Monday, July 27, 2015

Last Ditch Defenders

Often the most determined resistance encountered by Commonwealth and US troops in the last months of the war came from groups of Hitler Youth. These 14-15-year-olds were captured near Munster at the beginning of April 1945. According to the original caption, they only surrendered after using up their ammunition, and remained 'arrogant'.

Hitlerjugend Panzerjagdkommandos (Hitler Youth tank destroyers) captured by British tankers, 7 April 1945

Ernst In January 1945 Ernst was in a Wehrertuchtigungslager outside Berlin. At the completion of his training, Ernst was drafted into the Volkssturm with the rest of his Schar of about 40 boys. Most of February was spent in labour work, digging fortifications around Berlin for up to 15 hours a day. In March, Ernst and his comrades were overjoyed to learn that they would at last have the opportunity to fight. The boys of his Schar were to become specialist anti-tank troops attached to the HJ-Regiment 'Berlin', officially to be used behind the front lines in the case of a breakthrough by Soviet armour.

Ernst's Kameradschaft of ten boys was now redesignated as a Panzernahbekampfungstrupp der HJ ('close-quarter anti-tank squad of the HJ'). The boys were equipped with bicycles, with eight of the boys (including Ernst) using Panzerfauste and two operating an MG34 light machine gun. They also received captured foreign carbines, which made them better equipped than many similar units thrown into action in the last months of the war. It was not unusual for a group of ten or so boys to have nothing but a couple of Panzerfausts and some grenades between them.

In early April 1943. Ernst's unit was ordered to report to the Olympic Stadium in West Berlin with hundreds of other Hitler Youth for deployment. While they waited for orders, Ernst even helped train boys from the DJV as young as ten in the use of the Panzerfaust. The children at the Sports Stadium received many visits from Artur Axmann, who regaled them with the story of Leonidas and his 300 Spartans, who had sacrificed themselves heroically against the Persians at the battle of Thermopylae in 480 BC. Axmann undertook the training and organization of Hitler Youth units largely on his own authority. On 18 April he visited the harassed General Weidling, whom Hitler would appoint as commander of Berlin on the 24th, and offered him the use of 'his' Hitler Youth detachments. Flying into a rage, Weidling refused to use the children, and demanded that Axmann remove them from danger. Despite assurances, he did not do so.

Soviet assault troops began pushing into the suburbs of Berlin on Hitler's birthday, 20 April. Ernst's Kameradschaft was sent with other HJ anti-tank units to Neukolln, south-east of the city centre, under the command of a one-armed former army Leutnant. Many other Hitler Youth who had assembled at the Stadium were sent north to hold the bridges over the Havel River in the futile hope that a relief army would reach Berlin. As it turned out, the sacrifice of young German boys at the Havel bridges mainly served the purpose of allowing a number of high Nazi officials to escape Berlin by that route. Ernst and his comrades were ordered to act as a 'mobile anti-tank reserve' to bolster the defence of Volkssturm and SS units. With them went a group of girls from the BDM to act as support for the HJ 'soldiers'.

Ernst's first experience of battle came on 23 April. A group of Soviet tanks were making a determined effort to push towards the city centre from the district of Kopenick, and Ernst's unit was called on by a hard-pressed group of Volkssturm for support. The Soviet T34s were attacking without infantry support, and Ernst and two other boys were able to find a good position inside a ruined shop. When the first tank had passed their position, Ernst and his companions ran out into the street and fired their Panzerfauste, knocking out the first and second tank in line, before ducking back into the shelter of the buildings. An officer of the Volkssturm who had witnessed their attack clapped the boys on the back when they returned, promising he would recommend them for a medal.

Ernst was elated by his success, but it wasn't to last. On 24 April, a devastating strike by Soviet rockets killed four of Ernst's friends. Two more were killed the following day while attacking Soviet tanks, and Ernst began to realize that it was only a matter of time before his body was reduced to one of the bloody heaps of rags that had become all too familiar to him. He longed to go home, he longed to sleep. Although the idea of deserting occurred to him, he did not want to end his young life hanged from a lamppost by one of the roving groups of military police out looking for 'cowards'. As well as the fear of punishment, Ernst was motivated by a strong desire to defend his home, and especially his family. All the boys with whom he fought had been bombarded with propaganda calling on them to defend their mothers and sisters from the Soviets. The sound of women's screams coming from city blocks captured by Russian troops at night convinced Ernst that this was a dim-he had to perform. Surely relief forces were on their way. He only had to hold out a little longer.

By 30 April, only one other boy from Ernst's anti-tank squad was still fighting with him. Any notion that they belonged to a 'mobile anti-tank reserve' had long since vanished. For several days they had been part of an assorted group of Volkssturm, HJ, BDM and a few SS troops, under the command of an SS officer. All of them were weary beyond measure, hungry and short of ammunition. Nevertheless, Ernst had witnessed acts of amazing courage. Using their knowledge of the area, some local boys from the HJ specialized in weaving their way across rooftops to attack Russian troops with grenades. One had even crept up on a sniper and pushed him down into the street. Ernst had also seen girls from the BDM take up arms. One 16-year-old girl had deliberately allowed a tank to roll right over her foxhole before she fired a Panzerfaust vertically into it. The explosion had destroyed the tank, but killed her in the process. The Russian tank crews had learned that even Hitler Youths apparently lying dead on the street or in trenches could suddenly come to life and attack them. Ernst watched them driving over positions held by his friends and turning their tanks on the spot, crushing any survivors. Finally, late in the afternoon on 30 April, Ernst was struck by a fragment of a mortar bomb and bled to death in a Berlin street while the battle continued to rage around him. He had no way of knowing that about two hours earlier Hitler had taken his own life.

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