Monday, March 14, 2016

Defending the East

During the last months of 1944 the situation for the German soldier on the Eastern Front was dire. They had fought desperately to maintain cohesion and hold their meagre positions that often saw thousands perish. By September 1944 they were still holding a battle line more than 1,400 miles in overall length, which had been severely weakened by the overwhelming strength of the Red Army. To make matters worse troop units were no longer being refitted with replacements to compensate for the large losses sustained. Supplies of equipment and ammunition too were so insufficient in some areas of the front that commanders were compelled to ration ammunition to their men. As a consequence many soldiers had become increasingly aware that they were in the final stages of the war in the East, and this included battle-hardened combatants. They had also realized that they were now fighting an enemy that was far superior to them. As a consequence in a number of sectors of the front soldiers were able to realistically assess the war situation and this in turn managed to save the lives of many that would normally have been killed fighting to the last man.

In spite of the adverse situation in which the German soldier was placed he was still strong and determined to fight with courage and skill. During the last six months of the war the German soldier had expended considerable combat efforts lacking sufficient reconnaissance and the necessary support of tanks and heavy weapons to ensure any type of success. Ultimately, the German soldier during the last months of the war was ill prepared against any type of large-scale offensive. The infantry defensive positions relied upon sufficient infantry ammunition supply and the necessary support to ensure that they would able to hold their fortified areas. Without this, the German soldier was doomed. Commanders in the field were fully aware of the significant problems and the difficulties imposed by committing badly equipped soldiers to defend the depleted lines of defence. However, in the end, they had no other choice than to order their troops to fight with whatever they had at their disposal.

In the last months of the war German forces continued retreating across a scarred and devastated wasteland. on both the Western and Eastern Fronts, the last agonising moments of the war were played out. Whilst the British and American troops were poised to cross the River Rhine, in the East the terrifying advance of the Red Army was bearing down on the River oder, pushing back the last remnants of Hitler’s exhausted units.

Due to a serious lack of troop reserves many parts of the front were now defended by a mixed number of local militia, postal defence units, locally raised anti-tank groups, Wehrmacht, Waffen-SS and Allegemeine-SS formations, Hitlerjugend, and units of the Volkssturm. But surprisingly, even in the rank and file of the Volkssturm, morale remained high. For these ordinary men of Germany’s Home Guard units they needed no propaganda to urge them on. They knew, like all those defending the Fatherland that they were fighting now to defend their homes and loved ones. All that what was left to them was their skill and courage. Everything else, guns, planes, and armoured vehicles had already been sacrificed. Spread among these under-armed forces was a mixed bag of strong and weak Wehrmacht and Waffen-SS troops. In some areas of the front there were good defensive lines comprising mazes of intricate blockhouses and trenches. Towns that fell in the path of these defensive belts were evacuated. Thousands of women, children and old men were removed from their dwellings and some were actually pressed into service to help construct massive anti-tank ditches and other obstacles.

A typical strongpoint deployed along the front during the last weeks of 1944 contained MG 34 and MG 42 machine guns on light and heavy mountings, anti-tank rifle company or battalion, a sapper platoon that was equipped with a host of various explosives, infantry guns, anti-tank artillery company which had a number of anti-tank guns, and occasionally a self-propelled gun.

Operating at intervals were Pz.kpfw.IVs, Tigers, Panthers tanks, and a number of StuG.III assault guns, all of which were scraped together. This front-line defensive belt was designated as a killing zone where every possible anti-tank weapon and artillery piece would be used to ambush Soviet tanks. Whilst an enemy tank was subjected to a storm of fire within the kill zone, special engineer mobile detachments equipped with anti-personnel and anti-tank mines would quickly deploy and erect new obstacles, just in case other tanks managed to escape the zone.

If the crew from a disabled tank had survived the initial attack and bailed out, special sapper units were ordered to pick off the unwary. However, whilst it appeared that the Germans were prepared for a Soviet attack, much of the equipment employed along the defensive belts was too thinly spread. Commanders too were unable to predict exactly where the strategic focal point of the Soviet attack would take place. To make matters worse when the Russians begun heavily bombing German positions all along the frontier, this also severely weakened the strongest defensive lines.

Along the frontier of the Reich the German defensive lines were soon turned into a wall of flame and smoke as the Russians launched their attacks. For the Volkssturm and Hitlerjugend, many were going into action for the first time, and a number of them felt excited at the thought of fighting an offensive that their Führer had said would drive the invaders from their homeland and win new victories in the East. But this conflict was without rule, and new conscripts soon learned the terrors of fighting superior Russian soldiers. Under-armed and under-trained, these soldiers were quickly driven from their meagre defensive positions and pulverized into the rubble. When some determined units refused to budge, the Russians ordered in their flame-throwers to burn them out. Any Volkssturm men that were found among captured prisoners were normally regarded as partisans and simply herded together like cattle and executed. In some cases, Russian tanks deliberately ran over the wounded, or hanged them from surrounding trees or lamp posts.

Elsewhere along the frontier of the Reich the Red Army drive gathered momentum with more towns and villages falling to the onrushing forces. Suicidal opposition from a few SS and Wehrmacht strong points bypassed in earlier attacks reduced buildings to a blasted rubble. Everywhere it seemed the Germans were being constantly forced to retreat. Many isolated units spent hours or even days fighting a bloody defence. Russian soldiers frequently requested them to surrender and assured them that no harm would come to them if they did so. But despite this reassuring tone, most German troops continued to fight to the end.

Last Battles in the East

The last great offensive that brought the Russians their final victory in the East began during the third week of January 1945. The principal objective was to crush the remaining German forces in Poland, East Prussia and the Baltic states. Along the front an all-out Russian assault had begun in earnest with the sole intention of crushing the remaining understrength German units that had once formed Heeresgruppe Nord. It was these heavy, sustained attacks that eventually restricted the German-held territory in the north-east to a few small pockets of land surrounding four ports: Libau, Kurland, Pillau in East Prussia and Danzig at the mouth of the River Vistula.

Here along the Baltic coast the German defenders attempted to stall the massive Russian push with the remaining weapons and men they had at their disposal. Every German soldier defending the area was aware of the consequences of being captured. Not only would the coastal garrisons be cut off and eventually destroyed, but also masses of civilian refugees would be prevented from escaping from those ports by sea. Hitler made it quite clear that all remaining Wehrmacht, Waffen-SS volunteer units, and Luftwaffe personnel were not to evacuate, but to stand and fight and wage an unprecedented battle of attrition. In fact, what Hitler had done by a single sentence was to condemn to death 8,000 officers and more than 181,000 soldiers and Luftwaffe personnel.

In southwest Poland the strategic town of Breslau situated on the River Oder had been turned into a fortress and defended by various Volkssturm, Hitlerjugend, Waffen-SS and various formations from the 269.Infantry-Division. During mid-February 1945 the German units put up a staunch defence with every available weapon that they could muster. As the battle ensued, both German soldiers and civilians were cut to pieces by Russian attacks. During these viscous battles, which lasted until May 1945, there were many acts of courageous fighting. Cheering and yelling, old men and boys of the Volkssturm and Hitlerjugend, supported by ad hoc SS units, advanced across open terrain, sacrificing themselves in front of well positioned Russian machine gunners and snipers. By the first week of March, Russian infantry had driven back the defenders into the inner city and were pulverising it street by street. Lightly clad SS, Volkssturm and Hitlerjugend were still seen resisting, forced to fight in the sewers beneath the decimated city. When Breslau finally capitulated almost 60,000 Russian soldiers were killed or wounded trying to the capture the town, with some 29,000 German military and civilian casualties.

Elsewhere on the Eastern Front, fighting was merciless, with both sides imposing harsh measures on their men to stand where they were and fight to the death. With every defeat and withdrawal came ever-increasing pressure on the commanders to exert harsher discipline on their weary men. The thought of fighting on German soil for the first time resulted in mixed feelings among the soldiers. Although the defence of the Reich automatically stirred emotional feelings to fight for their land, not all soldiers felt the same way. More and more young conscripts were showing signs that they did not want to die for a lost cause. Conditions on the Eastern Front were miserable not only for the newest recruits, but also for battle-hardened soldiers who had survived many months of bitter conflict against the Red Army. The cold harsh weather during February and March prevented the soldiers digging trenches more than a metre down. But the main problems that confronted the German forces during this period were shortages of ammunition, fuel and vehicles. Some vehicles in a division could only be used in an emergency and battery fire was strictly prohibited without permission from the commanding officer. The daily ration on average per division was for two shells per gun.

As the great Red Army drive gathered momentum, more towns and villages fell to the onrushing forces. Suicidal opposition from a few SS and Wehrmacht strong points bypassed in earlier attacks reduced buildings to blasted rubble. Everywhere it seemed the Germans were being constantly forced to retreat. Many isolated units spent hours or even days fighting a bloody defence. Russian soldiers frequently requested them to surrender and assured them that no harm would come to them if they did so. But despite this reassuring tone, most German troops continued to fight to the bitter end. To the German soldier in 1945 they were fighting an enemy that they not only despised, but were also terrified of. Many soldiers, especially those fighting in the ranks of the Waffen-SS decided that would meet their fate out on the battlefield. To them they would rather bleed fighting on the grasslands of Eastern Europe than surrender and be at the mercy of a Russian soldier.

Along the Baltic States the German soldier too was totally aware of the significance if it were lost. They knew that their Führer was determined more than ever to drag out the war and help stave off a Russian drive on Berlin. For this reason he told his battlefront commanders to instill every soldier to fight to the death for every city, town and village. one such city he was fanatical in defending was the ancient Teutonic city of Danzig. Danzig was populated almost exclusively by Germans and before the war had been designated a free city giving Poland access to the Baltic Sea. This had angered Hitler bitterly and churned-up great bitterness and a determination to reclaim the city back. It was on this pretense that Hitler attacked Poland in 1939, and engulfed Europe into a World War. Now five years later he was determined not to let the city fall without a bloody fight.

For some weeks Danzig had been preparing itself for a long-drawn out defence. Fighting to the east of the city in early March 1945 was the 2.Armee. For several days the 2.Armee fought well against the full weight of the Second Belorussian Front. A number of German divisions put up a staunch defence notably from the 4.Panzer-Division. However, fighting was so fierce that the division was savagely mauled and pushed westwards with its remnants doggedly combating from one fixed position to another.

Inside the city Danzig was being defended by a mixture of infantry, Panzertruppen, Volkssturm, and Hitlerjugend. The main armoured force comprised of the 4.Panzer-Division which consisted of Panzer-Regiment 35, Artillerie-Regiment 103, and Panzer Aufklaerungs Abteilung 4, and two regiments of Panzergrenadiere. The first battalion of the Panzer-Regiment 35 was equipped with Panther tanks, while the second battalion was equipped with Pz.kpfw IV’s. The artillery regiment was equipped mainly with Wespe and Hummel self-propelled howitzers, and towed howitzers and guns.

Although the Germans were poorly matched in terms of equipment and supply a number of the troops were hardened veterans that had survived some of the costliest battles in the East. Hurriedly these troops were positioned along the main roads leading into the city. Heavy machine gun platoons dug-in and held each end of the line while the remainder were scattered in various buildings. Armoured vehicles from Panzer-Regiment 35 took-up key positions in order to defend the main thoroughfare leading into the centre of the city, although not one single tank was battle ready. Crude obstacles were also erected, and troops were emplaced in defensive positions armed with a motley assortment of anti-tank and Flak guns, machine guns, Panzerfaust and the deadly Panzerschrek.

When Russian tanks were identified entering the suburbs on 24 March, Wehrmacht, Panzertruppen, Volkssturm, and Hitlerjugend laden with guns and ammunition, suddenly sprang into action. Moving rapidly through the deserted streets Russian tanks pushed forward accompanied by infantry. In an instant the Germans opened-up a crescendo of fire. A number of Soviet tanks burst into flames before they could wrench open a route into the city. However, superior Soviet strength soon began overwhelming the suburbs. For hours it seemed each soldier was engaged in an individual contest of attrition. House to house fighting raged. Infiltrating the buildings Russians fought a series of deadly hand-to-hand battles with Germans using bayonets, knives and grenades. Anti-tank, machine gun and mortar fire were brought to bear on anything that moved. Germans commanders were all too aware of the significant strength of their resilient foe and hoped that they could contain the Red Army for as long as possible. The Russians mercilessly tore through the suburbs of the city and lay to waste every building in its path. A mixture of armoured vehicles mainly from Panzer-Regiment 35, tried to contain parts of the city from becoming overrun. The attack through the city was swift, but from every conceivable point, German troops poured a lethal storm of fire onto the advancing troops.

By 26 March the whole city had been engulfed in a sea of smoke and flame. German troops became more aggressive as the urban battle intensified. Slowly and methodically the Russians began taking one district after another, pushing back the defenders in a storm of fire and heavy infantry assaults. Whole areas were totally obliterated by tanks and artillery. Many Germans that were captured or wounded were executed on the spot and left suspended from the lamp posts as a warning to others. In parts of the city Volkssturm and Hitlerjugend support by a mixture of Wehrmacht and Panzer troops, managed to knock out a number of Russian tanks with Panzerfaust and Panzerschreck. But even these courageous fighters were no match for hardened soldiers that had fought their way bitterly through Russia to the gates of the Reich. German commanders tried their best to instil hope and determination in the poorly armed defenders, but district after district still fell to the Russian advance.

By 29 March those that had not been encircled or annihilated inside the city fled to mouth of the Vistula. Although the following day Danzig fell, resistance was not totally suppressed. A number of defiant groups that had been encircled and refused to capitulate fought on until they were annihilated.

Elsewhere along the Baltic coast and further south on the German central front the situation for the German Army was spiralling out of control, in spite fanatical resistance. German commanders in the field now resigned themselves with the gloomy prospect of not being able of hold back the Red Army for any appreciable length of time, and the news sent shock waves through the German High Command. For them it marked the beginning of the Soviet invasion of the Fatherland. As German forces fought to delay the inevitable capture of East Prussia, the main bulk of the Red Army drive bypassed various pockets of resistance and spilled out into eastern Pomerania and the Prussian province of Pomerania, where it fought a number of hard-pressed battles.