Red Army soldiers in trenches during the approach to Berlin.

Red Army soldiers in trenches during the approach to Berlin.

Soviet tank T-34-85 in a pine forest south of Berlin.

Soviet tank T-34-85 in a pine forest south of Berlin.

Erwin Bartmann had been wounded on the Eastern Front serving with the 1st SS Panzer Division. After recovering he was sent to a training school for young recruits. Now he returned with them to the Eastern Front, only this time that front was within Germany.

The Red Army had begun their assault on the Seelow Heights, the defensive line in the hills east of Berlin, on the 16th April. The following day Bartmann and his young recruits were transported to very outskirts of Berlin to face action for the first time. That evening he realised that they were too young to be able to cope with the small quantity of schnapps that he had obtained:

On the night of 17th-18th April 1945 they started to come under Soviet artillery fire:

Throughout that night, a heavy artillery bombardment shook the earth. Every young face bore the furrow-lines of fear. ‘Don’t worry,’ I assured them, ‘the detonations are too far away to do us any mischief. Ivan doesn’t know we’re here yet.’ ‘They’re too close for comfort.’ exclaimed one of the recruits whose shoulders yanked up tight at every whizz or bang. ‘How do you know?’ piped up the recruit who had complained on the overnight march. ‘He’s on old hare, he can tell.’

I felt my lips pull an involuntary smile. It was strange, but nevertheless gratifying, to hear myself referred to as an ‘old hare’ though I was not yet twenty- two years old. Yet it was easy to understand the recruit’s anxiety — I had felt the same tension when crossing the Dniepr under the protection of Unterscharfuhrer Nowotnik.

‘Settle down and get some sleep,’ I said, feeling almost fatherly. …

A depressingly grey dawn crept over the horizon, the signal for the start of a barrage of 15 centimetre Russian mortar shells that fell with frightening accuracy along our front line. No one could hear the screams of the wounded above the thud of continually exploding rounds; the land itself seemed to shake with fear.

I popped my head above the line of the trench to make sure the Russian infantry had not crept up on us under the protection of the barrage. At that instant, a shell detonated close by, sending a gust of tiny slivers of steel blasting against my face.

As I ducked back under cover, the recruits looked at me as if they had seen the devil himself. Only then did I notice the warm rivulets of blood trickling down my cheeks. Once again my guardian angel was at my side; none of the little steel needles had found my eyes and those that were imbedded in my skin were easily plucked out. As the bombardment waned, German steel helmets appeared above the lines of our trenches. Someone close by was shouting, swearing, as he pointed in the direction of the Frankfurt—Mullrose road.

A squadron of Russian T-34 tanks was heading south. I raised my binoculars. The image that loomed into focus sickened me to the pit of my stomach. Women and children were bound to the tanks’ guns. Though they were too distant for me to hear their wails above the sound of the tank engines, the body language of the mothers told its own pitiful tale. Cold, silent, helpless rage filled my heart. ‘What should we do?’ yelled one my machine-gun crew, his boyish face contorted by an expression of confused agony.

One accidental pull on a trigger could have startled every one of our machine guns into unleashing a hail of bullets at the tanks, which were easily within range. ‘Hold fire,’ I said through gritted teeth. ‘Let the officers decide.’ After a short but heated discussion, the officers let the tanks pass without firing a single shot but I dared not speculate the fate that might await the terrified hostages. We all knew of, and believed, the reports of Russian tanks deliberately squashing columns of refuges under their tracks as they fled East Prussia.

Russian fighter planes swooped on our trenches, raking the area with machine-gun fire. I made sure my recruits kept their heads down and we escaped the onslaught without a single casualty. By early afternoon, an enemy infantry battalion was gathering without hindrance just a kilometre away. ‘Don’t worry about the bayonets,’ I told the youngsters of the machine-gun crew whose trench I shared, ‘they won’t get close enough to use them.’

Mutterings of anxiety continued to pass between the recruits as we waited for the inevitable onslaught. At last, the enemy infantry charged. Our machine guns unleashed a storm of bullets into their killing zone, scything through wave after wave of brown uniforms. The two crews directly under my command performed well and we managed to hold back the attack on our sector of the defence line.

My experience on the Ostfront enabled me to keep our losses to just two men. Qne of these we buried in the Friedhof in Lichtenberg, the other, a handsome young chap, I buried with the help of two Kameraden, close to where he fell.

The next Russian attack was more determined. They had found a gap in our lines and Untersturmfuhrer Gessner’s infantry platoon left the cover of the woods to set off down the hill, ahead of our machine-gun positions, with the aim of throwing back the enemy attack. Unfortunately, he took his unit too close to the enemy for us to give effective machine-gun support. With the intention of fending off any assault on Gessner’s squad, I led one of the crews down the hill to get a better firing position.

Having covered about 500 metres, we came under intense small-arms fire and threw ourselves to the ground. When the firing stopped, I was horrified to see a Russian infantry platoon close on Untersturmfuhrer Gessner. He was on his knees with a pistol at his temple. There was a puff of smoke and he slumped to the side. His courage had not failed him.

I pulled my machine—gun crew back to our lines at the edge of the woods only to find the other recruits exactly where I had left them. ‘If you had followed us we could have saved Untersturmfuhrer Gessner,’ I roared angrily only to be confronted with an avalanche of excuses intended to justify their inaction.

The night passed without further event.

See Erwin Bartmann: Fur Volk und Fuhrer: The Memoir of a Veteran of the 1st SS Panzer Division Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler

Volkssturm with anti-tank rocket ("Panzerschreck" / "stovepipe") in a foxhole in the open field outside Berlin, end of April 1945.

Volkssturm with anti-tank rocket (“Panzerschreck” / “stovepipe”) in a foxhole in the open field outside Berlin, end of April 1945.

Berlin, Elderly members of the Volkssturm who are building tank barriers on the streets of Berlin are brought food by their families, April 1945.

Berlin, Elderly members of the Volkssturm who are building tank barriers on the streets of Berlin are brought food by their families, April 1945.

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Apr

17

1945

Winston Churchill pays tribute to Franklin D. Roosevelt

President Roosevelt and Winston Churchill confer during a lunch break at the Livadia Palace during the Yalta Conference.

He had brought his country through the worst of its perils and the heaviest of its toils. Victory had cast its sure and steady beam upon him. In the days of peace he had broadened and stabilised the foundations of American life and union. In war he had raised the strength, might and glory of the great Republic to a height never attained by any nation in history.

With her left hand she was leading the advance of the conquering Allied Armies into the heart of Germany, and with her right, on the other side of the globe, she was irresistibly and swiftly breaking up the power of Japan. And all the time ships, munitions, supplies and food of every kind were aiding on a gigantic scale her Allies, great and small, in the course of the long struggle.

Apr

16

1945

The first POW camp liberated – Fallingbostel

POWs at Stalag 11B at Fallingbostel in Germany welcome their liberators, 16 April 1945.

Then they put me in a lorry, and I was taken to a field full of marquees. Inside were long tables, and army cooks came out with dishes full to the brim with potatoes and beef. It was almost impossible to believe it. But then some doctors came in and ordered all the food to be taken away. They said too much food like that would damage us. It was heartbreaking. But they gave us a couple of spoonfuls of potato and gravy, and then we were put on planes.

Apr

15

1945

Thousands of dead and dying – liberation of Belsen

British troops stand guard as German SS troops are made to load the bodies of the dead onto a lorry for transport to mass graves.

Here over an acre of ground lay dead and dying people. You could not see which was which… The living lay with their heads against the corpses and around them moved the awful, ghostly procession of emaciated, aimless people, with nothing to do and with no hope of life, unable to move out of your way, unable to look at the terrible sights around them…. This day at Belsen was the most horrible of my life.

Apr

14

1945

Italy: US 5th Army advance towards the Po valley

The 10 Division advancing in Italy in April 1945.

Our company sneaked around the side of a hill and began shooting at some farmhouses below us. We had been receiving sniper fire from the buildings. Three or four of our men on the forward slope were shot. My platoon leader was hit in both shoulders and a leg, and his runner was mortally wounded. Jim Keck, who teamed up with me in the squad, was struck in the left hip. The bullet deflected off the hip bone, ran up his side, and exited just below the armpit. Another soldier dashed toward one of the houses. He threw two grenades – killing one of the snipers—before being shot through the head.

Apr

13

1945

Gardelegen: concentration camp prisoners burnt alive

The recovered bodies are laid out in front of the barn.

Soon dead and dying men were piling up at all the doors. Cries of pain and panic rung inside the dark building, as others were trampled. To escape the rain of bullets, some men feigned death or hid under the dead bodies of others. By now the fire was completely out of control. The inside of the barn began to fill up with a suffocating smoke. Chaos and panic was complete. Men were swearing, crying, pleading, praying, shouting “Vive la France” and “Long live Poland.” Several even broke out singing their national anthem. Men were being roasted alive. Human torches ran around until they dropped to the ground dead. Others suffocated or were killed by the exploding hand-grenades and Panzerfausts.

Apr

12

1945

US forces liberate of Buchenwald – ‘beggars description’

While on an inspection tour of the newly liberated Ohrdruf concentration camp, General Dwight Eisenhower and a party of high ranking U.S. Army officers, including Generals Bradley, Patton, and Eddy, view the charred remains of prisoners that were burned upon a section of railroad track during the evacuation of the camp. Also pictured is Jules Grad (second from the left taking notes), correspondent for the "Stars and Stripes" U.S. Army newspaper and Alois J. Liethen of Appleton, WI, the mustached soldier who served as the interpreter for the tour of Ohrdruf.

The visual evidence and the verbal testimony of starvation, cruelty and bestiality were so overpowering as to leave me a bit sick. In one room, where they were piled up twenty or thirty naked men, killed by starvation, George Patton would not even enter. He said that he would get sick if he did so. I made the visit deliberately, in order to be in a position to give first-hand evidence of these things if ever, in the future, there develops a tendency to charge these allegations merely to ‘propaganda.

Apr

11

1945

The rape and loot of Konigsberg, capital of Prussia

German prisoners are marched away from Konigsberg.

We marched on. We saw scenes that cannot be described. The ditches by the sides of the streets were full of corpses, many of them clearly showing signs of unbelievable maltreatment and rape. Dead children lay around in great numbers, bodies hung from the trees, their watches cut off. Staring—eyed German women were led in all directions, drunken Russians flogged a German nun, an elderly woman sat by the side of the road, both of her legs having been crushed by vehicles. Farmsteads burned, the household belongings lying in the roads, cows ran across the countryside, and were indiscriminately shot and left lying.

Apr

10

1945

British confront looting and fraternisation in Germany

Men of the 2nd Gordon Highlanders during the advance in Germany, 29 April 1945. Pte Fred Greener pushes a bicycle loaded with mortar bombs.

The Brigade Major told me that while the Commander was pinned down as it were, on the throne that morning, a Jock of his passed his field of vision with a side of bacon, followed shortly after by another with a wireless set, followed a few minutes later by a third with a goose under his arm. Whereupon he rose in his wrath, sent for his Brigade Major and issued several fresh edicts, the effect of which was that there would probably be no looting at Brigade, for at least a week.

Apr

9

1945

Allies launch the last big offensive in Italy

Churchill Crocodile flamethrower tank supporting infantry of 2nd New Zealand Division during the assault across the River Senio, 9 April 1945.

All four companies then lay low in their assembly areas, to be clear of the artillery bombardment. Fifteen minutes later, all hell broke loose. For four hours, the Germans were bombarded by artillery and mortars and bombed and strafed at intervals by hundreds of Allied aircraft. Thousands of fragmentation bombs hit enemy artillery dugouts and reserve areas. Sunset that day illuminated a hellish pall of smoke and dust across the German lines. The noise was thunderous. For the beleaguered Jerries it must have seemed like the end of the world.