The scale of casualties was causing concern amongst the Allies, with the British in particular now running out of men to replace losses. Yet the circumstances in Germany were becoming ever more desperate.
In October the Nazis had announced the creation of the Volkssturm, a militia force outside the main Wehrmacht, for men and boys from 13 to 60 not yet serving in the armed forces. Now boys of 16 and 17 were being called up into the Wehrmacht and receiving only the most basic training before being sent to the front.
Erwin Bartmann was a veteran of the Eastern Front, who had spent the last eighteen months recovering from wounds. In late November 1944 he found himself pressed back into service to oversee basic training:
I shared a billet with a fellow Unterscharfuhrer in the house of a local farmer who treated him as if he were a long lost Joseph, newly found. He worked in the Kompanie office and somehow managed to supply our hosts with little gifts of cake or wine but they looked at me with different eyes, making it very clear that I was not a welcome guest.
They even filed a false complaint against me for messing the outside toilet during a party in the run up to Christmas. Hardly a pleasant word passed between us and, despite the onset of winter, I was always relieved to get out of that house in the morning.
The accommodation provided for the recruits — mostly young lads of sixteen or seventeen — was rather more primitive.
They were crowded into bunkers half buried in a nearby field. My squad occupied four of these bunkers, each one accommodating fifteen recruits. Their toilet was nothing more than a pit scraped in the sandy soil found in that area of Germany. Above the pit, a wooden batten with holes cut out – a Donnerbalken (thunderboard) — served as a communal toilet seat.
With no hot water available, washing was a brief and uncomfortable experience for the youngsters. To enable them to bathe properly I took them to the nearby Oder-Spree canal when weather conditions allowed.
They collected their meals — often no more than a slice of bread and boiled potatoes with the skins still on — from the field kitchen and took them back to the bunkers to eat.
In just six weeks, the recruits would have to learn the tips that might help them survive at least their first day fighting the Russians. Field training and weapons practice were the chief activities. At night, and in the thick mists that settled over the wintery countryside, they practised map reading and navigation.
Life was hard for the recruits who until then had enjoyed all the comforts of a home life such as they were in these difficult times. Still, their living conditions were no worse than those I experienced during two cruel winters on the Ostfront.