The Ninth Army, encircled in a large pocket in the Spree Forest region south-east of Berlin, attempted to break out westwards through the village of Halbe and the pine forests south of Berlin to link up with the German Twelfth Army commanded by General Walther Wenck with the intention of heading west and surrendering to the Western Allies. To do this, the Ninth Army had to fight its way through three lines of Soviet troops of the 1st Ukrainian Front under the command of Marshal Ivan Konev, while at the same time units of the 1st Belorussian Front, under the command of Marshal Georgy Zhukov, attacked the German rearguard from the northeast.
After heavy fighting, about 30,000 German soldiers—just over one third of those originally in the pocket—reached the comparative safety of the Twelfth Army’s front lines. The rest were either killed or captured by Soviet forces.
The combined German 12th Army and 9th Army remnants then retreated westwards towards the Elbe so that they could surrender to American forces, which had halted their advance on the west bank of the river.
The bulk of the fleeing German forces, along with several thousand civilians, reached and crossed the Elbe using the partially destroyed bridge at Tangermünde between 4 May and 7 May 1945, surrendering to elements of the U.S. 102nd Infantry Division, U.S. 9th Army, until Soviet forces reached the eastern bridgehead and halted further crossings.
The casualties on both sides were high. There are about 15,000 Germans buried in the Halbe Forest Cemetery (German: Waldfriedhof Halbe), making it the largest war cemetery in Germany from World War II. About 10,000 are unidentified soldiers killed during the first half of 1945. The Red Army claimed to have killed 60,000 German soldiers and taken 120,000 as prisoners. The number of prisoners is supported by some sources, while other sources consider it to be exaggerated. Thousands of Red Army soldiers died trying to stop the breakout, most being buried at the Soldatenfriedhof Wk2 cemetery next to the Baruth–Zossen road (Bundesstraße 96). These are the known dead, but the remains of more who died in the battle are found every year, so the total will never be known. Nobody knows how many civilians died, but it could have been as high as 10,000.
”The most astonishing part of the story is not the numbers who died or were forced to surrender but the 25,000 soldiers and several thousand civilians who succeeded in getting through three lines of Soviet troops.”