The Battle of Berlin: The Battle for the Seelow Heights

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THE BATTLE OF BERLIN: THE BATTLE FOR THE SEELOW HEIGHTS

“Heil Hitler” had been heard around the world for nearly four years with approximately 79 million dead, when the Soviet Union Army made it across the Oder River on the East and the Allied forces to the west. Both sides were pressing on the German capital, Berlin.[1],[2] Taking Berlin and the subsequent capture of Third Reich Fuhrer, Adolf Hitler was seen as what would end the war. The Western Allied troops were less than 50 miles from Berlin, poised to take the city when they were ordered to halt and wait for the Soviet forces to take the capital city. To accomplish this from the east, a key German defense had to be taken, the town of Seelow and the nearby Seelow Heights. Meer weeks prior, Hitler, stated that the Oder River along Seelow, would determine who would win the war.[3] Once this defense was taken it would be a straight road to Berlin. The efforts to take Berlin would be later called the Battle of Berlin and turned into the bloodiest battle of World War Two and the sixth bloodiest battle in world history. This mission command paper analysis analyzes the Battle of the Seelow Heights in the Battle of Berlin. Particularly, command elements of cohesive team through mutual trust, accepting prudent risk, and a clear commander’s intent. Soviet First Belorussian Front commander, Marshal Georgy Zhukov violated these principles in pursuit of Seelow and the Seelow Heights.[4]

Marshal Georgy Zhukov was appointed the commander of the First Belorussian Front (1BF) in November 1944.[5] Zhukov was promoted to Marshal of the Soviet Union in 1943 and served for a brief period as a Deputy Minister of Defense.[6] World War Two brought about a rival for Marshal Zhukov, Ivan Konev. Marshal Konev began his career as a political officer and was a subordinate of Marshal Zhukov for much of the war. Following Operation Bagration in 1944, Minister of Defense Stalin promoted Konev to marshal to counter balance and test Marshal Zhukov.[7]

The 1BF worked their way across eastern Europe from the Soviet Union, to capture the lands back from the Third Reich.[8] In early April 1945, the 1BF made it to the modern-day German-Polish border marked by the Oder River east of the town of Seelow.[9] The town of Seelow and the rolling planes and plateaus of Seelow Heights marked the last major obstacle standing between Marshal Zhukov and the city Berlin, only 35 miles away. The Red Army stood ready with almost one million Soldiers, more than 20,000 tanks and artillery pieces.[10] The Third Reich Army, under command of General Heinrici, knew this land and the topography. They stood with their 100,000 German Soldiers and 1,200 tanks and guns; heavily defending the last hopes of maintaining of their homeland.[11],[12]

The four-day Battle for the Seelow Heights began in the early hours of April 16, 1945 on the order of Minister of Defense Stalin.[13] The battle began as the Soviet artillery assaulted the city of Seelow. The barrage lasted for approximately 40 minutes. It ended with Marshal Zhukov’s orders to the infantry to charge forward with 143 spotlights illuminating the German lines and blinding the German defenses.[14] Soviet bombers took to the sky assaulting the already weak German supply stores. German and Soviet Soldiers went head to head throughout the day without end. The first day ended with the Red Army making considerable progress, pushing forces back and making it to the outskirts of the town of Seelow. Despite this success, the poorly manned units of the Third Reich Army surprised Marshal Zhukov in their ability to hold off the Red Army.[15]

Marshal Zhukov phoned Minister of Defense Stalin 12 hours into the battle to apprise him of the situation. Stalin rebuked Zhukov for underestimating the Third Reich Army and pitting him against his rival, Marshal Konev. The Soviet leader praised Marshal Konev and told of his successes south of Seelow while chiding Marshal Zhukov. Marshal Zhukov allowed this phone conversation and the envy he felt towards his fellow commander, to dictate his command decisions. He redirected his armor unit behind fellow commander Vasily Chuikov’s men, directing the tanks to advance with their hatches closed. This order signaled that the armor did not want to cooperate with the infantry. Mass confusion ensued on the battlefield as the armor unit pushed the infantry and artillery units off the roads into the marshlands of Seelow Heights and severed communications. Little land was gained during the day of battle, and many Soldiers lost their lives; setting the stage was set for land gains to occur on day two.[16]

The Battle to take Seelow Heights continued on April 17th with clear skies. Soviet forces began the day by utilizing aircraft and artillery barrages to beat down the German forces. As reinforcements arrived from Berlin, Soviet and German infantries went face to face in combat, with mixed results for both the Soviet and German forces. In the South Soviets gained no land, however north they were able to push back German troops. Fighting continued into the night of the 17th; many Germans perished or retreated. Gains were made in the north; German forces gave up considerable land to the Soviets. General Busse, the German commander, was concerned about their ability to retain the lands with so little men. He called the Fuhrer requesting reinforcements be sent, who reported he would send some of the elements stationed on the lower Oder to redeploy north as reinforcements. By nightfall, Marshal Zhukov’s forces had not only gained Seelow, but also the Seelow Heights and town of Dierdorsdorph, six kilometers west of Seelow. The end of the day however, added difficulty in gaining further land since the Third Reich Army received reinforcements.[17],[18]

April 18th, 1945 was coined by General Busse as “a moment of crisis”.[19] Marshal Zhukov’s Army breached the German defenses in several places. Further reinforcements were requested from the Fuhrer; however, all that were left were the aged Volkssturm units remaining in Berlin. They would begin marching to Seelow to provide whatever support that they could. While Nazi forces put up valiant efforts to defend their lands, they had been weakened too greatly in the first two days of battle to overcome. German Soldiers continued to fall back as the day continued giving up key land before the end of the day.[20]

 The final day of the Battle for the Seelow Heights occurred on 19 April 1945. Commander Heinrici attempted his best strategies to save the land they still occupied, however his Soldiers were forced to retreat quickly. Units abandoned their radios causing lost contact amongst those alive as each individual focused on their own survival. The aged Volkssturm and the underaged Hitler Youth reinforcements had arrived and held ground throughout the afternoon until being overtaken by Soviets. By the afternoon, much of the Heights were taken by the Soviet Army. After nightfall, the final Third Reich forces began their retreat to Berlin, giving up Seelow, the Seelow Heights, and the direct road to Berlin. Soviet forces expediently moved towards Berlin, surrounding the city on three sides. The fourth day of battle showed the success of the Soviet Army with the Red Army posed to take Berlin and end World War Two.[21]

Marshal Zhukov’s efforts at Seelow and the Seelow Heights was a success. However, at what cost to the principles of mission command?  He violated the principles of building a cohesive team through mission trust, accepting prudent risk, and provide a clear commanders intent  in the name of glory and success. The Red Army greatly outnumbered the Army of the Third Reich. These violations were unnecessary, his overwhelming numbers and supplies alone display that Marshal Zhukov could have taken Seelow and the Heights with different means. A further look into Marshal Zhukov’s loss of unit cohesion, acceptance of risk, and articulation of intent will emphasize the lack of necessity for these actions. 

Marshal Zhukov commanded through fear rather than by building cohesive teams through mutual trust. Mutual Trust is defined by the Army as “shared confidence among commanders, subordinates, and partners”.[22] Orders distributed by Marshal Zhukov ensured that his officers were seen in the same light as himself, not one to trust. His orders for his officers to march their Soldiers into battle at gun point furthered this feeling. All Soldiers who made a motion of turning away from the fight were to be shot by their leaders.[23] If there was trust prior to the Battle of the Seelow Heights, it was lost with this order. While this was an effective means to his end goal of taking Seelow Heights at whatever cost, it violated any mutual trust these officers had with their Soldiers. If they survived, those Soldiers would be unlikely to want to work for their leaders. In turn the officers would have had their trust violated with their superiors continuing up to Marshal Zhukov. Marshal Zhukov further violated the trust between himself and his subordinate commander, General Chuikov when he ordered his armor to drive with closed doors, not working with General Chuikov’s infantry and artillery.[24] Throughout the battle Marshal Zhukov allowed jealousy and pride to color his decisions. This led to many orders that would violate the trust his Soldiers had in him as well amongst themselves. 

Accept prudent risk is defined as “a deliberate exposure to potential injury or loss when the commander judges the outcome in terms of mission accomplishment as worth the cost”.[25] Risks are a necessity in all decision making, especially when in battle. However, the risks must be weighed against the overall mission. Marshal Zhukov took the term “prudent risk” to extremes, deciding that mass loss of human life was prudent in the attempt to defeat the Third Reich and to improve his reputation with Minister of Defense Stalin. Most commanders would see Marshal Zhukov’s decisions as excessive and unnecessary. In his rush to take Berlin quickly, Marshal Zhukov sent many men to their deaths needlessly. His decisions to push his Army faster in order to out race his rival caused intermittent mass confusion on the battlefield leading to loss of life. His subordinate commander to the south chose to go around the Frankfurt Fortress Garrison saving many of his men and blindsiding the Germans located there. Had General Zhukov conducted a similar strategy many lives may have been saved. However, his ego produced an underestimated plan of attack on Seelow, costing more lives. Marshal Zhukov deemed the loss of at least 30,000 of his Soldiers to be worthwhile so that he could beat Marshal Konev and take a more direct route to defeat the Third Reich Army. The risk accepted by Marshal Zhukov proved costly and a failure of the mission command principle of accepting prudent risk, as his risks were not prudent.

Throughout his command at the battle to take Seelow, Marshal Zhukov successfully supplied a clear commanders intent, however failed to do so in a supportive and helpful manner. Ultimately, he failed the mission command principle to provide a clear commanders intent. Commanders intent is:

A clear and concise expression of the purpose of the operation and the desired military end state that supports mission command, provides focus to the staff, and helps subordinate and supporting commanders act to achieve the commanders desired results without further orders, even when the operation does not unfold as planned.[26]

Marshal Zhukov frequently communicated with his subordinates, at times more so than they would like. For the battle of Seelow Heights, General Chuikov set his command post on top of Reitwein Spur near the Heights where he had a strong vantage point to view his troops in battle. Marshal Zhukov liked this location so much that he co-located his command post.[27] This allowed Marshal Zhukov to both communicate in person with his key subordinate general and have better radio communications between those on the line. Throughout the battle, he ensured that his officers had no questions of his intentions or the mission tasks he was pushing forward. Both his leadership style as well as his orders for Seelow were well known and understood; expediently take Seelow and the Heights at any cost. The commanders and Soldiers under Marshal Zhukov executed this order as well as all subordinate orders, to include the officers marching their Soldiers into battle at gunpoint.[28] Marshal Zhukov’s clear orders and intent ensured that the Red Army took Seelow, the Seelow Heights, and subsequently Berlin.

 On the surface, it appears that Marshal Zhukov observed the principle to provide a clear commanders intent. However, he did not provide “focus to the staff”[29] or “help subordinate and supporting commanders act to achieve the commander’s desired results.”[30] As a commander, Marshal Zhukov made demands of his subordinates in an authoritarian manner rather than an authoritative supportive manner. All demands were to be completed to the standard in his mind, not that was spoken. This left a lack of clarity for those under him to guess his thoughts and hope they were correct. Such a manner of leading can result in loss of success in battle such as was seen by a blind following of words rather than intent. When his armor blindly followed his words, Marshal Zhukov’s troops prevented one another from succeeding on the battle field and rather caused further delays. These were not the actions of supported commanders, rather those of scared commanders. Marshal Zhukov’s authoritarian leadership style led to a failure to observe the principle of provide a clear commanders intent.

The Battle of the Seelow Heights represents the beginning of the end. Taking the key land of Seelow and Seelow Heights allowed the Red Army to storm Berlin effectively ending World War Two. However, this was done at great cost to both Third Reich and the Red Army. No less than 30,000 Red Army Soldiers and 80,000 Third Reich Soldiers perished. This battle is one of great controversy with the question of was the mass human loss necessary?[31] Marshal Zhukov made his intent known that the loss of life, unit cohesion, and trust was a prudent risk in order to take valuable land expediently. A look at his decisions, as well as his resources going into battle, would beg to differ. Throughout the battle for Seelow Heights Marshal Zhukov violated the mission command principles of provide a clear commanders intent, building a cohesive team through mission trust, and accepting prudent risk. Marshal Zhukov successfully took Seelow Heights, effectively ending World War Two, however, at too great a cost.


  1. McGhee, James T. Breaking the Seelow Heights: The Zenith of Combined Arms Warfare. June 16, 2008. https://www.militaryhistoryonline.com/wwii/articles/seelowheights.aspx (accessed October 20, 2018).
  1. The National WWII Museum: New Orleans. Research Starters: Worldwide Deaths in World War II. n.d. https://www.nationalww2museum.org/students-teachers/student-resources/research-starters/research-starters-worldwide-deaths-world-war (accessed October 30, 2018).
  1. Baxter, I M. “Battle for Berlin.” Military Illustrated, 1999: 24-31.
  1. Headquarters, Department of the Army. “The Principles of Mission Command.” In ADP 6-0: Mission Command, by Department of the Army Headquarters, 2-4. Department of the Army, 2012.
  1. Miranda, Joseph. “Race to the Reichstag: The Battle of Berlin, 1945.” World at War 26, 2012: 6-20.
  1. Antill, Peter. “Opposing Commanders.” In Berlin 1945: End of the Thousand Year Reich, by Peter Antill, 15-20. Oxford, UK: Osprey Publishing, 2005.
  1. Miranda, 6-20.
  1. Heaton, Colin D. “Red Army Assault at Seelow Heights.” World War II Magazine, 1999.
  1. MacLean, French L. The Battle of the Seelow Heights, 1945. n.d. http://thefifthfield.com/visit-a-battlefield-with-the-colonel/battlefields-to-visit/the-battle-of-the-seelow-heights-1945/ (accessed October 27, 2018).
  1. Ibid.
  1. Ibid.
  1. Heaton, Colin D. “Battle of the Seelow Heights.” World War II Magazine, May 1999.
  1. Welsh, William E. “Masterful Defense at Seelow Heights.” World War II Magazine, 2017.
  1. Baxter, 24-31.
  1. Welsh.
  1. Ibid, 2017.
  1. Ibid, 2017.
  1. Baxter, 24-31.
  1. Welsh.
  1. Ibid, 2017.
  1. Ibid, 2017.
  1. Headquarters, Department of the Army.
  1. Baxter, 24-31.
  1. Welsh.
  1. Headquarters, Department of the Army.
  1. Ibid, 2012.
  1. Welsh, William E.
  1. Heaton, Battle.
  1. Headquarters, Department of the Army.
  1. Ibid, 2012.
  1. Ibid, 1999.
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