The fall of berlin 1945, p.13
The Fall of Berlin 1945, p.13Antony Beevor
In East Prussia, meanwhile, German forces were contained but not yet defeated. The remains of the Fourth Army, having failed to break out at the end of January, was squeezed in the Heiligenbeil Kessel, with its back to the Frisches Haff. Its main artillery support came from the heavy guns of the cruisers Admiral Scheer and Lützow, firing from out in the Baltic across the sandbar of the Frische Nehrung and the frozen lagoon.
The remnants of the Third Panzer Army in Königsberg had been cut off from the Samland Peninsula, but on 19 February, a joint attack from both sides created a land corridor which was then bitterly defended. The evacuation of civilians and wounded from the small port of Pillau at the tip of the Samland Peninsula was intensified, but many civilians feared to leave by ship after the torpedo attacks on the Wilhelm Gustloff and other refugee ships. In the early hours of 12 February, the hospital ship General von Steuben was torpedoed after leaving Pillau with 2,680 wounded. Almost all were drowned.
The Second Army, meanwhile, had been forced back towards the lower Vistula and its estuary, defending Danzig and the port of Gdynia. It formed the left flank of Himmler’s Army Group Vistula. In the centre, in eastern Pomerania, a new Eleventh SS Panzer Army was being formed. Himmler’s right flank on the Oder consisted of the remnants of General Busse’s Ninth Army, which had been so badly mauled in western Poland.
Himmler seldom ventured out of his luxurious special train, the Steiermark, which he had designated his ‘field headquarters’. The Reichsführer SS now realized that the responsibilities of military command were rather greater than he had imagined. His ‘insecurity as a military leader,’ wrote Colonel Eismann, ‘made him incapable of a determined presentation of the operational situation to Hitler, let alone of asserting himself. Himmler used to return from the Führer situation conference a nervous wreck. Staff officers received little pleasure from the paradox that the feared Himmler should be so fearful. His ‘servile attitude’ towards Hitler and his fear of admitting the disastrous state of his forces ‘caused great damage and cost a vast amount of unnecessary blood’.
Himmler, seeking refuge in the Führer’s own aggressive clichés, talked of more counter-attacks. Following the Demmlhuber débâcle, Himmler set his mind on establishing the so-called Eleventh SS Panzer Army. In fact the whole of Army Group Vistula in the early days contained only three under-strength panzer divisions. At best, the formations available constituted a corps, ‘but panzer army’, observed Eismann, ‘has a better ring to it’. Himmler had another motive, however. It was to promote Waffen SS officers on the staff and in field command. Obergruppenführer Steiner was named as its commander. Steiner, an experienced soldier, was certainly a much better choice than other senior Waffen SS officers. But he did not have an easy task.
General Guderian, determined to keep a corridor open to the edge of East Prussia, argued at a situation conference in the first week of February that an ambitious operation was needed. He was even more outspoken than usual that day, having drunk a certain amount at an early lunch with the Japanese ambassador. Guderian wanted a pincer movement from the Oder south of Berlin and an attack down from Pomerania to cut off Zhukov’s leading armies. To assemble enough troops, more of the divisions trapped uselessly in Courland and elsewhere needed to be brought back by sea and the offensive in Hungary postponed. Hitler refused yet again.
‘You must believe me,’ Guderian persisted, ‘when I say it is not just pig-headedness on my part that makes me keep on proposing the evacuation of Courland. I can see no other way left to us of accumulating reserves, and without reserves we cannot hope to defend the capital. I assure you I am acting solely in Germany’s interests.’ Hitler began trembling in anger as he jumped to his feet. ‘How dare you speak to me like that?’ he shouted. ‘Don’t you think I’m fighting for Germany? My whole life has been one long struggle for Germany!’ Colonel de Maizière, the new operations officer at Zossen, had never seen such a row and stood there shocked and afraid for the chief of staff. To bring an end to Hitler’s frenzy, Goring led Guderian out of the room to find some coffee while everyone calmed down.
Guderian’s main fear was that the Second Army, trying to maintain a link between East Prussia and Pomerania, was in danger of being cut off. He therefore argued instead for a single attack southwards from the ‘Baltic balcony’. This attack on Zhukov’s right flank would also deter the Soviets from trying to attack Berlin immediately. On 13 February, a final conference on the operation was held in the Reich Chancellery. Himmler, as commander-in-chief of Army Group Vistula, was present, and so was Oberstgruppenführer Sepp Dietrich. Guderian also brought his extremely capable deputy, General Wenck. Guderian made plain right from the start that he wanted the operation to start in two days’ time. Himmler objected, saying that not all the fuel and ammunition had arrived. Hitler supported him and soon the Führer and his army chief of staff were having another row. Guderian insisted that Wenck should direct the operation.
‘The Reichsführer SS is man enough to carry out the attack on his own,’ Hitler said.
‘The Reichsführer SS has neither the requisite experience nor a sufficiently competent staff to control the attack single-handed. The presence of General Wenck is therefore essential.’
‘I don’t permit you,’ Hitler shouted, ‘to tell me that the Reichsführer SS is incapable of performing his duties.’
The argument raged for a long time. Hitler was literally raving in anger and screaming. Guderian claims to have glanced up at a helmeted portrait of Bismarck, the Iron Chancellor, and wondered what he thought of what was happening in the country he had helped to create. To Guderian’s surprise, Hitler suddenly stopped his pacing up and down and told Himmler that General Wenck would join his headquarters that night and direct the offensive. He then sat down again abruptly and smiled at Guderian. ‘Now please continue with the conference. The general staff has won a battle this day.’ Guderian ignored Keitel’s remonstrances later in the anteroom that he might have caused the Führer to suffer a stroke. He feared that his limited triumph might be short-lived.
On 16 February, the Pomeranian offensive, known as the Stargard tank battle, began under Wenck’s direction. Over 1,200 tanks had been allocated, but the trains to transport them were lacking. Even an under-strength panzer division needed fifty trains to move its men and vehicles. Far more serious was the shortage of ammunition and fuel, of which there were enough for only three days of operations. The lesson of the Ardennes offensive had not been learned.
Army staff officers had intended to give the offensive the codename ‘Husarenritt’, or Hussar ride, which in itself seemed to acknowledge that this could be no more than a raid. But the SS insisted on a much more dramatic name: ‘Sonnenwende’, or solstice. In the event it was neither a Hussar ride – a sudden thaw meant that the armoured vehicles were soon bogged down in the mud – nor a solstice, since it changed very little. The Wehrmacht could ill afford the heavy loss of tanks when the 2nd Guards Tank Army counter-attacked.
The highest-ranking casualty was General Wenck, who, driving back to his headquarters from briefing the Führer on the night of 17 February, fell asleep at the wheel and was badly hurt. He was replaced by General Krebs, a clever staff officer who had been military attaché in Moscow before Operation Barbarossa. The attempt to force back the Soviet counter-attack, however, had to be abandoned after two days. All that can be said in favour of the offensive is that it bought time. The Kremlin became convinced that a quick dash to Berlin was out of the question until the Pomeranian coastline was secured.
Hitler’s attempts to designate ‘fortress’ towns and to refuse to allow the evacuation of encircled troops, were part of a suicidal pattern of enforced sacrifice and useless suffering. He knew that they were doomed because the Luftwaffe lacked the fuel and aircraft to supply them, and yet his policy deprived Army Group Vistula of experienced troops.
Königsberg and Breslau held out, but other towns designated as fortresses or breakwaters by Hitler soon fell. In souther
Siege artillery had begun the softening-up process nine days before, but by the morning of 18 February, 1,400 guns, mortars and katyusha launchers were ready for the four-hour bombardment. Storm groups fought into the fortress, whose superstructure had been crushed by explosive fire. When resistance from a building continued, a 203mm howitzer was brought up and blasted the walls over open sights. Flamethrowers were used and explosive charges dropped down ventilation shafts. German soldiers who tried to surrender were shot by their own officers. But the end was imminent. On the night of 22–23 February, the commandant, Major General Ernst Gomell, spread out the swastika flag on the floor of his room, lay down on it and shot himself. The remnants of the garrison capitulated.
The siege of Breslau was to be even more prolonged: the city held out even after Berlin had fallen. As a result it was one of the most terrible of the war. The fanatical Gauleiter Hanke was determined that the capital of Silesia should remain unconquered. It was he who used loudspeaker vans to order women and children to flee the city in late January. Those who froze to death were entirely his responsibility.
The city had good stocks of food but little ammunition. The attempts to drop ammunition by parachute were a terrible waste of Luftwaffe resources. Colonel General Schörner, the commander-in-chief of Army Group Centre, then decided to send part of the 25th Parachute Regiment at the end of February to strengthen the garrison. The regimental commander protested strenuously that there was no landing zone, but on 22 February the battalion boarded Junkers 52 transports at Jüterbog, south of Berlin. At midnight the aircraft approached Breslau. ‘Over the city,’ one of the paratroopers wrote later, ‘we could see extensive fires and we encountered heavy anti-aircraft fire.’ A hit on the radio left them out of contact with ground control and they landed at an airfield near Dresden. Another attempt was made two nights later. The Soviet flak was even more intense as they circled the burning city for twenty minutes, trying to find a landing place. Three of the aircraft were lost: one of them crashed into a factory chimney.
Hanke’s disciplinary measures, backed by General Schörner’s policy of ‘strength through fear’, were terrible. Execution was arbitrary. Even ten-year-old children were put to work under Soviet air and artillery attack to clear an air strip within the city. Any attempt to surrender by those who sought to ‘preserve their pitiful lives’ would be met by a death sentence instantly carried out. ‘Decisive measures’ would also be taken against their families. Schörner argued that ‘almost four years of an Asiatic war’ had changed the soldier at the front completely: ‘It has hardened him and fanaticized him in the struggle against the Bolsheviks… The campaign in the east has developed the political soldier.’
Stalin’s boast at Yalta that the populations of East Prussia and Silesia had fled was not yet true. All too many were still trapped in besieged cities. German civilians in East Prussia also continued to suffer wherever they were, whether in Königsberg and the Heiligenbeil Kessel, attempting to leave the port of Pillau by ship, escaping on foot to the west or remaining at home. The February thaw meant that the ice of the Frisches Haff could be crossed only on foot and not by cart. The exit to Danzig, Pomerania and the west still remained open, but everyone realized that it was only a matter of time before the 1st Belorussian Front cut through to the Baltic.
Beria was informed by a senior SMERSH officer that the ‘significant part of the population of East Prussia’ which had fled into Königsberg had found that there was little room for them and even less food. They were lucky if they received 180 grams of bread a day. ‘Starved women with children are dragging themselves along the road’ in the hope that the Red Army might feed them. From these civilians, Red Army intelligence heard that ‘the morale of the Königsberg garrison is severely shaken. New general orders have been issued that any German male who does not report for frontline service will be shot on the spot… Soldiers put on civilian clothes and desert. On 6 and 7 February, the bodies of eighty German soldiers were piled up at the northern railway station. A placard was erected above them: “They were cowards but died just the same.”’
After the failure of Operation Sonnenwende, Danzig was increasingly threatened. The Kriegsmarine made great efforts to rescue as many wounded and civilians as possible. In the course of a single day, 21 February, 51,000 were brought out. The Nazi authorities estimated that only 150,000 remained to be evacuated, but a week later they found that Danzig now had a population of 1.2 million, of whom 530,000 were refugees. Greater efforts were made. On 8 March thirty-four trains of cattle trucks full of civilians left Pomerania for Mecklenburg, west of the Oder. Hitler wanted to move 150,000 refugees into Denmark. Two days later instructions were issued: ‘The Führer has ordered that from now on Copenhagen is to become a target sanctuary.’ Also on 10 March, the estimated running total of German refugees from the eastern provinces rose to 11 million people.
Yet even while the city of Danzig swarmed with frightened refugees desperate to escape, vile work continued in the Danzig Anatomical Medical Institute. After the Red Army captured the city a special commission was sent there to investigate the manufacture of soap and leather from ‘corpses of citizens of the USSR, Poland and other countries killed in German concentration camps’. In 1943 Professor Spanner and Assistant Professor Volman had begun to experiment. They then built special facilities for production. ‘The examination of the premises of the Anatomical Institute revealed 148 human corpses which were stored for the production of soap of which 126 were male corpses, eighteen female and four children. Eighty male corpses and two female corpses were without heads. Eighty-nine human heads were also found.’ All corpses and heads were stored in metal containers in an alcohol-carbolic solution. It appears that most of the corpses came from Stutthof concentration camp, near the city. ‘The executed people whose corpses were used for making soap were of different nationalities, but mostly Poles, Russians and Uzbeks.’ The work evidently received official approval, considering the high rank of its visitors. ‘The Anatomical Institute was visited by the Minister of Education Rust and Minister of Health Care Konti. Gauleiter of Danzig Albert Förster visited the institute in 1944, when soap was already being produced. He examined all the premises of the Anatomical Institute and I think that he knew about the production of soap from human corpses.’ The most astonishing aspects of this appalling story are that nothing was destroyed before the Red Army arrived and that Professor Spanner and his associates never faced charges after the war. The processing of corpses was not a crime.
Stutthof camp contained mainly Soviet prisoners and a number of Poles, a mixture of soldiers and Jews. Some 16,000 prisoners died in the camp from typhoid in six weeks. As the Red Army approached, prisoners were ordered to eliminate all traces. The crematorium was blown up and ten barrack blocks in which Jews had been kept were burned down. Apparently ordinary German soldiers were made to take part in the executions of Red Army prisoners of war and Soviet civilians.
Whether prompted by fear of retribution for war crimes or fear of the Bolsheviks and slave labour in Siberia, the exhausted Wehrmacht still marched and fought. ‘The Germans have not yet lost hope,’ stated a French intelligence analysis that February, ‘they don’t dare to.’ Soviet officers put it slightly differently: ‘Morale is low but discipline is strong.’
Clearing the Rear Areas
On 14 February, in East Prussia, a convoy of military vehicles with Red Army markings turned off the main route from Rastenburg to Angeburg. This side road led into dense pine forest. The whole region was imbued with an atmosphere of melancholy.
A tall barbed-wire fence surmounted by concertina wire became visible from the road. The vehicles soon reached a barrier with a sign in German: ‘Halt. Military Site. Entrance Forbidden to Civilians.’ This was the entrance to Hitler’s former headquarters, the Wolfsschanze.
The trucks carried frontier guard troops from the 57th NKVD Rifle Division. The officers in command of the convoy wore Red Army uniforms, yet they owed no allegiance to its chain of command. As members of SMERSH counter-intelligence, they were in theory answerable only to Stalin. Their feelings towards the Red Army at that time were not comradely. The dilapidated vehicles which they had been given came from army units who had taken the opportunity to rid themselves of their worst equipment. Although this was common practice, SMERSH and the NKVD did not appreciate it.
Their leader wore the uniform of a Red Army general. This was Commissar of State Security of the Second Rank, Viktor Semyonovich Abakumov. Beria had appointed him the first chief of SMERSH in April 1943, soon after the victory at Stalingrad. Abakumov occasionally followed his leader’s habit of arresting young women in order to rape them, but his chief speciality was taking part in the beatings of prisoners with a rubber truncheon. In order not to spoil the Persian carpet in his office, ‘a dirty runner bespattered with blood was rolled out’ before the unfortunate was brought in.
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