When the World War 2 was closing to its end, and the fight reached Berlin, two of the Soviet armies gathered on the Third Reich capital. Marshal Georgy Zhukov from the North and Marshal Ivan Konev from the South. They were motivated to beat the Americans and the British and claim the Nazi technology to their name. The battle stayed for 17 days and when the Soviets surrounded the city. Nazi’s would have surrendered if they didn’t have the large defensive towers which were ever built, one of them was the Zoo Tower.
When the 150th and 171st Soviet Rifle Divisions started moving towards the Spree river, they started facing resistance from the Zoo Tower. It was a behemoth structure which was built as a center for the anti-aircraft operations. It was equipped with four 12.8 cm Flak 40 anti-aircraft guns which were capable of firing 96 rounds per minute. There was also a group of 20 mm and 37 mm anti-aircraft guns on the lower platforms. The Zoo Tower was a death castle for its enemies. There was no design flaw which could lead to its destruction. Any aircraft which was in 10kms of its range was likely to go down. But this time, the tower was not targetting the air crafts, but it was focused on the advancing Soviets on the ground. They unleashed powerful fire and turned their tanks into smoldering scraps of metal in concise time and halted the progress of the Soviets.
The Soviets ordered that the tower should be shelled with their most potent 203mm Howitzer. It was a purpose-built bunker buster, but the 100kg rounds caused a minimal effect to the tower. The tower had 2.5-meter thick steel reinforced concrete walls and was immune to the shell damage. Even if they could punch a hole with repeated shots, the tower would remain standing with no single load-bearing structure; it would take a massive explosion to take the tower down. The Soviets decided that it was best to circle the tower outside its effective range and then negotiate a surrender.
The Zoo Tower was the first of the many towers which were built in the city. Berlin had three pairs of towers which were forming a defensive triangle around the city’s center and central government. The first was in the Berlin zoo, next in Friedrichshain and the third in Humboldthain. Two more towers were constructed to protect the vital port of Hamburg and then three more were built in Vienna, Austria which was forming another defensive triangle around the city’s center. Many of these towers remain standing despite all the efforts which were made to destroy them.
Hitler ordered the construction of these towers. He ordered top priority for the project and ordered the railway and shipping to deliver the 1600 tons of material which was needed for every day of the construction. Using forced labor, the zoo tower was completed in only six months. It used a total of 78,000 tons of gravel, 35,000 tons of cement, and 9200 tons of steel along with the vast amount of wood which was required to shape the molds which were used to develop the tower. The outlines of the planks are still visible in the molds. Each tower consisted of a towering pair; an attack tower called G-tower and a communication tower called L-tower.
The communications towers were rectangular and were equipped with radio equipment, spotlights, anti-aircraft guns and were also tasked with coordinating the attack. The attack towers were in different shapes; the earlier were in the form of a fortress. Later when the supplies were scarce, the designs also took the form of a 16 sided structure. The attack towers were capable of firing 800 rounds per minute and formed an effective air defense, but in reality, they had a terrible track record with destroying planes. They were acting more as a deterrent. Any bomber which came in their sight was more likely to be shot down, but they also kept away from these stationary positions.
Each complex had an effective range of 10kms, so the compounds were forming a vital defense for the strategic positions they covered. However, much of their cities were vulnerable to attacks. These towers were more than only a flak tower and served as very valuable shelters for the civilian population. Each tower had a freshwater well and huge storage of food. They also had their power generators and underground supply lines for fuel and massive storage of ammunition. The towers also had space for hospitals. One of the towers also had a maternity ward in it where many of the Berliners were formed during the air raids. Nearly 15,000 civilians took refuge from the bombing. During the final days of the war, up to three times the number of refugees were reported to have crammed themselves in the towers. This lead to horrifying conditions with people dying in the corridors and there was no place to bury the dead. Toilets were overflowing, and the hospitals were also overflowing with injured and the deceased patients.
There were very few visible signs of the devastation which these cities faced during the Second World War. From the funding received from the Marshall Plan, the cities were rebuilt brick by brick. However, these towers remained as a symbol of the strength of their construction. All the valuable material was taken down from the buildings, and multiple attempts were made to destroy them however due to the thick concrete and the proximity of the city around them, the demolition was not only costly but also challenging to undertake.
One of the six towers is mostly intact and standing. British engineers destroyed the Zoo Tower, but it also didn’t go down without giving a fight. In the first attempt, 25 tons of dynamite was packed in it. When the dust cleared, the tower was still standing. The tower collapsed after the third attempt while using 35 tons of dynamite. The rubble was broken down and transported away. The land was then handed over to the Berlin Zoo. The other two towers are acting as the energy storage facility. The towers in Vienna are still there with one of them being used as an aquarium.
Today, these towers remain as a gargantuan reminder of a terrible war but have been accepted into the urban landscape. Parks have been formed around them and zoos inside them. They have also been repurposed to help towards a more sustainable future. Watch the video above to see how these towers looked in the past and how they look like these days.