Saturday, March 28, 2015

12th Armee – April 1945

Walther Wenck

While the Germans fully expected the main threat to come from the Soviets in the east, they were aware as well of the Anglo-American troops driving towards them from the West. Although many of them nursed a clandestine hope that the Western Allies would beat the Soviets to Berlin, they weren't going to leave the capital's western approach undefended. In early April, General Walther Wenck, formerly Chief of Staff to General Guderian at the OKH and then briefly Himmler's Chief of Staff at Army Group Vistula, was called back from convalescent leave for wounds sustained in a February automobile accident to take command of the newly organised 12th Army. He was given a two-part mission. His primary task was to shore up the rapidly receding western front between the armies of Field Marshals Ernst Busch and Albrecht Kesselring, Commanders in Chief North-west and West respectively, now taking a severe beating from the British and North American forces racing eastwards with barely a pause since the landings at Normandy in June 1944. But Hitler had also envisioned a plan whereby Wenck's 12th Army would launch a massive counter-attack against General Bradley's 12th Army Group, now making rapid progress toward the Elbe. The idea was to slice a 320km (200 mile) swath straight through General William Simpson's Ninth Army to the Ruhr pocket, thereby releasing the 300,000 men of Model's Army Group B and splitting the armies of Montgomery and Bradley. Hitler wanted to achieve this improbable feat by appropriating a Soviet trick. He instructed the officers of the new 12th Army to round up 200 nondescript Volkswagen automobiles and use them to infiltrate the enemy lines and disrupt the rear to effect the breakthrough.

Even if the plan had been realistic when formulated, it never got the chance to be tested: the front was moving too rapidly eastwards. Indeed, Wenck had some trouble catching up with his new headquarters as it continually retreated to the East. He received a rude shock, and a quick education in the reality of the military situation when, on his way to assuming his new command, he attempted to stop in his hometown of Weimar to withdraw his family's savings from the bank: American tanks from General George S. Patton's Third Army were already there. Within two days of Hitler's elaboration of his plan, on 13 April, the Allies succeeded in cutting Model's forces in the Ruhr pocket in two and capturing the eastern half. Model had already told his troops that he was dissolving Army Group B on his own authority to save them the humiliation of surrender; it was left to each man whether to surrender individually, continue fighting, or attempt to make his way home through the Allied lines.

Wenck finally caught up with his headquarters near Rosslau, some 75km (46 miles) south-west of Berlin. Positioned along a 200km (125 miles) front from Wittenberge down the River Elbe to Leipzig, the 12th Army was supposed to have been made up of 10 divisions, some 200,000 soldiers, composed of Panzer Training Corps officers, cadets, Volkssturmer, and the remains of 11th Army, which had been involved in some ferocious fighting in the Harz Mountains. But much of Wenck's army, he quickly discovered, existed only on paper. Some of the units were still in the process of being organised but, at most, he had at his disposal roughly five and a half divisions, with 55,000 men. These were equipped with a few self-propelled guns, about 40 personnel carriers, and a number of fixed artillery positions at bridges and around cities like Magdeburg. The outlook was not encouraging. But the situation throughout what remained of the Reich was bleak, and Wenck, the Wehrmacht's youngest general, faced it with surprising vigour and imagination. Determined to hold the Western Allies at the Elbe for as long as possible, while at the same time freeing up as many men as possible to help shield Berlin from the Soviets, he intended to use the most experienced of the 12th's few and green forces as a sort of mobile shock troop, shuttling them from crisis to crisis. To this end he positioned his best forces in Magdeburg and other centrally located urban centres.

Wenck's instincts for focusing on the cities were sound, though it didn't require too much military genius to understand that this last stage of the war would be fought predominantly in large, urban areas. There had been some significant city battles fought already in this war, most notably in Stalingrad and Warsaw. But for the most part it had been a war of large-scale, mobile operations conducted in open terrain or before cites; the kind of warfare best suited to the era's fascination with tanks and other mobile armour. But in April 1945, on the eve of the war's final act, with Germany's room for maneuvering and building reserves rapidly disappearing, that kind of operational depth was no longer available. Inevitably, particularly given the Allies' insistence on Germany's unconditional surrender and Hitler's inability to consider any kind of retreat or surrender, the final battle would almost certainly have to be fought inside the Third Reich's capital.

Volkssturm 1944-45

If new weapons could not rescue Germany, then perhaps new soldiers could. Already at the end of 1943 the call-up of increasingly older age-cohorts of men to the armed forces was prompting a variety of popular jokes. ‘Vengeance will come,’ so one went, ‘when you see notices on the old people’s homes: “Closed because of the call-up”. On 26 September 1944, in a desperate attempt to deal with the shortage of military personnel, Hitler ordered the creation of the ‘People’s Storm’ (Volkssturm), in which all men from the ages of sixteen to sixty were required to take up arms, and to undergo training for a final stand. They were to be organized by the Party, with the aim, Hitler said, of defending the German people against the attempt of its ‘Jewish-international enemies’ to annihilate them. All of them had to swear a personal oath of allegiance to Hitler, allegiance unto death. The official date for the launch of the People’s Storm was chosen by Himmler as 18 October, the anniversary of the defeat of Napoleon’s army in the ‘Battle of the Nations’ at Leipzig in 1813. This was to be a national uprising just like the one that - in popular legend - had ended French rule over Germany just over 130 years before. But the reality fell far short of the rhetoric. The men of the People’s Storm were never going to be a very effective fighting force. They had no uniforms - there was no way of providing them by this stage - and had to come in their own clothes, bringing with them a rucksack, a blanket and cooking equipment. The arms and ammunition they needed were never fully forthcoming, and by the final stage of the war they were little more than a poor imitation of an army. Wandering out from his woodland hiding-place one day, the Social Democratic schoolboy Ullrich S. noted 400 men of the People’s Storm come into the nearby village. ‘Tired and exhausted, most of them were wearing uniforms borrowed from the air force, or plundered. A few only had their mufti. I only saw 5 soldiers in all who were bearing arms, the rest were not even carrying a bayonet.’ With the characteristic disdain of the adolescent for the middle-aged, he added: ‘Most of them were between 45 and 60 years of age. The whole crowd made a very pitiable impression on us. They almost looked like an old people’s home on an outing.’ This view was widespread. ‘Two men with shovels are walking across the graveyard,’ went one popular joke of the day. ‘An old man shouts after them: “So you want to dig out reinforcements for the People’s Storm?” ’ For the men of the People’s Storm, however, enlistment was more than a joke. No fewer than 175,000 were eventually killed fighting against the professional armies of the Russians and the Western Allies.

The draft for the People’s Storm was deeply unpopular. People were well aware of its futility in military terms, and the sacrifices they were being asked to make were bitterly resented. In Stuttgart, the red posters put up around the city on 20 October 1944 advertising the creation of the People’s Storm reminded citizens of the red placards used to announce executions. ‘It’s announcing an execution too,’ people were reported saying, ‘namely the execution of the German people.’ Recruitment was completely indiscriminate. The draft for the People’s Storm thus caught many unsuspecting and reluctant men in its net. One of its victims was the theatre critic, writer and pseudo-aristocratic fantasist Friedrich Reck-Malleczewen. When the People’s Storm was set up he was living peacefully on his little estate in the Bavarian hills with his second wife, Irmgard, whom he had married in March 1935, and their three daughters, born in 1939, 1941 and 1943. At this point, his own history of lies and deceptions came back to haunt him. Reck had boasted widely of having enjoyed a heroic military career during the First World War as a Prussian officer, so it was scarcely surprising that the leadership of the People’s Storm in the nearby town of Seebruck asked him to enlist.

Reck, who had in fact never been on active service and never fired a shot at anybody in his life, ignored the request. Four days later, on 13 October 1944, he was arrested on the orders of the military recruitment office in Traunstein for undermining the German military effort and imprisoned for a week. The Gestapo now had their eye on Reck. They knew him apart from anything else as the author of books whose thrust was unmistakeably anti-Nazi, such as his study of the Anabaptists’ reign of terror in sixteenth-century M̈nster (subtitled ‘History of a Mass Delusion’) and his account of Charlotte Corday’s assassination of the French revolutionary Jean-Paul Marat, both published in 1937.
Unable to get at him on the basis of such subversive books because they had after all been published perfectly legitimately in Germany, with the approval of Goebbels’s censorship apparatus, the Gestapo acted instead upon a denunciation passed to them by the director of the publishers Knorr and Hirth, in Munich, Alfred Salat, who had seen a letter sent to his colleague Fritz Hasinger by Reck on 10 July 1944 about his royalties. An aside in the letter that referred to the ‘Mark of today’ as being worth ‘only half of what you get elsewhere for a more powerful coinage’, coupled with general if rather vague complaints about the way publishers had treated their authors since 1933, was enough to have Reck arrested on 29 December 1944 on the charge of ‘insulting the German currency’ and ‘statements denigrating the state’. When the jail where he was being held in Munich was destroyed by bombing, on 7-8 January 1945, Reck was transferred with the other prisoners to the concentration camp at Dachau, where the Gestapo ordered him to be kept for further interrogation. Conditions in the camp worsened rapidly in the last months of the war, and Reck soon fell ill. He was transferred to the block reserved for the sick, and, though he recovered sufficiently at one time to be released back into normal custody in the camp, he became sick again, and died at 8.30 a.m. on 16 February 1945. The death certificate gave the cause of death as enterocolitis, but a number of witnesses, including Reck’s neighbour in the hospital block, the camp doctor who attended him in the final days and saw him die and the medical clerk in the camp, subsequently testified that he had died of typhus, a disease the presence of which in the camp officials even at this late stage were eager to deny.

Not only older civilians like Reck, but also young boys and, increasingly, girls, were drafted in to man anti-aircraft guns and searchlights during bombing raids and take part in the war effort in other ways. Even Party officials were complaining in October 1944 of the ‘recruitment of age-cohorts that are scarcely able to carry out any practical tasks’, as adolescents from the Hitler Youth were called up for work on building defences ‘on almost all borders of the Reich’. On 17 March 1945, for example, all fourteen-to-sixteen-year-old pupils of the elite Napola secondary school at Oranienstein were enlisted to man the western defences. Five days later an SS instructor arrived to teach the other pupils how to use hand-held anti-tank guns.85 Women too were drafted into the armed forces as auxiliaries and subjected to military discipline. One young East Prussian woman told how her unit of raw recruits had been together for three weeks, learning how to use a pistol, when enemy fighter-planes strafed their training camp. One girl who was on guard outside the camp ran for cover. For this she was condemned to death:

We were all forced to stand by the fence and watch our comrade being shot . . . A whole series of girls fainted. Then we were driven back to the camp . . . The impression that this execution had made on us was indescribable. All of us did nothing but stay in bed and cry for the whole day. None of us went to work. For this we were all locked into cells . . . We had to stay there for 4 days on nothing but bread and water. We were allowed to take a copy of My Struggle or the Bible with us, but I declined the offer.

The futility of this final draft of young women into the armed forces was nowhere clearer than in the case of the twenty-three-year-old Rita H., a seamstress, whose duties consisted of little more than helping the evacuation of army administrative offices, including the burning of incriminating documents. As the women tried to light a fire in the pouring rain, ‘the singed papers and files were lying around the whole area, for the wind was repeatedly rummaging through our little heaps of paper. It was strange,’ she added, writing as a pious Catholic, ‘and yet wonderful to stand there like that and in a way to experience the downfall of a Godless government.’

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Volkssturm-East Prussia

Plans for a militia, or home guard, had been discussed at various levels of the Party throughout the war, and the Wehrmacht staff had also considered how such a militia might be used to garrison defensive positions. On 6 September 1944, Guderian and Hitler once more discussed the matter, and the creation of this new force was officially sanctioned. Immediately, all of the rivals for power in Nazi Germany demanded the right to lead the force. Determined to prevent Himmler from securing control of this new force, Bormann was able to announce on 26 September that Hitler had entrusted the organization and leadership of the Volkssturm, as it was to be called, to the Party.

The creation of the Volkssturm, to be mobilized if the enemy crossed the German frontier, was trumpeted loudly by the German press. Immediately, it became clear that there were insufficient weapons and uniforms for the new units, and training opportunities were severely limited. Despite the propaganda, most German people could see that the Volkssturm would have little fighting power. As leaders for the new units, East Prussia Gauleiter Koch appointed only trusted Party figures, who continued to believe in Hitler, the Party and final victory. Inevitably, almost all these figures had no military experience.

Once more Koch drew on his considerable energies, this time to seek out weapons for the East Prussian Volkssturm. Nearly 500,000 Reichsmarks were spent to purchase weapons and uniforms, many of them on the black market in Italy, where some weapons were even purchased from anti-Nazi Italian partisans.  Despite this, the military value of the Volkssturm remained questionable. Koch and Himmler spoke in Leipzig shortly after the creation of the Volkssturm, but were less than fulsome in the language that they used, perhaps because they did not wish the inhabitants of areas that were still some distance from the frontline to be too alarmed by the need for such desperate measures.

German alarm at the Soviet assault was widespread, and Gauleiter Koch had already issued orders for the Volkssturm in Treuburg to be mobilized. The training of the Volkssturm was non-existent and their equipment patchy, despite Koch's attempts to acquire weapons. Even worse, there were often no uniforms for them, and consequently the Soviet forces treated them as irregular formations, exempt from what passed for the normal rules regarding prisoners on the Ostfront. In keeping with his self-image as the people's general, Koch explicitly forbade the Volkssturm commanders from communicating officially with local military commanders, with the result that regular units had to rely on local, informal contacts to determine the exact locations and strengths of Volkssturm formations. Now, Hitler authorized a more general mobilization of the Volkssturm:

While the enemy believes that we are approaching the end, we will make a second call on the strength of our people. We will and must succeed, as we did in 1939-1940, relying on our strength not only to defeat the destructive will of the enemy but to expel them from the Reich in such a way that the future of Germany, of our allies, and therefore of all Europe, is ensured and peace is secured.

The Goldap Battalion was a typical Volkssturm formation. It numbered about 400 men, and was organized in four companies. It was fortunate in that the company commanders were reserve officers. Equipped with a mixture of Russian rifles, German light machine-guns and Panzerfaust anti-tank weapons, these men now prepared to face the feared Bolsheviks. In all, perhaps 160,000 Volkssturm were mobilized, but despite repeated requests from Reinhardt and his subordinates, Koch insisted on retaining control of these men. Only in a few locations were individual Volkssturm battalions attached to regular formations.

The local Volkssturm found themselves in the thick of the fighting. The Goldap Battalion took up defensive positions north of Goldap on 18 December, and went into action three days later, pounding advancing Soviet forces with its few mortars. The Red Army infantry pulled back, but the following day there was a heavy Soviet artillery bombardment on the entire area, inflicting considerable casualties on the Volkssturm. Now under Wehrmacht command, the battalion was ordered to withdraw to the west the following day, having lost 76 men killed or wounded out of its original 400.

In his New Year 1945 message to the German nation, Hitler characteristically showed no sign of doubt:

Millions of Germans of all callings and backgrounds, men and women, youths and girls, right down to the children, have laboured with spades and shovels. Thousands of Volkssturm battalions have been raised or are being formed. Divisions have been re-equipped. People's artillery corps, rocket brigades and assault gun brigades as well as armoured formations have been deployed, fighter squadrons once more refreshed and supplied with new machines, and above all the German factories have through the efforts of their male and female workers achieved singular results. In this way, whatever our enemies destroy has been restored with superhuman diligence and heroic courage, and this will continue until one day our enemies will find their end. That, my fellow countrymen, will be regarded as the wonder of the 20th century! A people, who labour so endlessly at the front and in the homeland, who endure so much ill fortune, will never be ground down. They will come out of this furnace tested and stronger than ever before in their history.