A military history tour to the places of the BATTLE AT THE SEELOW HEIGHTS in the last months of 1945: Berlin – Garzau – Buckow – Neuhardenberg – Letschin – Groß Neuendorf – Letschin – Kienitz – Gorgast – Seelow – Mallnow – Rathstock – Reitwein – Berlin.
This tour was originally planned as a visit of both the battlefields of Seelow and Halbe (see here), but we learned it was too much / too long for a day. There were just too many interesting things to see in this empty and forgotten area between Berlin and the Oder river.
Here is the detailed report.
We started at 09:00 o’clock on a Sunday morning in February 2012 near the Alexanderplatz in Berlin. Driving down the former Stalin Allee we followed the B1 until Rüdersdorf just outside of Berlin. As we planned to try some GDR style dirt roads and visit some non-WWII sights, we left the main street to the left in the direction of Hennickendorf, with the frozen Stienitz lake on the left and some old industry ruins on both sites of the street. Following our route to Buckow, we suddenly saw the sign “Pyramid” in Garzau. Not knowing what to expect, we followed a dirt road and were surprised to find a perfectly rebuild Pyramid in the woods. It was originally build in 1784 as part of the English Garden of Friedrich Wilhelm Carl Graf von Schmettau (1743-1806). The garden itself was completely taken back by nature, but the Pyramid was rebuild from its ruins after the German reunification.
A detailed text on the garden and pyramid ca be found here (German text).
We continued our journey towards Neuhardenberg, passing the beautiful little town of Buckow. The village is situated in the soft hills of the “Brandenburger Schweiz” and surrounded by three lakes. German author Bertolt Brecht (“The Threepenny Opera”) had his weekend villa in Buckow.
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In Neuhardenberg we took a quick look at the beautiful “Schinkel Church” with its famous star ceiling. Don’t bee to shy to walk behind the altar. In the small niche on the backside you will find the dried heart of Graf Hardenberg.
After Neuhardenberg we left the remains of Prussia’s glory and entered the Oderbruch. A flat, poor, wet and empty landscape between the Seelow heights and the Oder river, now the border between Germany and Poland. The villages are tiny, grey, deserted. Hardly any restaurant that is open – or that you want to enter. Anyhow…
We passed Letschin, with it`s monument of Frederic the Great and drove into Groß Neuendorf, one of the first Soviet bridgeheads across the Oder river. A Russian War Cemetery is on the right after entering the village.
When reaching the old harbor we suddenly realized that the river was completely frozen, just like 67 years back. It was a beautiful sight.
There are hardly any other attractions in Groß Neuendorf, but in case you plan to stay over night in the region you might consider the funny apartments in old train cars just at the river bank.
As there is no direct street along the Oder from Groß Neuendorf to Kienitz we had to go back through Letschin to get again to the Oder in Kienitz and see the monument for the first Russian troops that crossed the frozen Oder on January 31st 1945. An old T-34 in bad condition can be found in the center of this deserted hamlet.
South of Kienitz just on the Oder damn is a GDR monument commemorating the site were the first troops of the 2nd Russian Storm Army and the 5th Guards Tank Army crossed the Oder. The monument is build out of steel and in the same style as the pylons of the Marx Engels Forum in Berlin.
The meadows between the damn and the river were both flooded and frozen, offering a beautiful sight. We walked across the ice until we were actually standing on the river itself. The ice might have allowed us to enter Poland by foot, but definitely not by car … or tank. The winter 1945 was one of the coldest in the entire century, in 2012 we only had two weeks of -20 C…
We left the Oder and headed south. There was no chance to drive directly along the river as the roads on the damn are all closed. Therefor we continued land inwards and south (had to learn that Sophienthal is a dead end street/hamlet, too) through Zechin towards Golzow. Again huge, huge fields on both sides of the street – and nothing else. We didn’t stop in Golzow (which is famous for the longest TV documentary ever that started in 1961 (GDR) and ended in 2007: “Die Kinder von Golzow“), skipped as well Küstrin (as it was already 13:30 at this time), but did a short stop at the Fortress Gorgast.
Unfortunately it was closed though the entrance sign claimed differently. The building played a minor part of the Battle of Seelow, was one of four outpost of the Fortress of Küstrin and is a unique building in Brandenburg. You find similar forts surrounding other “Reichsfeste” like Ulm and Ingolstadt (Fort Prinz Karl: picture and further information).
After this short stop we reached the former “Reichststraße 1” (Berlin – Danzig – Königsberg), now B1 and took a right towards Berlin. This street had to carry the majority of Shukows attack on Seelow as the fields on the left and right are wet and muddy during the entire year and unsufficient to carry any armor. Therefor the Russian tanks had to line up on this street and were easy targets for the German 8.8 FLAK on the heights at Seelow, leading to significant casualties and a delay of the Soviet approach towards Berlin.
Today a bypass road is going around Seelow but we took a left towards the Seelow city center and drove up the original route towards the Seelow heights. Just before a small bridge across the railroad (of course blown up in 1945) we stopped at the Seelow War Memorial. There is a parking place just at the street and you immediately see the canons, Katyusha rocket launcher and a T-34 tank.
The museum is small but shows some interesting artefacts, models of Seelow in 1945 and Shukows bunker in Reitwein. Documentary movies are presented in a separate room. The hill behind the museum hosts a great view into the Oderbruch, a typical Russian memorial, Russian graves and a FLAK searchlight. Shukow positioned 143 of them to illuminate the battlefield after the devastating initial barrage fired by up to 20.000 artillery pieces on the early morning of April 16, 1945. Unfortunately the searchlights, in combination with thick fog of war, just caused confusion among the Russians.
We continued towards Seelow center and took a left (“Frankfurter Straße”) towards Frankfurt/Oder and Lebus. After passing Libbenichen we drove some kilometers later to the left towards Mallnow and crossed the town (towards Sachsendorf, Rathstock). Mallnow got almost completely destroyed in 1945. The ruins of the church, German troops blew up the tower and the remains were left unsecured during GDR times, can be easily found in the middle of this hamlet.
Just at the end of the village and before the street goes down the heights back into the Oderbruch we parked on the left. The “Oderhänge” in this region are a natural reserve area (“Naturschutzgebiet”) and famous for its “Adonisröschen” (roses) and other rare flowers. But there are other things to visit, too: trenches from the battle in 1945. The map below indicates some of them. You can easily walk around the area to find to find them.
We now drove back into the vast emptiness of the Oderbruch towards Reitwein and did a short stop in Rathstock at the ruins of a house that looked untouched since 1945. We learned that the property was just sold, so expect this little memorial to be gone soon. The church of Rathstock was destroyed, small ruins can be found on the left hand of the street.
A few minutes later we entered Reitwein, located at the foot of the Reitwein spur. Passing the church and the Russian War Cemetery, we soon parked our car and followed the green signs towards the “Shukow Bunker”. After about 15 minutes by foot we turned left into the “Tränkegrund”, a small valley into the Reitwein spur. On the left and right you can see many old car trenches or earth bunkers.
After some hundred meters another sign directed us up the hill towards Shukow’s bunker and command post. Next to the location itself it was very interesting to see a picture of the conditions in 1945 on one of the boards.
The bunker itself was restored or rebuild by NVA troops in 1989 but is actually not more than the just the entrance. It is impossible to enter the bunker itself but still gives an idea how it looked in the past. A few more steps up the hill got us to the command post. Though it was winter with no leafs on the trees it was still hardly possible to the Oderbruch due to the vegetation.
Back in Reitwein we visited as well the Russian War Cemetery for 3000 dead soldiers and the ruins of the “Stüler Kirche, named after it’s architect Friedrich August Stüler, a student of Schinkel (whom me “met” earlier in Neuhardenberg).
The “Stülerkirche” was destroyed in February 1949, but the church tower was rebuild between 1993 and 1999.
This was the end of our tour, getting us pretty much to the eastern end of Germany, too. We tried to find a road around the spur, towards Lebus and Frankfurt, but all attempts were stopped either at the dyke or the dead end road of a farm house. As it was already 16:30 and slowly getting dark we had to skip the second part of the tour – Halbe – and decided to drive back to Berlin, passing Seelow and Müncheberg (“Division Müncheberg“).
Additional information can be found here:
A German book I based most of my preperation on:
Seelow 1945 – Die Entscheidungsschlacht an der Oder
Video documentary of the battle:
Other sights in the region we did not visit:
– In Garzau (close to the Pyramid) you can visit as well an old NVA bunker
– The “Seewerk” was a Wehrmacht factory for Sarin and rocket fuel, later turned into an important command bunker of the Warszaw Pact – currently used for Paintball games