, and the artillery was hurried into place. This was no easy matter. Nearly 3,000 guns and heavy mortars needed to be positioned on the evening of 23 April. This was a concentration of 650 pieces per kilometre of front, including 152mm and 203mm howitzers.
At 6.20 a.m. on 24 April, the bombardment started on the Teltow Canal. It was an even more massive concentration of fire than on the Neisse or the Vistula crossings. Konev arrived at Rybalko’s command post when it had almost finished. From the flat roof of an eight-storey office block, a clutch of 1st Ukrainian Front commanders watched the heavy artillery demolishing the buildings across the canal and wave after wave of bombers from their supporting aviation army. The infantry began to cross in collapsible assault craft and wooden rowing boats. By 7 a.m. the first rifle battalions were across, establishing a bridgehead. Soon after midday the first pontoon bridges were in place and tanks began to go over.