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.