The fall of berlin 1945, p.8
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       The Fall of Berlin 1945, p.8

           Antony Beevor

  If those January days were disastrous for the Wehrmacht, they were far more terrible for the several million civilians who had fled their homes in East Prussia, Silesia and Pomerania. Farming families who for centuries had survived the harshest of winters now realized with horror how vulnerable they were. They faced merciless weather, with homesteads burned and foodstocks looted or destroyed in the retreat. Few acknowledged, however, that this had recently been the fate of Polish, Russian and Ukrainian peasants at the hands of their own brothers, sons and fathers.

  The ‘treks’ from the regions along the Baltic coast – East and West Prussia and Pomerania – headed for the Oder and Berlin. Those from further south – Silesia and the Wartheland – aimed for the Neisse, south of Berlin. The vast majority of the refugees were women and children, since almost all the remaining men had been drafted into the Volkssturm. The variety of transport ranged from handcarts and prams for those on foot to every sort of farm cart, pony trap and even the odd landau, exhumed from the stables of some schloss. There were hardly any motor vehicles because the Wehrmacht and the Nazi Party had requisitioned them already, as well as all fuel. Progress was pitifully slow, and not just because of the snow and ice. Columns kept halting because carts were overloaded and axles broke. Hay carts, filled with household objects, hams, kegs and jars of food, were turned into covered wagons with a crude superstructure and carpets draped over the outside. Mattresses inside provided some relief to heavily pregnant women and nursing mothers. On icy surfaces, undernourished horses found it hard work. Some carts were hauled by oxen whose unshod hooves were worn raw by the roads, leaving bloodstains in the snow. And when an animal died, as was all too often the case, there was seldom time to butcher it for food. Fear of the enemy drove the refugees on.

  At night the columns were directed into wayside villages, where they were often allowed to camp in the barns and stables of manor houses. The owners would welcome in fellow aristocrats fleeing from East Prussia as if they were extra guests arriving for a shooting party. Near Stolp, in East Pomerania, Baron Jesko von Puttkamer slaughtered a pig to help feed hungry refugees on a trek. A ‘short-legged, pot-bellied’ local Nazi official turned up to warn him that slaughtering an animal without permission was ‘a serious offence’. The baron bellowed at him to get off his property, otherwise he would slaughter him too.

  Those who had escaped from East Prussia in trains were no better off. On 20 January, a freight train overloaded with people pulled slowly into the station in Stolp. ‘Huddled shapes, rigid with cold, barely able to stand up any more and climb out; thin clothing, mostly in tatters, a few blankets over bowed shoulders; grey, hollow faces’. Nobody spoke. Stiff little bundles were removed from the cars and laid on the platform. They were children who had frozen to death. ‘Out of the silence came the cries of a mother who did not want to surrender what she had lost,’ recorded a woman witness. ‘Horror and panic overcame me. Never had I seen such misery. And behind this sight, a terrifying and powerful vision loomed up: we were these people; this was what was in store for us.’

  The weather was about to get much worse a week later, with temperatures at night dropping from minus ten Celsius to minus thirty. Also another half a metre of snow fell in the last week of January, creating snowdrifts that were sometimes impassable even for tanks. Yet the panic-stricken migration increased. As Soviet forces headed for the Silesian capital of Breslau, which Hitler had designated a fortress to be defended to the last man and the last bullet, loudspeaker vans ordered civilians to leave the city as quickly as possible. Refugees were trampled to death in the rush for the trains. There was no question of evacuating the wounded or sick. They were given a grenade each to use on themselves and any Russians. Trains were not always the most certain means of transport. Journeys which usually took three hours ‘in normal times’, a report on the refugees noted, were taking twenty-one hours.

  Eva Braun’s sister Use, who lived in Breslau, was one of those to flee by train. An official car collected her from the Schlesischer Bahnhof in Berlin on the morning of 21 January and brought her to the Adlon Hotel, where Eva was living. They had dinner together that evening in the library of the Reich Chancellery. Eva, who had no inkling of the scale of the disaster in the east, chatted as though her sister could return to Breslau after a short holiday. Use could not restrain herself. She described the refugees fleeing through the snow out of fear of the enemy. She was so angry, she told Eva that Hitler was dragging the whole country into an abyss. Eva was deeply shocked and furious. How could she say such things about the Führer, who had been so generous and even offered to put her up at the Berghof? She deserved to be put against a wall and shot.

  By 29 January the Nazi authorities calculated that ‘around 4 million people from the evacuated areas’ were heading for the centre of the Reich. This was clearly an underestimate. The figure rose to 7 million within a fortnight and to 8.35 million by 19 February. At the end of January, between 40,000 and 50,000 refugees were arriving in Berlin each day, mainly by train. The capital of the Reich did not welcome its victims. ‘The Friedrichstrasse Bahnhof has become the transit point of Germany’s fate,’ an eyewitness wrote. ‘Each new train that comes in unloads a mass of amorphous suffering on to the platform.’ In their misery, they may not have noticed the sign there which proclaimed, ‘Dogs and Jews are not allowed to use the escalator!’ Soon energetic measures were taken by the German Red Cross to push refugees on from the Anhalter Bahnhof as quickly as possible, or to force trains to go round Berlin. The authorities were afraid of ‘infectious diseases such as typhus’ and an epidemic in the capital. Other illnesses that they feared the refugees would spread were dysentery, paratyphus, diphtheria and scarlet fever.

  A good example of the chaos was shown by the figures for Danzig. On 8 February it was estimated that Danzig had 35,000–40,000 refugees, but should expect 400,000. Two days later it was decided that the figure of 400,000 had in fact already been reached. Having made no preparations for the disaster which Hitler had refused to acknowledge, the Nazi authorities now had to be seen to be making up for lost time if they were to retain any authority. They made a great show of using Junkers 88s from the Luftwaffe to drop supplies to snowbound and starving columns, but privately complained that it was ‘a terrible strain’ on their fuel reserves.

  Food depots were set up for refugees round Danzig, but these were soon looted by German soldiers on short rations. Yet the area in most urgent need of help was still East Prussia, where the first ship to evacuate refugees did not arrive until 27 January, fourteen days after Chernyakhovsky’s attack. Other vessels with supplies of bread and condensed milk for civilians did not leave until early February. Inevitably, a proportion of the relief never got through. An aircraft with 2,000 tins of condensed milk was shot down in one of the first attempts to fly in supplies.

  Chernyakhovsky’s and Rokossovsky’s two groups of armies had forced the remnants of the three German armies defending East Prussia into pockets with their backs to the sea. Rokossovsky’s left-flank armies had captured the Teutonic Knights’ fortress towns on the east bank of the Vistula and Marienburg on the Nogat. This forced the German Second Army back into the Vistula estuary, but it still retained the Frische Nehrung sandbar. And with a third of a metre of ice on the Frisches Haff lagoon, refugees could still cross by foot from the mainland and then on to Danzig. Rokossovsky’s right flank meanwhile had to redeploy rapidly to face a German attempt to break out to the west.

  Hitler was obsessed with the idea of holding on to the defence line of the Masurian Lakes. He became incandescent with rage when he heard that General Hossbach, the Fourth Army commander, had abandoned its corner stone, the fortress of Lötzen, on 24 January. Even Guderian was shaken by the news. But both Hossbach and his superior, General Reinhardt, were determined to break Rokossovsky’s encirclement and avoid another Stalingrad. Their attack, a battering ram to allow civilians to escape too, began on the clear, freezing night of 26 January. The sudden offensive sm
ashed the Soviet 48th Army and almost reached Elbing, which the German Second Army had managed to hold after the first tank skirmish in its streets. But within three days of fighting in fierce cold and deep snow, Rokossovsky’s armies had fought back the thrust. Hitler sacked both Reinhardt and Hossbach, whose divisions were now forced backwards into what became known as the Heiligenbeil Kessel or cauldron, an awkward quadrilateral with its back to the Frisches Haff. Over 600,000 civilians were also trapped in it.

  The 3rd Belorussian Front had meanwhile surrounded Königsberg entirely on the landward side. The city’s large garrison from the Third Panzer Army was thus cut off from the Samland Peninsula, which led to the small Baltic port of Pillau at the mouth of the lagoon. Close to 200,000 civilians were also trapped in the city with little to eat. This policy forced over 2,000 women and children a day to undertake the hazardous journey on foot, over the ice, to an already desperately overcrowded Pillau. Hundreds even walked out into the snow towards the Soviet troops to beg for food and throw themselves on their dubious mercy. The first steamer from Pillau taking 1,800 civilians and 1,200 wounded did not reach safety until 29 January. Gauleiter Koch, having condemned Generals Reinhardt and Hossbach for attempting to break out of East Prussia and having ordered the defenders of Königsberg to fight to the last man, fled his own capital. After a visit to Berlin, he then returned to the far safer Pillau, where he made a great show of organizing the marine evacuation using Kriegsmarine radio communications, before once more getting away himself.

  Pillau could not handle very large ships, so the chief seaport for evacuations from the Baltic coast was Gdynia (or Gotenhafen), just north of Danzig. Grand Admiral Dönitz gave the order only on 21 January for Operation Hannibal, a mass evacuation of refugees using four large ships. On 30 January, Germany’s largest ‘Strength through Joy’ sea-cruise liner, the Wilhelm Gustloff, which had been designed to take 2,000 passengers, left with between 6,600 and 9,000 people aboard. That night, escorted by a single motor torpedo boat, it was stalked by a Soviet submarine of the Baltic Fleet. Captain A.I. Marinesco fired three torpedoes. All hit their target. Exhausted refugees, shaken from their sleep, panicked. There was a desperate rush to reach the lifeboats. Many were cut off below as the icy sea rushed in: the air temperature outside was minus eighteen Celsius. The lifeboats which had been launched were upset by desperate refugees leaping from the ship’s side. The ship sank in less than an hour. Between 5,300 and 7,400 people lost their lives. The 1,300 survivors were rescued by vessels, led by the heavy cruiser Admiral Hipper. It was the greatest maritime disaster in history.

  Russian historians, even today, still stick to the official Soviet line and claim that the ship carried ‘over 6,000 Hitlerites on board, of which 3,700 were submariners’. The main interest in Russia seems to be not in the fate of the victims, but in that of the triumphant submarine commander A. I. Marinesco. The recommendation to make him a Hero of the Soviet Union was refused by the NKVD, because he had had an affair with a foreign citizen, a crime for which he narrowly escaped a tribunal and an automatic sentence to the Gulag. Only in 1990, ‘on the eve of the forty-fifth anniversary of the victory’, was he finally and posthumously made a Hero of the Soviet Union.

  One of the side effects of the mass migration was a fuel and transport crisis in Germany. Coal supplies had been interrupted by the need for wagons to bring refugees through Pomerania. In some places bakers were unable to bake their bread. The general situation was now so desperate that, ‘in order to save the Reich’, full priority on goods trains was taken back from refugees and returned to the Wehrmacht and fuel distribution. This decision was made on 30 January, the twelfth anniversary of the Nazi Party’s arrival in power.

  Some generals regarded civilian refugees, not with pity as the chief victims of Soviet revenge for the Wehrmacht’s invasion, but simply as a severe nuisance. One of Hitler’s most favoured commanders, General Schörner, had given orders that a thirty-kilometre zone on the east bank of the upper Oder should be reserved for military operations. He also complained loudly that refugees were hindering military activity, and requested an order from Field Marshal Keitel that ‘evacuations must now cease’. This presumably meant that he was prepared to take punitive measures against civilians fleeing from the Red Army.

  National Socialist authorities at times treated German refugees almost as badly as concentration camp prisoners. Local administrators, the Kreisleiters, evaded responsibility for them, especially if they were sick. Three goods trains took refugees crammed in open wagons to Schleswig-Holstein. One train alone carried 3,500 people, mainly women and children. ‘These people were in a dreadful state,’ a report stated. ‘They were riddled with lice and had many diseases such as scabies. After the long journey there were still many dead lying in the wagons. Often the contents of the trains were not offloaded at their destination but sent on to another Gau. Apart from that everything is in order in Schleswig-Holstein.’

  Hitler himself decided that it would be a good idea to fill the ‘Protectorate’ of occupied Czechoslovakia with German refugees. ‘He is of the opinion,’ explained an official, ‘that if the Czechs see the misery, they will not be tilted into a resistance movement.’ This turned out to be yet another miscalculation of intention and effect. A report came back less than three weeks later warning that the Czechs, on seeing this proof of German defeat, were wasting no time in preparing their own administration, to be led by Beneš.

  The crisis of National Socialism did not fail to affect the army. Hitler convinced himself that all would be well if a sufficiently ruthless and ideological military leader were appointed to defend the Reich in the east. General Guderian could scarcely believe his ears when Hitler decided on 24 January that Himmler, the Reichsführer SS, was to command the new Army Group Vistula between East Prussia and the remnants of Reinhardt’s shattered army group in Silesia. Hitler’s decision was also no doubt influenced by his threat to Guderian of a few days before to smash ‘the general staff system’, and revenge himself on a ‘group of intellectuals’ who presumed ‘to press their views on their superiors’.

  That afternoon, Colonel Hans Georg Eismann of the general staff received orders to proceed to Schneidemühl. He was to be the chief operations officer at the headquarters of Army Group Vistula. Eismann had never heard of such an army group. The general in charge of staff officer postings explained to him that it had just been constituted. Eismann heard with just as much astonishment as Guderian that Himmler was to be its commander-in-chief.

  Eismann had no choice but to set off eastwards that evening by Kübelwagen, the hefty German equivalent of the jeep. As they drove through the freezing night out along Reichsstrasse 1, ‘the whole extent of the chaos and misery’ became clear to him. ‘Along all roads could be seen endless convoys of refugees from the east.’ Most gave an impression of exhausted aimlessness.

  Eismann hoped to be able to form a clearer picture of the situation once he reached his destination but, as he soon found, Army Group Vistula headquarters was unlike any other. In Schneidemühl he asked a military traffic controller the way, but evidently its location was a closely guarded secret. He fortunately spotted Major von Hase, whom he knew, and finally received directions.

  The headquarters was established aboard Himmler’s special train, the Sonderzug Steiermark, a sleek black line of sleeping cars with anti-aircraft wagons attached. Armed SS sentries stood along the platform at regular intervals. In a ‘very elegant dining car’ Eismann found a young Untersturmführer who took him down the train to meet the Reichsführer SS and commander-in-chief.

  Himmler was seated at a writing table in his saloon. When he stood up to welcome his visitor with a handshake, Eismann found that his hand was ‘soft like a woman’s’. Eismann, who had seen him only in pictures or at a distance, studied him carefully. The bespectacled Reichsführer SS was wearing not his usual black SS uniform, but field grey, presumably to emphasize his military role. He was slightly flabby, with an upper body that was
too long. His receding chin and narrowed eyes gave him a ‘slightly Mongolian’ look. He led Eismann over to a larger table to study the operations map. Eismann saw that it was at least twenty-four hours out of date.

  ‘What have we got to close this gap and establish a new front?’ Eismann asked. He was not new to crises exacerbated, if not created, by Führer headquarters. In December 1942, he had been the officer flown into the Stalingrad encirclement on Field Marshal von Manstein’s orders to discuss the situation with General Paulus.

  Himmler answered with all the thoughtless clichés of his master: ‘immediate counter-attack’, ‘smash in their flank’ and so on. His replies were devoid of any basic military knowledge. Eismann had the impression ‘that a blind man was speaking about colour’. He then asked what battle-worthy formations they had at their disposal. Himmler had no idea. He seemed unaware of the fact that the Ninth Army virtually existed in name only. Only one thing was clear. The Reichsführer SS did not appreciate direct questions in general staff style.

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