Chapter 12

DANZIG

Unteroffizier Robert Poensgen, war correspondent with the 4. Panzer-Division

Tuesday, 27 March 1945. Our division command post was in Langfuhr. There was an alert at 0200 hours. Be prepared to move out immediately: Enemy penetration on the east side of Langfuhr. We scurried about like ants, since our nerves were no longer the best. Somehow, we always had to be on guard.

The night was eerie, spooky. You couldn’t see your hand in front of your face; despite that, the darkness was illuminated with a milky yellow. That stemmed from the many fires everywhere. You could perceive the stars and the moon above the roofs, but you could not see them. The heavy smoke, which bit into the eyes and lay heavy on the lungs, flowed like a heavy fog through the streets.

You only heard a shot occasionally; then, all of a sudden, one close by. Right behind our houses, there was a Russian machine gun hacking away. A tank was firing somewhere.

All of a sudden a strange sound, a scratching and a grating, then a march, a German military march: Russian loudspeaker propaganda. The music broke off abruptly, followed by a voice egging us on in the night:

German officers and soldiers! Lay down your arms! All resistance is pointless! You are completely surrounded! You ammunition and fuel are running out! Once more, the commander in chief of the Russian forces, Marshal Rokossowski, is giving you a chance. Whoever surrenders now will be treated well and send back home immediately after the war ends.

It was the standard record. It was only . . . well, the loudspeaker had to be damned close. Moreover, it had to be somewhat to the northeast of us, down in Langfuhr.

It seemed to be high time for us if we intended to change positions. Or was the command post to be defended, as we had already occasionally heard? But it appeared that someone had found yet another place that could be defended.

The Spieß moved out with a sidecar motorcycle. I was directed to ride along as a messenger so as to report the location of the new division command post to the rear-area elements. A Volkswagen also went along, as well as the signals vehicle.

We moved down Heiligbrunner Road, past burning houses and then onto the main road. It turned out that the Spieß was right: there weren’t any Ivans on the main road yet. But the broad road was completely full of forces of all types, who were marching in the direction of the inner city. Among them were horse-drawn conveyances.

There was the sporadic sound of fighting coming from behind us in the direction of the market place. The tank obstacles had not yet been closed. Would someone remember to close them in time? Civilians were scurrying along in the mighty stream: Women, children . . . bundles on their backs . . . blankets and coats in their hands. Everything seemed to be moving along so eerily quietly. There really wasn’t a single word to be heard; just the crackling of the flames, the crunching of the wheels and the sliding of the skids. Or did it only appear to be that way?

And then some soldiers appeared on the street corners. They were attempting to direct the traffic into an orderly flow. The directed the horse-drawn conveyances off into the alleys and side roads.

We were moving along fairly quickly, despite the numerous obstacles. The asphalt had been torn up from bombs and artillery shells; tree trunks and branches lay on the road surface; the electrical lines of the streetcar system formed knots and snake-like entanglements, which flapped and rattled, whenever you moved over them. Streetcars were stationary on the lines with shattered windows and frames that were peppered with holes. They had derailed and tipped over. In certain areas, the roadway was impassable. The wheeled vehicles then bounced along the tracks. I was always able to snake my way through on the motorcycle.

A few times, the tracks were ripped apart in such a way by direct hits that they spread out like the ends of a moustache and you had to bend over low to ride under them.

The closer we got to the city center, the thicker the smoke that was spilling out of the ruins. A military police traffic control point from our division was there. It directed us to turn off to the left. The route led over a bridge. The Spieß stopped briefly to put up a “Betzel” sign.1 We then moved along the Neufahrwasser road to the Petri School.2 We turned off again, and moved through a wide gate, which had the words “Schichau Shipyards” above it.

Large basement rooms, weakly illuminated, which smelled of iodine and ether. A main clearing station had evacuated the place a few hours earlier. It was the new division command post at that point.

I dozed a little bit and then rattled off to tell the logistics officer and the division support commander of the new location of the command element.

It slowly turned light. The streets were littered with shards of glass and brick-work. Despite that, it was possible to make better progress during the day, since the streets were completely devoid of people.

When I got to the first intersection, I saw a gigantic explosion out of the corner of my eye off to the left. It was in the roof of a multi-storied building. I involuntarily ducked and then it started spraying around me, just like tossing a handful of stones in a puddle. But, man, did it ever! Cobblestones, bricks and clumps of earth were sky-ward, almost as high as a house. They were mixed with black fumes. Stalin organs! Because of the rumbling of the motorcycle, I hadn’t heard anything, of course.

I stepped on the brake with everything I had, threw the bike on the street and, before it could even stop, I was pressing myself flat in the corner of a wall.

All around me, hell had broken loose. Impact after impact of heavy and super-heavy calibers were churning up the entire quarter of the city. Houses collapsed like matchboxes; roof beams were flung high; pieces of stonewalls clattered onto the street. In the blink of an eye, everything was covered in red brick dust. In between, there were the constant yellowish red flashes and flames. Columns of flames from impacts arose out of the dust. It was like the end of the world.

I didn’t want to leave the spot. Shrapnel smashed against the pavement, and brick shingles crashed and thundered down from the roofs. They shattered close by, and the shards of brick hit my skin like needles.

I thought I recognized a break in the fires. I made it to the next house door with a few leaps. I shook it. It was locked. Across the street to the next one! No, flames were shooting out of the shattered windows. On to the third house! I attempted to rip open the door. Rubble crashed down on me. Can’t get through!

Then I heard the scary howling again. The huiii—huiii—huiii of the Stalin organs was spill chilling. The next salvo could be there any second. Artillery rounds hissed directly over the roofs, impacting with a burst. They were big boys and with delayed fuses to boot. The residences would burst open like ripe plums.

When I got to the fourth house, I was lucky. Like a panther, I hurried to the imagined protection of a house wall. With a second leap, I made it into a tile-lined entryway. There was a stairwell to the basement ahead of me. Outside, there was an ear-deafening din; the house was shaking in its foundation. At the entrance to the basement, there was a man in a gray-blue coverall of an air warden, a steel helmet on his head. He asked me what it was like outside; he then pressed me into the shelter. I was through; my knees were shaking. I felt me way through the semi-darkness. Women, children, and soldiers were interspersed, listening fearfully to the powerful crashing outside.

I must have looked “finished,” since they immediately made an area available to me to sit down and they handed me a cup of hot coffee.

After I had smoked a cigarette and had calmed down a bit, I went up again. The barrage continued with undiminished ferocity. I had to wait another half hour before I dared to move on.

At that point, it looked even more desolate than it had previously. Flames were leaping out many houses, with burning curtains jutting out of windows. There were flames coming out of the rubble on the street.

I looked for my bike. A miracle—it was unscathed and also started up immediately. I rumbled off to get out of that inferno as quickly as possible. I rode some of the way and pushed some of the way across the rubble and debris, which was often up to a meter high on the roadway.

After the Petri School, there were no houses that were intact. And the street, over which I had driven or walked so many times: rubble, debris, craters, fire. The pavement could only be seen infrequently. I was amazed that I had not gotten a flat tire. But I also encountered other motorcycle messengers, who also had to fight their way through with great effort. Otherwise, you hardly saw anyone. One time, a Hitler Youth with a steel helmet and protective clothing. And then a couple of air defense men, who were attempting to put out a fire. There was even a work section that was trying to clear the road.

In front of me, the street was a valley of fire. The houses were burning to the left and the right as far as I could see. An air-raid warden turned me in another direction towards the ferry over the Mottlau. So I turned around and scrammed. How long would it be before the next barrage started?

On the ferry, I met a couple of Landser who were also waiting to be transported across. But a ferry operator was nowhere to be seen. It appeared that they had switched over to self-service at that location. So we fished a boat towards us. On the other side, others were also waiting to cross, including Oberleutnant Greiner from the division headquarters.

While we pushed ourselves meter by meter across the Mottlau, it was eerily quiet everywhere. Off to the right, I saw a gantry. How long would it remain up? The houses around that location showed relatively little signs of the fighting. I got to a wide road that led to Heubude and took off at a fast clip. There was little going on, but the air was filled with aircraft. Off in some pastureland, a smoke generator kept on spewing smoke quietly.

Just outside of Heubude—I was crossing completely open terrain—I suddenly saw dark objects fall from the sky. I looked to the heavens: Aircraft above me! I braked, let the machine fall into the roadside ditch with me and pressed myself as flat as a flounder. They must have been bombers, since what was left to fall from the sky today? Right! Half a minute later, the earth trembled under me from dull detonations. Each of the delayed-action fuses caused tidal waves of earth and stones to shoot high in the air. It rained down on me like hail.

I wanted to keep moving, but the machine did not want to start. Probably flooded. I pushed and pushed for all I was worth, but the stubborn goat wouldn’t cooperate. And I had no tools with me—a punishable offense!

A 500cc DKW was leaned up against a fence. The driver was next to it; it appeared he was sleeping. I looked at him more closely, and his strange position caught my attention. I carefully turned his head. A piece of shrapnel was located right above his nasal cavity. He was dead, without a doubt. But his DKW didn’t want to cooperate, either. It had been struck by something. I fetched the tools. While I was cleaning the spark plug, I had to seek cover again. High-altitude bombers, then close-air support, the cycle repeating itself. The main objective seemed to be the woods ahead of me.

Finally, the motorcycle started up, and I was soon in Heubude. It looked terrible. A horse-drawn column had apparently been caught up in a carpet-bombing attack. Hundreds of horses were lying around with shredded stomachs and ripped open legs. Among them was a hopeless entanglement of demolished vehicles. It was a complete portrait of destruction, 500 meters wide. Dante himself could not have portrayed hell more gruesomely.

When I reached the intersection, I saw everyone start to run: eighteen bombers were headed straight towards us. I turned at full speed, flew through a garden gate, went down a few steps, then moved along a concrete path to end up around the corner of a house. At the point, the aircraft were directly above us. And things smoked and hissed and howled and yelped as if Satan himself were there. With a single jump, I landed down a set of basement steps. There was a colorful mix of soldiers and civilians there. The air was terrible. Wounded were lying in a corner, poor bastards waiting to be evacuated. Outside, the bombs impacted. The floor of the basement shook.

When it turned quiet again, I forced my way out. I got my motorcycle fired up and continued on.

After a hundred meters, I saw something that surpassed what I had just seen. The road and the entire surrounding area was littered with the wrecks of all types of vehicles. I was informed that the main effort of the Soviet attack was there yesterday. The road had been completely jammed for kilometers on end—three, four vehicles abreast, fuel trucks, ammunition vehicles, horse-drawn conveyances, vehicles with wounded. There was no going forward or backward. And it was into that exposed, trapped concentration that the bombs of the Russian combat aircraft slammed. They attacked in wave after wave. It must have been hell! Ammunition exploded, burning fuel sprayed over the dead, the wounded and those still alive, over humans and animals. All of it had the effect of a burned-out trash heap of monstrous dimensions. It was the most horrific portrait of destruction I had seen in all of the years of war—and I had seen a lot.

I made my way with some difficulty past the entanglement of rubble. It smelled intensely of fire and carbonized flesh. The heat of the gigantic conflagration still emanated from annealed bits of iron.

Occasionally, I saw vehicles with the tactical sign of our division.

After a while, everything grew so thick that I was unable to get through with my motorcycle any more. That had to mean something. I turned off with other vehicles into a side road.

This is where the previous lot of bombs had fallen. Fresh fires were crackling in the timbers of collapsed houses. Yellow gunpowder smoke still rose from the craters. Here and there, there were some soldiers trying to free buried persons.

Three wounded—a civilian and two soldiers—were lying in the shadow of a fence right next to the road. They had torn the clothing away from their shredded limbs and dressed each other the best they could. It looked pretty bad. They were so pale from the loss of blood, that I would have thought them dead, if one of them hadn’t lifted his arm with great effort.

They were almost crying with joy that someone had come by who was going to look after them. They had been lying helplessly there since the morning. They had had to endure the latest bombing helplessly. For hours, they had watched vehicles pass by them in long columns. No a single person had offered to help. War turns people hard!

I yanked out my first-aid packet and dressed them as well as I could. But I was unable to do a whole lot, since both of my packets were soon used up.

One of the men had a completely smashed leg. The second man, with a severe head wound, was already unconscious. The third man had a whole in his back that was almost as big as a fist. In addition, all of them had a series of smaller wounds distributed all over their bodies. Medical assistance was urgently needed.

All the while I was being the Good Samaritan, I had to seek cover again and again due to air attacks. I then saw a bus from our maintenance company moving its way slowly in the long snake line of vehicles. I asked the driver to take the wounded with him. Initially, he did not want to stop at that dangerous spot. It was understandable that everyone wanted to get out of that Hellhole as soon as possible. He also pointed out the refugees who filled his vehicle down to the last seat with their bundles and suitcases. The women started to cry hysterically, when they heard that they were going to stop there.

At that point, I lost my patience and got rough. I threatened to report the driver and put the women out into the fresh air. That helped. A few Landser assisted me in getting the three wounded men, who were shrieking in pain, into the vehicle. There was another aerial attack. The panicky turmoil in the bus is something I’ll never forget.

I moved on and saw unattended wounded at different places. At that point, I also turned hard. After all, I had a completely different mission from that of collecting the wounded in Heubude. I did allow myself the time to request help for them at the next aid station, however.

I then arrived at an extensive patch of pinewoods, whose dark outline extended all the way to the Vistula Spit. There was vehicle after vehicle in those woods. Thousands upon thousands laid about, fearful and apathetic, like sardines in a can. The population of Danzig and Zoppot, apparently from half of West Prussia, had fled there to wait for ships after all land communication had been lost. Some of those pitiful people, for whom we were fighting for time, attempted to dig foxholes in the soft dirt with their bare hands. The woods appeared to be the focal point of the Russian aerial attacks. I had to “go underwater” every few hundred meters.

Finally, I ran into the trains of our armored reconnaissance battalion. They offered me a warm lunch. Then I continued looking for the directional signs to our rear-area services. There was another rushing sound. I took a headfirst dive form the bike, but this time the well-practiced routine did not work out so well. I felt a sting to my hand. It was bleeding. I didn’t have any more field bandages, but it also appeared not to be too bad.

Two hundred meters farther: main aid station. A piece of shrapnel was taken out; I was given a tetanus shot and a simple dressing. “Don’t forget the wounded on the way here!” I told the Oberarzt. He said he intended to send a medical vehicle there. I continued on.

There was another Russian fighter-bomber attack right in the middle of a traffic jam. Horses reared up, high on their back legs, intestines hanging out, striking out madly with their hooves, neighing in deathly fear. People yelled, vehicles turned over. In a circle about 100 meters across, I counted thirty-eight dead. Gradually, you started to lose your feelings. But what could I have done, anyway? I made my way on. Column after column. Everything was pressing to get out of that combat-enflamed city, get out of that hell of fire and smoke. But the route led over ferries and military bridges, narrow streets and restraining sand paths that could not accept this flood of vehicles that was bubbling over—and those collections of vehicles were naturally the targets of the Russian aircraft.

There was another snake line of vehicles at a bottleneck that could not be bypassed: Military police control point. Everyone, who really didn’t have a mission to move to the rear was held. An Oberleutnant checked me out. I ventured a shy question. Then he yelled at me: “How interesting, a war correspondent! Why don’t you come with me? I want to show you something!”

He grabbed me roughly by the sleeve and dragged me to long, long pits, which were covered with branches. Under them were fuel canisters in ungodly amounts, barrel after barrel, 200 liters in each of them.

“Take a good look at that! That’s our army’s fuel depot, Mr. War Correspondent! There are thousands of liters of regular fuel, diesel fuel and motor oil here…and up front the tanks don’t have any fuel, not a single drop . . . and have to be blown up as a result. And where are the guys who issue this stuff? What do you think, Mr. War Correspondent? They’ve fled . . . simply taken off, because they’ve shit their pants full!”

He screamed it with a high voice that had gone bonkers. I had the impression that he was not in full control of himself. Who could blame him in that inferno?

I was allowed to pass after he once more urgently pressed upon me that I was to inform he division that there was fuel here.

At the next crossing, I saw the sign for our logistics officer. I went in that direction and, ten minutes later, I was at my objective. I accomplished my mission and went to sleep for a couple of hours.

Then I was told to get back to Danzig. A mighty cloud of smoke hung over the dying city, which had put itself in the way of the frenziedly assaulting Russians with its old walls and venerable structures, with its bridges and water courses. Russians who were attacking with the slogan: “Kill the Germans, wherever you meet them! Kill! Kill! Kill!”

For a limited time, the city provided the desperate defenders with protection and a backstop until its populace and refugees from the surrounding areas could be brought to safety.

Danzig had to die so that the hundreds of thousands in the Vistula lowlands could survive.

The horrible fate of a German city!

Two Panthers provide all-round security in an assembly or holding area. Both are well camouflaged to diminish the possibility of detection from the air, and the Panther on the left has one of its machine guns mounted for engaging aircraft. The fact that one of the vehicles has a tow cable already mounted indicates that it might have already towed the other vehicle into position since one of the crew members appears to be performing some kind of repair or maintenance.

Sd.Kfz. 250 half-tracks, probably from a reconnaissance unit, staged for a move or operation.

Crew members of late-model Panzer IV Ausf. H’s prepare for an operation as infantry (possibly mountain troops) file past in the wintry terrain.

Infantry—some in snow suits—move along a roadside ditch past late-model Panzer IV Ausf. H’s. The trail vehicle features a full complement of sideskirts although these were usually quickly lost in the field as a result of maneuvering or battle damage.

Footnotes

1 Translator’s Note. Generalleutnant Clemens Betzel, the next-to-last commander of the division. He was killed in action on 27 March 1945. An artillery officer, he commanded the divisional artillery before assuming command in May 1944. His highest award was the Oak Leaves to the Knight’s Cross.

2 Translator’s Note. The Petri School, or Petrischule, was one of the oldest schools in Danzig, essentially a college-preparatory academy.

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