On the morning of 1st April 1945, Stalin met two of his most aggressive generals, Marshal Georgy Zhukov and Marshal Ivan Konev. “Who is going to take Berlin: are we or are the Allies?” Stalin asked. Konev was the first to answer. He said: “We will take Berlin.” Stalin praised Konev for his quick response. But he allowed both to believe that either of them could take Berlin. He said, “Who ever storms into Berlin first, the city will be his.”
The race was on between Zhukov and Konev to win the title of the conqueror of Berlin. The instant their meeting with Stalin was over, both rushed to the airport, their planes leaving within two minutes of each other.
On the same day, Stalin sent a message to the Supreme Commander of the Allied Army Dwight D. Eisenhower: “Berlin has lost its former strategic importance.” In his book, The Second World War, historian Antony Beevor calls Stalin’s April 1 message to Eisenhower, “the greatest April Fool joke in modern history.”
Stalin and Eisenhower could exchange messages directly—without any allied civilian interface—because Roosevelt had instructed Eisenhower to build a direct connection with the Red Army’s central command for coordinating strategy. Stalin supported the idea and he took full advantage of the connection with Eisenhower. He often fed disinformation to Eisenhower while gathering from him the information on what the Americans and other allied forces were doing.
On 16th April, Zhukov and Konev began their onslaught on Berlin with a combined army of 2.5 million men, 41,600 guns, 6,250 tanks, and 7,500 aircraft. The Germans, terrified of Russian retributions, were determined to hold out. Zhukov ordered his men to bulldoze through the heavily-defended German obstacles. He lost 30,000 soldiers in three days. The losses suffered by Konev were of similar magnitude. If the two Soviet generals had not been in a race to be the first to capture Berlin, they might have suffered fewer casualties.
The Red Army broke into Berlin’s eastern suburbs on 20th April. They fought, house by house, street by street, towards Hitler’s HQ. Three hundred meters from the Reichstag, the armies of Zhukov and Konev encountered each other. Zhukov was livid. He came out of his vehicle and shouted at Konev’s tank commander: “Why have you appeared here?” Stalin intervened. He offered Konev another prize: “Who is going to take Prague?” Konev was dejected but he diverted his army towards Prague.
During their two months long onslaught on Germany, the Soviet soldiers had raped two million German women.
By May 2, Zhukov had pulverized Berlin with his bombardment, and forced the Germans to submit. But his men did not find Hitler. A colonel from SMERSH, the organization headed by Lavrentiy Beria, had found the charred remains of Hitler and Eva, and secretly dispatched them to Russia. Stalin taunted Zhukov by asking: “Did you hear anything about Hitler’s body?” In recognition of his role in the capture of Berlin, Stalin allowed Zhukov to accept the German Instrument of Surrender, and inspect the 1945 Moscow Victory Parade.