Berlin before the Bear

I’ve been rereading Beevor’s Berlin - The Downfall 1945 (great book by the way), and have reached the part where Eisenhower decides to let the Soviets reach Berlin first, and make no special effort on behalf of SHAEF to attack Berlin, instead focusing on southern and central Germany, sending a frustrated Monty north to Hamburg and Denmark.

The British were pretty hacked off about this decision, Churchill in particular being in a post war frame of mind, thinking that Berlin in the hands of the western Allies would be a crucial bargaining chip in forcing Stalin to play nice with Poland. Eisenhower was unrepentant, maintaining that the strategy he employed brought the war to an end ASAP (and Roosevelt’s desire to make nice to ‘Uncle Joe’ - since we had no idea if the A-Bomb would work, we might need a co-operative USSR to help take down Japan).

Now the hypothetical - it’s early January, 1945. Two questions.

  1. Could the Allies have made it to Berlin first, if they had made the effort?

  2. What would be the consequences if they had tried?

On the first question, I admit I’ve no clue - although consensus seems to be that due to the German penchant for surrender to the western Allies on account of their fear of Soviet mistreatment, it could be accomplished.

The second is the more GD-ish question. At first glance, it seems that this scenario would have avoided the post-war partition and weakened the Soviet position in the Cold War. Beevor, however, argues that Eisenhower made the right decision for the wrong reasons (being rather naive about the importance of Berlin). He argues that Churchill greatly underestimated Stalin’s desire to take Berlin at all costs, as his spies had informed him of the importance of uranium stores and intelligence on it in Berlin. Beevor even goes so far as to suggest that the Soviets would ward off an Alllied vanguard first with airpower, then artillery.

I debated whether to put this in GQ, but it’s unlikely that there’s any factual answer so GD it is. Mods, please kick it over if you think there is.

Eventhough I think the Allies could have made more headways towards Berlin, I highly doubt they would have been able to actually take the city on their own.
As the capital was the last bastion of the ‘Nazi way of life’, I think that it’s defence would probably have been as stiff against the Allies as against the Soviets.

The Soviets took the city with great difficulty and sacrifice and I understand it was a close call. They were on their last legs. And they did it with equipment and zeal that was vastly superior to what the Allies had.

Uh…Roosevelt had already ceded Berlin to the Soviet area of occupation. Although parts of the city would be administered by the Western Allies, the whole city and surrounding area would be on land held by the Soviets.

So Eisenhower’s point was simple – since we’re not going to keep it, why would we go get killed taking it, just to turn it over to the Sovs? The only answer is “because we wanted the honor or bragging rights of having beaten the Soviets to the capital.” Bragging rights are a pretty juvenile thing to die for.

Had Eisenhower taken Berlin first, the effects would be exactly like they really were, historically, except the Americans would have lost more men and the Soviets far fewer. We’d have turned their section of Berlin and the surrounding area over to them as agreed.

Now, if you’re asking, “What if Roosevelt had refused to guarantee lines of occupation at the leadership conferences, or specifically denied the Soviets Berlin,” then Eisenhower would have a lot more explaining to do for his decision to ease off. But the decision that affected the fate of Germany and the dividing line was made long before Eisenhower’s armies were in a position to make a run for Berlin, and made by someone a bit higher up in the chain of command than SHAEF.

Probably not. The Allies had been grinding through the germans like clockwork, but it wasn’t fast going - and they were still a long way away at the time. Further, the Whremacht formations in south/central Germany weren’t illusory. Eisenhower couldn’t have known, and definitely was right in not gambling, that they would surrender when Berlin fell.

A lot of pointless Allied deaths and an extended supply line which ultimately led nowhere.

The Germans were falling apart, yes, but they still had a lot of force in the field and weren’t just surrendering to the first American or Brit they saw. Going after berlin would have been a huge military mistake for an uncertain political gain. Many Germans wanted to surrender, yes, but they didn’t start en masse surrenders until after Hitler died.

Let me putn it this way: the potential gain was small. The potential risk was huge. No rational man would make that kind of gamble.

Beevor is an idiot.

First, the Soviets were not really friends, but they weren’t going to outright attack their allies. Stalin wanted one enemy at a time, no more. Second, berlin was not important. The only reason we think of it as such was that the capital itself was partitioned and became a Cold War hot spot for espionage and such. But the city itself was a minimally important site and wouldn’t have altered the basic Cold War strategic picture.

You could argue that the American/Brits would have been able to take control of most of Germany all the way to Berlin. While this might have happened (Stalin wouldn’t have gone to war for such a trivial land gain when he had all of Poland and Germany east of Berlin as a buffer), it wouldn’t have changed the Cold War calculus anywhere else. The Sovs would still control all of Eastern Europe, with all the evil that entails.

I should also point out that Berlin became a huge embarassment for the Soviets, a permanent minor victory for the western Allies. After all, they didn’t get to keep the city and ultimately it became a symbol of their cruelty and tyranny. But the city WASN’T important, particularly as the American and British bombing and Soviet shelling blew it to kingdom come.

I don’t think it would have made a difference in terms of postwar distribution. As was mentioned, The US and USSR had already worked out the partition, and American troops actually did withdraw from Saxony after the war was over and turned it over to the Soviets.

The Allies DID make it to Berlin first. It just happened to be the Russians. :wink: If you mean ‘Could the US, British and other non-Russian allied forces made it to Berlin first?’, then I’d say the answer is ‘yes’. Though, as has been pointed out up thread, why would they have wanted to?

Possibly less German dead and more American/British/Canadian/Etc dead. I believe that had the US really pushed they could have toppled the Reich earlier than the Russians did, and I think the Germans would have been more willing to surrender to the US and the Brits than they were to the Russians. There was a hell of a lot of bad blood between the Russians and the Germans by this stage, much more so than between the US or even the Brits and the Germans.

The only thing I’m not sure about was the logistics situation for the main US/Brit armies. I know they were poised for an invasion of Germany fairly early but that logistics was a real problem (I seem to recall that Paton tried to push into Germany but was constantly running out of fuel for his vehicles). Assuming that the logistics of such a push could be made viable, I think that the US and Brits could have pushed into Germany more rapidly than the Russians did, since I don’t think the Germans would have fought nearly as fanatically against the US as they did against the Russians (for good reasons, since the Germans pretty much knew what was going to happen in the Russians pushed into Germany).


I think the western Allies would have been hard pressed to take Berlin before the Soviets.

Here’s where things stood on January 15, 1945, which was the latter part of the Battle of the Bulge. Here’s the situation 2 weeks later.

Here’s the situation on April 1, 1945, and 2 weeks later, just before the final Soviet offensive.

ETA: Looks like a German force held out at Dunkirk till the very end. Interesting.

I don’t think we could have made it to Berlin first. The Soviets were closer and they had a lot more troops in the area. And the Germans were not going to let American troops slide through - they had SS units west of Berlin that would have fought.

And Eisenhower had other things to consider. Because of the way the war was going, the main fighting had been in the northern half of Germany. A lot of people, including Eisenhower, were worried that at some point the Germans would fall back into southern Germany. There was some evidence that they had built defensive works and stocked up supplies in the Alpine region (although postwar checks found out this wasn’t the case). The fear was that a large part of the German forces would fall back into this “Alpine redoubt” where they’d be able to hold out for another year of fighting. Eisenhower wanted to prevent this possibility so he sent the American forces through the middle of Germany to prevent any German troops from moving from the north to the south.

And don’t forget Japan. Not knowing if the atom bomb was going to make Japan surrender, we were still planning on an invasion of Japan, which was expected to cause massive casualties. We wanted the Soviets to join us in that campaign. Why seek a pointless confrontation over Berlin? The Soviets had promised to declare war against Japan but we had promised them Berlin. If we suddenly decided to make a move towards Berlin, the Soviets might have used that as a reason to renege on their promise.

Thanks for the replies, some interesting comments.

I thought the partitions weren’t finally decided until Yalta, in February?

To clarify, he doesn’t say that the Soviets would outright attack the western allies - more like, how to put it, ‘put the frighteners’ on approaching forces to slow them down a bit a buy the Red Army time for their approach.

The crisis in the Western Allies’ logistics had been fairly well sorted out by January '45 and was in very good shape by the time of the final offensive across the Rhine and into Germany. The ports at Antwerp and Marseille were open and running and forward depots built up; supplies no longer had to be driven from the beaches at Normandy directly to combat units. COMZ had even prepared itself to support a more rapid advance than SHAEF’s most optimistic predictions. If taking Berlin had been made the number one priority, the Western Allies would at the least have given the Russians a run for their money in a race to be the one to take Berlin.

This of course as you and others have noted this ignores the ‘why,’ post war partition lines had already been decided.

Moidalize already posted links to several maps of where the fronts were. Here’s the location of the frontlines during the Yalta Conference.

It’s pretty obvious we didn’t give Berlin to the Soviets. It was never ours to give away. The Soviets were closer to Berlin than we were to Amsterdam.

I think there were a couple of ways the Western Allies could have got to Berlin first. That is if the Germans wanted them to get there first, and opened up their western flank to allow the US to roll on through and outrun the Russians. Obviously that didn’t happen, and I don’t think it could have happened while Hitler remained alive and the Germans were unwilling to officially negotiate anything. Many German soldiers, in the very last days, in fact headed west, preferring to surrender to American or British troops than to Russians. So it’s conceivable to me that the non-crazy Germans might have tried to negotiate something like that on a much larger scale.

Had Hitler died a few weeks earlier, the Germans might have tried to quietly negotiate something like this with Churchill and Roosevelt. But I think that their response would have been along the lines of, “If you want to strip your western defense and move them east, that’s okay with us – but we’re not going to promise you anything in exchange for that.”

But given the circumstances actually in play at the time. no, I don’t think the west could have won the race by pushing harder in the last weeks of the war.

It is possible that another strategy, pursued from D-Day onward, might have ended with Americans in Berlin sooner. Eisenhower followed a “broad front” strategy, while many of his generals, in particular Montgomery and Patton, were lobbying for a “knife thrust” with the bulk of resources concentrated on a very narrow, fast moving front heading into Germany. In fact, Eisenhower gave it a shot with Operation Market Garden, Monty’s plan. It was a disaster for the Allies, and I think it made Eisenhower much less willing to try high risk operations later.

They in fact did try this, both unofficially in backwater channels through the Swiss before Hitler’s suicide and officially afterwards; the response from the west was in no uncertain terms that the unconditional surrender of Germany was the only acceptable outcome. In the final days, bolding mine

Maps don’t show everything of the situation, the map from Moidalize two weeks after that (the April 1 map) shows a dramatic advance by the Western allies, the encirclement of the Ruhr which ended in the mass surrender of hundreds of thousands of Germans while there was nearly no movement on the Russian side near Berlin in those two weeks. The Soviets faced very heavy opposition in the path to Berlin. I don’t think the West ‘gave away’ Berlin or had it to give away by any stretch, but if for some reason the taking of Berlin before the Russians did was the number one priority it would have been a contest that the West stood some chance of winning, even as the dark horse in the race.

Yes, but…you’ll notice a halt in the advance on either side every time they reach a major river. Assuming the western Allies set out on April 1 to take Berlin, they would have had to stop to regroup at the Elbe. Meanwhile, the Soviets had been sitting at the Oder for two months moving up supplies and artillery in preparation for their offensive. When it came, it was like a tidal wave that enveloped and smashed the remaining German defenses around Berlin. Even if the Americans could have sent out some mobile divisions to streak towards Berlin, they’d have run right into that huge Soviet force.

Doesn’t matter, it’s still stupid. The Soviets were hitting Berlin with everything they had. Assuming their artillery could even have reached the western edge of the city (not really true, either), they’d have ahd to completely strip everything available to even slow the western Allies. Friendly Fire was hardly unknown in WW2.

And Beevors a double idiot for thinking going for Berlin would have been the “smart plan”

I don’t disagree with you and didn’t intend to underestimate the Soviet’s abilities or their more advantageous situation, just that map distances don’t necessarily give a true picture of the situation in themselves. The OP is positing a decision to take Berlin before the Russians did being made in January '45. In such a situation the west would have been the underdog, but it wouldn’t have been entirely outside the realm of possibility.