In Europe the western Allies were on the banks of the Rhine, preparing for the last major push into Germany. In the east the Red Army was at the Oder, the last natural barrier on the eastern borders of Germany. The German situation was untenable, yet somehow the Nazis found the means and the motivation to carry on fighting.
Erik Wallin was a Swedish volunteer in the 11th SS-Panzergrenadier Division ‘Nordland’ which was mainly composed of men from Denmark Sweden and Norway. They had been involved in a fighting retreat westwards since the beginning of the year, until they held the Stettin bridgehead on the east side of the River Oder, :
The retreat and occupation of the new positions was not followed by the combat pause we so badly needed. In an unchangeable, implacable onslaught the Russian artillery hammered on with its shells. Explosive bullets whistled uninterruptedly with devastating results. The struggle had changed character. Previously it had raged over fields and groves and through separate small villages. But now it rolled from house to house, from street to street.
The circle around the defenders of Altdamm was increasingly tightened. Everywhere Red Army soldiers swarmed forward and were shot to pieces. But they were followed by new waves. This yellow-brown throng was like a lemming migration. They fell in drifts.
But over the corpses came new masses that raged without interruption, and without any sign of weakening. They waited around corners while the artillery, or the tanks, shot a defence ‘nest’ in a house to pieces. Then they rushed forth over the street, down into cellars, upstairs, and took the whole house, then on to the next. Was there no limit to their numbers?
Against this avalanche stood a fragile wall of completely exhausted men who were in mortal danger. They were SS men whose numbers shrank alarmingly day by day, even minute by minute. With the bitterness that characterised house-to-house fighting every man held out to the uttermost.
The lightly wounded only gave themselves time to get a bandage at the nearest first-aid station, before returning to their combat positions. Every single man who still had the strength to keep himself up and handle a weapon fought with a fury that I had never seen before.
But our fighting strength grew weaker and weaker. More and more men were brought back bloody and torn, never to return, and no reserves came to fill the ranks. Only a thin line of hardened, determined veterans remained. They were hungry, deathly tired, bloody, many with bandaged arms or heads, unshaven, black from soot and smoke, mud and lime-dust, with uniforms torn to pieces.
They felt their strength weaken but still determinedly clung to their weapons and aimed them with dev- astating effect against the seemingly endless assaulting forces. After three days of furious fighting from house to house, orders finally came, on 20 March, to retreat over the Oder bridge. The situation had become very dangerous.
The Red Army brought their main forces from the south, up along the banks of the Oder, to reach the bridge and with that, catch us in the bridgehead, as in a sack. In the afternoon, as the order reached us, we had managed to advance to a distance of only 300 metres, from the street that continued out on the bridge, our only way back.
With superhuman effort the rest of our Division managed to stop their advance for some hours, and as darkness fell, the retreat started. By then the Bolsheviks had had time to correct the fire of their anti-tank guns against this most important street.
It became a case of ‘running the gauntlet,’ because their observers could see the flames from the exhaust pipes of our vehicles, as We clat- tered and rumbled at full speed towards the bridge. They aimed their guns at the flashes. For the crews in our vehicles it was many minutes of unbearable stress, driving through the danger area and over the bridge, until they reached the slightly safer Stettin side. But everything went comparatively well and the bridge was not blown up until the last men of the rearguard had crossed over.
The bridgehead at Stettin was a piece of German land drenched with blood, where some of the German fighting forces’ best divisions desper- ately defended themselves against a wild assault by whole armies. But they had completed the task. The bridgehead had disappeared.
Where the fighting had raged, fallen Russians were lying by the thousands. Complete divisions of Stalin’s élite had been brought there. But then they were annihilated in the furious defensive fire from exhausted, shredded, dirty but steadfast, ‘field grey’ men.
Thousands of these brave farmers’ sons, factory workers and young students, youth from all classes of society, had been left over there in the roaring, burning inferno, but it had cost the enemy a high price. Was this fight against the cruel, savage giant of the east the last battle, the ‘Twilight of the Gods’ of which the folks of our old Nordic faith had spoken? The Russian power of attack had petered out, the assault divisions were no more, and it took time to bring forward new forces.