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The Heart of a General: Seelow Heights Revisited


Pictured: Colonel-General V. I. Chuikov (left) on the Seelow Heights during the Berlin operation. Nearby are Generals Pronin, Byalyatsky, and Yashchuk, 16 April 1945.


A previous blog post explored the strained relationship between Marshals Chuikov and Zhukov and the fundamental disagreement over pressing forward to Berlin earlier rather than later. Another incident occurred during the drive to Berlin in April 1945 when Marshals Zhukov and Konev were pitted against each other to see which rival would take the city first. Journalist Sergei Baimukhametov reviewed what actions took place in those first crucial days of the Battle for Seelow Heights:


“According to the plan of the Stavka, it was ordered to take Seelow with strikes from the combined arms armies and to let the tank armies of Mikhail Katukov and Semyon Bogdanov bypass from the north and northeast. But Zhukov changed the plan. In his memoirs, he says that Stalin agreed: ‘Act as you see fit, you know better where you are.’ Zhukov placed tanks behind the infantry of [Chuikov’s] 8th Guards Army in order to break through the defenses with an infantry attack, and then bring two tank armies into the ‘clean breakthrough’—directly to Berlin. But the very first wave of infantry drowned in blood and fire. The second one too. By itself, the order shows [Zhukov’s] attitude towards soldiers as consumables: go ahead of the tanks, equipment is more valuable than a person!


Vasily Chuikov, commander of the 8th Guards Army, ordered the artillery to be brought closer to support the attacking formations of his infantry with fire. When tractors with guns went, Zhukov ordered the tanks to move. Chuikov wrote carefully in his memoirs:


‘Apparently, wanting to increase the pace of the offensive and accelerate the breakthrough of the enemy’s defenses ... the front commander decided to bring into battle in the zone of our army the 1st Guards Tank Army of M. E. Katukov and the 11th Tank Corps of I. I. Yushchuk ... When the tank formations began to pass the battle formations of the 8th Guards Army, it became even more crowded on the roads, and it was impossible to get off them to the side. The tanks of the 1st Guards literally ran into our tractors, a result of which the maneuver of the second echelons of divisions and corps turned out to be constrained.’


Even from these careful words, it is not difficult to imagine this picture. The roads in the swampy floodplain of the Oder were clogged with our infantry and artillery. Zhukov, seeing this—he was at the command post of the 8th Army—gave the order to the tank army and the tank corps to break through to the heights through ... our battle formations. The evidence ‘Tanks ran into our tractors’ and ‘Brigades broke out to the enemy defense line,’ means that the tanks crushed their own. And from the heights, along [with] the congestion in the valley, the Nazi artillery threshed with direct fire. [In a word]—meat grinder.”


German language expert and translator Alexander Yakovlevich Bogomolov shared several anecdotes about Army General Chuikov’s time of service in the German Democratic Republic (East Germany). However, his account of Vasily Ivanovich’s visit to the Seelow Heights site nearly 6 years after the famous battle took place provides insight into Chuikov’s depth of emotion and reverence for his soldiers who perished there. One can imagine the frustration he experienced in April 1945 when Zhukov berated him for the 8th Guards Army’s slow advance because Zhukov underestimated the situation, and the sorrow Chuikov experienced in revisiting that site years later…


“This happened in March 1951. Captain Valery Tikhonov, Chuikov's assistant, found me and announced: ‘Comrade Corporal (jokingly, he often addressed me like that), at the moment General of the Army Chuikov wants to urgently talk to you.’ I learned that Chuikov was going to Frankfurt an der Oder at 2 PM to visit one of the Soviet military units. And I had to accompany him in case any of the district SED leaders are there. […]


Our car stopped near Seelow. Chuikov got out of the car and went to the field. There he began to pick wildflowers and finally stopped in front of a large boulder. The general kissed the stone as he knelt down and placed his bouquet beside it. His eyes were wet [with tears]. ‘In April 1945, I proposed to bypass these Seelow Heights from the south, but my friends warned me against this, saying that I should abandon my plan and instead follow the existing order. So I followed the order. But more than thirty thousand of my soldiers and officers perished here.’


He got up and excitedly walked to the car. As soon as he slammed the car door, he ordered the driver: ‘Back to Bünsdorf.’ The trip to the military unit did not take place.”

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