WHEN ALL HOPE DIED

Oberleutnant Manfred Nase, regimental adjutant for Panzergrenadier-Regiment 12, 4. Panzer-Division

The total collapse of the 4. Armee in East Prussia brought with it a life-threatening situation for our 2. Armee in the Vistula lowlands. After the fall of Königsberg on 26 April, the Russians took the city of Pillau and landed on the Vistula Spit, where we were fighting for our lives on the other end.

Correspondingly, an armored Kampfgruppe under the command of Major von Heyden was hastily formed. It consisted of Panzergrenadier-Regiment 12, the 2nd Battalion of Panzer-Artillerie-Regiment 103, and the remaining tanks of Panzer-Regiment 35. This field army reserve was sent as expeditiously as possible onto the Vistula Spit and committed against the Russians around the area of Kahlberg. The area of operations there was suited for everything but employment with armor.

The small strip of land, the Vistula Spit, was a wooded sector of dunes that sometimes was only 800 meters wide. It was completely churned up by auxiliary bunkers and field positions, all of which were directed towards the west. Pillau was to the east, however, and that was where the enemy was coming from. The unim-proved sand roads had been torn up and made passable only by the use of corduroy-type replacement.

In January and February, thousands upon thousands of civilians and soldiers of the 4. Armee had fled across the ice of the lagoon from the Heiligenbeil Pocket. They had moved by carts and sleds under a hail of artillery fire and bombs and had made their first stop in that area on their way to the rescuing harbors. We still encountered burned-out and shattered formations, which looked upon our intact columns with amazement.

We occupied a blocking position east of Kahlberg and stood by, since there were still forces fighting in front of us. Indeed, there was even a small airstrip in front of us, which was soon evacuated, however. Every day, blocking positions were lost; it didn’t take to much effort to see when we would be “next.”

As a result, the bivouac areas of the Kampfgruppe were soon drawn into the fighting before we could even realize it. At the beginning of May—Berlin had already fallen—the Kampfgruppe was involved in bitter fighting. The employment of the tanks and the SPW’s turned out to be very difficult, since there was little opportunity for maneuver warfare in the narrow, thickly wooded area. Usually employed as tank destroyers, the friendly tanks often fell victim to the superior Russian assault guns, which had frontal armor up to twenty centimeters thick and a tree of a cannon for a main gun.

Constantly being attached and detached from different commands, we found ourselves in a merciless defensive struggle. We were numerically inferior and vastly outdone by the Russians in physical terms, who could constantly bring forward fresh units and pull back the burned-out ones.

During the day, there was little opportunity to conduct resupply, since fighter-bombers and bombers continued to churn up the “sandbox” and the tree bursts, which the Russians sent over the lagoon from the far side, caused a lot of casualties. Gunboats on the Baltic also ensured there was a constant surprise from that side, and we had to constantly be on the alert for a Russian landing to our rear.

On 4 and 5 May, the casualty-intensive fighting had already been pushed back to the area around Vogelsang, which was only ten kilometers from the start of the spit at the mainland.

Ever since 1 May, a deliberate evacuation of the bridgehead had been in progress, after all of the civilians had been taken to safety. Every night, about 25,000 men were taken to Hela on marine ferries for onward transport to Schleswig-Holstein.

On 6 May, Kampfgruppe von Heyden entered the sector of the 7. Infanterie-Division, which was defending the area between the lagoon and the Vistula. It was the so-called water main line of resistance, since considerable stretches of land were under water from demolitions of the embankments so as to save forces for a strong-point defense. That same evening, the regimental adjutant was sent to the commander in chief, General der Panzertruppen von Saucken, to receive orders for continued operations. The General stressed that it imperative at that point to make sure no German soldiers fell into Russian hands, now that all civilians had been evacuated form the mainland.

He additionally stressed that the time remaining for executing that plan was extremely short. The forces in the field knew nothing of the capitulation, which was just around the corner. The bridgehead at the mouth of the Vistula had become small, and the 7. Infanterie-Division was sufficient to maintain the defense there for the remaining short period. The 1st Battalion (Armored) of Panzergrenadier-Regiment 12 and the last eight tanks of the 35th were attached to it. For most of Panzergrenadier-Regiment 12, 6 May was the last day of fighting of the war, even though we did not know it at the time. We moved to loading points on the Vistula at Nickel-swalde. That was preceded by the destruction of the vehicles and the equipment. Personal belongings were reduced to the barest of essentials.

It was 7 May when our units approached the loading points, hoping that the coming night would mark the first stage in getting out of the hopeless situation. But it turned out that our departure was delayed. The ferries took off, but they were full with other units. We spent the night of 7–8 May in the wooded parts of the dunes near the Baltic.

The next day, a streaming sun appeared in the cloudless skies. It was exactly that type of weather that we did not want. The Russian fighter-bombers attacked the positions ceaselessly, as well as the rest of the area of the small bridgehead. Rockets hissed into the crowns of trees and the sand was raked by strafing runs. Here and there you cold heard a cry: Medic!

For the first time, there was talk of capitulation. We didn’t want to believe it at first, since we wanted to get the sea journey behind us before the war was over.

Late that afternoon, a few overcrowded ferries left the tributary of the Vistula, followed by a couple of small boats. All at once, it grew still. The planed time for our departure had come. But there was no more to be seen of the Navy. We didn’t have a good feeling.

After a telephone call with the acting regimental commander, it became clear what our situation was.

When Major von Heyden opened a sealed envelope at 2300 hours, our fate was finally sealed: For most of our men, it meant Russian captivity, if they didn’t suffer a senseless death before then.

With luck and courage, a few might be able to escape the trap and make it back to their homeland. To the north was the Baltic and to the south a country where it was mostly Poles, who had remained behind, and which was thick with Russians. The chance of getting through here or there was pretty slim. The men in the black uniforms of the 35th under Oberleutnant Grigat wanted to try their luck and departed after reporting out to Major von Heyden.

In a depressed mood, we moved back into our patch of woods from the previous night, when we had still been full of hope. Parachute flares lit the way. The Russians did not trust us and wanted to prevent a flight across the Baltic.

That night, one question haunted all of those who leaned up against the pines: What was going to happen to us? And some of the old combat comrades of the 4. Panzer-Division might have retraced in their minds the path that had led them here: The Bug, the Dnjepr, the Pripyet, the Oka, and the Suscha to just outside of Moscow. And then the even longer and bloodier way back here to the Vistula. It had truly been a long way. And all along that long way were the crosses of our comrades. Might it have been better to be with them, lying there? Despondency and doubt lay over that clear night. Only the rumbling of the nighttime aircraft interrupted it occasionally, making it even more depressing. One man watched the next to ensure that nothing stupid was done. There was a disturbance in one area. The former regimental adjutant, who was entrusted with the 2nd Battalion at that point, was reported as missing. We looked for him. But it wasn’t what everyone had feared: A hundred meters away he was digging a hole in the soft sand to get rid of the remaining classified documents that had not been burned.

And so everyone had something to get in order before they marched out into that long, uncertain journey.

In the morning of 9 May, we saw the first Russians: officers and translators. They ordered us to march to Elbing. We were expressly promised a rapid return home—scoro domoi.

Well prepared for the march into captivity, equipped with horse-drawn wagons and rations, Panzergrenadier-Regiment 12 and the units attached to it set off towards noon. Initially, we didn’t see any guards. Our 1st Battalion joined us en route. We crossed a checkpoint, where any remaining weapons were taken away. We first headed in the direction of Fischerbabke; then detours were necessary, since most of the bridges had been blown in the watery area. We rested the first night at a rural estate.

We spent 10 May on marching on a road. We needed to be on the lookout for Russians looking for booty. But our internal and external cohesiveness offered little opportunity for them to relieve us of things.

We did not reach Elbing until early on 11 May. We marched singing into the city, which made a frightening impression. We didn’t see any men, not even old ones.

The unprotected women and girls, who had lost everything they once had—the possessions, their men, their womanhood—clambered out of the burned-out ruin and told us of their misfortune. The Russians continuously attempted to take away the few horse-drawn wagons and goods we had left, which could only be prevented by energetic intervention on our part.

A prisoner collection point had been established at an athletic field. We were searched there one more time. We tossed our cameras, compasses, and binoculars into large containers. The columns that arrived were then separated into groups of about 1,000 men.

That same day, the march continued towards Braunsberg. The march out of Elbing turned into an emotional demonstration. We marched in step, singing loudly. The songs echoed back defiantly from the crumbled walls. Crying women and girls tossed us the first spring flowers, arranged in small bouquets. For the very last time, our regiment marched as one.

It helped us to forget our bleak situation when comrades in front of us, next to us and behind us got in step and sang the same song. Individuality had no place there!

We were constantly harassed. At that point, it was mostly supply personnel, who also wanted their part of us. Watches, boots, and decorations were the most sought-after souvenirs. We had to take the self-propelled artillerymen into the middle of the column, since they awakened the most interest with their black uniforms.

After two days of marching, we reached Braunsberg in East Prussia, which had been a rear-area city of the enemy for some time. As we discovered, there wasn’t an intact rail line there that could take us on our promised journey home.

While the long column waited in front of the gate to the barracks that once housed Infanterie-Regiment 21, the officers were ordered up front. There was only time for a quick shaking of hands and well wishes. Later on, on the parade grounds, we had one more time to say good-bye from behind the wire fence and let it be known how firmly the difficult years had welded together the bonds between and among the officers, noncommissioned officers and enlisted personnel of the 4. Panzer-Division.

Regardless of rank, everyone was obligated to loyalty and comradeship towards the other. That had never been so well understood as at that moment, when we had to separate at the enemy’s behest.

We stayed in separate camps for a few days before our paths separated into different parts of the Russian interior.

When we reached the prisoner-of-war camp at Morschansk, about 450 kilometers southeast of Moscow, at the beginning of June—the first step among many—it was the beginning of a new chapter of our lives, a chapter filled with bitter suffering, occasional small joys, disappointed hopes, death, comradeship, and—not least of all—a hoard of life experience, expensively bought.

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