Across Germany in the special custody of the SS

Ulrich von Hassell, the German diplomat implicated in the plot against Hitler, at his trial. He was executed in September 1944, his family were sent to concentration camps.
Ulrich von Hassell, the German diplomat implicated in the plot against Hitler, at his trial. He was executed in September 1944, his family were sent to concentration camps.
German civilians in February 1945 in Danzig and the surrounding area; fleeing from the approaching Red Army, they have had to leave their homes.
German civilians in February 1945 from Danzig and the surrounding area; fleeing from the approaching Red Army, they have had to leave their homes.

Following the failed bomb plot against Hitler in July 1944 the SS had gone to great lengths to track down all of those who were suspected of involvement. The hunt extended not just to those directly participating in the plot but to all those who were sympathetic to the cause. The widespread use of torture meant that the Nazis soon had many names to investigate. And the net encompassed not only the suspects but their families as well.

Fey Von Hassel was the daughter of the German ambassador to Italy who had been arrested for his anti Nazi views. She had been arrested and sent first to Stutthof concentration camp in Poland. Her two young sons had been taken taken from her, destined, like many other children of Nazi prisoners, to be given new identities and adopted by ‘good Aryan’ families. Now along with millions of others, they were travelling west to escape the advance of the Red Army.

As a ‘special’ category of German prisoner, the group that von Hassell was travelling with, which included elderly relatives of von Stauffenberg, enjoyed better conditions than most other prisoners. It turned out that they were better treated than many other Germans who were not prisoners, at least they were on a train, sheltered from the winter weather:

This time we had more space, for the Hungarians were put in a separate wagon. We made everything as bearable as we could — thick straw on the floor and the stove in the middle. The train remained stuck at Lauenburg station all that night, but early the following morning it began to trundle forward. It was a fine day, so we rolled along with the doors open. I sat perched on the steps, gazing out at the passing countryside, fighting off unsettling thoughts about my children.

At the curves I could see that the train was extraordinarily long and seemed to be carrying everything: prisoners, troops, refugees, and even cattle, which I could hear mooing at the far end. We took advantage of the frequent stops for obvious reasons. But because the train would always start again without warning, I was terrified of being left behind or having to jump into a wagon filled with strange people.

The idea of using these opportunities to escape did not occur to me, nor, I think, to anyone. The thought of being alone in that frozen countryside, without papers, money, or food, was enough to put one off the idea immediately.

When night fell, the doors of the wagon were kept shut. It never took long to fall asleep, since we were always tired due to the lack of food. If any of us needed to relieve ourselves, we would delicately approach an old tar can propped up in one of the corners for that purpose. When the can was used, everyone, as if on order, turned their heads to the wall. Embarrassing moments, but sometimes rather funny!

Time after time on this journey we would leave a town just before it was occupied or a station just before it was blown up. But the train continued on its way, untouched.

At one stop some of the men went with the guard Kupfer to one of the genuine cattle cars at the back of the train. They brought back about twenty liters of fresh milk. The taste was heaven, and the cows were no doubt happy to be relieved of their burden.

Trainloads of refugees passed us, but many more people trudged along the rails on foot, begging desperately for a place in the wagons. The weeping of the old, the wailing of babies, and the whistling of bombs were ever present.

At one point, at a small country station where we halted due to an air raid, a Wehrmacht officer knocked on the door and yelled up impatiently:

“Open up immediately! Some more people must be put in this wagon.”

Papke answered, “Impossible. I have orders to let no one inside!”

“That is idiotic,” shouted back the officer. “There are women and children out here half-frozen to death. They must find shelter!”

“We are traveling with the prisoners of kin under the special protection of the Reichsfuhrer SS Heinrich Himmler,” barked back Papke.

“Oh, my God, that Heini!” exclaimed the officer angrily. “I’ve had it up to here with that pig!“ Obviously experienced in the ways of the SS, the officer laughed bitterly and gave up arguing. Papke sat silent inside.

Instead, we were tremendously encouraged by the soldier’s disrespect for Himmler and began to laugh and tell jokes about our little Reichsfuhrer. For once Papke did not dare react. It was dark inside, and there were many more of us.

It is astonishing that in the midst of that seeming chaos, with refugees everywhere and constant bombing, soldiers were still being sent to the front, others were taking leave, and rail lines were being repaired. Our SS guards were still following their instructions to the letter. Little though we realized it, another two months would pass before the Nazi war machine would finally break down.

See Fey Von Hassel: Hostage of the Third Reich: The Story of My Imprisonment and Rescue from the SS

East Prussia in Braunsberg.- trek with refugees and Wehrmacht soldiers on a road through a forest, about February-March 1945.
East Prussia in Braunsberg.- trek with refugees and Wehrmacht soldiers on a road through a forest, about February-March 1945.

The horrific ordeal of the Sandakan death marches

The ruins of huts in the prisoner of war camp, Sandakan, North Borneo, October 1945. Courtesy Australian War Memorial: 120457
The ruins of huts in the prisoner of war camp, Sandakan, North Borneo, October 1945. Those who were too ill for the march were eventually murdered here. Courtesy Australian War Memorial: 120457

It must have seemed that nothing could get worse for the PoWs who were prisoners of the Japanese on Borneo. In 1942 about 3,500 men, British and Australian, had been brought to Sandakan camp to build an airfield for the Japanese. At the beginning of 1945 2,434 men survived, the death rate having increased dramatically at the end of 1944 when the meagre food allowance was cut again.

As the area started to suffer from Allied bombing raids, the Japanese decided to march the PoWs 164 miles into the jungle interior to Ranau. It was a decision at first welcomed by the PoWs who had suffered fatalities from the bombing themselves. They could not have been more wrong.

None of the approximately 800 British PoWs would survive the ordeal of the march and accompanying massacres and atrocities. And only six Australians were alive at the end of the war. Two of those survivors:

If blokes just couldn’t go on, we shook hands with them, and said, you know, hope everything’s all right. But they knew what was going to happen. There was nothing you could do. You just had to keep yourself going. More or less survival of the fittest.

Nelson Short

It was a oneway trip when we started to hear shots, and you felt there was no hope for anyone who fell out.

Dick Braithwaite

The following account summarises what is known of the circumstances of the marches:

On 28 January 1945, the first of 455 PoWs, in nine groups, set off from Sandakan to march to Ranau on the 164-mile trek through the jungle and swamps. The emaciated prisoners, in ragged clothes, many with bare feet and the remainder in disintegrating boots, suffering from malnutrition, disease and tropical sores, started out on the first of three marches that became known as the Death Marches.

The PoWs carried all the food including that for the guards. The route of the Death March, climbing up to 1,000 metres in some places, was along jungle tracks some of which the prisoners had to hack through thick jungle. The route crossed and re-crossed rivers which, as it was the monsoon season, were full in full flow.

Humidity was extreme. There were no medical kits for the PoWs and drinking water was direct from the streams, rivers, swamps or puddles. It was a case of march or die, which developed into march to die. Any prisoner that stopped was shot, bayoneted or clubbed to death; there were also occasional strangulations.

It was reported that there were instances of crucifixion and cases of cannibalism of PoWs – the prisoners being shot, butchered and then eaten by the Japanese.

There were also stories of strips of flesh being cut from living PoWs, the prisoners being regarded as “walking larders”, so that “fresh meat” could flavour the rice for the Formosan and Korean guards. There were local reports of two PoWs who, having been killed by the Kempeitai, had their limbs removed and the torsos taken down stream to a large Japanese camp. The news of this atrocity travelled far and wide without alteration to the account.

The local Sabahans also explained that the Japanese were short of food and were culling PoWs to boost their meagre rations. There were further instances of cannibalism of Kadazan, Dusan and Murut tribesmen by the Japanese.

The first, and subsequent marches, were horrific beyond description, undertaken by undernourished and sick men suffering from dehydration, salt deprivation, and dysentery, bloated by beriberi, meningitis, malaria and other jungle-related illnesses and sores. In many cases, bones could be seen through the suppurating fly-blown open wounds. Their bodies were quite simply rotting.

Leaches, tics, mosquitoes, fire ants, hornets and the cuts, stings and abrasions from the clinging undergrowth only added to their parlous condition. Those too sick to undertake the march were either later massacred at Sandakan or were sent by ship to other PoW camps where most met a similar fate.

Against all the odds, by mid-February 1945, some PoWs (all Australians) were still arriving at Ranau. Many had died en route, whilst others succumbed after they arrived. A mix of both Australian and British prisoners arrived at Paginantan, twenty-six miles short of Ranau, again many dying on the way. Rice carrying details started out from Ranau to Paginantan, a forced march of three days, carrying rice. Unencumbered, the return took two days.

Parties of men each carried 44lb sacks of rice; anyone who failed to keep up was either shot or executed by other means, their loads being redistributed amongst the survivors to carry. The Formosan and Korean guards were allegedly the worst and took great delight in their tasks. The first PoW to die on the rice march had travelled barely half a mile along the route. One PoW committed suicide as he could not face returning to Ranau.

See Command Post Media, an account of a commemoration march conducted by the Royal Artillery in 2011.

A more detailed report on the whole history of the men who were sent to Sandakan was written by Lt. Col. H. W. S. Jackson after the war:

23. The first P.O.Ws. began to fall out from the march after four days which was near the Tankual Crossing, on the Maunad River, a rest post about 40 miles from Sandakan and in a portion of the track that was knee deep, in mud. The ones who fell out were kept under guard until the main party had disappeared from view and then they were shot and their bodies thrown into the jungle, at the side of the track. The P.O.Ws. could hear the shots and so knew what would happen if they fell out. P.O.W. “Fall Outs” would give away their personal belongings to their mates when they realized they could no longer continue. Those lucky enough to still possess leather boots would enquire of foot sizes before giving them away and would pass on messages of farewell for their mothers, wives and families.

24. N0.1 Party reached Ranau on the 12th. of February 1945 having lost thirteen of their men en route, a further two died on the day they reached Ranau. No. 2 Party reached Ranau on the the 15th. of February, No. 3 on the 16th., No. 4 on the 18th. and No. 5 on the 19th. Nos 6, 7, 8 and 9 parties reached Paginatan (26 miles west of Ranau) around the 20th. of February, where they rested, the original 195 had been reduced to 160. The 260 P.O.Ws. of parties Nos 1-5 had arrived at Ranau with only 150 survivors. Yamamoto realized that they would never survive the trip to Tuaran, over even more mountainous country that they had already traversed.

25. After a month the 160 men who had reached Paginatan had been reduced to 60 only 30 of whom were fit to continue to Ranau. The death rate at Ranau was equally as high, the strain of the march seemed to cause a rapid deterioration to their health.

Lt. Col. H. W. S. Jackson : A Report On The Borneo Death Marches

British Commando raiders are executed in Sachsenhausen

Sachsenhausen concentration camp had operated since 1936 as punishment facility rather than an extermination site. About 30,000 people are believed to had died there from overwork, ill-treatment and malnutrition, although a proportion were put to death by shooting, hanging and, in later years, a gas chamber.
Sachsenhausen concentration camp had operated since 1936 as punishment facility rather than an extermination site. About 30,000 people are believed to have died there from overwork, ill-treatment and malnutrition, although a proportion were put to death by shooting, hanging and, in later years, a gas chamber.

On the 1st of February there had been elation in Sachsenhausen concentration camp, located 22 miles north of Berlin. The news reached the prisoners that the Red Army was just 60 miles east of Berlin. Rumours soon spread that they would soon be liberated, and that it might well happen in the next day or so.

The grim reality proved to be a deep disappointment the following day. Not only were the Nazis preparing to evacuate the whole camp but they were now starting to murder some of their more prominent prisoners. Odd Nansen, a Norwegian political prisoner, was keeping a secret diary in the camp, writing on the 3rd he recalled the events of the 2nd:

From the brightest and wildest optimism we’ve been plunged into gloomy pessimism.

When we got back from the job last night, we were met be the sinister announcement that the camp is to be evacuated. We’re all to start off on a trek. To the great majority the news was thunder from a clear sky, and many still refuse to believe it, such an utterly outrageous impossibility and insanity does it seem.

Forty thousand men on the tramp southward, southwest or west; miserably clad, with nothing to eat – for it can be only Norwegians who have any food to take with them – and in a worse than rickety condition. First we heard it as a rumour, and it penetrated slowly into our consciousness, which refused to accept it. Then it came as an official announcement in the block: “The camp will probably be evacuated”. Wahrscheinlich!

A hope still lingers in the interpretation of that lumpy German word, a little chance that the Russians may be too quick, the possibility of a change of mind with the ensuing counter-order, of which, indeed, we’ve known so many that they can almost be taken as the rule. But in that case there is another dark cloud in our sky, a cloud which has grown darker, blacker and more menacing in the last forty-eight hours. Liquidation! Vernichtung!

It is now being said that over two hundred men, including all the lackeys of the Sonderkommission, were shot last night. They were a frightful gang indeed, and no one laments them. They were the Gestapo’s henchmen among the prisoners. And so that was their reward.

When the truth about the events of the night gradually came out, when we learnt that our friends the Englishmen, John and Jack and Tommy and the rest, we knew them right back in Grini [a Nazi concentration camp in Norway], had in all probability been shot, and the Russian officers and many others, the atmosphere filled with gloom.

Rumour also had it that the coming night would be still worse. Last night many were awakened by shots in the camp. This was what happened: when a party of those who had been taken from the blocks under cover of darkness marched out of the gate and turned to the right, they realised where they were going, broke the ranks and ran into the little park there between the walls. The guards opened fire on them, and they were shot down there in the park. It was the rat—tat of the guards’ tommy-guns which broke the night silence, filling those who lay awake with horror and dread.

See Odd Nansen: Day After Day

The ‘English friends’ that Nansen was referring to were members of a British commando team that had been captured after a sabotage operation to Norway in 1943, Operation Checkmate. They had successfully sunk a German minesweeper and other ships with limpet mines but despite the fact that they had operated in uniform they fell victim to Hitler’s Commando Order when they were captured. They were not treated as Prisoners of War under the Geneva Convention.

In Sachsenhausen they had been forced to march 30 miles a day on cobbled roads, ‘testing’ German Army boots. It later emerged that, when they were led to execution, Temporary Lieutenant John Godwin, RNVR, who had led the team of Commandos and Royal Navy seamen, managed to snatch the pistol of the firing party commander and shoot him dead before being shot down himself.

Lieutenant JOHN GODWIN H.M.S. Quebec., Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve who died age 25 on 02 February 1945
Lieutenant JOHN GODWIN H.M.S. Quebec., Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve
who died age 25 on 02 February 1945

There were no witnesses to Godwin’s resistance surviving at the end of the war, a fact that meant he could not be eligible for a gallantry medal. Instead he was awarded a ‘Mention In Despatches’. The citation, in The London Gazette, 9 October 1945, read:

“For great gallantry and inspiring example whilst a prisoner of war in German hands in Norway and afterwards at Sachsenhausen, near Oranienburg, Germany, 1942-1945”

The Commando Veterans Association has a gallery commemorating the other members of Operation Checkmate.

Bitter struggle as Red Army encircles Breslau

Soldiers of the 'Volkssturm' the German 'People's army' in their trenches in East Prussia in January 1945.
Soldiers of the ‘Volkssturm’ the German ‘People’s army’ in their trenches in East Prussia in January 1945.
Millions of Germans and ethnic Germans were now refugees fleeing west. Tens of thousands would not survive the arduous trek in the extreme cold - with a high proportion of children falling victim.
Millions of Germans and ethnic Germans were now refugees fleeing west. Tens of thousands would not survive the arduous trek in the extreme cold – with a high proportion of children falling victim.

On the Eastern Front much of the fighting had now descended into unbelievable savagery, with no quarter given. Many members of the Red Army had reason to seek vengeance on the Germans. The rape and murder of German civilians was to become commonplace. As the German soldiers became aware of this there was little incentive to allow any of their prisoners to live.

Yet the tide of war had turned decisively against the Germans and they faced defeat after defeat, retreat after retreat. For the captured German soldier, especially if they belonged to the SS, the fate was in many cases even worse. Some accounts refer to them being “given a beating” but others are more explicit. One female Red Army soldier recalled that any captured German soldiers:

… were not shot dead – that would have been too easy for them, we stabbed them like pigs with spears, chopped them to pieces. I saw it with my own eyes. I waited for the moment when their eyes bulged with pain.

She felt no mercy “They burned my mother and my young sister at the stake in the middle of the village”.

German soldiers were under few illusions about their potential fate and many saved the last bullet for themselves. Others made desperate attempts to escape to the west. Paul Arnhold was a Pioneer officer who had been on the run after his Panzer Corps had fallen apart. With three others he crossed Poland on foot, much of the journey across country, trying to evade the pursuing Russians.

Late in January they found a remote peasant hut and forced the elderly Polish occupants to supply them with food. At first they were offered potato stew but they suspected something better was available. They threatened the old couple until bread and salted meat were produced:

We could not contain ourselves and attacked it like wild animals. We paid the price for doing so; a short time later we brought it all back up again. Our weak stomachs could not cope with something like that any more.

The cottage gave them a brief opportunity to rest – but they were in poor state:

We carefully removed our boots and shoes, What was left of our socks and foot-cloths had gone hard from dried blood and pus. My soles were just pus-filled flesh, but the worst pain came from inside. As I’d been running for three weeks on soles which were bumed and warped, my metatarsal was horribly inflamed. When I stood up, the pain coming from it was unbearable.

In addition, my ankles had swollen badly where the top edge of my boots rubbed with every step. Our feet were a pathetic sight. In normal times, no one would have believed it possible that we could run even one more step.

Three weeks by day and night in snow and ice, hungry and hunted like wild animals. None of us had washed or shaved for three weeks. We had not changed our clothes for three weeks. We had worn our uniforms for three weeks.

During the ‘bathe’ in the Pilica they had been soaked. Then they had frozen solid in the icy storm, and then we’d been hunted and harried in our wet gear.

We huffed and puffed for three long weeks through undergrowth covered in snow and over vast expanses of snow. The uniforms were torn a thousand times by the brittle frozen branches and thorns. Ten days after our swim in the Pilica, our clothes were still damp.

My beard, with its many silvery-grey streaks, had grown so thick that my hands could reach into it.

We’d not been able to wipe our arses for three weeks. But what’s the use of telling this to someone who hasn’t experienced it? That little scrap of Pravda was more important for our [Russian] Machorka cigarettes than a civilisation which wouldn’t have suited us anyway.

For three weeks we’d been living like creatures in the jungle, ready to kill anyone who stood in the way of our progress, and ready to kill anyone who refused to give us food. Our mindset had become so primitive that we could no longer think of anything other than food and getting to the Oder.

There were only three of us left now. Never did we want to raise our hands in the air! Never! If we’d fired the last round and thrown the last hand-grenade, then we would have smashed the enemy’s face in with our bare rifles!

These accounts appear in Richard Hargreaves: HITLER’S FINAL FORTRESS – BRESLAU 1945. Hargreaves has used many original German and Soviet accounts, few of which are available in English, to tell the story of the savage fight for the capital of Silesia, the city of Breslau which Hitler had now declared to be “Fortress Breslau”. It would be defended “to the last man” in a battle that would continue through to the end of the war.

German sailors in the East Prussian port of Pillau on 26th January, with refugees on the harbourside waiting for a boat to evacuate them west.
German sailors in the East Prussian port of Pillau on 26th January, with refugees on the harbourside waiting for a boat to evacuate them west.
Elsewhere on the Eastern front Hungary Date January 1945
Elsewhere on the Eastern front the Nazi propaganda machine continued to try to claim success “(rough translation of original Nazi caption): Hungary, fallen Red Army-ists. From the tough combat strike of our troops in Hungary. In the offensive of our troops in Hungarian territory, our troops constantly win ground from the strong-resisting enemy, and the Bolsheviks suffer the heaviest bloody losses. Many positions on the battlefield are packed with dead Soviets”January 1945

POWs prepare to evacuate Stalag Luft III

General view of the huts and compound at Stalag Luft III prisoner of war camp, scene of the 'Great Escape' in 1944.
General view of the huts and compound at Stalag Luft III prisoner of war camp, scene of the ‘Great Escape’ in 1944.

The easternmost Prisoner of War camps were already being evacuated and the prisoners forced out onto the roads for the march westwards. Further west there were more groups of camps waiting for the Germans to make a decision as to whether or when they should be evacuated. But the rapid advance of the Red Army was causing great uncertainty.

In Stalag Luft III, site of the ‘Great Escape’, Canadian Flight Lieutenant Robert Buckham, artist and camp forger, was busily preparing to depart. He had been a prisoner since being shot down in April 1943. They were all suffering from hunger as the food situation got much worse. The only thing keeping many men going were the Red Cross parcels, the relatively high calorie food provided in these was going to prove a life saver for many men over the next few months:

25 January 1945

The camp is tense tonight. The Russians are but forty-six miles distant at Steinau, west of the Oder River. This morning a long low rumble lasting for a half-minute was identified as gunfire.

Our most recent news broadcast at 4 pm today is likely twelve hours old, and the Russian pace is fast. Tomorrow could be our day. We are prepared to pack immediately. Backsacks and packboards are in major production throughout the camp, the latter being supervised by ex-mountie Rod Ball, who became thoroughly familiar with them in the Arctic.

Iron ration is being prepared as well. This is a ‘dry’ cake, made with finely ground pilot biscuits, chocolate powder, raisins, prunes (pitted), and black-bread crumbs. These ingredients are mixed with warm margarine which hardens as it cools. The finished product not only has the appearance of chewing tobacco but resembles it in other ways also.

We ate potato peelings for lunch, once again, although the selection has narrowed considerably, after which we received a further bread ration. This is considered to be significant. Apart from the tension, our energies have been spent by trudging seven circuits. Twice around is considered to be about a mile.

A near-panic was caused tonight by an unconfirmed rumour that the goons were actually pulling out and leaving us behind. There are an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 Allied Airforce POWs in the several compounds in this area and some conjecture has arisen that the Russians will arm us and order a common advance against the Germans. As Eliza said, ‘Not bloody likely!’

27 January

It is 1:30 pm. We have been waiting to leave camp for over two hours. A breathless runner read the German order to us at 8:30 pm. We were to be ready to march in one hour. A moment of disbelief was immediately followed by a reaction verging on panic. Lockers were stripped. Duffle bags were stuffed to the overflow, impacked, and packed again.

At 9:30 a runner announced a delay of half an hour… Two hours later the room is a shambles. Torn bedding, broken glass, splintered bunks, discarded clothing and boots, overturned stools, chairs, and table…

See Robert Buckham: Forced March to Freedom

The Daily Telegraph has an obituary of Robert Buckham.

A POWs map of the 'death march' from eastern Poland to the west.
A POWs map of the ‘death march’ from eastern Poland to the west.

Fear and reality of the ‘Asiatic Hordes’ of the Red Army

A column of German prisoners of war in Warsaw, January 1945.
A column of German prisoners of war in Warsaw, January 1945.

The Soviet offensive into eastern Germany was making good progress. The ordinary soldiers of the Red Army now discovered what Germany was like and they were amazed at how rich it was compared to most of the Soviet territories. A frequent question was – What had Germany sought to gain by invading an impoverished country like Russia, when the Germans were evidently so much richer? It was just one more factor that enraged an army that was already ready for vengeance.

There might hardly seem to be any reason to exaggerate the threat to Germany that the Soviets posed. But the Nazis sought to portray the Russians as a utterly uncivilised hordes who would destroy Germany and do terrible things to her people. It was all designed to motivate the German soldier to fight to the last in defence of the Fatherland.

Soviet officer Boris Gorbachevsky was with the first wave of troops to attack and then enter the city of Treuburg. Treuburg (“Loyal Castle”) had been named as such in 1928, because the district had voted to stay in East Prussia. It is now the city of Olecko in Poland:

Then the order was issued to attack. Intense fighting for Treuburg continued for four days; several times the city changed hands, until at last the German units became exhausted and retreated. We couldn’t understand why the adversary had defended Treuburg so stubbornly.

The city didn’t have any strategic significance, and yet the Germans paid such a high price for their recklessness — several hundred killed and wounded, many burned out tanks, and a devastated city. We thought perhaps it was because not far away, in the Romintensky Forest, lay Hermann Goring’s hunting lodge and castle.

The solution to this riddle quickly emerged. It turned out that the Germans had “prepared” for the city’s surrender. Almost immediately after the fighting ended, a few officers in the Political Department and I entered the city and walked along its streets.

At almost every intersection, large posts bore signs that read: “Pay close attention to what the Bolsheviks have done to the first city taken by them in East Prussia. This is how they will treat all the cities and villages of your beloved Homeland, and all of us Germans. Defend your Great Reich from the Red barbarians!”

In reality, as we later learned from the testimony of prisoners, on one of the first days of the fighting, when we were still struggling with the enemy on the approaches to the city, the Germans themselves, by order of Joseph Goebbels [Nazi Germany’s minister of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda], forcibly expelled the citizens and then blew up and burned the finest buildings in the city: the church, the water works, the movie theater and bank, the sports halls, and the main street, where stores and a high school were located.

Over the next several hours, they trucked in people from nearby districts, and brought in film crews and journalists to record on film and print the city ruins, and the fear and grief of the sham residents. Even the park and its beautiful swans were destroyed: almost all the trees were burned, the swans were shot, and it was announced that the “Asiatic hordes” had killed them and eaten them.

The city was empty as our regimental column marched along its main boulevard. Not a single soul was visible. Cows were bellowing in a heartrending fashion, and we could hear the barking of dogs.

Gorbachevsky continues the same passage to describe why the Germans had real reason to fear the Red Army:

Then unexpectedly a tall, hale old man hopped out of a partially destroyed building, holding some sort of booklet in his outstretched hand, and with joyful exclamations, he rushed to meet our column.

One of the Red Army soldiers, who didn’t understand German words, without pausing to try to figure out what the German was saying, stepped out of the column and with all his might, smashed the German’s head with his rifle butt. Bleeding heavily, the old man fell to the cobblestone pavement.

As the column marched past the prostrate man, more soldiers joined to taunt him as much as possible and to finish him off – they kicked him with their boots, stabbed him with their bayonets, and then spat upon the corpse. A politruk stopped by the dead man’s mutilated body. He lifted the blood-soaked booklet of a member of the Communist Party of Germany, wiped off the cover, and hid it in his map case. Saying not a word, he set off to catch up to his place in the column.

I witnessed this scene. It was the first death of a German civilian that I saw in Germany. Catching up to the man who had crushed the German’s skull with his rifle butt, I asked him: “Why did you kill him? He plainly was not a soldier, and there was no way he could have harmed us. An old man, a communist, it is possible he spent time in prison for his political allegiance to the German Communist Party. Just think, for many years he kept his Party card at the risk of his life.”

The soldier gruffly answered: “To me, Comrade Senior Lieutenant, they are all the same – just scum. I won’t find any peace until I kill a hundred of them. You’d better ask yourself how you wound up so alone in your opinion.”

It was not difficult to understand either his hatred or that of the soldiers who had spat on the German. But how many more Germans would they have to kill, humiliate, and tear to pieces in order to sooth their grief, dull their hatred, thaw their icy souls, and find inner peace?

See Boris Gorbachevsky: Through the Maelstrom

Division of Soviet sappers walking down the street burning the German city of Insterburg (Insterburg) in East Prussia. 3rd Belorussian Front. The city of Insterburg (now - Chernyahovsk Kaliningrad region of Russia) was captured by Soviet troops on 21-22 January 1945.
Division of Soviet sappers walking down the street burning the German city of Insterburg (Insterburg) in East Prussia. 3rd Belorussian Front. The city of Insterburg (now – Chernyahovsk Kaliningrad region of Russia) was captured by Soviet troops on 21-22 January 1945.

The beginning of the POWs 1000 mile march west

The destroyed city of Warsaw, January 1945.
The destroyed city of Warsaw, January 1945.

With the new Soviet offensive under way the German pretence that the Eastern front could be held quickly evaporated. After all the years of tyranny and murder, from the first Jewish ghettoes in 1940 through to the wanton destruction of the city following the 1944 Uprising, the Germans finally left Warsaw without a fight on the 15th January. One of the few men left in the city to greet the Soviets was Wladyslaw Szpilman who had miraculously survived alone in a wrecked building.

Suddenly hundreds of thousands of people, and very soon, millions of people were on the move. After denying the situation for so long the Nazis finally began to evacuate westward. Nazi propaganda had painted a fearful picture of how the Red Army would treat civilians, so almost anyone with German connections joined the retreat. Alongside them were the inmates of concentration camps, where the merciless ‘death marches’ would prove to be a new method of mass murder. In scarcely better circumstances thousands of prisoners of war also began the trek westward.

Henry Owens had been captured in France in 1940 after the Highland Division was forced to surrender at St Valery. A new ordeal now began for him as he began the ‘1000 Mile’ forced march to the west:

In early January 1945, as the Russians made advances from the Vistula, the Germans decided to withdraw the POWs from the camps. The allies were destroying communications, and the Germans decided to force us out on the march again.

It was pitch dark when we assembled outside the gas works at Elbing, after our guard had warned us that “You are now back in the Front Line, any attempt to escape and you will be shot!” Snow had been falling all day; it must have been at least six inches deep. It was still snowing, and there was a bitterly cold wind, the temperature was well below freezing, around minus 30 degrees Celsius.

Over the years as POWs, we had accumulated extra clothing etc. from parcels sent to us through the Red Cross. We had hurriedly to decide what to leave and what to take, as everything had to be carried by hand. Preference was of course given to the small, built up stock of tinned food and powdered milk. I still had my army kitbag, so I put as much in this as I could carry. As we entered the main road in Elbing, there was evidence of the Russians‟ penetration, bodies lay about in the snow, and German troops dressed in all-white uniforms and heavily armed were moving east past us. It would appear that the Russians had attacked under cover of darkness, shot up the town, and retreated again.

We rendezvoused with other British POWs who had been in prison camps in the Elbing area, and were marched out, apparently making for the Baltic Coast. After marching for some time, we came across a long column of civilian refugees, who had been travelling in high-sided horse drawn wagons loaded with all theirworldly possessions. The column was at a standstill. Apparently they were held up because the crossing over the river Vistula was for the use of military traffic only. How long they had been there I do not know, but many had frozen to death still in their wagons, other bodies lay at the side of the road. They looked like wax dummies. We helped ourselves to any food we could find in these wagons, and marched on and crossed the Vistula towards Danzig.

It was on this section of the march that I faltered. I felt terribly tired, with a sinking feeling, as if the cold had affected my stomach. I sat on one of the abandoned carts and rested. Darky Bryant and other comrades pleaded with me to carry on, otherwise I would freeze to death or be shot. After a short while I recovered my strength, and from that moment, I did not falter for the rest of the march.

We marched nearly all of the first night, eventually stopping at a barn, where we lit fires and melted snow in our dixies, adding milk (klim) to provide a hot drink (no rations were provided by the Germans). The next day we marched on again, with the sound of Russian artillery in the background. As the packs on our backs were too heavy, most of us used makeshift sledges to pull our possessions along. As the days went by we got weaker; the built-up stock of food reserves had gone, we were plagued with lice and dysentery, and frostbitten limbs turned gangrenous. We were sometimes bundled into barns at night, but on at least one occasion we spent the night in an open field with no food at all.

It was not only British POWs on the march. It seemed that the whole of the civilian population of the Baltic States and East Prussia were fleeing from the Russians, some no doubt collaborators who feared for their lives. There were also Russian, French, and POWs of other nationalities. This all added to the food problem. Rationing had obviously broken down, and the Germans could not provide for themselves, even less for the refugees and POWs, these were low priorities. It was tragic to see POWs who had survived the horrific march into captivity from Dunkirk and St. Valery four and a half years previously, going down with dysentery, gangrene, and frostbite, and having to be left behind to die or be shot. There was no backup transport to take away the sick; you just left them behind, hoping they would survive, perhaps in a Russian hospital.

We marched twenty to thirty kilometres a day, with the sound of Russian artillery to our rear. Sometimes we rested for a whole day, and tried to tend our feet and other problems, but there was no remedy for worn out boots. Many carried on the march with rags bound around their feet, and my pal Darky ended the march with a pair of rope sandals.

When we rested for the night in barns etc., we never took off our boots, because we would get them stolen, or our feet would have swollen that much, we would not get them on again.

As far as food went, we only received one hot meal in the four months of our journey. That was beans, which gave most of us the runs. The Germans did, infrequently, give us some black bread and ersatz coffee, but most of the time we lived off our wits, stealing from farms, begging, or offering to supply a note saying that the donor had helped an allied POW with food so that the Russians would not harm them. It worked sometimes.

Read the whole of Henry Owens account of life as a POW at 51st Highland Division. Members of the same Scottish regiments were now fully engaged in the bitter cold of the Battle of the Bulge.

A POWs map of the 'death march' from eastern Poland to the west.
A POWs map of one of the ‘death marches’, from Stalag Luft IV in eastern Poland to the west.

US POWs on a boxcar through Germany

American soldiers of the 3rd Battalion of U.S. 119th Infantry are taken prisoner by members of Kampfgruppe Peiper in Stoumont, Belgium on 19 December 1944
American soldiers of the 3rd Battalion of U.S. 119th Infantry are taken prisoner by members of Kampfgruppe Peiper in Stoumont, Belgium on 19 December 1944

The Battle of the Bulge was turning into one of the largest battles that the US would ever fight. Eventually they would suffer around 89,000 casualties, including 19,000 dead, in the space of just over a month.

Several of the Allied commanders were now welcoming the attack, an opportunity to hit the Germans hard if they could just contain them and then attack across the base of the German advance.

For the men in the middle of the battle it was a different story. William F. Meller was in the 110th Regiment, 28th Division. His 11 man section, manning a point just opposite the Siegfried Line, held out for almost 12 hours on the 16th December until, out of ammunition and surrounded, they were forced to surrender.

What followed was a miserable experience, shared with 23,000 other US troops who were taken prisoner:

20 December 1944

The train stops and we all get out. This sorry lump of humanity begins to move, then gradually develops into a group of individuals. As we climb down to the ground, the guards remind us they are watching us. It is getting tougher and tougher climbing in and out of the boxcar. These old civilian guards should be home with their grandchildren, not here, where they might be killed at any moment.

We relieve ourselves, then line up to fill our canteens from a faucet. No one asks if the water is clean or contaminated. No one cares. War is humbling. We have no dignity, look filthy, feel filthy, and we are at the bottom of the pit.

If the Germans are trying to break our morale, it won’t work. We have no morale. The snow—covered mountains around us remain cold and hostile. It has been four days now, and we have been fed nothing.

The genius standing next to me says, “Sarge, they’re not going to shoot us, they don’t have to. We’re going to starve to death.”

“Shut the hell up.” There is no use threatening anyone with punishment or promising violence. No one gives a damn. We just have to tough it out, period.

The German soldiers don’t look much better than we do. Some of them look disabled and some look older. They may have been injured in combat and are now only fit for this type of duty. Most are privates, plus a few noncommissioned officers. None of them look happy to be here.

They seem to be afraid of the American planes. They may be thinking about what would happen if we all jumped them right now. I know we are thinking about it. If we jump them, some of us will be shot. There is no doubt in our minds that we can take them. The problem is that we don’t know where we are. We don’t know how far it is to the American lines. I know we are east of the Rhine River because I saw it last night as we passed over.

The man next to me says, “We ought to jump them.” “Do you want to be the first?” He doesn’t answer.

We are herded back inside. I take a careful look at the train; it’s a long one. I don’t know where the guards ride; it must be in one of their own boxcars. The civilian guards carry old bolt-action rifles, while the soldiers carry submachine guns. I’m not afraid of the rifles, but the submachine guns are something to take seriously. The threats of these weapons keep us in line.

We are back inside. It seems we get out to relieve ourselves only when the train stops because of American planes in the vicinity; in this case, the engine unhooks and heads for the near- est tunnel for protection. The sergeant knows what he is talking about.

See William F. Meller: Bloody Roads to Germany: At Huertgen Forest and the Bulge–an American Soldier’s Courageous Story of World War II

German picture of Americans taken prisoner during their Ardenne offensive.
German picture of Americans taken prisoner during their Ardenne offensive.

SS Kampfgruppe Peiper massacre US troops at Malmedy

 Sepp Dietrich (left, behind Himmler), Heinrich Himmler (center), and Joachim Peiper (right) at Metz in September 1940.
Earlier in the war Peiper had served as a staff officer with Himmler before combat on the Eastern Front. Sepp Dietrich (left, behind Himmler), Heinrich Himmler (center), and Joachim Peiper (right) at Metz in September 1940.

The attack through the Ardennes was a desperate gamble for the Germans. They had stiffened their assault with some very experienced SS units, veterans of the Eastern Front, who could be trusted to fight ruthlessly. One of the these was SS Kampfgruppe Peiper, a 4,000 strong battle group led by 29 year old SS-Obersturmbannführer Joachim Peiper, that was expected to make a rapid thrust through US lines and seize key positions.

The advance of this Kampfgruppe was not nearly as swift as they had hoped but many who crossed their path were to suffer. They were to be responsible for a series of mass murders of groups of both US POWs and Belgium civilians. It was an attitude to war that was commonplace on the Eastern Front.

The most notorious incident happened on the 17th at the Baugnez Crossroads a couple of miles outside Malmedy.

Ted Paluch was a member of Battery B, 285th Field Artillery Observation Battalion, in a lightly armed convoy of jeeps and trucks:

On December 17th we were in Schevenhutte, Germany, and got our orders to go. We were in the First Army; we got our orders to move to the Third Army.

There was a tank column going with us, and they took the northern road and we took the southern road. That would have been something if they had gone with us south. Right before we left, a couple of guys got sick and a couple of trucks dropped out of the convoy, and they were never in the massacre. Also, there were about fifteen sent ahead to give directions and all, and they escaped the massacre.

We had no idea that it was going to happen. We took a turn, like a “T” turn, and the Germans were coming the other way. We were pretty wide open for I guess maybe half a mile, and their artillery stopped our convoy. We just had trucks, and all we carried was carbines. We might have had a machine gun and a bazooka, but that was about it, we were observation.

They stopped the convoy. We got out, and the ditches were close to five or six feet high because I know when I got in it, the road was right up to my eyes. There was a lot of firing, I don’t know what we were firing at or who was firing at anything, but there were a lot of tracer bullets going across the road.

Finally, a tank came down with the SS troopers behind it. They wore black, and on one collar they had a crossbones and skull and the other collar they had lightning. They just got us out, and we went up to the crossroad, and they just searched us there to get anything of value — cigarettes, and I had an extra pair of socks, and my watch, everything like that.

They put us in the field there that was their frontline — ours was two and a half miles away in Malmedy. When we were captured and being brought up there, the people who lived there or in that general area brought up a basket. I guess it was bread or something, and they brought it up to them to eat.

[ 113 US POWs were assembled in the field at the crossroads. It was a cold day but light snow only lay on the ground where it was in shadow. At about 1415 the SS started firing into the group of unarmed men. The initial shooting lasted about 15 minutes.]

Every truck and halftrack that passed fired into the group, and why I didn’t get hit too bad . . . I was in the front, right in the front, the first or second or third right in the front. Each track that came around the corner would fire right into the group in the middle so that they wouldn’t miss anything, that’s why I didn’t get too badly hit.

We laid there for about an hour, maybe two hours. While we were lying there, they come around, and anyone who was hurt, they just fired and would knock them off.

Someone yelled, “Let’s go!” and we took off.

[At this stage it is believed around 60 men were able to run off, including some who were wounded. More would be killed during this escape.]

I went down the road there, there was a break in the hedgerow, and a German that was stationed there at that house came out and took a couple of shots at me, and I got hit in the hand. If he saw me or not I don’t know, he went back and didn’t fire me at me anymore.

I was watching him come, and there was a well, and I went over there. It was all covered up, and I laid down, and there was a little hill right behind where I was, and I just rolled.

I got there, and I started coming in, and I got near a railroad, and I figured it would take us somewhere. I met a guy from my outfit, Bertera, and two other guys—one guy from the 2nd Division, he was shot, and another guy from the 2nd Division. The four of us came in together. It was dark when we got into Malmedy, but we could see some activity.

This account appears in Voices of the Bulge: Untold Stories from Veterans of the Battle of the Bulge.

The bodies of those killed now lay in the frozen field in what became no mans land until 14 January, when the US Army recovered the territory. After the war over 70 members of Kampfgruppe Peiper were tried for war crimes and 43 men were sentenced to death. None of the executions were carried out, the sentences being to commuted to life imprisonment. Joachim Peiper was the last to leave prison in 1956.

The 84 bodies of the POWs, covered by snow, were found on 14 January 1945.

Nightmare of the hellship Oryoku Maru continues

On the morning of December 15, 1944, aircraft from the USS Hornet again attacked the Oryoku Maru as it was moving across Subic Bay toward Olongapo Point.  This time one bomb made a direct hit on the hatch of the aft cargo hold killing about 250 POWs. Later that morning the surviving POWs were allowed to jump off and swim to shore.
On the morning of December 15, 1944, aircraft from the USS Hornet again attacked the Oryoku Maru as it was moving across Subic Bay toward Olongapo Point. This time one bomb made a direct hit on the hatch of the aft cargo hold killing about 250 POWs. Later that morning the surviving POWs were allowed to jump off and swim to shore.

The Japanese liner Oryoku Maru, setting out for Japan from the Philippines, had come under repeated attack from US aircraft on the 14th December. The 1600 POWs who were crammed into the stifling heat of the holds had suffered horrific conditions during that day and the following night.

On the morning of the 15th it was realised that the damage to the Oryoku Maru was so great that she could not continue. As the Japanese prepared to abandon ship the POWs were asked to get into groups of 25. They would then be released in these groups and allowed to swim to the nearby shore.

After his ordeal of the previous day it might seem that things could not get worse for George L. Curtis. He was watching from below the deck cover, as planes from the USS Hornet returned, this time with bombs:

It was evident that this attack was different than any we had gone through before. The bombs seemed to be heavier and the concentration seemed to be on this ship we were on. I saw one of the boys peel off and it seemed he was headed directly for this particular hatch. His machine guns were spurting flame and I could follow the tracer bullets. They were leaving my vision to land forward. At about some 1500 feet, he pulled out of his dive.

I saw the two bombs leave his plane, wobble a minute, then head for the ship. I followed the flight of the missile, fascinated, and it seemed that it was heading right for this hold. It didn’t, though. It landed so close that it knocked the planks loose that were partially covering the hatch along with three I-beams.

I must have passed out for awhile, and when I came to I couldn’t move. The hold was practically clear of men and I was pinned down so that I couldn’t move. Men were over me removing a beam that was laying across my legs and they felt numb. Another piece of debris was across my back and that, too, felt as though something was wrong. After a bit, I was liberated and I found that at least no bones were broken but I could hardly move my left leg.

The hold by now was full of smoke and there was a definite list to the ship toward the port side. There were many dead and wounded men under the debris, how many I don’t know. I was able to aid a little in clearing some of the wreckage from the men pinned under the hatch covers and the I-beams and I am sure that there was no living person in the hold when I started to make it to the ladder to get out. My leg still bothered quite a bit, but my head was clearing.

When I reached the deck, very few remained on board. I still had my belt on with the two empty canteens attached to my belt, but I started to look around for a life preserver as there were many scattered on the deck. Dead were everywhere, mostly Jap soldiers, and the decks were littered with personal belongings of both American prisoners and Japanese.

[After evading Japanese guards who were shooting at men in the water Curtis managed to jump off the ship]…

I kept swimming rather slowly, conserving my strength. My leg started to act up a bit, so I kicked along with my right leg and scanned the water looking for any more weak swimmers that I might come upon. Planes came flying over again but terribly high up, but I was hoping that I would be on shore should they start another run to sink the ship.

I didn’t want to be in the water if they started bombing again for I was not sure what effect a bomb landing in the water would have on a swimmer. When I was half way to the shore, four planes came from nowhere flying no more than a few hundred feet above the water which was filled with frantically shouting and waving Americans.

One peeled off, came still lower and definitely dipped his wings in recognition of us. After that, I felt sure that there would be no more bombing for the time being at least, and I again leisurely swam on. Again I looked back at the ship and now it was really afire. Smoke was belching from many parts and I thought I saw flames emerging from an area about where the entrance to our former hold was situated. Most smoke seemed to come from the stern.

As I arrived near shore, I began to feel chilled and very tired. I had been in the water for nearly half an hour and, for the moment, I didn’t think I’d make the short remaining distance, but I managed. As my feet touched bottom, a Navy officer helped drag me to dry land on the beach.

I tried to stand but couldn’t make it. I was completely exhausted; my leg was swelling badly and a large black and blue spot covered the area from the knee to my waistline. It wasn’t broken, though. I remained where I had been aided on the beach, trying to get up enough strength to carry on to follow the rest of the men that seemed to be heading in the brush through an opening off the beach.

A Jap guard came over to where I lay and started to prod me on with his bayonet. I didn’t move fast enough to suit him so he jabbed a little harder. The bayonet entered my bad leg in two places. I didn’t feel it though, but as soon as I was on my feet and laboriously making my way to follow the line of men in front of me, my leg started bleeding profusely, running down my leg and leaving a small pool of blood with each step I took.

Just as I was to turn off the beach and head through the brush, Commander Joses took me by the arm and sat me down at a place the prisoner doctors had set up to take care of those too sick or wounded to walk further. He had the bayonet wound treated in no time and I was started on my way with the rest of the men, barefooted, and so tired and weary.

The whole remarkable account, together with more background, can be read at the website of his niece Linda Dahl.

Detail from the picture above showing the splashes in the water as the POWs were swimming to shore.
Detail from the picture above showing the splashes in the water as the POWs were swimming to shore.