It happened on May 1, 1945. The fighting in Berlin was drawing to a close, and the Victory banner was wavering over the Reichstag. The Germans had only a few strongholds left, and one of them was Spandau on the western outskirts of Berlin. It could no longer seriously interfere with the onslaught of the Soviet troops, but its gunnery held under fire the bridge over the Havel River across which the troops moved westwards. The Soviet commanders found out that the fortress accommodated not only the military, but also local civilians.
In order to prevent unnecessary and horrible bloodshed, they decided to try to persuade the garrison to surrender. In the early morning, two Soviet military men, Major Vasily Grishin and Captain Vladimir Gall, who spoke German fluently, brought a flag of truce to the fortress.
Below are memories of Vladimir Gall.
“The huge gates of the fortress were barricaded. Gun barrels stuck out from the firing slits like dark pupils and we felt thousands of eyes watching us. The dead silence was not interrupted by any sound. I shouted the ordinary “Hello!” directly at the gates, and then we heard “What do you want?” coming from a balcony.
“We are flag-of-truce bearers,” I said.
“State your terms,” the same voice replied.
“We are not used to talking at different levels,” I said, and then soldiers put down a rope ladder from the balcony, and two German officers came down.
“Fortress commandant Professor Colonel Jung! Deputy commandant Lieutenant Colonel Koch!” they introduced themselves raising their arms in the Nazi salute. We named ourselves.
The talks did not last long. We gave the colonel the offer to surrender and explained the terms: their lives would be saved, the sick and wounded would receive medical assistance and they would be provided with food.
The colonel listened to us and then said: “I personally would agree to surrender on these terms. But there is a decree by the Fuhrer: if the commandant of a besieged fortress surrenders on his own, any officer may and must shoot him dead and then lead the defense. So my personal decision will do no good to you,” he smiled sadly, “or to me…” Did it mean the end of the talks and was the onslaught and bloodshed to follow? We wanted to prevent the pointless deaths of many hundreds of people so much that on the spur of the moment we made a new decision, not envisaged by our commanders. “Then let us go up to the fortress with you and talk to your officers!”
The commandant was shocked and at a loss. He thought our suggestion was crazy and risky, he even asked us to repeat it. Then, shrugging, he pointed to the ladder, “Well, go ahead!” his posture saying that he could not guarantee our safety.
We climbed up the ladder to the balcony and entered a narrow and dark room. It was dim, with light coming only from the balcony. When our eyes got used to the darkness, we saw a group of officers standing in a horseshoe formation. We addressed them and repeated the terms of surrender. A few minutes later, the “horseshoe” broke up into small groups that were vividly arguing with each other. Judging by their faces, it was clear that some of them, led by the colonel, were in favor of surrendering, while others, mostly young, with fanatic looks on their faces, were against it.
Then the “horseshoe” was back, and the commandant stepped forward. “Russian officers! We, Germans, can appreciate the true courage and we admire your honorable move: you were not afraid to come up to the fortress to prevent bloodshed. But we cannot surrender without an order. However, we have a counterproposal. I give you a German officer’s word that during these few days remaining until the end of the war, the fortress will not fire at the bridge a single time. But your troops should not undertake anything against us. When the Wehrmacht’s High Command orders total capitulation, we will surrender, too.”
The counterproposal sounded as a reasonable compromise, but it was actually a disguised refusal to surrender. It was our turn to speak, and I said: “Officers! Your proposal seems sensible on the surface, but the Soviet command cannot accept it. A war is a war, it is not a children’s game. We do not have definite guarantees that your artillery will not fire at the bridge. The Soviet troops will have to storm the fortress, and they will seize it, there should be no doubt of that. We will give you a deadline for making the final decision. If your representatives do not come to our front trench by 3 p.m., we will start the onslaught. Your commandant has spoken of duty. We advise you, officers, to spend the remaining hours thinking of what is your true duty to your fatherland – to doom yourselves, your soldiers, the old people, women and children that are in the fortress to death at the very end of the already lost war or to preserve all these lives for the new, future Germany.”
The tension in the room reached its peak. Should one of the SS men exclaim, “And here they dare to threaten us!” we would have been torn to pieces. But the room was silent. Major Grishin and I turned and went towards the balcony, feeling their eyes fixed on our backs. The commandant and his deputy went to see us off.
We climbed down the same rope ladder and went towards the grove nearby, where our front line was situated. Alarming thoughts were shooting through my head – any fanatic could fire a gun into our backs. We both wanted to go faster, but we walked slowly and (seemingly!) calmly all the way to the grove.
The three hours the garrison was given for making the decision lasted forever. We had almost no hope of success. But at 3 p.m. sharp, two flag-of-truce bearers came to our trenches, they were the commandant and his deputy. I went out to meet them.
“Captain! We have come to announce our decision.”
“I am listening, officers,” I said.
“The fortress,” the colonel’s voice shook and he faltered for a moment, “surrenders…”
I was happy, but I didn’t acknowledge it and said calmly, “Let us discuss the details.”
In a few hours, Major Grishin and I entered the fortress once again, but this time through the gates that had been opened. German soldiers and officers were forming up in the huge yard, and our men were taking them to the prisoners’ center. The colonel and lieutenant colonel came up to us. The latter suddenly addressed us… in correct Russian. “We wanted to say good-bye to you, officers.” When he saw our surprise, he added, “I lived in St. Petersburg for 20 years and I speak a little Russian.”
Many women with children and old people were crowded in the yard. Scared by Goebbels’ propaganda, they hoped to escape “the onslaught of the Russian barbarians” behind the mighty walls of the fortress. Their faces expressed fear and confusion. “What is in store for us now? Siberia? Death?” We addressed them through a bullhorn, “Civilians may leave the fortress and go home!” The motley crowd rushed towards the gates. At this point, a young woman with a child in her arms came up to us. Her eyes were full of tears and her voice was trembling. “I know that you were not afraid to come up and persuade our officers to surrender. You have saved our lives and the lives of our children. Thank you!”