The Samland before the Soviet invasion.
With the fall of Königsberg, General Friedrich Wilhelm Müller as commander in chief of Army/Group Nord had fallen into disgrace and was recalled. In his place was appointed General of Tank Troops Dietrich von Saucken as commander of the Armee Ostpreussen, combining the remaining combat groups in the Samland, at the mouth of the Vistula and on Hela.
Dietrich von Saucken had been born in Fischhausen as the son of the then District President and went to school in Königsberg. He had started off from East Prussia as a cavalryman in the war against Poland. During the course of the Second World War he had become head of one of the best tank formations in the army. When the Vistula front collapsed at the beginning of February 1945, he had successfully fought his way back to the Oder with his armoured corps just ahead of the advancing Soviet troops and held out there in a defensive position against overwhelming superiority. He wore the Knights’ Cross with swords and oak leaves. The commander of the new Ostpreussen Army Group had shortly before expressed his opinion of Hitler and the Party clearly.
On the 12th March Dietrich von Saucken was informed at a conference at the Reichs Chancellery that he was to take over the newly formed Army Group Ostpreussen on the 19th March. His visit created an impression of the determination and lack of concern of his kind of people that differed so much from the smarmy pomposity that Hitler, his surroundings and most Party people presented.
When von Saucken entered, Hitler was sitting at a map table flanked by Colonel-General Guderian, Bormann and an adjutant. With one hand resting on his cavalry sabre, his monocle fixed in his eye, he saluted with a slight bow instead of the Hitler salute obligatory since the 20th July 1944. This was virtually an act of rebellion as he had not left his weapon behind in the anteroom as was customary. Guderian, Bormann and the adjutant stared at von Saucken and waited for Hitler’s explosion of rage. But nothing happened. Hitler ignored the general and curtly requested Guderian to start the briefing.
Von Saucken’s behaviour was not without effect. After the briefing Hitler began a long speech that led to the division of the command responsibility. The responsibility for the Danzig battle area was Gauleiter Förster’s, with General von Saucken subservient to him except in completely military matters. Von Saucken very quietly but decisively placed his hand flatly on the map table and said: ‘I do not think, Herr Hitler, I can place myself under the command of a Gauleiter!’
Hitler remained silent, sunk within himself, in front of his maps. Guderian and Bormann hastily spoke to von Saucken telling him to be reasonable – they knew that the general was playing with his life. But von Saucken only reiterated: ‘I think not!’ After long seconds Hitler broke the silence with a weak voice: ‘All right, you command alone, Saucken.’
Von Saucken’s love of his homeland, his geographical knowledge and his experience as a commander of troops, however, helped him little. His task was insoluble. He could not hold the last remains of East Prussia. His beaten divisions could only try to cover the removal of the last civilians as long as possible and accomplish their own retreat with minimum casualties.
In Samland, the next Soviet goal, there were only a few divisions opposing a crushing superiority. At the last minute these units could be reinforced with forces from the defeated 4th Army, including the Grossdeutschland Division and other troops from Pillau. But this small contingent possessed barely sufficient equipment and ammunition, the soldiers were exhausted and demoralised, and only moved mechanically into their new positions.
The post office driver Krause from Domnau had left Pillau in a northerly direction with his Volkssturm unit. He did this less unwillingly than most of the others. He still had only one aim: to return to his farm and family. At Fischhausen he had made about a half circle since leaving some two months before. From now on he had the feeling of really being on his way home.
Krause’s battalion was a sad sight. Ahead of it drove an old army lieutenant in a car with a wood gas boiler which rose like a bathroom stove next to the front seat passenger and emitted a bitter white smoke. Behind followed a long train of trek wagons collected in Pillau on which the old men crouched indifferently. Only a few of them had unslung their carbines.
The deeper they went into the Samland, the fewer people they encountered. Scattered Wehrmacht units and individual refugee groups were heading for the coast. There were few civilians among the soldiers in the villages. Krause wondered that some were actually working in the fields, and thought of the work that awaited him at home. Everywhere they encountered military police controls looking for deserters. On the roadside they saw fresh graves and the wreckage from the first big refugee columns in January. Already for several days the weather had been rainy, so they were at least spared from low-flying aircraft.
The troops occupied quarters at the Neukuhren air base, the northernmost point of the Kursichen lagoon front. Action companies were established and equipped with a scanty assortment of old machine guns, captured weapons and Panzerfausts, and inserted in sections of the front line. Robert Krause was allocated a wagon and had to take rations, ammunition and building materials to the main front line only a few kilometres away, where engineers were still building bunkers and removing electric cables connected to the long-dead transformers.
Robert Krause combed around, mainly looking for animal fodder that he had to steal from the Wehrmacht. Sometimes he went with comrades into the nearby woods to cut dry grass for the animals. The Russian artillery shot harassing fire on Rauschen and the little fishing harbour of Neukuhren, in which there were still many people waiting for a minesweeper or a patrol boat to take them to Pillau.
Krause went several times to Rauschen, where a whole row of Party leaders had made their nest, engaged in busy organizational activity, in as much as they could do no better but seek shelter from the artillery fire. They could not slip away because they knew that Erich Koch was in Neutief and still wanted to know exactly who was doing what and demanding constant reports. So the civilian population was richly provided with horseflesh and barley from the NSV field kitchen. At the beginning of April there were even food ration cards once.
The remaining inhabitants and the refugees tried to lead a normal life. But, in view of the many soldiers, the machine-gun and gun positions in their gardens and the continuous thunder of the guns, this was difficult. The senior business teacher Käthe Pawel took refugees from Grosskuhren into her house and cooked for them. They were all waiting for the orders to evacuate. The business people had become generous. There were packets of Gustin in the shop and a whole leg of veal without ration coupons. The soldiers on the contrary were not so generous, although everywhere in the gardens there were slaughtered pigs and cattle hung head down from the trees by the cooks.
Once Käthe Pawel really had the feeling that something could go wrong. While drawing water from the nearby well, she saw sitting on the round benches under the lime trees several Russian forced labourers that appeared to be watching the hustle and bustle among the Germans with amused, malicious grins. A few days later, at the beginning of April, the Party ordered the civilians to find transport to the station with hand baggage.
Käthe Pawel had long since sewn together rucksacks for herself and a friend out of floor cloths, which together with small suitcases formed their baggage. As provisions they had packed 2 pounds of sugar, two jars of jam, 200 grams of bread and two packets of Gustin. When they left Dune station in the morning they did not go as expected towards Pillau but only on the short stretch to Neukuhren.
They found accommodation for the night in a corridor of the Central Hotel and only the following evening were they able to get aboard a boat. Children were crying, and adults complaining about others flashing torches around ‘attracting the Russian artillery to us’. Käthe Pawel opened a tin of sardines with her left hand that a soldier had pressed into her hand. The boat was an open cutter. In the hold sat and lay almost only women and children. Käthe Pawel and her friend sat on their suitcases on deck with other people and froze. A light rain slowly soaked them through. It took a full hour until the boat cast off. The water was almost up to their ankles. Below in the hold someone sang the song Wer nur den lieben Gott lässt walten… and all sang along with it as the boat slowly left their homeland.
In the early hours of the morning they found themselves off Brüsterort as a minesweeper crossed their path. The boat was on the way back from Libau and heading for Swinemünde, keeping close to the coast. Because of the rainy haze lying over the sea, visibility that morning was poor. The watch keepers paid no attention to the cutter following them. They were concerned with looking above to the pale blue sky between the dispersing clouds that announced better weather and the danger from aircraft with it.
‘Masthead on the port bow,’ said the helmsman in the boring tone of a tour guide, whose group can look out and see for themselves or not, as if he said: ‘and to the left you can see the War Memorial.’ The watch keeper looked through his binoculars. A ship’s length ahead the masthead of a small vessel rose above the mist, apparently a fishing boat. Then he dropped his binoculars and looked at the helmsman as if he had seen a ghost. ‘That can’t be!’ he muttered. Under the mast stood a cart with a horse harnessed to it. A Fata Morgana? Or were they so close to land and coming to a pier? Gradually the apparition became clearer. This horse and cart were standing on the deck of an unmoving fishing boat, bobbing in the light swell. Several muffled figures were standing on board and waving at them to approach. The minesweeper swung smoothly alongside.
‘Hey, captain, can you give us a tow? We are stuck here!’ called an old woman more commandingly than questioningly and swung a rope’s end that would have sufficed at the most for a rowing boat. The young women and the children willingly let themselves be hoisted aboard the minesweeper, but the old woman would not move without her horse and cart. She had finally managed to get the cart into the fishing boat and now couldn’t the captain do the same with his boat? With difficulty the sailors managed to bring the crying woman on board before they continued their journey. The boat passed Palmnicken and Neuhäuser and set course for the west.
The crew had the impression that they had rescued the last of the refugees from the peninsula, but on the 30 to 40 kilometre long strip of western Samland that was still in German hands there were several thousand that were in flight at the moment, and apparently as many that did not want to go any further or could not.
For the Fischhausener District Administrator von der Groeben, who in February had been practically the lord of this territory, it was not so much a matter of enabling as many people as possible to flee. The actual inhabitants of the district had for the most part already fled, but in their place were refugees from the eastern districts and Königsberg that were camping in the abandoned houses, barns, schools and in long columns along the blocked roads, and it was possible to provide some form of order for them.
No help came from the Party functionaries actually responsible. The alcohol flowed in streams in the Party offices. Gau Inspector Matthes, a cousin of Erich Koch, concentrated his whole attention on the construction of an air raid shelter in the garden of the District House in Fischhausen. From this secure position the ‘leaders’ would engage in the final battle. Among them the East Prussian women and their children sought shelter from the constant Russian air attacks in the overcrowded trenches and cellars.
The District Administrator did not concern himself with this danger. He rarely entered his office. He was mainly on the way organising food for the horses, carts for the field work or a doctor for the abandoned hospital. To counter the danger of an epidemic, he set up a corpse utilisation plant in Fischhausen that produced very useful soap and useless glue. The skins he sent to Pillau. Dressmakers and workshops were got going. Even the money business was resumed during these weeks. The industrious District Administrator had tracked down the remains of his County Savings Bank and brought it to Fischhausen, and reopened the branches in Rauschen and Palmnicken. Accounts were paid out and even credit given.
Von der Groeben made a tour of the Samland with the County Farm Leader from St Lorenz. In every place they sought suitable people who could function as mayors or farm leaders. Some especially trustworthy people were appointed commissars of large districts. The most pressing task von der Groeben saw was of herding together the available cattle and so securing supplies of food and fodder, the milking and conveyance of milk and getting the dairies to function again. A makeshift rationing system was introduced and the registering of refugees was begun. Everything was to be in order.
The District Administrator was himself surprised how quickly the refugees familiarised themselves. Those overseers appointed to the abandoned farmsteads got the interrupted threshing going again and prepared the spring crops. The former Chief Inspector Sathodoski of the Perkoppen Farm in Sellwehten, County Labiau, on the 17th March took over the Sacherau Farm that had lost its owner and worked it with the people of his trek and his family until the 13th April before continuing his flight. For four weeks he had supplied milk and butter for the Wehrmacht and civilians over a wide area.
Not all the lords of the manor had left their properties. Max Schneege, who after his adventures with the Volkssturm between Wehlau and Königsberg, had returned on the tracks of the Samland Railway to his Tyrkehnen farm near Rauschen, had long since resumed work with his people. On the 4th April he had brought seeds and grain in several carts from Königsberg and started with the spring sowing. Only a few days later constant low-flying aircraft attacks made all activity in the fields impossible.
Max Schneege did not want to risk flight with his family and his people. The dreadful scenes of the first refugee columns in January were still in his mind. The conduct of the German armed forces strengthened him in his decision not to leave his property. While the officers in the last days indulged in drinking bouts, the soldiers plundered abandoned houses. The mayor of Tyrkehnen had driven to Neukuhren with his family to get away by ship. Two days they waited in vain and then returned disappointed. Meanwhile their apartment, cupboards and containers had been emptied and everything that was not nailed down had been stolen. Part of their property was found among the German soldiers stationed in Tyrkehnen, who would take what these people had left behind before the Russians came. The morale of the troops was often so bad that the Frenchmen working for Max Schneege were appalled. At the beginning of April officers of Artillery Regiment 1/551 cleared a building of civilians and had soldiers set it up for a dance. They then celebrated all night long, some doubtful ladies being brought in on Wehrmacht vehicles.
This behaviour found even less understanding as the liquidation of concentration camp inmates in Samland was spoken about. The prisoners had belonged to a transport of several thousand Jews coming from the Baltic and were being driven on foot towards Elbing. As the route was blocked by the fighting, the guards led this vast column into the Samland, where they joined the general streams of refugees. In this way many of the prisoners lost their lives from hunger, weakness and mishandling, or were shot and left lying unburied on the roadside. According to an account by von der Gröben, the remainder were shot by some foreign auxiliaries of the Wehrmacht or driven into the sea.
Max Schneege had obtained an impression from eyewitnesses that the prisoners had come to Palmnicken, where manor farm director Feierabend had received the victims and accommodated some of them in a workshop and supplied them with food and straw to lie on. This act of humanity was taken amiss by the Nazis. He was immediately put into the Volkssturm and sent to the front in the area of Kummehnen.
Paul Koch, the police lieutenant from Königsberg Süd-Nord police station, had come to Palmnicken from Königsberg and took charge of the police stations along the west coast of the Samland. He was informed by the population that an SS commando had driven about 5,000 Jews into a shaft of the Bernstein Works and had then filled in the shaft from above. A great number had tried to escape across the beach and into the water but had been shot or drowned. Koch was not convinced that the shaft at the Bernstein Works had really been filled in. In the subsequent period the police buried over 200 corpses on the beach, most of which were reburied in the refugee cemetery at Sorgenau. Like Schneege, many civilians feared that the Soviets would wreak revenge on the population.
The Soviets lost no time now in breaking through the last German front, which extended from the Baltic coast by Neukuhren in the north right across Samland to the Frische Lagoon near Gross Holstein at the Sea Canal. After the fall of Königsberg, it took Marshal Vassilevski four days to regroup his troops and mass them for an attack.
On the 11th April the Soviet army leader had leaflets dropped over the German positions in the Samland:
Half of Germany is in the hands of the Russian and Allied troops. Once the strongest fortress in Germany, Königsberg, fell in three days. The commander of the fortress, General of Infantry Otto Lasch, accepted the conditions of surrender I offered him and surrendered with the majority of his garrison. Altogether there were 92,000 German soldiers, 1,819 officers and four generals captured. German soldiers and officers that remain in the Samland! Now, after the fall of Königsberg, your situation is completely hopeless. Nobody will give you any help, 450 kilometres separate you from the front lines that run near Stettin. The sea routes to the west have been cut by Soviet submarines. You are in the deep hinterland of the Russian troops. Your situation is hopeless.
The pamphlet did not achieve its objective. The German soldiers in Samland had long since fought not for victory but for their lives and for the many wounded and refugees still waiting for the transport to carry them away from Samland, at Pillau, at the mouth of the Vistula and on Hela.
After two Russian air fleets had bombed the hinterland and massed Russian artillery with overwhelming firepower had crumbled the German positions, on the 13th April the enemy armoured and infantry divisions rolled over the German defence lines. Much to the surprise of the Soviets, strong nests of resistance formed and brought the attack to a standstill, but by the following day the German front had collapsed.
On the 14th April District Administrator von der Gröben drove in his duty vehicle from Fischhausen to Rauschen. He had to make his way through fleeing German units. Again and again aircraft fire forced him to take cover. At noon he reached the little town, which lay in beautiful sunshine in an unnatural holiday peace. The Party official responsible for refugees had left with the Wehrmacht in civilian clothes. Mayor Norgal, like the majority of people remaining in Rauschen, was determined to await the worst on the spot. From von der Gröben’s point of view apathy reigned, when one thought that many had already fled two or three times, or had even been rolled over once by the Russians.
And again it was the younger people that did not want to leave the old and the sick in the lurch.
While, with the help of von der Gröben, a train with the hospital patients was setting off towards Warnicken, this being the last train to leave Rauschen at about midday, many people were sitting in the sunshine in front of their doors waiting for whatever was going to happen. The District Administrator left the town at 1315 hours. There was nothing more for him to do there.
Robert Krause, the post office driver from Domnau, was also in Rauschen that day and waiting. The Russians arrived in the town at about 1400 hours. The first combat teams behaved decently. The rapes occurred that evening, but mainly the Russians were only searching the buildings for German soldiers, for whom they had the greatest respect. Next day Krause saw children already playing in the streets. One of them drew his attention and nervously led him into the garden of a villa to a summerhouse. There Krause found a man covered in blood kneeling on a pile of straw. A dead woman lay in one corner. He had cut her throat and then tried to do it to himself. Apparently the cut was not deep enough for a quick death and he had only been bleeding slowly. He had asked the children to bring him some water, but they had run away frightened. Krause brought some water. The man whispered that he was a Party member and that he and his wife had not wanted to fall into the hands of the Russians. Krause left him to his fate. Two days later he set off for home. On the way a Russian major who spoke German took him along in his vehicle. Krause told him about the barrel of rum that he had hidden. But when they came into Domnau other Russians had already dug the rum out of the dung heap and also found the butter in the garden. Krause’s wife and son had vanished. He would never see them again or discover what had happened to them.
The determined resistance of individual units was only able to delay the Soviet breakthrough into the Samland in places. They immediately went straight through Rauschen and approached Tyrkehnen in the early afternoon of the 14th April. Max Schneege had determined that the order ‘Save yourself if you can!’ would be given, but the order did not arrive. Instead a small troop of Russian soldiers appeared in front of the manor with a German-speaking officer. At first nothing happened to Schneege and his people. He could remain as the manager. A large number of German prisoners of war were allotted to him as a labour force. All praised him as he successfully made their fate bearable under the Russians.
On the 15th April the Russians were already nearing the west coast of the Samland. The area of Palmnicken lay under heavy fire. Flight was only possible along the beach path out of view of the Russians under the cliffs. Chief Inspector Sathodski and part of his trek left the Sacherau Manor in good time and reached Pillau on the 17th April. A number of his people had remained behind in Nöttnicken, as the local Party leady had said: ‘Nöttnicken is the safest place in the whole of the Samland and will not be evacuated for a long time.’ They believed this only too readily and thus fell into the hands of the Soviets.
On the afternoon of the 15th April the policeman from Heiligencreutz reported to his lieutenant in Palmnicken: ‘The Russians have broken through to the coast!’ Lieutnant Koch dutifully reported this to his superior in Pillau, an Austrian lieutenant colonel, in the hope that he would get the order to pull out. But the Austrian did not feel competent, although his superior, an East Prussian police colonel, had left for the Reich from Brüsterort airport the day before. After a few anxious moments the Austrian gave the last Königsberger police commando his agreement to leave. Lieutenant Koch and his men went on foot.
Von der Gröben also left burning Fischhausen on the morning of the 16th April under the fire of the Russian artillery. With some of his officials, he made his way on foot to Pillau, as with a jeep he would not have got far in the turmoil of Wehrmacht vehicles and fleeing soldiers. A few hours later the Russians took the town and struck out towards Neuhäuser. Near Tenkitten the 21st Infantry and the Grossdeutschland Infantry Divisions had formed a strong defensive belt between the narrow isthmus and Fischhausen water meadows.