The fall of berlin 1945, p.16
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       The Fall of Berlin 1945, p.16

           Antony Beevor

  Estimates for all categories range between 1 million and 1.5 millon men. Red Army authorities insisted that there had been over a million Hiwis serving in the Wehrmacht. Those taken, or who surrendered voluntarily, were frequently shot on the spot or soon afterwards. ‘Vlasovtsy and other accomplices of the Nazis were usually executed on the spot,’ the latest Russian official history states. ‘This is not surprising. The battle code of the Red Army infantry demanded that each soldier must “be ruthless to all turncoats and traitors of the Motherland”.’ It also appears to have been a matter of regional honour. Men from their area would be found to take revenge: ‘A man from Orel kills a man from Orel and an Uzbek kills an Uzbek.’

  The NKVD troops were understandably merciless in their search for Ukrainians and Caucasians who had worked as camp guards, where they had frequently proved themselves even more brutal than their German overseers. Yet the fact that Red Army prisoners of war could be treated in virtually the same way as those who had put on enemy uniform was part of a systematic attitude within the NKVD. ‘There must be a single view of all the categories of prisoners,’ the NKVD rifle regiments in the 2nd Belorussian Front were told. Deserters, robbers and former prisoners of war were to be treated in the same way as ‘those who betrayed our state’.

  While it is extremely hard to have any sympathy for camp guards, the vast majority of the Hiwis had been brutally press-ganged or starved into submission. Of the categories in between, many who served in SS or German army units were nationalists, whether Ukrainians, Baits, Cossacks or Caucasians, all of whom hated Soviet rule from Moscow. Some Vlasovtsy had had no compunction about joining their former enemy because they had not forgiven the arbitrary executions of friends by Red Army officers and blocking detachments during 1941 and 1942. Others were peasants who loathed forced collectivization. Yet many of the ordinary Vlasov soldiers and Hiwis were often extraordinarily naïve and ill-informed. A Russian interpreter in a German prisoner-of-war camp recounted how, at one propaganda meeting to recruit volunteers for Vlasov’s army, a Russian prisoner put up his hand and said, ‘Comrade President, we would like to know how many cigarettes one is given per day in the Vlasov army?’ Evidently for many, an army was just an army. What difference did it make whose uniform you wore, especially if you were fed, instead of being starved and maltreated in a camp? All of those who followed that route were to suffer far more than they had ever imagined. Even those who survived fifteen or twenty years in the Gulag after the war remained marked men. Those thought to have cooperated with the enemy did not have their civic rights restored until the fiftieth anniversary of the victory in 1995.

  Letters were found on Russian prisoners of war who had served in the German Army, almost certainly as Hiwis. One, barely literate, was written on a blank fly-leaf torn from a German book. ‘Comrade soldiers,’ it said, ‘we give ourselves up to you begging a big favour. Tell us please why are you killing those Russian people from German prisons? We happened to be captured and then they took us to work for their regiments and we worked purely in order not to starve to death. Now these people happen to get to the Russian side, back to their own army, and you shoot them. What for, we ask. Is it because the Soviet command betrayed these people in 1941 and 1942?’


  Pomerania and the Oder Bridgeheads

  In February and March, while bitter fighting continued for the Oder bridgeheads opposite Berlin, Zhukov and Rokossovsky crushed the ‘Baltic balcony’ of Pomerania and West Prussia. In the second and third weeks of February, Rokossovsky’s four armies across the Vistula pushed into the southern part of West Prussia. Then, on 24 February, Zhukov’s right-flank armies and Rokossovsky’s left flank forced northwards towards the Baltic to split Pomerania in two.

  The most vulnerable German formation was the Second Army. It still just managed to keep open the last land route from East Prussia along the Frische Nehrung sandbar to the Vistula estuary. The Second Army, with its left flank just across the Nogat in Elbing and maintaining a foothold in the Teutonic Knights’ castle of Marienburg, was the most overstretched of all Army Group Vistula.

  Rokossovsky’s attack began on 24 February. The 19th Army advanced north-westwards towards the area between Neustettin and Baldenburg, but its troops were shaken by the ferocity of the fighting and it faltered. Rokossovsky sacked the army commander, pushed a tank corps into the attack as well, and forced them on. The combination of the tank corps and the 2nd and 3rd Guards Cavalry Corps led to the rapid fall of Neustettin, the ‘cornerstone’ of the Pomeranian defence line.

  Soviet cavalry played a successful part in the reduction of Pomerania. They captured several towns on their own, such as the seaside town of Leba, mainly by surprise. The 2nd Guards Cavalry Corps, which formed the extreme right of Zhukov’s 1st Belorussian Front, was commanded by Lieutenant General Vladimir Viktorovich Kryukov, a resourceful leader married to Russia’s favourite folk-singer, Lydia Ruslanova.

  Zhukov’s attack northwards some fifty kilometres east of Stettin began in earnest on 1 March. Combining the 3rd Shock Army and the 1st and 2nd Guards Tank Army, it was a far stronger force. The weak German divisions did not stand a chance. The leading tank brigades dashed ahead, charging through towns where unprepared civilians stared at them in horror. The 3rd Shock Army and the 1st Polish Army coming behind consolidated their gains. On 4 March, the 1st Guards Tank Army reached the Baltic near Kolberg. Colonel Morgunov, the commander of the 45th Guards Tank Brigade, the first to reach the sea, sent bottles of saltwater to Zhukov and to Katukov, his army commander. It proved Katukov’s dictum. ‘The success of the advance,’ he had told Grossman, ‘is determined by our huge mechanized power, which is now greater than it has ever been. A colossal rapidity of advance means small losses and the enemy is scattered.’

  The whole of the German Second Army and part of the Third Panzer Army were now completely cut off from the Reich. And as if to emphasize the Baltic catastrophe, news arrived that Finland, albeit under heavy pressure from the Soviet Union, had declared war on her former ally, Nazi Germany. Among those cut off to the east of Zhukov’s thrust was the SS Charlemagne Division, already greatly reduced from its strength of 12,000 men. Along with three German divisions, they had been positioned near Belgard. General von Tettau ordered them to try to break out north-westwards towards the Baltic coast at the mouth of the Oder. The Charlemagne commander, SS Brigadeführer Gustav Krukenberg, accompanied 1,000 of his Frenchmen on silent compass marches through snow-laden pine forests. As things turned out, part of this ill-assorted group of right-wing intellectuals, workers and reactionary aristocrats, united only by their ferocious anti-Communism, was to form the last defence of Hitler’s Chancellery in Berlin.

  Hitler, however, demonstrated scant sympathy for the defenders of his Reich. When the commander of the Second Army, Colonel General Weiss, warned Führer headquarters that the Elbing pocket, which had cost so much blood already, could not be held much longer, Hitler simply retorted, ‘Weiss is a liar, like all generals.’

  The second phase of the Pomeranian campaign began almost immediately, only two days after the 1st Guards Tank Army reached the sea. The 1st Guards Tank Army was transferred temporarily to Rokossovsky. Zhukov telephoned him to say that he wanted Katukov’s army ‘returned in the same state as you received it’. The operation consisted of a large, left-flanking wheel to roll up eastern Pomerania and Danzig from the west, while Rokossovsky’s strongest formation, the 2nd Shock Army, attacked up from the south, parallel to the Vistula.

  The commander of the Soviet 2nd Shock Army, Colonel General Fedyuninsky, was keeping a close eye on the calendar. He had been wounded four times in the course of the war. Every time it happened on the 20th of the month, and so now he never moved from his headquarters on that day. Fedyuninsky did not believe that the looted resources of Prussia should be squandered. He made his army load livestock, bread, rice, sugar and cheese on to trains, which were sent to Leningrad to compensate its citizens for their suffering during the
terrible siege.

  Fedyuninsky’s advance cut off the German defenders of Marienburg castle, who had been assisted in their defence by salvoes fired from the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen, out in the Baltic. The castle was abandoned on the night of 8 March, and two days later Elbing fell, as Weiss had warned. The German Second Army, threatened from the west and the south, pulled in to defend Danzig and Gdynia to allow as many civilians and wounded as possible to be evacuated from the ports packed with refugees.

  On 8 March, just two days after the start of the westward sweep on Danzig, Soviet forces occupied the town of Stolp unopposed, and two days later, the 1st Guards Tank Army and the 19th Army reached Lauenburg. A refugee column fleeing for the ports was overtaken by a tank brigade. Women and children fled, stumbling through the snow, to shelter in the forest while Soviet tanks crushed their carts under their tracks. They were more fortunate than other trek columns.

  Not far from Lauenburg, Red Army troops discovered another concentration camp. This was a women’s camp, and their doctors immediately set to work caring for the survivors.

  The fate of Pomeranian families was similar to those in East Prussia. Himmler had forbidden the evacuation of civilians from eastern Pomerania, so around 1.2 million were cut off by the thrust north to the Baltic on 4 March. They had also been deprived of news, just as in East Prussia. But most families had heard rumours and, refusing to trust the Nazi authorities, they prepared themselves.

  Landowning families – ‘the manor folk’, as the villagers called them – knew that they were the most likely to be shot, and their tenants urged them to leave for their own good. Carriages and carts were prepared. Near Stolp, Libussa von Oldershausen, the stepdaughter of Baron Jesko von Puttkammer, who had refused to sacrifice the local Volkssturm at Schneidemühl, was nine months pregnant. The estate carpenter built a wagon frame over which the large carpet from the library was fastened to provide shelter from the snow. The expectant mother would lie inside on a mattress.

  In the early hours of 8 March, Libussa was woken by a pounding on the door. ‘Trek orders!’ somebody shouted. ‘Get up! Hurry! We’re leaving as soon as possible.’ She dressed as quickly as she could and packed her jewels. The manor house was already full of refugees and some of them began to loot the rooms even before the family had left.

  As many Pomeranian and East Prussian families found, their French prisoner-of-war labourers insisted on coming with them rather than wait behind to be liberated by the Red Army. The rumble of artillery fire could be heard in the distance as they climbed into the converted cart and other horse-drawn vehicles. They headed east for Danzig. But even with a headstart, their horse-drawn carts were outpaced in a few days by Katukov’s tank brigades.

  Libussa awoke in the middle of the night after they had heard that they would not reach safety in time. By the light of a candle-stump, she saw that her stepfather had put on his uniform and medals. Her mother was also dressed. Since the Red Army was bound to cut them off, they had decided to commit suicide. Nemmersdorf and recent atrocity tales from East Prussia had convinced them that they should not be taken alive. ‘It’s time,’ said Baron Jesko. ‘The Russians will be here in an hour or two.’ Libussa accompanied them outside, planning to do the same, but at the last moment she suddenly changed her mind. ‘I want to go with you, but I can’t. I’m carrying the baby, my baby. It’s kicking so hard. It wants to live. I can’t kill it.’ Her mother understood and said that she would stay with her. The baron, bewildered and dismayed, was forced to get rid of his uniform and pistol. Their only hope of survival was to be indistinguishable from the other refugees when the Red Army arrived. They must not be spotted as ‘lordships’.

  The first sign that Soviet troops had arrived was a signal flare which shot out of a plantation of firs. It was rapidly followed by the roar of tank engines. Small trees were crushed flat as the tanks emerged like monsters from the forest. A couple of them fired their main armament to intimidate the villagers, then sub-machine gunners fanned out to search the houses. They fired short bursts on entering rooms to cow those inside. This brought down a shower of plaster. They were not the conquerors the Germans had expected. Their shabby brown uniforms, stained and ripped, their boots falling to pieces and lengths of string used instead of gun slings were so unlike images of the victorious Wehrmacht projected in newsreels earlier in the war.

  Looting was carried out briskly with cries of ‘Uri Uri!’ as the Soviet soldiers went round grabbing watches. Pierre, their French prisoner of war, protested in vain that he was an ally. He received a rifle butt in the stomach. They then searched the refugees’ luggage and bundles until they heard orders yelled by their officers outside. The soldiers stuffed their booty down the fronts of their padded jackets and ran out to rejoin their armoured vehicles.

  The civilians, shaking with a mixture of fear and relief that they had survived this first encounter with the dreaded enemy, suddenly faced the second wave, in this case a cavalry detachment. They had more time, which meant time to rape. The door was thrown open and a small group of Red Army soldiers came in to pick their victims.

  Hitler had sacked General Weiss, the commander of the Second Army, for having warned Führer headquarters that Elbing could not be held. In his place, he had appointed General von Saucken, the former commander of the Grossdeutschland Corps.

  On 12 March, General von Saucken was summoned to the Reich Chancellery to be briefed on his new appointment. This former cavalryman entered the room wearing a monocle and the Knight’s Cross with Swords and Oak Leaves at his neck. Slim and elegant, Saucken was an ultra-conservative who openly despised the ‘braune Bande’ of Nazis. Hitler asked Guderian to brief him on the situation in Danzig. Once that was completed, Hitler told Saucken that he must take his orders from the Gauleiter, Albert Förster. General von Saucken stared back at Hitler. ‘I have no intention,’ he replied, ‘of placing myself under the orders of a Gauleiter.’ Not only had Saucken flatly contradicted Hitler, he had failed to address him as ‘Mein Führer’. Even Guderian, who had been through more rows with Hitler than most people, was shaken. Yet onlookers were even more surprised by Hitler’s acquiescence. ‘All right, Saucken,’ he replied weakly. ‘Keep the command to yourself.’

  Saucken flew to Danzig the next day. He was determined to hold the two ports to allow the escape of as many civilians as possible. It was estimated that Danzig’s population was swollen to 1.5 million and that there were at least 100,000 wounded. Amid the chaos, the SS began seizing stragglers at random and hanging them from trees as deserters. Food was desperately short. A 21,000-ton supply ship hit a mine and sank with six days’ supplies for Danzig and Gdynia.

  The Kriegsmarine not only demonstrated extraordinary tenacity and bravery in the evacuation, it also continued to give offshore fire support despite constant air attacks and the threat of torpedoes from Soviet submarines of the Baltic Fleet. The cruisers Prinz Eugen and Leipzig and the old battleship Schlesien thundered away with their main armament at the encircling Red Army. But on 22 March, the Red Army smashed the Danzig-Gdynia defence perimeter in the middle, between the two ports. Soon both came under accurate artillery fire in addition to the never-ending raids by Soviet aviation.

  Fighter bombers strafed the towns and the port areas. Soviet Shturmoviks treated civilian and military targets alike. A church was as good as a bunker, especially when it seemed as if the objective was to flatten every building which still protruded conspicuously above the ground. Wounded waiting on the quays to be embarked were riddled on their stretchers. Tens of thousands of women and children, terrified of losing their places in the queues to escape, provided unmissable targets. There was no time to help or pity the dead and injured. Only children, orphaned from one instant to the next, would be gathered up. And with the unremitting racket of the 88mm and light flak anti-aircraft batteries, nobody could hear their sobbing.

  The scratch crews of the Kriegsmarine, using any craft available – tenders, barges, pinnaces, tugs and E-boats
– returned in a constant shuttle to snatch the civilians and wounded to ferry them across to the small port of Hela at the tip of the nearby peninsula. Destroyers offshore gave the small boats as much anti-aircraft covering fire as possible. The sailors hardly ever faltered, even though a near miss was enough to overturn some of the smaller craft. On 25 March, a young woman from the Polish resistance brought General Katukov a plan of the Gdynia defence system. At first he thought it might be a trick, but it proved to be authentic. As the Soviet troops fought into the outskirts of Gdynia, the Kriegsmarine carried on, even accelerating its rhythm to grab as many refugees as possible before the end. Their boats now had to contend with another weapon. Katukov’s tank crews had learned to adapt their gunnery to targets at sea, making it an even more dangerous task.

  A fragment of a platoon from the Grossdeutschland, which had escaped amid nightmare scenes from the final evacuation of Memel at the most north-eastern point of East Prussia, found itself reliving a similar experience. Deciding to shelter in a vaulted cellar as Soviet troops fought towards the port, they found a doctor delivering a baby by the light of a couple of lanterns. ‘If the birth of a child is usually a joyful event,’ wrote one of the soldiers, ‘this particular birth only seemed to add to the general tragedy. The mother’s screams no longer had any meaning in a world made of screams, and the wailing child seemed to regret the beginning of its life.’ The soldiers hoped for the child’s sake, as they made their way down to the port, that it would die. The Soviet advance into Gdynia was marked by a horizon of red flames against thick black smoke. The final attack had begun, and by that evening of 26 March the Red Army was in possession of the town and port.

  The sack of Gdynia and the treatment of the survivors appear to have shaken even the Soviet military authorities. ‘The number of extraordinary events is growing,’ the political department reported in its usual vocabulary of euphemisms, ‘as well as immoral phenomena and military crimes. Among our troops there are disgraceful and politically harmful phenomena when, under the slogan of revenge, some officers and soldiers commit outrages and looting instead of honestly and selflessly fulfilling their duty to their Motherland.’

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