'The city fell in ruins and burned. The German positions were smashed, the trenches ploughed up, embrasures were levelled with the ground,companies were buried, the signal systems torn apart and the ammunition stores destroyed.Clouds of smoke lay over the remnants of the houses of the inner city. On the streets were strewn fragments of masonry, shot-up vehicle sand the bodies of horses and human beings
.'Michael Wieck, A Childhood under Hitler and Stalin
East Prussia. January 1945. The place the Russians entered Germany. What followed was brutal war and an endless nightmare for Germans who had live there for centuries as the vengeful Soviet soldiers let loose retribution for what the Germans had done in Russia for the last few years.....
On 24 January the advancing Soviet Army severed all road and railway routes to the west and the province of East Prussia was cut off from the rest of the German Reich. In this arctic weather hundreds of thousands of civilians packed their possessions onto sledges and horse-drawn cart sand fled from the Russians.
The German Army was in retreat and the Red Army advanced so rapidly towards the coast that there were only two routes of escape. One was from the Baltic port of Pillau just a few kilometres from Königsberg, where a fleet of vessels waited to transport those who managed to get there to the safety of the west. The other was over a frozen lagoon, the Frisches Haff, beyond which was a narrow sandy spit called the Frisches Nehrung. The Nehrung would lead the refugees to Gotenhafen or Danzig - and to another escape route by sea
An eyewitness later recalled the silence of the trekkers as an indescribable ghostly procession with eyes full of misery and wretchedness and quiet resignation. The slow-moving line showed up clearly on the ice and the women, children and elderly people who made up the majority of the refugees were a sitting target for the low-flying Russian aircraft which crossed and re-crossed the frozen waste.
The route was littered with abandoned luggage, upturned carts and the corpses of those who had not finished the journey. Children, the elderly and the sick lay helplessly in open wagons in soaked and freezing straw or under wet dirty blankets. They were the main victims of exposure to the icy weather but many others fell through the ice or were mortally wounded by Russian artillery fire, their blood discolouring the frozen surface of the lake. Their corpses lay all around in grotesque positions. For most refugees, the distant fir-tree-lined Nehrung took two or three days to reach and as the horses grew tired people began to throw goods from their wagons to make them lighter.
In the first four months of 1945, 2.5 million East Prussians tried to escape by these routes and it is probable that a million of them died, in the cold, on the ice, in the sea or at the hands of the Russians.
A pretty German girl in East Prussia in the 1930s. One shudders to think what happened to her in 1945....
The town began to resemble an ant's nest.The streets were completely blocked and the bridges were impassable. There was no time to say goodbye properly to a place which had been East Prussian for 700 years. All they could do was pack a few things and try to get out. Some were lucky and got a lift with the Army but most had to load their belongings on to carts or sledges and struggle through the crowded roads to get to Königsberg or to Samland, where they hoped to find a boat to take them west along the Baltic coast.
The route was so crowded that for many it took twenty hours to go the fifteen kilometres to the safety of the next town, Allenburg. Some tried other routes out of the town to avoid Reichstrasse 1 but on these the refugees were caught by Russian artillery fire and many were killed. Those trying to get to Königsberg were attacked from the air and dead people, animals and broken carts littered the icy roads. Many committed suicide when they ran out of energy.
On 21 January Hans von Lehndorff crossed the large square in front of the Hauptbahnhof and found it overflowing with refugees. There were rows and rows of laden carts and there was a constant flow of newcomers, mainly women. Trains were returning to the station as it was no longer possible to get through to the west and most of the passengers were now determined to escape via Pillau. One woman took him aside to say that she was not worried. 'The Führer won't let us fall into Russian hands,' she said and Lehndorff privately wondered why she still had so much trust.
August 1944. The Red Army reached the east Prussian border. The sign board says, "That's it, damn Germany."
People began to pack up and leave in haste; women, children and the elderly - the few men who had avoided call-up because of their age or state of health were now mostly fighting with the Volkssturm - all strove to get away from the Russian advance. It was the coldest winter on record and in temperatures of -20 Celsius columns of refugees made their way towards Königsberg and the coast through snowy day sand freezing nights. The refugees, mingling with groups of Allied prisoners of war and freed slave labourers, trudged on foot or rode on farm carts through the bitter weather. Fathers sometimes shot all their families or gave them poison rather than face any more horror.
A REFUGEE'S ACCOUNT......
Even by the harbour side the bombardments never ceased and there was almost constant panic among the waiting crowds. These crowds stretched as far as the eye could see trapped on the quayside in front of a large port building which was also crammed with people. Guy Sajer remembers the sound of their thudding feet, like a dull roll of muffled guns, as people stamped to keep themselves warm, and he recalls the solitary children who had lost their mothers whose tears instantly froze as they ran down their cheeks.
Around 450,000 people left Pillau between January and April 1945 in the hope of finding freedom, even though the road route to the port from Königsberg was blocked by the Russians between 26 January and 20 February when the German Army managed to reopen it.
Later one eyewitness recalled that the Russians had inflicted mass murder on the people of Metgehen: I saw women who were still wearing a noose around their necks that had been used to drag them to death. Often there were several tied together. I saw women whose heads were buried in the mire of a grave or in manure pits whose genitals bore the obvious marks of bestial cruelty.
In the next three weeks, 100,000 citizens and refugees took the opportunity to leave Königsberg for Pillau, via Metgehen. They were under constant Russian bombardment but they knew that from the port boatloads of citizens were being shipped westwards. So many were trying to escape that a temporary camp had to be set up in Peyse on theKönigsberg maritime canal for the people streaming out of the city. There were few facilities and the freezing weather continued; hunger and sickness soon began to plague this temporary camp and some of the escapees tried to return to the city, feeling that at least there they would have some shelter and food. Despite opposition from Party officials, the military were prepared to allow those who wished to return to the city to do so. These returnees swelled the numbers in Königsberg who were to face the Russian onslaught a few weeks later.
A weary cynicism had set in amongst the people who remained in the town. People avoided the word 'military' and spoke less and less about 'army life'. Werner Terpitz recalls how they would simply say the single word ' Barras` (army) making it sound hard and contemptuous. If someone said 'comrade' someone else would say, 'There are no comrades; they all fell at Stalingrad.' When they heard the Germans who had come to live in Königsberg from the Baltic States say, 'We want to make our home in the Reich' (' Heim ins Reich') the response was 'Wir wollen heim, uns reichts' - 'Wewant to go home; we've had enough.'
The young still managed to live from day to day with some optimism but the older people were deeply pessimistic, expecting exile to Siberia or death.Many took refuge in alcohol and took such comfort as they could in their friends as they tried to ignore the deterioration in the city, the rubble, the rubbish, the dead horses, the abandoned trams.
By the middle of March the Soviet Army was preparing for the final assault on Königsberg. The siege was expected to be one of the largest and most difficult urban assaults undertaken by the Soviet Army. Aerial inspections had shown how effective the preparations made in the last few months had been; the powerful forts, innumerable pillboxes and foxholes and well-constructed fortified buildings presented an enormous challenge. The city had three lines of defences;there were fifteen forts on the outer defences, a second line around the suburbs and another defensive line protected the inner city.
THE TRAGEDY OF WILHELM GUSTLOFF
More than 30,000 of the people were trying to escape back to Germany by sea in four liners. Bound for a port near Hamburg, the convoy was just rounding the Hela Peninsula and leaving the Gulf of Danzig for the Baltic Sea. The biggest of these ships, the 25,000-ton Wilhelm Gustlofl, had never before carried so many passengers-1500 young submarine trainees and some 8000 civilians—eight times the number on the Lusitania. No one knew exactly how many frantic refugees had boarded at Danzig. Though everyone was supposed to have a ticket and evacuation papers, hundreds had smuggled themselves aboard. Some men hid themselves in boxes or disguised themselves in dresses. Refugees had been known to go to even more shameful extremes to escape the Russians.
Only 950 were saved by the rescue ships. Over 8000 perished in the greatest of all sea disasters-more than five times the number lost on the Titanic.
Recently at Pillau, where only adults with a child were allowed to board a refugee ship, some mothers tossed their babies from the decks to relatives on the dock. The same baby might be used as a ticket half a dozen times. In the frenzy some babies fell into the water, others were snatched away by strangers. As the Wilhelm Gustloff headed west into the choppy Baltic, a middle aged refugee, Paul Uschdraweit, came on deck. He was one of the doughty district officials of East Prussia who had defied Gauleiter Koch and let his people evacuate their towns. He himself had barely escaped the Red Army advance with his chauffeur, Richard Fabian.
The rest of the convoy was skirting the coast of Pomerania to avoid Russian submarines, but the Wilhelm Gustloff drew too much water and was on its own, except for a lone mine sweeper. Uschdraweit looked for the other ships of the convoy but could only see the mine sweeper, a mile away. He was glad he’d had the foresight to check the ship for the best exit in case it sank. Just then the ship’s captain announced over the loudspeaker that men with life belts must surrender them; there weren’t enough for the women and children. No radios would be turned on, no flashlights used. The Baltic was rough, and most of the women and children became violently seasick.
Since it was forbidden to go to the rail, the stench soon became intolerable. The sick were brought amidships, where the pitch was less violent.
The ship steamed westward, twenty-five miles off the Pomeranian coast. A number of lights were still on, outlining the Wilhelm Gustloff sharply against the dark Baltic. At 9: 10 P.m. Uschdraweit was wakened by a dull, heavy explosion. He was trying to remember where he was when he heard a second roar. Fabian, his driver, rushed past, ignoring his shouts. Then came a third explosion, and the lights which should have been extinguished earlier went out. Off the port side lurked a Russian submarine, waiting to put a fourth torpedo into the liner if necessary—or to sink any ship that came to the rescue.
East Prussia Today: Remains Of A Day
By ISABEL DENNY
Battleground Prussia: The Assault on Germany's Eastern Front 1944-45
By Prit Buttar