Ep. 52 The last battle

After Gerhard’s training in Berlin he was sent south to the front in Silesia (today south western Poland) to train Russian volunteers (Hiwis) in the Wehrmacht. This was in February or March of 1945. By now the war was already lost. Berlin’s 85,000 defenders, including 40,000 old men and young boys of the Volksturm faced 1.5 million Soviet troops.[1] The Russian artillery was so dense there was a field gun placed every four metres for over 30 kilometers along the banks of the Oder River.[2]

It was thought the volunteer Russians would fight harder if they were not battling against other Russians, so Gerhard’s unit transferred to the Western Front. In fact many of the volunteers were not Russian at all, but members of the numerous other nationalities who hoped to defeat the Soviet government and establish their own autonomous homelands.

GERHARD To avoid forcing the Russian units of the German Army to fight the Russian army, we were being sent to the West Zone. En route we had to march past Berlin.

The battle for Berlin was intense. All the Germans were withdrawn from the Russian unit to fight in Berlin. This left the pay master to lead our battalion and us Sonderführers were in charge of companies.

This was 1944 when the Russians and the Americans attacked so all German soldiers had to go into battle. Us Sonderführers had to lead the volunteer Russians against the Soviets. The Soviets pressed us and we had little success because the volunteer Russians did not want to battle against their brothers.

It was nearing the evening and dark already and we could not withstand the attacks of the Soviets. Then the SS came and tried to make us fight harder but it was not possible. We fell back, there were too few soldiers and the Soviets overpowered us. We were in Germany and we were retreating with a Panzer unit. We became scattered and every man had to save himself however he could.

I believe Gerhard is in error when he states the year as 1944. The battle for Berlin began in earnest in the Spring of 1945 and the German Army had already been moving Russian Hiwi units west since 1944.[3] Gerhard describes his harrowing life or death escape:

GERHARD We were surrounded and the only exit was a narrow street. Panzers and other military equipment was escaping through this street and as foot soldiers 20-30 of us took cover behind each tank. We were taking fire from the right side of the street so we hid on the left of the Panzer. Suddenly one of the tanks up ahead received a direct hit – bulls eye. The soldiers that were in the tank and hiding behind it were all killed. And everyone around the next tank was also dead or wounded. Many of them were screaming for rescue but the tank behind drove over the living and the dead alike and there was no opportunity to rescue anyone.

Battery of 152 mm D-1 howitzer of the 1943 model. fires on the defending German troops. Belarus, summer of 1944Anthony Beevor gives a sense of the chaos of this time in his book The Fall of Berlin 1945:

Siegfried Jürgs, a young officer cadet with Fahnenjunker Regiment 1239, described in his diary what he saw from his position on the leading tank. Wounded, whom nobody helped, were left screaming by the side of the track. ‘I never suspected that three hours later, I would be one of them.’ As they attacked a Soviet blocking detachment, he had jumped down from the tank with the other infantry to take up position in the ditch. But then a mortar bomb exploded and he was pierced through the back by a large fragment of shrapnel. Another explosion left him with shrapnel in his shoulder, chest and again in his back.

Bundesarchiv_Bild_183-E0406-0022-012,_Artillery every four metresJürgs was luckier than the wounded he had seen earlier. He was picked up by a truck a number of hours later, but these vehicles were overloaded with wounded and there were screams of pain from the back as they lurched and bumped in and out of potholes on the forest tracks. Those too badly wounded to be moved were left to suffer where they lay. Few had any strength left to bury the dead. At best bodies were rolled into a ditch or shell crater and some sandy soil thrown over them.

On forest tracks and roads, vehicles burned and horses lay dead in their traces, while others still twitched and thrashed in pain. The ground was littered with abandoned weapons and helmets, prams, handcarts and suitcases. Halbe [a village 50 kilometres south of Berlin] itself was described by eyewitnesses as a vision of hell through war. ‘Tanks rolled down the Lindenstrasse,’ the seventeen-year-old Erika Menze recorded. ‘They were covered with wounded soldiers. One of the wounded soldiers fell off the back of one. The following tank-crushed him completely and the next tank after that drove over the large pool of blood. Of the soldier himself, there remained no trace.’ Outside the bakery, the pavement was literally covered with corpses. There was no space between them. ‘The heads were a yellowish grey, squashed flat, the hands a grey-black. Only wedding rings glimmered gold and silver.’[4]

Germans in the thousands were racing to be captured by Americansgerman-officer-after-surrender-berlin-1945Refugees machine-gunned by Soviet airplanes often blocked the roads leading west. Gerhard saw the German people escaping west with the Wehrmacht on horses carts and wheelbarrows, children running through the snow. There was no time for pity.

Homeless Berliners 1945The retreating soldiers hadn’t had rations for five days and had to forage for food in private homes. Exhausted they collapsed into the abandoned German beds and slept in their muddy uniforms. The wounded were abandoned beside the road because there was no fuel for the vehicles. Many were killed where they lay.[5] “Men moved singly or in groups. There were few formed units left, and hardly any capable of taking orders… Vehicles were abandoned as they ran out of fuel.”[6]

GERHARD In the morning we went in search of rest. There were about a hundred of us in the forest and we wanted to go to the West. Our captains were searching for places to muster soldiers since we were no longer a unit. I had a torn up thumb and my right hand was in bandages so I was no longer useful.

For the Germans in the forest, without maps or compasses, it was almost impossible to find their way. The smoke and the trees made it hard to see even the sun to estimate where west might lie. Most of the exhausted soldiers simply trudged along the sandy paths, leaderless and lost.

All around the crossing points of roads there was ‘a patchwork quilt of corpses, grey-green corpses.[7]

GERHARD One night, all was already lost, as we were heading toward the West we came upon a young officer who was gathering soldiers and I reported to him. There were probably a hundred of us all armed and suddenly the night erupted into gunfire. The Soviet soldiers had a machine gun and we had to get past. Every time we tried we were driven back by machine gun fire. The young officer apparently did not have the strength to encourage us to take the machine gun.

Then a non-commissioned officer spoke up: “Listen for my command,” he said and when he gave it everyone screamed in an all-out attack. Apparently that was too much for the Russians and we disabled the machine gun so it could not shoot anymore.

Soviet military authorities had their own problems in the rear areas. Groups of German officers and soldiers bypassed on the Seelow Heights were trying to slip back westwards. Desperate for food they were ambushing the horse-drawn supply carts and even individual Red Army soldiers to get their bread bags.[8]

GERHARD We walked through the night and in the morning the sun shone brightly. We saw a Russian transport with a number of wagons approaching. There was only one soldier on each wagon. We fired a couple of shots and they ran off. We only wanted to be on our way to the West.

Then a female Soviet soldier came along, but she did not want to fight with us.

By ten o’clock that morning the group had scattered. There were three of us and we were exhausted so we rested. But my friends were unfaithful to me. I fell asleep and when I awoke, they were gone. Heaven help me! I looked through the trees but I couldn’t tell if the soldiers I saw were Russian or German. I snuck through the trees in the forest and sat down behind a tree. I was still watching the soldiers when I heard a voice behind me: “Those are ours,” the voice said and I saw his German insignia and was no longer afraid.

We kept moving toward the West along with other soldiers who had lost their units. The Soviets were already the lords in the land.

Suddenly a Soviet soldier came over a hill in the woods, but I don’t know what happened to him.

We continued on and came upon a soldier with a Russian field kitchen and a horse. We didn’t want to hurt him, we just wanted his kitchen and his horse. We had wounded soldiers with us so we took his horse and the field kitchen. We hadn’t had a meal in several days. Unfortunately the food wasn’t yet cooked so we divided the soup among us and carried on.

Like primitive creatures the stunned men stumbled westward through the forest. Gerhard had been here before. Camaraderie barely existed, survival depended on hunting and gathering in its basest sense. To kill or to hide? Him or me? At least in war you know who your enemies are.

March of German prisoners in Moscow - the townspeople threaten with fists

German POWs paraded through Moscow.

Watering machines wash the streets of Moscow with soap, symbolically washing off the asphalt dirt after the passage of 57000 German prisoners in Moscow

Russians symbolically wash the streets after the German prisoners have passed.

 

NOTES

[1] Beevor, Anthony, The Fall of Berlin 1945, http://erenow.com/ww/thefallofberlin1945antonybeevor/21.html accessed April 6, 2017.

[2] Beevor, op. cit.

[3] Feldgrau.com, Research on the German Armed Forces 1918-1945, Russian Volunteers in the German Wehrmacht in WWII, by Lt. Gen. Wladyslaw Anders and Antonio Munoz http://www.feldgrau.com/WW2-German-Wehrmacht-Russian-Volunteers, footnote 73, accessed April 6, 2017

[4] Beevor, Anthony, The Fall of Berlin 1945, Penguin Books, 2002, page 335.

[5] Beevor, Anthony, The Fall of Berlin 1945, Penguin Books, 2002, pages 258-259.

[6] Beevor, Anthony, The Fall of Berlin 1945, http://erenow.com/ww/thefallofberlin1945antonybeevor/21.html accessed April 6, 2017.

[7] Beevor, Anthony,The Fall of Berlin, Penguin Books, 2002, page 334.

[8] Beevor, Anthony,The Fall of Berlin, Penguin Books, 2002, page 273.