Leutnant Hans Schäufler, signals officer of the I./Panzer-Regiment 35, 4. Panzer-Division

It must have been 29 March 1945, but I do not know for sure. The Russians were infiltrating slowly but surely into Oliva and pressing towards the inner city. Ivan was advancing step by step from the direction of Langfuhr. At the Oliva city gate, the 12th stood like a bulwark with a few of our tanks and defended their lives and our lives. But it could not escape your notice, despite all of the desperate defending: The front was breaking apart here and there, like the rectangular patrician houses of the Hansa city. It was no longer so clear, where there were still German forces standing and where the Russians already were.

During the night of 29–30 March, it was rumored that the city of Danzig was to be evacuated. No one knew anything more exact than that. It was burning and crackling everywhere. One thing was certain: Our tanks could not all disengage from the enemy at the same time. Each tank had find its own way through the inferno, along with its troop of grenadiers, as long as the single bridge at Heubude was still passable. But how long would that remain the case? The Russian bombers were flying sortie after sortie against that eye of the needle.

According to my orders, I took off in my SPW with my radio crew in the early afternoon. The battalion adjutant, Oberleutnant Grigat, had already gone ahead and was looking for a new command post.

The tracks churned their way through the rubble on the roadway that had once been a street. There were dead lying about everywhere. Given the situation, it would have been madness to recover them. We only made sure that we did not run over any corpses. We could not render any more service for our dead comrades.

The route to the Heubude Bridge had to be about three kilometers. I had memorized the way on the map. But the reality was something quite different. We occasionally encountered a group of completely distraught Landser, who were closer to being driven crazy than exhibiting cool reasoning. They asked us—if they addressed us at all—what was going on? I could only tell them that Danzig was probably going to be evacuated that night by all forces.

After being chased by aircraft, Stalin Organ salvoes and artillery fire that seemed to last an eternity, we reached the end of a vehicle snake line.

Initially, we waited a while, like good soldiers do. But it was so unpleasant there. A Russian antitank gun was firing into the intersection from a cross street. Vehicles were burning and ammunition detonated, but no one ran out of them. That seemed very strange to me. I went to take a look on foot; the effort was risky and onerous. I then discovered to my amazement, that almost all of the vehicles in front of us were unmanned. The gentlemen apparently continued the pilgrimage on foot, and they left their vehicles behind on the street. I also discovered that it was another 300 meters to the bridge, 300 meters of incomprehensible horror: rotting horse cadavers; glowing wrecks of trucks; meter-deep bomb craters; burning houses; and smoking vehicles. And in the midst of all that were still some distraught patient men who stared at the man in front of them and waited until he drove on. But it was a dead man who was crouching behind the wheel up ahead.

We climbed over blocks of rubble in our cross-country half-track. We moved through gardens and courtyards, and we reached the bridge right at the moment that a large Russian bomber formation was approaching it. What to do? Where to go? Well, we could get hit anywhere and anytime, and we had already become inured against everything. The main thing was to get over the bridge. Who knew how long it would continue standing? So we raced off; it was wonderfully empty at that point. And that was what saved us. We plopped into shell holes; we rumbled across clumps of concrete walls. The bombs hissed to the right and the left. They burst with an eardeafening crash. They shook the vehicle so much that there was a grating noise everywhere and the springs broke off. Shrapnel rained against the armor plating, and fountains of water rose towards the heavens. It was a fearful journey! I saw through my vision port that the bridge had been ripped open along the edge from a bomb impact. It was wavering, but it held. Everyone outside took cover as best they could, pressing their noses into the muck. But we rattled on, only looking up fearfully towards the bomb-bay doors.

On the far side, there were more burning vehicles, horse bodies, destroyed trucks and the detritus of war—as far as the eye could see. We rumbled through a roadside ditch—God help our cross-country goat—and knocked over a tree. We pushed a vehicle in front of us until it tipped over and reached an open field.

It was there that we discovered that the bridge had been “off limits” for hours due to a bomb hit. The engineers and the military police had been taking cover. That’s why we had been able to cross unimpeded.

A new pack of bombers approached and strafed us. They apparently had dropped their bombs somewhere else already; most likely in the woods that were filled to the brim with refugees.

Where were we supposed to establish a new defensive line here after the evacuation of Danzig? There were women, children, the elderly, horses and carts everywhere. And the graves of those who had died during the continuous bombing attacks. It was impossible for the Russian aircraft to miss, given those concentrations of people in the sparse pine forest. But many people seemed to have already learned their lesson—or there was no more room in the woods—and shrapnel trenches had been dug all over the place in the open fields.

As had been discussed in advance, we rallied behind an embankment that offered cover toward the south in the direction of Danzig. The night seemed relatively quiet to us; with the exception of the radio watch, we slept like bears after the craziness of the last few weeks. In the morning, we did not wake up until an artillery salvo covered us with muck. We then dug tunnels into the embankment and took it easy for a while. There were infantry outposts in front of us.

In the course of the night, all of the tanks had trundled up. It appeared that there had been no difficulties. I could only assume that, since the crews slept the sleep of the dead. The radios were turned off. Slowly, we tried to collect our thoughts and get back to normal. We were in the second defensive line as the ready reserve. At the moment, the water formed the front all the way around us. That served to calm us down. I heard that the dikes had been opened and broad areas flooded, making them impassable. The concentration of people had been considerably reduced during the night. Many probably thought that wherever tanks showed up, the Russians could not be far behind. Under the cover of darkness, they sought protection by heading in the direction of the Baltic. It was also possible that they had been moved on by higher command. I don’t know; I never did hear anything in that regard.

A warm soup with a lot of meat helped restore us. I took a closer look at the area we were in, since I had to locate the companies. Moreover, it was never a bad thing to know what was out front and behind in such situations.

The throngs here reminded me of the construction of the Tower of babel. Not only because we were between two bodies of water and everyone was digging and shoveling, but also because all of the peoples of Europe and all languages were represented.

I once again encountered the twenty-three prisoner-of-war British officers who had appeared in front of us four weeks ago in fantasy uniforms and, in accordance with the law of war, sending a white flag and an emissary ahead of them. The told us that they had been liberated by the Russians at Schloßberg—abandoned there by the Germans—and then had been shipped off to the east. But they didn’t quite trust what was going on and took off on their own at the first opportunity, working their way through woods and marshland back to the German lines in the west. They asked us in a proper and formal manner, as is the English way, whether they could join us and remain with us. If necessary, they were prepared to fight on the German side. We overcame our resistance to the idea and took them in. We shared our rations and cigarettes with them. The situation required that they stayed with us at the regimental command post for three days before they could be sent off to the division headquarters. During those three days, we befriended several of them. In conversation, it turned out that four of them had been taken prisoner in 1940 in Bethune in our division’s sector. And so they waited there, like hundreds of thousands of others, to be shipped off to the west.

It also occurred to me that there were French prisoners of war with practically every farm family in East and West Prussia, who scrupulously ensured that they were not separated from “their” family. They were usually the only man in the family, excepting, of course, the feeble elderly. They were very concerned about the children—it was very moving—and the children clung to “their” Jean, it was plain to see. Some of them had been with those families since 1940.

Somewhat offset from the “simple folk” were the reserved well-to-do from Reval and Riga in their fur coats with heavy crates and steamer trunks. They argued with their former manual laborers, who no longer put up with things in light of the completely changed social situation.

In a defile, there was a group of Poles. They also wanted to go with us, perhaps because they were fearful of the wrath of their fellow countrymen. I wasn’t sure, I only saw that all of them were somewhat panicky. Among them were some Russian volunteers, who discussed things a lot, which was understandable, since they had to decide in which direction they wanted to head.

And then there were some 6,000 prisoners from concentration camps. Their SS guards had run away. The curious thing was that they were guarding themselves. I was told that they had been offered the chance of turning themselves over to the Russians. They had turned down the offer unanimously. They wanted to go to Schleswig-Holstein. They were also waiting to be shipped out.

It was truly confusion of Babylonian proportions, an international gibberish. I was able to understand a few things most places. It was only the East Prussians, whom I could not understand when they talked among themselves.

And those hundreds of thousands—soldiers and civilians, West Prussians, East Prussians, people from the Memelland,2 Estonians, Lithuanians, Russians, Poles, people from Danzig, English, French, and the 6,000 former prisoners from all over the world—ate from our field kitchen. The astounding thing was that they all had their fill.

Of course, all of the military horse of the infantry as well as the cart mules of the refugees wandered into the pocket. We ate all of them in succession, from the tip of the nose to the end of the tail. The organization that remained despite that hodgepodge of terror and fear was masterful.

The second major achievement, which only registered slightly on our consciousness at the time, was the untiring, day-and-night efforts of the navy. The men in the blue uniforms took the people from there to Hela on ships and boats of all types. The large transports were at Hela. The woods and the dunes increasingly grew empty. There was never a true panic to be seen anywhere. After the hectic days spent in Danzig, that had a calming effect.

How long would it be before things got hot again? The Russians were still celebrating in Danzig. The noise of their victory rush carried over to us during the night.

The often nightmarish road and weather conditions of the Eastern Front are well illustrated in this image: half-tracks and Panzer IV Ausf. H’s in a muddy assembly area prepare for another operation.

Two paratroopers in a motorcycle sidecar combination pass a sign warning of the dangers of fighter-bombers: “Look right and left for aircraft and take cover in a foxhole.”

The Jagdpanther tank destroyer, based on the running gear of a Panther Ausf. G with a fixed superstructure mounting a high-velocity L/71 8.8-centimeter gun. A highly effective vehicle, it was probably the best tank destroyer of the war.

A Panzer III Pz.Beob.Wg. armored observation vehicle. A dummy main gun has been fitted. About 260 of these vehicles were produced using converted Panzer III Ausf. E, F, G, and H chassis.


1 Translator’s Note: Hundegasse = “Dog Alley.”

2 Translator’s Note. A portion of Germany that was separated from East Prussia at the end of World War I and, after a period of French administration under the League of Nations, annexed by Lithuania. It was returned to Germany in 1939.

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