The assault on the Reichstag was planned for dawn on 30 April. Soviet commanders were desperate to capture it in time for the May Day parade in Moscow. Yet the pressure for results came from those in the chain of command who assumed that nothing had changed, not from Stalin. It is noticeable that once the city had been completely surrounded, preventing any American access, Stalin had relaxed and made no attempt to interfere in decisions on the ground. The Reichstag, nevertheless, remained the chosen symbol for victory over the ‘fascist beast’, and so it was naturally the main focal point for Soviet propaganda.
A war correspondent, summoned to the headquarters of the 150th Rifle Division just a few hours before, was told to hand over his pistol. He did so, horrified that he was being sent home for some misdemeanour. But the captain who had taken it from him put his mind at rest when he came back into the room with a fresh weapon. ‘The order has come through,’ he said, ‘that everyone going to the Reichstag must be armed with a sub-machine gun.’
Amid sporadic fire, the journalist was taken on a zigzag route to ‘Himmler’s House’ - the Ministry of the Interior. Fighting still continued on the upper floors, as the explosions of grenades and the rattle of sub-machine guns made clear. In the basement, however, battalion cooks, with almost as much noise, were preparing breakfast for the assault groups. On the first floor, Captain Neustroev, a battalion commander about to lead the assault on the Reichstag, was trying to orientate himself. He kept glancing down at his map and then up at the grey building ahead. His regimental commander, impatient at the delay, appeared.
‘There’s a grey building in the way,’ explained Neustroev. The regimental commander grabbed the map from him and studied their position again. ‘Neustroev!’ he replied in exasperation. ‘That is the Reichstag!’ The young battalion commander had not been able to imagine that their final objective could be so close.
The journalist also peered from a window. The Konigsplatz outside was ‘covered with flashes and fire and exploding shells and the interrupted lines of tracer bursts’. The Reichstag lay less than 400 metres beyond. ‘If there had been no fighting,’ he wrote, ‘this distance could be crossed in a few minutes, but now it seemed impassable, covered with shell holes, railway sleepers, pieces of wire and trenches.’
The German defenders had dug a network of defences all round the Reichstag. Most daunting of all, a water obstacle ran right across the middle of the Konigsplatz. This was a tunnel which had collapsed from bombing and filled with water seeping in from the Spree. It had been dug as part of exploratory work for Albert Speer’s vast Volkshalle, the centerpiece of the new Nazi capital of Germania. In this devastated, ‘Hieronymus Bosch landscape’, practical jokers had propped up on stones the heads of caryatids blasted by Allied bombs off the Reichstag’s facade.
Once breakfast was dished up, ‘everyone started checking their weapons and spare magazines’. Then at 6 a.m., the first company charged out. They had ‘hardly gone fifty metres when the hurricane of fire from the enemy made them lie down’. Two rather reduced battalions made a dash forward soon afterwards, but many were killed. Heavy fire was also coming from the Kroll Opera House, on the west side of the Konigsplatz, as well as from the Reichstag itself. With the assault force trapped in the crossfire, another division was rapidly deployed to deal with the Kroll Opera House, but first it had to clear the buildings behind on the embankment. More self-propelled guns and tanks were also brought over the Moltke Bridge during the course of the morning to support the infantry on the Konigsplatz. The smoke and dust from the bombardment were so thick that the soldiers never saw the sky.
With heavy artillery and tank fire supporting them, the 150th Rifle Division battalions reached the water-filled tunnel soon after 11 a.m. But when another huge effort was made two hours later, heavy fire came from their right rear. The German anti-aircraft guns on the top of the Zoo bunker, two kilometres away, had opened up on them. They were forced to take cover again and wait until nightfall. During the afternoon, the 171st Rifle Division continued clearing buildings of the diplomatic quarter on the north side of the Konigsplatz and more self-propelled guns and tanks moved up. Some ninety guns, including 150mm and 203mm howitzers, as well as katyusha rocket launchers, fired continuously at the Reichstag. It says much for the solidity of its construction fifty years before, during the Second Reich, that it withstood such a pounding.
Heavy guns continued to thunder away at the Reichstag, less than a kilometre to the north of the Reich Chancellery. Captain Neustroev, the commander of one of the assault battalions, found himself being pestered by sergeants who wanted their platoons to have the honour of being the first into the objective. Each one dreamed of raising the 3rd Shock Army’s red banner over it. Everlasting Soviet glory would be attached to the deed. One banner party was formed entirely from Komsomol members. The banner party selected by the political department for Neustroev’s battalion included a Georgian, picked as ‘a special present to Stalin’. Certain nationalities - such as Chechens, Kalmyks and Crimean Tartars - were rigorously excluded, because it was forbidden to recommend for Hero of the Soviet Union any member of an ethnic group which had been condemned to exile.
Their divisional commander, General Shatilov, who in a moment of misplaced optimism had encouraged Front headquarters to think that the Reichstag had been taken already - the news had been flashed to Moscow - was now ordering his commanders to get a red banner on to the building at any cost. Darkness came early because of the thick smoke, and at around 6 p.m., the three rifle regiments of the 15oth Rifle Division charged the building, closely supported by tanks.
The riflemen, finding that the windows and doors had been blocked or bricked up, needed the heavy guns to blast a way in for them. They eventually forced their way through to the main hall, only to discover German defenders firing down at them with panzerfausts or throwing grenades from the stone balconies above. One of the attackers, Senior Lieutenant Belyaev, vividly remembers the splattering of blood on the huge stone columns.
The casualties were terrible, but the Red Army soldiers, using the usual combination of grenade and sub-machine gun, began to fight their way up the broad staircases, firing from behind balustrades. Part of the German garrison - a mixture of sailors, SS and Hitler Youth - withdrew into the basement. The rest conducted a fighting retreat upwards and back along corridors. Fires, ignited by panzerfausts and hand grenades, started in many rooms and soon the great halls began to fill with smoke.
It was like a deadly rugby match. While the loose scrum fought in chaos, two men of the banner group tried to slip past to race for the roof with their red flag. They managed to reach the second floor before they were pinned down by machine-gun fire. The regiment claimed that a second attempt at 10.50 p.m. succeeded and the red flag flew from the cupola of the Reichstag. This version must be treated with extreme caution, since Soviet propaganda was fixated with the idea of the Reichstag being captured by 1 May.
Whatever the exact time, the ‘hoisting of the Red Flag of Victory’ was a superficial gesture at that stage, since even the official accounts acknowledge the ferocity of the fighting, which continued all night. As the Soviet troops fought their way upstairs, the Germans from the cellars attacked them from behind. At one point Lieutenant Klochkov saw a group of his soldiers crouched in a circle as if examining something on the floor. They all suddenly leaped back together and he saw that it was a hole. The group had just dropped grenades in unison on to the heads of unsuspecting Germans on the floor below.
The next day at the Reichstag, the fighting inside was still savage, which made rather a mockery of raising the red banner of victory before midnight on May Day. One Soviet soldier who tried to throw back a German grenade misjudged his aim. It bounced off the door lintel and exploded at his feet, blowing them off. Soldiers on both sides fought on, exhausted and thirsty, their throats and noses raw from dust and smoke. It made a Soviet officer keep thinking of the Reichstag fire in 1933, which Hitler had used to crush the German Communist Party.
The firing did not die down until the late afternoon. Germans in the cellars shouted, that they wanted to negotiate with a senior officer. The young Captain Neustroev told Lieutenant Berest to pretend to be a colonel. He gave him a sheepskin coat to hide his shoulder boards and sent him forth to negotiate. Shortly afterwards, Germans began to appear from the basement, dirty and unshaven in their ragged uniforms, with their eyes flickering nervously around and ‘smiling like obedient dogs’. Some 300 enemy soldiers and officers laid down their weapons. Nearly 500 had been killed. In the improvised dressing station in the basement lay another 500, although many of them had been wounded before the Reichstag was stormed.