The fall of berlin 1945, p.17
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       The Fall of Berlin 1945, p.17

           Antony Beevor

  Just to the south, meanwhile, Danzig too was under heavy assault from the west. The defenders were forced back bit by bit, and by 28 March Danzig also fell, with appalling consequences for the remaining civilians. The remainder of Saucken’s troops withdrew eastwards into the Vistula estuary, where they remained besieged until the end of the war.

  For German officers, especially Pomeranians and Prussians, the loss of the Hanseatic city of Danzig, with its fine old buildings marked by distinctive stepped gables, was a disaster. It signified the end of German Baltic life for ever. Yet while mourning the loss of a long-established culture, they closed their eyes to the horrors of the regime which they had so effectively supported in its war aims. They may not have known about the manufacture of soap and leather from corpses in the Danzig Anatomical Medical Institute, but they certainly knew about Stutthof concentration camp in the Vistula estuary, because Wehrmacht troops, not just SS, had been involved in the massacre of its prisoners as the Red Army approached.

  West Prussia and Pomerania may not have suffered quite as much as East Prussia, but the fate of civilians was still terrible. Their culture was also exterminated as churches and old buildings went up in flames.

  The Soviet commandant of Lauenburg complained to Captain Agranenko that it was ‘absolutely impossible to stop the violence’. Agranenko found that Red Army soldiers did not bother with official euphemisms for rape, such as ‘violence against the civil population’ or ‘immorality’. They simply used the phrase ‘to fuck’. A Cossack officer told him that German women were ‘too proud’. You had to ‘get astride’ them. Others complained that German women looked ‘like draught-horses’. In Glowitz, he noted that women were ‘using children like a screen’. Soviet soldiers once again demonstrated an utterly bewildering mixture of irrational violence, drunken lust and spontaneous kindness to children.

  Young women, desperate to escape the notice of soldiers, rubbed wood-ash and soot into their faces. They tied peasant headkerchiefs low over the brow, bundled themselves up to hide their figures and hobbled along the roadside like ancient crones. Yet this concealment of youth was no automatic safeguard. Many elderly women were raped as well.

  German women developed their own verbal formulae for what they had been through. Many used to say, ‘I had to concede.’ One recounted that she had to concede thirteen times. ‘Her horror seemed to contain a touch of pride at what she had endured,’ Libussa von Oldershausen noted with surprise. But far more women were traumatized by their terrible experiences. Some became catatonic, others committed suicide. But as with Libussa von Oldershausen, pregnant women usually rejected this escape route. An instinctive duty to their unborn child became paramount.

  A few women had the idea of dotting their faces with red to indicate spotted typhus. Others discovered the Russian word for typhus and its Cyrillic form in order to put up warning notices on their doors implying that the household was infected. In more remote areas, whole communities hid in farmsteads away from major routes. A lookout always remained close to the road, with a flashlight at night or a shirt to wave by day to warn of Soviet troops turning off towards their hiding place. Women then rushed to hide, and poultry and pigs were driven into pens concealed in the forest. Such precautions for survival must have been used in the Thirty Years War. They were probably as old as warfare itself.

  Of all the signs of fighting which refugees found when forced to return home after the fall of Danzig, the worst were the ‘gallows alleys’ where SS and Feldgendarmerie had hanged deserters. Signs had been tied around their necks, such as, ‘Here I hang because I did not believe in the Führer.’ Libussa von Oldershausen and her family, forced to return home by the fall of the two ports, also saw a couple of Feldgendarmerie who had been caught and hanged by the Soviets. The route back was littered with wrecked wagons pushed into ditches by Soviet tanks, with looted baggage scattered all around, bedlinen, crockery, suitcases and toys. The carcasses of horses and cattle in roadside ditches had had strips of meat hacked from their flanks.

  Many Pomeranians were murdered in the first week of occupation. Near the Puttkamers’ village, an elderly couple were chased into the icy waters of a village pond, where they died. A man was harnessed to a plough, which he was forced to drag until he collapsed. His tormentors then finished him off with a burst of sub-machine-gun fire. Herr von Livonius, the owner of an estate at Grumbkow, was dismembered and his body thrown to the pigs. Even those landowners who had been part of the anti-Nazi resistance fared little better. Eberhard von Braunschweig and his family, assuming that they had little to fear, awaited the arrival of the Red Army in their manor house at Lübzow, near Karzin. But his reputation and numerous arrests by the Gestapo did him little good. The whole family was dragged outside and shot. Villagers and French prisoners of war sometimes bravely came to the defence of a well-liked landowner, but many others were left to their fate.

  Nothing was predictable. In Karzin, the elderly Frau von Puttkamer retired to bed when the sounds of firing and tank engines could be heard. Not long afterwards, a young Soviet soldier opened her bedroom door, very drunk after the capture of the next-door village. He signalled for her to get out of bed to let him sleep there. She refused, saying that it was her bed, but that she would give him a pillow and he could sleep on the bedside rug. She then put her hands together and began to say her prayers. Too befuddled to argue, the young soldier lay down and slept where he had been told.

  Just after the capture of Pomerania, Captain Agranenko, always the playwright collecting new material, travelled round taking notes. He observed that when he was scribbling away in his little notebook, people looked at him fearfully, thinking that he must be a member of the NKVD.

  On 23 March, when in Kolberg, he exulted in the sudden arrival of spring weather. ‘Birds are singing. Buds are opening. Nature does not care about war.’ He watched Red Army soldiers trying to learn to ride their plundered bicycles. They were wobbling dangerously all over the place. In fact, Front commands issued an order forbidding them to ride bicycles on the road as so many of them were being knocked down and killed. The rapid invasion of Pomerania had liberated thousands of foreign workers and prisoners. At night, the roads were lined with their campfires. By day, they embarked on their long trudge home. Most of them had fashioned national flags to identify them as non-German. Agranenko and some other officers encountered some Lithuanians displaying their flag. ‘We explained to them,’ he wrote, ‘that now their national flag is red.’ Clearly Agranenko, like most Russians, regarded the Soviet Union’s seizure of the Baltic states as quite natural, even if they did not realize that it was part of the secret protocol of the Nazi-Soviet pact.

  While the liberated foreign labourers and prisoners carried their flags, Germans wore white armbands and hung white flags from their houses to emphasize their surrender. They knew that any sign of resistance or even resentment would do them no good. The Soviet-appointed bürgermeister in Köslin, a fifty-five-year-old Jewish jeweller named Usef Ludinsky, wore a bowler hat and a red armband when he read out proclamations from the military authorities from the town-hall steps. The German inhabitants listened in silence. In Leba, the cavalry which captured it had looted all the clocks and watches, so each morning the bürgermeister had to walk up and down the streets ringing a large handbell and shouting ‘Nach Arbeit!’ to wake the townsfolk mobilized for labour by the Soviet authorities.

  In Stargard, Agranenko observed a tankist in padded leather helmet approach the fresh graves in the square opposite the magistrate’s court. The young soldier read the name on each grave, evidently searching. He stopped at one, took off his tank helmet and bowed his head. Then, he suddenly jerked his sub-machine gun up and fired a long burst. He was saluting his commander buried there at his feet.

  Agranenko also chatted with young women traffic controllers. ‘Our weddings won’t happen soon,’ they told him. ‘We’ve already forgotten that we’re girls. We’re just soldiers.’ They seemed to sense that they would be
part of that generation condemned to post-war spinsterhood by the Red Army’s 9 million casualties.

  While Zhukov’s armies had been destroying the ‘Baltic balcony’, Marshal Konev’s 1st Ukrainian Front was still engaged in Silesia. His main obstacle was the fortress city of Breslau, astride the Oder, defended under the fanatical leadership of the Gauleiter, Karl Hanke. But Konev did not want to miss the Berlin operation, so he besieged the city, as Zhukov had done with Poznan, and pushed on across the Oder from the Steinau and Ohlau bridgeheads. His objective was the Neisse, the southern tributary of the Oder, from which he would launch his assault to the south of Berlin.

  On 8 February, Konev’s armies attacked from the two bridgeheads either side of Breslau. The main thrust came from the Steinau bridgehead against the so-called Fourth Panzer Army, whose defence line quickly crumbled. To speed the advance from the Ohlau bridgehead, Konev then switched Rybalko’s 3rd Guards Tank Army. By 12 February, Breslau was surrounded. Over 80,000 civilians were trapped in the city.

  Lelyushenko’s 4th Guards Tank Army pushed forward to the Neisse, which it reached in six days. During the advance, the tank troops found that only a few inhabitants had remained behind. Sometimes the local priest would come out to meet them with a letter from the village ‘to assure the Russians of their friendship’, and the 1st Ukrainian Front noted that on several occasions German civilian doctors ‘offered assistance to our wounded’.

  Lelyushenko then had a nasty surprise. He found that the remnants of the Grossdeutschland Corps and Nehring’s XXIV Panzer Corps were attacking his lines of communication and rear echelon. After two days of fighting, however, the Germans had to pull back. The result was that Konev remained in firm control of over 100 kilometres of the Neisse. His start-line for the Berlin operation was secured and Breslau was surrounded. But fighting still continued south of the Ohlau bridgehead throughout the rest of February and March against the German Seventeenth Army.

  The Nazis had thought that the fact of fighting on German soil would automatically fanaticize resistance, but this does not always appear to have been the case. ‘Morale is being completely destroyed by warfare on German territory,’ a prisoner from the 359th Infantry Division told his Soviet interrogator. ‘We are told to fight to the death, but it is a complete blind alley.’

  General Schörner had the idea of a counter-attack against the town of Lauban, starting on 1 March. The 3rd Guards Tank Army was taken by surprise and the town was reoccupied. Goebbels was ecstatic. On 8 March, he drove down to Görlitz, followed by photographers from the propaganda ministry, where he met Schörner. Together, they drove to Lauban, where they made speeches of mutual congratulation in the market square to a parade of regular troops, Volkssturm and Hitler Youth. Goebbels presented Iron Crosses to some Hitler Youth for the cameras, and then went to visit the Soviet tanks destroyed in the operation.

  The following day, Schörner’s next operation to recapture a town was launched. This time it was the turn of Striegau, forty kilometres west of Breslau. The German forces who retook the town claimed that they found the few surviving civilians wandering around, psychologically broken by the atrocities committed by Konev’s troops. They swore that they would kill every Red Army soldier who fell into their hands. But the behaviour of German troops at this time was certainly not above reproach. The Nazi authorities were not disconcerted by reports of them killing Soviet prisoners with spades, but they were shocked by more and more reports of what Bormann termed ‘looting by German soldiers in evacuated areas’. He issued orders through Field Marshal Keitel that officers were to address their soldiers at least once a week on their duty towards German civilians.

  The fighting in Silesia was merciless, with both sides imposing a brutal battle discipline on their own men. General Schörner had declared war on malingerers and stragglers, who were hanged by the roadside without even the pretence of a summary court martial. According to soldiers from the 85th Pioneer Battalion taken prisoner, twenty-two death sentences were carried out in the town of Neisse alone during the second half of March. ‘The number of death sentences for running away from the field of battle, desertion, self-inflicted wounds and so forth is increasing every week,’ the 1st Ukrainian Front reported on prisoner interrogations. ‘The death sentences are read out to all soldiers.’

  Soviet propaganda specialists in the 7th Department of Front headquarters soon discovered through the interrogation of prisoners that resentment in the ranks against commanders could be exploited. With bad communications and sudden withdrawals, it was quite easy to make German soldiers believe that their commander had run away and left them behind. For example, the 20th Panzer Division, when surrounded near Oppeln, began receiving leaflets which said, ‘Colonel General Schörner leaves his troops in Oppeln in the lurch! He takes his armoured command vehicle and drives like hell for the Neisse.’ German soldiers were also suffering badly from lice. They had not changed their underclothes or visited a field bath unit since December. All they received was ‘a completely useless louse powder’. They had also received no pay for the months of January, February and March and most soldiers had not received any letters from home since before Christmas.

  Discipline became harsher on the Soviet side as well. Military reverses were regarded as a failure to observe Stalin’s Order No. 5 on vigilance. Colonel V., the Soviet commander at Striegau, was charged with ‘criminal carelessness’ because his regiment was caught off guard. Although his troops fought well, the town had been abandoned. ‘This shameful event was thoroughly investigated by the military council of the Front and the guilty were strictly punished.’ Colonel V.’s sentence was not given, but, to judge by another case, it must have been a longish spell in the Gulag. Lieutenant Colonel M. and Captain D. were both charged in front of a military tribunal after the captain left his battery of field guns near houses, without taking up proper position. He then ‘went off to have a rest’, which was often a Soviet euphemism for incapacity through alcohol. The Germans launched a surprise counter-attack, the guns could not be used and the enemy ‘inflicted serious damage’. The captain was dismissed from the Party and sentenced to ten years in the Gulag.

  For officers and soldiers alike, the angel of fear in the form of the SMERSH detachment hovered just behind their backs. After all their suffering, their wounds and their lost comrades, they felt great resentment against SMERSH operatives, who longed to accuse them of treason or cowardice without ever facing the dangers of the front themselves. There was a samizdat song about SMERSH, still often referred to by its pre-1943 name of the Special Department:

  The first piece of metal made a hole in the fuel tank.

  I jumped out of the T-34, I don’t know how,

  And then they called me to the Special Department.

  ‘Why aren’t you burnt, along with the tank, you bastard?’

  ‘I’ll definitely burn in the next attack,’ I answered.

  The soldiers of the 1st Ukrainian Front were not only exhausted after all the battles and advances, they were also dirty, louse-infested and increasingly ill from dysentery. A large part of the problem was due to the fact that health and safety at work was not a high priority in the Red Army. Underclothes were never washed. Drinking water was seldom boiled and chlorine was not added, despite instructions. Above all, food was prepared in appallingly unsanitary conditions. ‘Livestock was slaughtered incorrectly on dirty straw by the side of the road,’ a report pointed out, ‘then taken to the canteen. Sausages were made on a dirty table and the man making the sausages was wearing a filthy coat.’

  By the second week in March, the authorities had woken to the danger of typhus, although three types of typhus had been identified in Poland during the winter. Even the NKVD troops were in a bad state. Between a third and two thirds were lice-ridden. The figure for frontline troops must have been much higher. Things started to improve only when the front line in Silesia became stabilized and each regiment set up its banya, or bathhouse, behind the lines. Three baths a
month were regarded as perfectly adequate. Underwear had to be treated with a special liquid known as ‘SK’, which no doubt contained terrifying chemicals. An order was issued that all troops were to be vaccinated against typhus, but there was probably not enough time. On 15 March, Konev, under pressure from Stalin, began his assault on southern Silesia.

  The left flank of the 1st Ukrainian Front cut off the 30,000 German troops round Oppeln with a thrust southwards towards Neustadt out of the Ohlau bridgehead. This was combined with an attack across the Oder between Oppeln and Ratibor to complete the encirclement. In very little time, the 59th and 21st Armies encircled the Estonian 20th SS Division and the 168th Infantry Division. The Soviet armies’ 7th Department propaganda specialists sent in ‘anti-fascist’ German prisoners of war in an attempt to convince the surrounded troops that Soviet prisons were not as bad as they had heard, but many of these envoys were shot on officers’ orders.

  The only thing which German soldiers found amusing at this time was the way that Estonians and Ukrainians in the SS picked up Soviet leaflets printed in German and showed them to Landsers, asking them what they said. The Landsers thought it funny because the mere possession of one of these leaflets, even to roll a cigarette or wipe your bottom, risked a death sentence. On 20 March, near the village of Rinkwitz, Red Army soldiers caught and shot down staff officers of the Estonian 20th SS Division who were hurriedly burning documents. Some half-burned papers, carried on the wind, were retrieved from peasants’ back yards. These reports included orders and sentences carried out by SS military tribunals.

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