Zero Hour

‘Stunde Null’, the Germans call it — ‘zero hour’, the starting point for a new Germany, no longer under the Nazi yoke. Out of the ruins would a modern liberal democracy soon rise. But the scars, whether physical or psychological, took longer to heal.

Walk through Berlin today and the signs of the battle that raged in its streets 75 years ago are there to see. Where in the centre around Unter den Linden old buildings still stand, often they are pockmarked by shellfire. In the rebuilt Reichstag, that symbol of recent German unity, is preserved the graffiti of conquering Soviet soldiers. The reminders are potent, but no-one with an appreciation of Berlin is likely to forget. In its perpetual state of post-Cold War renewal, it embodies the events that followed directly from 1945 — a city and country divided by its liberators, allied in war but soon irreconcilable in peace.

Having succeeded in crossing the River Oder and taking the strategically vital Seelow Heights (Seelower Höhe), as of 19 April 1945 the Red Army had virtually a clear run at Berlin. Fierce Soviet shelling began the next day, and soon the Third Reich’s capital found itself encircled. The final collapse was inevitable. Even so, it occurred at shocking cost. Close on 1.1 million Soviet military personnel were awarded their country’s Berlin campaign medal, but just under 305,000 had been killed or wounded. No truly accurate figures for civilian casualties exist; a million Berliners were left homeless, and in the region of 100,000 women, perhaps substantially more, were raped by rampaging Red Army troops.

Berlin’s airfields had seen their share of fighting. At Tempelhof, nearest the city centre, the piles of wrecked Focke-Wulf Fw 190 airframes told their own story. Since 1940 the airport’s imposing terminal had been used by Bremen-based Weser Flugzeugbau as one of its production facilities, making much use of the building’s extensive underground tunnels. There were built significant numbers of Junkers Ju 87s, the last of 1,960 examples (according to F. Herbert Wenz in ‘Flughafen Tempelhof: Chronik des Berliner Werkes der Weser Flugzeugbau GmbH’, Stedinger Verlag, 2006) being delivered from Tempelhof in October 1944. Efforts then switched to the overhaul and repair of Fw 190s, of which it is believed more than 1,000 passed through. A plan to start Messerschmitt Me 262 production never reached fruition, though work was carried out on an assembly line. Involved throughout were large numbers of forced labourers from countries invaded by the Nazis.

A 1945 image that makes clear the scale of Tempelhof’s main airport building and hardstandings. C-47s and, by the look of it, a few B-17s are parked on the apron. NATIONAL ARCHIVES AND RECORDS ADMINISTRATION

Over Tempelhof was fought a lengthy battle. A Panzer division stationed there held out for as long as possible, but on 26 April 1945 the remaining defenders were forced into retreat. Members of the 28th Guards Rifle Corps, supported by the 1st Guards Tank Army and by Polikarpov U-2 biplanes performing artillery spotting, took the airfield early that afternoon. It was the second in Berlin to fall, the Soviets having two days earlier captured Johannisthal-Adlershof, former home of the Deutsche Versuchsanstalt für Luftfahrt (DVL) research facilities. For Tempelhof their intentions were clear. As Antony Beevor wrote in ‘Berlin: The Downfall 1945’ (Penguin, 2003), “Soviet troops rounded up 2,000 German women in the southern suburbs and marched them to Tempelhof aerodrome to clear the runways of shot-up machines. Red Army aviation wanted to be able to use it as a base within twenty-four hours.”

Out in the south-western suburbs, meanwhile, Gatow had experienced a fairly quiet war. Opened during 1935 as a Luftwaffe training base, so it remained throughout hostilities, schooling pilots until October 1944. As Berlin fell, however, it was the scene of an especially notable flight. From Gatow on 26 April 1945 flew the Fieseler Fi 156 Storch in which Generaloberst Robert Ritter von Greim and his lover, the test pilot Hanna Reitsch, famously touched down near the Brandenburg Gate. The sortie, of course, was made in order for von Greim to meet with Hitler at his nearby bunker and be appointed commander-in-chief of the Luftwaffe, in place of the dismissed Hermann Göring.

Making for Spandau, elements of the Soviet 47th Army engaged in the battle for Gatow airfield. Last-ditch attempts at defence roped in the based Luftwaffe students, to no avail. It concluded on 27 April, when the Red Army took over. Key to the successful outcome from the Soviet point of view was, a number of accounts state, destruction from the air of a flak battery that supported the airfield’s defence by firing across the Havel river.

Both main airfields were, after a fashion, serviceable. At Tempelhof were located in the immediate aftermath Soviet types, including Ilyushin Il-2s and Polikarpov U-2s, from units attached to the 16th Air Army. Briefly based were ‘Sturmoviks’ of, according to ‘Rote Plätze’ by Stefan Büttner and Lutz Freundt (AeroLit, 2007), the 71st Guards Ground Attack Regiment. Some of the U-2s seen there may have hailed from a communications squadron set up at Adlershof. It does not appear as if any Soviet units were based at Gatow, always apparently referred to as Kladow in Soviet documents at the time, but various aircraft certainly landed there.

Neither Tempelhof nor Gatow, however, was to remain in Soviet hands. For the reasons behind this, we must go back to September 1944 and the signing by the Americans, British and Soviets of the London Protocol, an agreement on the division of post-war Germany into occupation zones. Berlin, located deep inside the intended Soviet zone, was to be given exceptional status — it, too, was to be divided between the occupying Allied nations, into what were termed sectors. Initially excluded, following decisions taken at February 1945’s Yalta conference between Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin the French were assigned zones and sectors in line with the other three powers, placing Germany and Berlin under quadripartite control.

By entering the capital first, the Soviets sought to gain strategic advantage. The commander of Berlin’s defences, Gen Helmuth Weidling, capitulated on 2 May, the day on which was taken the famous, if much-retouched, photograph of Red Army soldiers raising the Soviet flag on the roof of the bombed-out Reichstag. Still, American troops were some way away, and all Berlin’s airfields very much under Soviet control. At Tempelhof were briefly interned many prisoners of war, among them members of the pro-German Russian Liberation Army, awaiting transport to the Soviet Union.

The extent of damage to the Tempelhof terminal is obvious in this July 1945 view. One of the first C-47s to arrive is at right. NATIONAL ARCHIVES AND RECORDS ADMINISTRATION

They had gone by 8 May, when there arrived at Tempelhof a number of transport aircraft carrying those to be involved in the formal German surrender. First to land was a Lisunov Li-2 carrying as its most important passenger Andrei Vyshinsky, the deputy Soviet foreign minister. Following shortly afterwards were a number of C-47s, including both US Army Air Force examples and at least one RAF Dakota. In one were Air Marshal Sir Arthur Tedder, deputy to Gen Dwight D. Eisenhower in the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force and his representative on this day, and Gen Carl Spaatz, AAF commander in Europe. Aboard another was the German delegation, comprising Wehrmacht supreme commander Generalfeldmarschall Wilhelm Keitel and his opposite numbers in the Kriegsmarine and Luftwaffe, Generaladmiral Hans-Georg von Friedeburg and Generaloberst Hans-Jürgen Stumpff.

From the airport they were driven to Karlshorst in eastern Berlin, where Marshal Georgy Zhukov, chief of the Red Army’s general staff and now commander of the Soviet zone of occupation, had established his headquarters. In this unassuming building, today home of the Deutsch-Russisches Museum Berlin-Karlshorst, gathered the representatives of the victorious and vanquished. German forces had in fact signed surrender documents in Reims the previous day, but, for various reasons, Stalin insisted that they be made ‘official’ with a second signing in Berlin. Thus was 8 May (9 May in the USSR owing to the time difference) designated as the end of World War Two in Europe. In this, as it would in many events to come, Tempelhof played a part in history.

Tempelhof was in the sector of Berlin allocated to the Americans, Gatow — after some re-distribution of land — the British. To say that the Soviets were in no hurry to see the arrival of their erstwhile allies is an understatement. On 2 June, Col Frank Howley, later to become US commandant in Berlin, was en route by road to the city for a reconnaissance. The Soviets stopped his convoy near Potsdam, and only Howley, under escort, was permitted to inspect Tempelhof. For East-West relations, not an auspicious start.

Just three days on, the reception at Tempelhof was rather warmer. In Berlin on 5 June met all four Allied military commanders-in-chief to discuss the terms of their occupation. Set up under Red Army auspices, the Tägliche Rundschau, Berlin’s first post-war daily newspaper, gave an unsurprisingly positive impression. “A guard of honour is lined up on the concrete runway”, it wrote, confusing runway with apron. “Tempelhof airfield is decorated with the flags of the Soviet Union, the United States of America, Great Britain and France”. The report went on to recount how 10 American aircraft, believed to have been C-54 Skymasters, appeared overhead and landed in turn, one disgorging Eisenhower and his staff; French and British machines followed with their delegations, headed respectively by Maréchal Jean de Lattre de Tassigny and Field Marshal Montgomery. From the airport they travelled to the Soviet HQ in Köpenick.

The resulting Berlin Declaration stated that the Allies would “assume supreme authority with respect to Germany”. Also affirmed were the boundaries of the occupation zones. With agreement that Britain and America would start withdrawing their forces from the Soviet Zone, the way was clearer for the Western Allies to take over their sectors of Berlin. It still wasn’t easy, though. An advance party of No 19 Staging Post, RAF found as much when, on the afternoon of 28 June, they turned up by road at Gatow. To quote the unit’s operations record book, “They were at once hemmed in by Russian armed guards and put into one hangar where they remained until the afternoon of 30 June. This was inexplicable as it was the opposite to the cordial reception offered to the ‘Recce’ party on 27 June.”

Previously based at Fuhlsbüttel near Hamburg, No 19 Staging Post had the responsibility of getting Gatow up and running as an RAF airfield, not least in preparation to receive participants in the Potsdam conference between the American, British and Soviet heads of government. This was easier said than done. Before their departure, the unit record states, the Soviets “had taken away all the easily removable equipment, etc, and left litter and confusion behind them”. Nevertheless, Gatow became operational on 2 July, Anson XII PH698 being the first RAF aircraft to land. About an hour later followed Dakota IV KN508, and then an aircraft type that had seldom, if ever, made it as far as Berlin — Hurricane IIc MW361, formerly of No 1697 Flight (see the April 2015 Aeroplane) but now on the strength of the Second Tactical Air Force Communications Squadron.

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Prime Minister Winston Churchill disembarks from Skymaster I EW999 at Gatow on 15 July 1945, using steps specially made for No 19 Staging Post. NATIONAL ARCHIVES AND RECORDS ADMINISTRATION

 

The challenges the Americans faced at Tempelhof were similar. Order had to be found amongst the chaos. After the airfield fell into Soviet hands, some of the former Weser Flugzeugbau employees had been given space to repair buses and trams for the BVG, Berlin’s municipal public transport operator. They were ordered to leave as US forces required the facilities To some extent they were fortunate to have any buildings at all, as various sources state that the last airport director of the Nazi period, Rudolf Böttger, was under orders to blow up the huge terminal rather than let it fall into enemy hands. Accounts differ as to whether he decided instead to commit suicide, or was murdered for not carrying out the order.

Much work was required to render usable Tempelhof’s main building, the magnificent pre-war brainchild of architect Ernst Sagebiel. Construction had largely been finished pre-war, but it was not entirely completed, and only under US control did it actually come into operation once damage caused by air raids and Soviet shelling had been made good. AAF elements started to arrive on 2 July, some 20 C-47 Skytrains arriving from Köthen in order to establish an American presence. Command was assumed by the 473rd Air Service Group two days later, and the men of the 852nd Aviation Engineer Battalion began the arduous job of repairing the ravaged site. “When advance air corps detachments arrived here”, reported the Berlin Sentinel, the city’s US military newspaper, “they found the base resembling a city dump. Debris was scattered over acres of buildings and grounds. Rooms were [gutted] with tons of paper records and twisted girders.”

There was little time, for 15 July saw the first Allied governmental and military dignitaries arriving preparatory to the Potsdam conference, Operation ‘Terminal’ as it was dubbed by the British. Gatow welcomed the biggest names, and by mid-afternoon the airfield’s apron, “which earlier in the day had been almost empty was now filled with distinguished personages: British, American and Russian, the latter being the most colourful”. The coming of the main American party, led by President Truman, added further C-54 Skymasters to the line-up, and one more was to follow. “At 1800 hours”, notes the No 19 Staging Post record, “came the great moment for which the spectators had most eagerly awaited. The Prime Minister’s Skymaster” — his personal aircraft, serial EW999 — “drew up on the tarmac, and excitement ran high when the steps, specially made for the occasion, were set in position and the familiar figure of the Prime Minister, with cigar, appeared.”

As the Potsdam delegates discussed the shape of the post-war world, taking decisions with far-reaching implications for Germany and Berlin, so Britain awaited the result of its first post-war General Election. When on 26 July it came in, reports of Labour’s landslide travelled fast. At Gatow, the record continues, “there was some speculation as to whether or not Mr Winston Churchill would return to Potsdam with the new Prime Minister Mr Clement Attlee”. The conference was Attlee’s first major engagement, and he, together with his new Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin, duly arrived on the evening of 28 July.

Escorting the Prime Ministerial Skymaster in were 12 Mosquitoes, a dozen each from Nos 29 and 85 Squadrons. They had joined up with the transport over Northolt; according to 85’s record, “After orbiting Potsdam till the PM had landed, they landed at Hilversheim [presumably meaning Hildesheim] to report, and flew back after dark. Most of the crews did more than 7 hours, the last aircraft landing at 23.00hrs.”

Almost no sooner had the new Premier reached Berlin than it was time for him to go. He and Truman left Gatow for the UK on 2 August, and after just a couple more days the excitement of Operation ‘Terminal’ was over. Still, there was some clearing-up to do — the record for 6 August reads, “A Dakota left for UK with cargo of 9,074lb of wine, foodstuffs etc, remaining after end of the Conference.”

It had been a busy time at the American sector’s airfield, too. “Tempelhof personnel cleared more than 100 planes a day”, said the Berlin Sentinel, “along with several hundred passengers and heavy freight shipments during the period of the Potsdam conference”. August 1945 saw C-47s taking up residence with the AAF’s 301st Troop Carrier Squadron, soon assigned to the intra-theatre personnel and cargo-carrying network set up under the auspices of the European Air Transport Service.

A dozen AAF Skytrains detached to Gatow in late August, using it as their operating base for airborne landing demonstrations at Tempelhof staged for the benefit of various VIPs. Some were towing CG-4 Hadrian troop-carrying gliders. “The Russians took some interest in the performance”, according to the Gatow station archive, “to the extent of putting a drogue-towing [U-2] biplane and some Sturmovik fighters [sic] in the circuit at the same time”. A portent of harassment to come…

Spitfire XIV TZ142 of No 451 Squadron about to taxi for a mission from Gatow in late 1945. KEY COLLECTION

No wonder, perhaps, that some air defence provision was deemed desirable. On 18 September, Gatow welcomed the Spitfire XIVs of No 453 Squadron, a Royal Australian Air Force unit formerly stationed with occupation forces at Fassberg. It was a short-lived stay. Soviet objections restricted the Spitfires to flying within the confines of the British sector, and so little airspace was available for meaningful operations that 453 moved to Wunstorf after just a month. Another RAAF Spitfire XIV squadron, 451, detached for a similar period towards the year’s end.

Otherwise, Gatow and Tempelhof went about their day-to-day business — receiving high-level military and governmental visitors to Berlin or points east, supporting the occupation forces, and thereby doing their bit to aid economic and social reconstruction in the Western sectors. Fraternisation with the local populace was still forbidden — at this early stage, the Allies were present very much as victorious occupiers — but first steps were being made. In this the Americans led the way, using German civilians to assist in reconstruction work at Tempelhof.

For the average Berliner, times remained unimaginably hard. A report in Flight on 27 September 1945 provides a vivid description: “Visiting Berlin by Avro Anson”, wrote G. Geoffrey Smith, whose piece also appeared in The Autocar, “we approached by Potsdam and Spandau, alighting at the Gatow airfield operated by the RAF. Devastation in this once proud capital is enormous. A curious stench pervades the atmosphere. We toured some of the main streets, including Charlottenburg, by Mercedes car, and, of course, visited the [Reich] Chancellery, and noted that the debris remains untouched save by souvenir hunters. Live ammunition was scattered everywhere; the place is a shambles save for the outer walls. Floors, elegant panelling, tables and chairs were shattered. Russian soldiers — some mere boys with rifles slung on their backs — strutted around, and soldiers of every Allied nation were examining the general wreckage of the place. Outside in the Tiergarten exchange by barter was in full swing, Russians and Germans seeming to predominate.”

Such would be everyday life in Berlin for some time yet. There were new normalities to which the Western Allies had to adjust, too. Soviet obstruction was on the rise, British and American flights over Soviet-occupied territory — in other words, flights to anywhere outside Berlin itself — being subject to severely delayed clearance. In October, recorded No 19 Staging Post, “an aircraft with a load of penicillin, half of which was a free gift to the Russians, could not obtain a clearance to fly to Warsaw for five days. It was suggested by various people that the aircraft should take off irrespective of clearance, but the Russians apparently getting wind of this informed us in no uncertain terms that if this did happen they would have no compunction about forcing the aircraft down”. So much for alliances.

The establishment of three 20-mile-wide air corridors to provide connections with the Western zones of occupied Germany did little to ease things, but did at least come to guarantee vital ‘lifeline’ links. Their importance might not generally have been apparent as 1945 came to an end, but the signs were there.

Yes, in this new post-war era, all bets were off. It was a situation with which Berlin, and Berliners, would have plenty of time to come to terms.