Monday, June 8, 2015

Baltic Evacuation

The Baltic provinces as a whole extended as a 'balcony' along the coast, and they were segmented into progressively smaller fragments whenever Russian columns drove north. Long before it was clear that escape by sea remained the only resort for the majority of the Germans of the Baltic lands.

The ordeal of the civilians almost invariably began with a flight across the frozen countryside. In northernmost East Prussia the people instinctively made for the temporary refuge of Konigsberg, or the Samland peninsula beyond, which contained the hideously crowded camp at Peyse and the little port of Pillau. In West Prussia and East Pomerania the civilians were drawn to the major ports of Danzig and Gotenhafen, where the facilities for shipment were much greater.

In between, another 450,000 civilians were cut off in the area of the Heiligenbeil Cauldron and were forced to flee across the frozen Frisches Haff to the Nehrung sandspit or Pillau. The ice held until the end of February, and the Wehrmacht marked the passages to Pillau, Narmeln and Strauchbucht with poles and lamps, but the crossing remained a dangerous and harrowing business. One of the women recalls how 

the ice was breaking up, and in places we had to make our way through water twenty-five centimetres deep. We constantly sounded the depth of the water in front of us with sticks, and the innumerable bomb holes compelled us to make detours. Frequently, we slipped and gave ourselves up for lost. Our clothing was wet through and through, and we could move only with difficulty. . . . Household effects were strewn all over the ice. Wounded men dragged themselves towards us on sticks, gesturing for help, and their comrades drew them the rest of the way on little sledges. (Gaunitz, 1987, 51)

The Kriegsmarine pressed all available naval and merchant shipping into service to take the refugees, combatants and wounded from the principal ports of Libau (Kurland), Memel, Pillau and the Nehrung (East Prussia), Danzig, Gotenhafen, Oxhoft and Hela (the Gau of Danzig-West Prussia) and Stolpmiinde, Riigenwaldermunde, Kolberg, Swinemiinde, Stettin, Stralsund and Sassnitz (East and West Pomerania).

The total of civilians and troops saved by the Kriegsmarine came to more than 2 million. Some of the ships made directly for the safety of German-held Denmark and Schleswig-Holstein, but most of them acted as ferries, carrying their human cargo to intermediate ports for later transhipment. Little Hela was the main collection point for the troops and refugees in the Bight of Danzig, and 387,000 souls were shipped from there in the course of April alone. Likewise the Pomeranian ports received 851,735 soldiers and civilians from 15 January to 10 May, and forwarded 340,710 over the same period. The business was managed by the two relevant commands of the Kriegsmarine:

• Admiral of the East Baltic (Burchardi) who commanded the waters of Kurland, East Prussia and the Bight of Danzig.
• Admiral of the West Baltic (Lange, then from 31 March Schubert), responsible for Pomerania and the Baltic further west.

Considering the numbers involved, the losses to enemy action were very low, but a place on board ship was no absolute guarantee of safety. There was little danger from the surface craft of the Red Banner Fleet, which were deterred by the German minefields and the German superiority in destroyers, cruisers and battleships. However, the large German passenger ships and freighters were vulnerable, for their bulk made them easy marks for Soviet aircraft and submarines, and adequate escorts could not always be provided. 

Interpretation of the Gustloff's final moments by Irwin J. Kappes

On 30 January 1945 the Wilhelm Gustloff left Gotenhafen with 5,000 of the refugees who had been waiting in snowstorms on the quays. Shortly after 2100, when the ship was twenty-five nautical miles off shore, she was shaken by a dull blow. Second and third blows announced hits by two more torpedoes, and the vessel listed to port. The crew lost control of the crazed passengers, and only a few of the lifeboats made good their escape before the interior partitions of the lower decks broke and the ship plunged to the bottom. There were 937 survivors.

The reports of the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff terrified the refugees still stranded on the Baltic shores, and there were yet further horrors in store. The white-painted hospital ship General von Steuben was torpedoed on the way from Pillau on 11-12 February. The vessel swam for only twenty minutes, and although 630 of the refugees and crew were taken off, there was nothing to be done for the 2,680 military wounded, all of whom drowned.

The greatest single loss of life in maritime history was sustained in the sinking of the Goya, which steamed from Hela with every space, including the companion-ways, jammed full. The Goya was a fast, modern freighter, but she was torn apart by two torpedoes shortly after midnight on 16 April. A battle for personal survival broke out inside the ship, and for possession of the life rafts, where the first-comers defended their places with blows and kicks. Only 165 individuals were saved by the escorts and the light craft, leaving about 7,000 refugees and soldiers to the Baltic on that cold night.

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