Monday, March 14, 2016

Defending the East






During the last months of 1944 the situation for the German soldier on the Eastern Front was dire. They had fought desperately to maintain cohesion and hold their meagre positions that often saw thousands perish. By September 1944 they were still holding a battle line more than 1,400 miles in overall length, which had been severely weakened by the overwhelming strength of the Red Army. To make matters worse troop units were no longer being refitted with replacements to compensate for the large losses sustained. Supplies of equipment and ammunition too were so insufficient in some areas of the front that commanders were compelled to ration ammunition to their men. As a consequence many soldiers had become increasingly aware that they were in the final stages of the war in the East, and this included battle-hardened combatants. They had also realized that they were now fighting an enemy that was far superior to them. As a consequence in a number of sectors of the front soldiers were able to realistically assess the war situation and this in turn managed to save the lives of many that would normally have been killed fighting to the last man.

In spite of the adverse situation in which the German soldier was placed he was still strong and determined to fight with courage and skill. During the last six months of the war the German soldier had expended considerable combat efforts lacking sufficient reconnaissance and the necessary support of tanks and heavy weapons to ensure any type of success. Ultimately, the German soldier during the last months of the war was ill prepared against any type of large-scale offensive. The infantry defensive positions relied upon sufficient infantry ammunition supply and the necessary support to ensure that they would able to hold their fortified areas. Without this, the German soldier was doomed. Commanders in the field were fully aware of the significant problems and the difficulties imposed by committing badly equipped soldiers to defend the depleted lines of defence. However, in the end, they had no other choice than to order their troops to fight with whatever they had at their disposal.

In the last months of the war German forces continued retreating across a scarred and devastated wasteland. on both the Western and Eastern Fronts, the last agonising moments of the war were played out. Whilst the British and American troops were poised to cross the River Rhine, in the East the terrifying advance of the Red Army was bearing down on the River oder, pushing back the last remnants of Hitler’s exhausted units.

Due to a serious lack of troop reserves many parts of the front were now defended by a mixed number of local militia, postal defence units, locally raised anti-tank groups, Wehrmacht, Waffen-SS and Allegemeine-SS formations, Hitlerjugend, and units of the Volkssturm. But surprisingly, even in the rank and file of the Volkssturm, morale remained high. For these ordinary men of Germany’s Home Guard units they needed no propaganda to urge them on. They knew, like all those defending the Fatherland that they were fighting now to defend their homes and loved ones. All that what was left to them was their skill and courage. Everything else, guns, planes, and armoured vehicles had already been sacrificed. Spread among these under-armed forces was a mixed bag of strong and weak Wehrmacht and Waffen-SS troops. In some areas of the front there were good defensive lines comprising mazes of intricate blockhouses and trenches. Towns that fell in the path of these defensive belts were evacuated. Thousands of women, children and old men were removed from their dwellings and some were actually pressed into service to help construct massive anti-tank ditches and other obstacles.

A typical strongpoint deployed along the front during the last weeks of 1944 contained MG 34 and MG 42 machine guns on light and heavy mountings, anti-tank rifle company or battalion, a sapper platoon that was equipped with a host of various explosives, infantry guns, anti-tank artillery company which had a number of anti-tank guns, and occasionally a self-propelled gun.

Operating at intervals were Pz.kpfw.IVs, Tigers, Panthers tanks, and a number of StuG.III assault guns, all of which were scraped together. This front-line defensive belt was designated as a killing zone where every possible anti-tank weapon and artillery piece would be used to ambush Soviet tanks. Whilst an enemy tank was subjected to a storm of fire within the kill zone, special engineer mobile detachments equipped with anti-personnel and anti-tank mines would quickly deploy and erect new obstacles, just in case other tanks managed to escape the zone.

If the crew from a disabled tank had survived the initial attack and bailed out, special sapper units were ordered to pick off the unwary. However, whilst it appeared that the Germans were prepared for a Soviet attack, much of the equipment employed along the defensive belts was too thinly spread. Commanders too were unable to predict exactly where the strategic focal point of the Soviet attack would take place. To make matters worse when the Russians begun heavily bombing German positions all along the frontier, this also severely weakened the strongest defensive lines.

Along the frontier of the Reich the German defensive lines were soon turned into a wall of flame and smoke as the Russians launched their attacks. For the Volkssturm and Hitlerjugend, many were going into action for the first time, and a number of them felt excited at the thought of fighting an offensive that their Führer had said would drive the invaders from their homeland and win new victories in the East. But this conflict was without rule, and new conscripts soon learned the terrors of fighting superior Russian soldiers. Under-armed and under-trained, these soldiers were quickly driven from their meagre defensive positions and pulverized into the rubble. When some determined units refused to budge, the Russians ordered in their flame-throwers to burn them out. Any Volkssturm men that were found among captured prisoners were normally regarded as partisans and simply herded together like cattle and executed. In some cases, Russian tanks deliberately ran over the wounded, or hanged them from surrounding trees or lamp posts.

Elsewhere along the frontier of the Reich the Red Army drive gathered momentum with more towns and villages falling to the onrushing forces. Suicidal opposition from a few SS and Wehrmacht strong points bypassed in earlier attacks reduced buildings to a blasted rubble. Everywhere it seemed the Germans were being constantly forced to retreat. Many isolated units spent hours or even days fighting a bloody defence. Russian soldiers frequently requested them to surrender and assured them that no harm would come to them if they did so. But despite this reassuring tone, most German troops continued to fight to the end.

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