The fall of berlin 1945, p.14
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       The Fall of Berlin 1945, p.14

           Antony Beevor

  Abakumov, although still chief of SMERSH, had been sent by Beria ‘to carry out the necessary Chekist measures’ behind the advance of the 3rd Belorussian Front into East Prussia. Abakumov had ensured that the 12,000-strong NKVD forces directly under his command were the largest of all those attached to army groups invading Germany. They were larger even than those with Marshal Zhukov’s armies.

  Wet snow lay all around. To judge from Abakumov’s report to Beria, the NKVD troops dismounted and blocked the road, while he and the SMERSH officers began their inspection. Since German booby traps had been reported in the Rastenburg area, they were no doubt cautious. To the right of the entrance barrier stood several stone blockhouses which contained mines and camouflage material. On the left-hand side there were barrack blocks where the guards had lived. The SMERSH officers found epaulettes and uniforms from the Führerbegleit battalion. Hitler’s fear the previous year of being captured by a surprise Soviet parachute drop had led ‘the Führer’s guard battalion to be increased to a mixed brigade’.

  Following the road deeper into the forest, Abakumov saw signs on either side of the road. These were translated for him by his interpreter: ‘It is forbidden to step off the road’ and ‘Beware mines!’ Abakumov was clearly taking notes the whole time for his report to Beria, which he knew would be passed to Stalin. The Boss was obsessively interested in all details of Hitler’s life.

  The most striking aspect of Abakumov’s report, however, is the degree of Soviet ignorance it reveals about the place. This is especially surprising when one considers how many German generals they had captured and interrogated between the surrender at Stalingrad and the beginning of 1945. They appear to have taken almost two weeks to find this complex, four kilometres square. Concealment from the air was indeed impressive. Every road and alley was covered with green camouflage nets. Straight lines were broken with artificial trees and bushes. All the exterior lights had dark blue bulbs. Even the observation posts, up to thirty-five metres high in the forest, had been made to look like pine trees.

  When they entered the first inner perimeter, Abakumov observed the ‘ferro-concrete defences, barbed wire, minefields and large numbers of fire positions and barracks for guards’. At Gate No. 1 all the bunkers had been blown up after the Führer’s final departure on 20 November 1944, less than three months before, but Abakumov clearly had no idea when the complex had been abandoned. They came to a second perimeter fence of barbed wire, then a third. Within the central compound, they found bunkers with armoured shutters linked to an underground garage capable of taking eighteen cars.

  ‘We entered with great care,’ Abakumov wrote. They found a safe but it was empty. The rooms, he noted, were ‘very simply furnished’. (The place had once been described as a cross between a monastery and a concentration camp.) The SMERSH officers were only certain that they had found the right place when they discovered a sign on a door which read, ‘Führer’s Wehrmacht Adjutant’. Hitler’s room was identified by a photograph of him with Mussolini.

  Abakumov did not reveal any emotion over the fact that they were standing at last in the place from where Hitler had directed his merciless onslaught against the Soviet Union. He seemed far more preoccupied by the ferro-concrete constructions and their dimensions. Deeply impressed, he appears to have wondered whether Beria and Stalin might like something similar constructed: ‘I think it would be interesting for our specialists to inspect Hitler’s headquarters and see all these well-organized bunkers,’ he wrote. Despite their imminent victory, Soviet leaders did not appear to feel so very much more secure than their arch-enemy.

  The SMERSH detachments and NKVD divisions attached to the Fronts were, in Stalin’s own words, ‘indispensable’ to deal with ‘all unreliable elements encountered in occupied territories’. ‘The divisions have no artillery,’ Stalin had told General Bull of the US Army during the meeting with Air Marshal Tedder, ‘but they are strong in automatic weapons, armoured cars and light armoured vehicles. They must also have well developed investigation and interrogation facilities.’

  In German territories, such as East Prussia and Silesia, the first priority of the NKVD rifle regiments was to round up or hunt down German stragglers bypassed in the advance. Soviet authorities defined each Volkssturm man as a member of the Wehrmacht, but since almost every male between fifteen and fifty-five was called up, that included a large majority of local men. Those Volkssturm members who remained at home, rather than fleeing on the treks, were thus in many cases marked down as stay-behind sabotage groups, however elderly. Over 200 German ‘saboteurs and terrorists’ were reported ‘shot on the spot’ by NKVD forces, but the true figure was likely to have been far higher.

  In Poland, Stalin’s description of ‘unreliable elements’ did not refer to the tiny minority of Poles who had collaborated with the Germans. It applied to all those who supported the Polish government in exile and the Armia Krajowa, which had launched the Warsaw Uprising the previous year. Stalin regarded the Warsaw revolt against the Germans as a ‘criminal act of an anti-Soviet policy’. In his eyes, it was clearly an attempt to seize the Polish capital for the ‘émigré government in London’ just before the arrival of the Red Army, which had done all the fighting and dying. His shameful betrayal of Poland to the Nazis in 1939 and Beria’s massacre of Polish officers at Katyn were evidently not worth considering. He also ignored the fact that the Poles had proportionately suffered even more than the Soviet Union, losing over 20 per cent of their population. Stalin was convinced that Poland and its government was his by right of conquest, and this proprietorial sentiment was widely shared within the Red Army. When Soviet forces crossed the German frontier from Poland, many ‘felt that we had at last cleansed our own territory’, instinctively assuming that Poland was an integral part of the Soviet Union.

  Stalin’s claim at Yalta that the Communist provisional government enjoyed great popularity in Poland was, of course, a totally subjective statement. Zhukov’s memoirs were rather more revealing when he referred to the Poles in general, then added, ‘some of whom were loyal to us’. Opponents to Soviet rule were designated ‘enemy agents’, whatever their record of resistance to the Germans. The fact that the Armia Krajowa was an Allied force was ignored. In another interesting sentence, Zhukov referred to the need to control his own troops: ‘We had to make the educational work even more developed among all troops of the Front so that there would not be any thoughtless acts from the start of our stay.’ Their ‘stay’ was to last over forty-five years.

  The degree of Beria’s control over the Polish provisional government was indicated by the appointment of General Serov himself as ‘adviser’ at Poland’s ministry of security on 20 March under the name ‘Ivanov’. Advisers do not come much higher than Commissar of State Security of the Second Rank. Serov was particularly well qualified for the post. He had overseen the mass deportations from the Caucasus and previously had been in charge of the repression in Lvov in 1939, when the Soviet Union seized eastern Poland and arrested and killed officers, landowners, priests and teachers who might oppose their rule. Some 2 million Poles were deported to the Gulag and a campaign of forced collectivization began.

  Stalin’s deliberate policy was to confuse the Armia Krajowa with the Ukrainian nationalist force, the UPA, or at least imply that they were closely linked. Goebbels, meanwhile, seized upon every example of partisan resistance to Soviet occupation. He claimed that there were 40,000 men in the Estonian resistance, 10,000 in Lithuania and 50,000 in the Ukraine. He even quoted Pravda of 7 October 1944, claiming that there were ‘Ukrainian-German nationalists’. All this gave even more excuse to the NKVD regiments in their ‘cleansing of the rear areas’. It was a good example of both sides feeding profitably on each other’s propaganda.

  Another Polish potential enemy was also investigated in early March. Almost as soon as SMERSH was established in Poland, it launched an ‘inquiry into Rokossovsky’s relatives’, presumably to see whether any of them could be defined as
‘enemy elements’. Marshal Rokossovsky was half-Polish, and this investigation was almost certainly carried out on Beria’s instructions. He had not forgotten that Rokossovsky had escaped his grasp. Nikolai Bulganin, the political member of Rokossovsky’s military council of the 2nd Belorussian Front, was Stalin’s watchdog.

  Stalin’s determination to stamp out the Armia Krajowa later turned a minor incident into a major contretemps between the Soviet Union and the United States. On 5 February, just as the Yalta conference was getting under way, Lieutenant Myron King of the US Air Force made an emergency landing in his B-17 at Kuflevo. A young Pole appeared and asked to leave with them. They took him on board and flew on to the Soviet airbase at Shchuchin, where they could repair the aircraft properly. The crew lent him articles of uniform, and when they landed ‘the civilian pretended to be Jack Smith, a member of the crew’, General Antonov wrote in his official complaint. Only after intervention by the Soviet command,’ Antonov continued, ‘Lieutenant King announced that this was not a member of the crew, but a stranger whom they did not know and took on board the airplane to take him away to England.’ ‘According to our information,’ Antonov concluded, ‘he was a terrorist-saboteur brought into Poland from London.’ The United States government apologized profusely. It even organized King’s court martial in the Soviet Union at their borrowed air base near Poltava and requested Antonov to provide prosecution witnesses. Stalin played this incident up to the hilt. He told Averell Harriman that this proved that the United States was supplying the White Poles to attack the Red Army.

  Another incident occurred on 22 March at the Soviet aviation base of Mielec, where an American Liberator landed due to lack of fuel. The Soviet commander, aware of the dangers after the King incident, put a guard on the plane and forced the crew to spend the night in a hut nearby. But the ten-man crew under Lieutenant Donald Bridge, after being held for two days, requested permission to fetch personal belongings from the aircraft. As soon as they were on board, they started the engines and took off, ignoring all signals to halt. ‘Soviet Engineer-Captain Melamedev, who accepted Donald Bridge’s crew,’ wrote Antonov to General Reade in Moscow, ‘was so indignant and put out by this instance [sic] that on the very same day he shot himself.’ His death, however, may well have had more to do with the outrage of SMERSH officers at the ‘negligence of the officer and guards who had been detailed to watch the plane’. This incident was also cited as ‘proof’ that ‘enemy elements are using these landings to transport to Polish territory terrorists, saboteurs and agents of the Polish émigré government in London’.

  It is hard to know whether the Soviet authorities were genuinely paranoid or had whipped themselves up into a self-perpetuating moral outrage. When an American lieutenant colonel who had been visiting released US prisoners of war in Lublin returned to Moscow after his pass had expired, General Antonov, no doubt on Stalin’s instructions, grounded all US aircraft ‘in the Soviet Union and in Red Army-controlled areas’.

  In East Prussia, reports referred to ‘German bands up to 1,000 strong’ attacking the rear of Rokossovsky’s 2nd Belorussian Front. NKVD units mounted ‘sweeps through the forest to liquidate them’. In most cases, however, these bands consisted of a group of local Volkssturm men hiding in forests. Sometimes they ambushed trucks, motorcyclists and supply carts to get food. In Kreisburg, NKVD troops discovered two ‘secret bakeries’ making bread for soldiers out in the woods. Young women taking food out to them were captured by NKVD patrols.

  On a sweep on 21 February, the 14th Cordon of the 127th Frontier Guards Regiment, led by Junior Lieutenant Khismatulin, was searching a patch of thick woodland when Sergeant Zavgorodny noticed woollen stockings hanging from a tree. ‘This made him suspect the presence of unknown persons. They searched the area and found three well-camouflaged trenches leading to a bunker where they found three enemy soldiers with rifles.’

  Mines and booby traps remained a major concern. To improve mine clearance, twenty-two dogs were allocated to each NKVD Frontier Guards Regiment. Sniffer dogs – ‘special dogs for smelling bandits’, as the report put it – were also brought in to round up more of the Germans hiding in East Prussian forests.

  Many reports appear to have been dramatized and exaggerated by local commanders wanting to make their work sound more important. A report on captured ‘terrorists handed over to SMERSH for interrogation’ revealed that all these ‘terrorists’ were born before 1900. Tsanava, the NKVD chief of the 2nd Belorussian Front, reported the arrest of Ulrich Behr, a German born in 1906. ‘He confessed under interrogation that in February 1945 he was engaged as a spy by a resident of German intelligence, Hauptmann Schrap. His mission was to stay in the rear of the Red Army to recruit agents and to carry out sabotage, intelligence and terroristic activities. Fulfilling this task, Behr recruited twelve agents.’ On a number of occasions, stragglers or local Volkssturm soldiers were described as ‘Left in the rear by German intelligence with the task of committing sabotage’. The most ridiculous incident was the ‘sabotage of an electric power line near Hindenburg’, in Silesia. After a fearsome search for culprits, this turned out to have been caused by Red Army artillery practice. Pieces of shrapnel had severed the cables.

  On the other hand, when the chief of SMERSH with the 2nd Belorussian Front claimed that his men had discovered ‘a German sabotage school in the village of Kovalyowo’, he may have been right. The names of those trained there were all Russian or Ukrainian. The Germans, in their desperation, had been resorting to the use of Soviet prisoners more and more. Many of these Russians and Ukrainians had probably volunteered in the hope of an easy way home, but even their prompt surrender to Soviet military authorities would not have saved them, to judge by other cases.

  NKVD detachments seem to have spent more time searching houses and barns than combing the huge areas of forest. One detachment found a group of eight German women sitting in a hay stack. ‘An attentive sergeant’ found that they were not women, but ‘German soldiers wearing women’s dresses’. There were many reports of this nature.

  It appears that East Prussian peasant families were often as naïve as their Russian counterparts. Patrols on house searches found that the inhabitants could not stop glancing at a particular object or leave it alone. In one house, the woman went to sit on a trunk. The NKVD soldiers pushed her aside and found a man hidden in the trunk. One patrol noted the worried glances of the owner of the house towards the bed. The NKVD soldiers pulled off the mattress and saw that the boards of the bed were very high. They removed the boards and found a man dressed in women’s clothes. In another house they found a man hiding under the coats on a coat-stand. The man’s feet were off the ground because he had strung himself up with a strap under his armpits. Usually, the most obvious hiding places were used, such as sheds, barns and hay ricks. Sniffer dogs soon found them. Only a few constructed underground refuges. Sometimes the NKVD patrols did not bother to search a house. They set it on fire, and those who were not burned to death were shot as they jumped from the windows.

  While many Volkssturm men wanted to stay near their farms, stragglers from the Wehrmacht were trying to slip back through the lines to Germany. In many cases they dressed themselves in Red Army uniforms taken from soldiers they had killed. If caught, they were mostly shot on the spot. Any prisoners taken, whether German, Russian or Polish, were put in a ‘preliminary prison’. These buildings were usually just a commandeered house with barbed wire nailed over the windows and the sign ‘Jail: NKVD of the USSR’ chalked up on a wall outside. They were then interrogated by SMERSH, and, depending on the confession obtained, were sent off to a camp or to forced labour battalions.

  NKVD chiefs also kept a sharp eye on their business affairs. Major General Rogatin, the commander of NKVD troops with the 2nd Belorussian Front and formerly the NKVD commander at Stalingrad, discovered ‘that in some [NKVD] units a majority of officers and soldiers are not engaged in their duty, but are active in the collection of looted property… It wa
s established that looted property was shared out within the regiments without the knowledge of division staff. In the regiments there are cases of selling and bartering looted products, sugar, tobacco, wine and gasoline taken from drivers with the advancing units of the Red Army, and motorcycles. Such a situation in the [NKVD] regiments and absence of discipline has led to a sharp increase in extraordinary events. There are soldiers who do their duty, and then there are the others who are doing nothing but loot. The looters should now be put to work along with those who do their duty.’ It appears that there was no question of punishing them, and the phrase ‘without the knowledge of division staff’ is most revealing. Divisional headquarters was outraged presumably because it had discovered that it was not receiving its share of the proceeds.

  There can be little doubt that the Red Army resented the ‘rear rats’ in the NKVD, but the feeling ran both ways. The NKVD did not appreciate having to deal with ammunition and weapons abandoned by Germans and advancing units of Red Army. ‘All this leads to massive stealing by bandits and the local population. It has been noticed that adolescents get hold of these weapons and organize armed groups and terrorize the population. This creates favourable conditions for the growth of banditry.’ An order was also issued forbidding the use of grenades for fishing, a popular sport among Red Army men in the many lakes of East Prussia and Poland.

  NKVD rifle regiments had to deal not only with German stragglers and Volkssturm living like outlaws in the forests, but also with groups of Red Army deserters. On 7 March, a group of ‘fifteen armed deserters’ ambushed an NKVD patrol of the 2nd Belorussian Front near the village of Dertz. Another group of eight was also living in the forest nearby. All had deserted at the end of December 1944. Two days later, the NKVD reported ‘finding more deserters travelling away from the front in the rear areas’. Another ‘bandit group’ of deserters from the 3rd Army, led by a Ukrainian captain and Party member with the order of the Red Banner, who had deserted from hospital on 6 March, lived off the land round Ortelsburg. Their group, armed with sub-machine guns and pistols, was extremely mixed. It included men from Tula, Sverdlovsk, Voronezh and the Ukraine, as well as a Pole, three German women and another German man from the Ortelsburg district.

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