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The Wehrmacht's Last Gasp; Desperate Breakout of the 9th Army to Escape Capture by the Red Army

MG is an air warrior who is an alumnus of the Staff and a voracious writer on military

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Background

The Wehrmacht in World War II represented the development of the German army from its Prussian ancestry. Unfortunately, it is a fact of history that the professional officer corps of the German army can be accused of dereliction of their sense of duty to the ethics of war and indulged in atrocities on the eastern front. When the tide turned against the German army in the east they were haunted by the atrocities they had committed on the POWs and feared retribution from the advancing Red Army. This was one of the main reasons that conditioned the military thought of the German generals towards the fag end of the war. They did not wish to surrender to the Red Army and preferred to lay down arms before the Americans. During the last days of WWII, it was apparent to everyone including the German Army that the lives of their soldiers were being sacrificed at the altar of the fanatical ideas of their leader, Adolf Hitler. One can say that the realization came very late at the end of the day.

On April 24, 1945, the battle of Halbe Pocket commenced. The ninth army which had fought the battle of Berlin under General Busse was surrounded in a pocket south of the German capital. The only thought in the mind of the commander of the ninth army was to save the lives of his soldiers and to try and see they do not surrender to the Russians but to the Americans.

General Theodor Busse, thus ignored the orders of the Fuhrer and during the next seven days attempted a breakthrough from the pocket hoping to escape the dragnet of the Red Army. He wished to surrender to the allies in the hope of better treatment as POWs.

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Desperate breakout

The battle commenced on April 24 and lasted till 1 May 1945. By all accounts, it was a bloody battle and the 9th Army took heavy casualties. It can be termed as a bloodbath as the 9th Army was surrounded by superior forces of the 1st Belorussian and 1st Ukrainian Fronts led by, Marshal Ivan Konev. In addition, the German troops were at the end of the tether with injuries and low morale.

After the German army's defeat in the battle of Seelow heights, they were cut off and encircled. The 9th Army had been reduced to 80,000 but had only 79 tanks and about 150 armored vehicles. The German army was trapped in an area called the Spree forest. The terrain of this area was extremely unforgiving and consisted of lakes, forests, and marshes.

Marshal Konev's aim was to capture the entrapped Germans. Accordingly, he planned to encircle the 9th Army leaving it no room to escape. The German army made two unsuccessful attempts to break out but on the night of April 28, they had some success.

Busse was now getting desperate. The Germans put all they had into the offensive on the 28th and broke through the 50th Guards rifle division. They were able to open a small but bloody corridor and more important their morale went up.

The Soviets realized what had happened and sent in reinforcements to man the flanks while an artillery barrage along with Katyusha rockets, rained on the retreating troops escaping through the corridor.

The creation of the corridor led to a breakdown of discipline as everybody wanted to rush through the corridor towards the Elbe. Rearguard troops were holding the rampaging Russians at Storkow while the other soldiers tried to link up with the 12th army of General Walther Wenck at Beelitz. The distance between the two was about 80 km but it was open space.

Russian Marshal Konev was aware of the heavy casualties suffered by the ninth army because of the artillery barrage and he hoped to break them into smaller groups so they could be mopped up. On the other hand, the only strategy of the Germans was to escape as quickly as possible from the clutches of the Red Army to reach the front line on the west.

The situation was tense and fluid and there are reports that there was infighting between the SS and the Wehrmacht shoulders in their desire to be the first to escape.

The professionalism of the German army now went for a toss. There was only bitter fighting with the Russians in some pockets as there was no proper chain of command.

Through this maze of smoke and guns, a column of about 25,000 troops was able to reach the shattered 12th army and Beelitz.

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Annihilation but a silver lining

Hitler had ordered the ninth army and the 12th army to link up for the defence of Berlin. Both the commanders of the ninth and the 12th army had other important things on their minds than to obey Hitler. Remnants of both the armies now decided to make a concerted break to reach the American lines. There was bitter fighting still going on and the ninth army was once again surrounded west of Luckenwalde, 10 kilometers from the 12th Army. The Soviet 4th Guards Tank Army mounted heavy assaults leaving many dead on both sides.

Despite the ferociousness of the Russian assault both Busse and Walther Wenck could combine and establish a corridor towards Allied positions.

The remnants of German troops reached the bridge at Tangermünde between May 4 and May 7, 1945, and surrendered to the American forces.

This entire tale of battle is very astonishing because against overwhelming odds the ninth army along with remnants of the 12th army was able to escape the dragnet of the Soviet army and if figures have a meaning 25,000 German soldiers and thousands of civilians escaped. This is a wonder but the sacrifice was heavy and 55,000 German soldiers were either killed or captured.

Busse surrendered to the Americans and was a POW and released in 1948. he was appointed director of civil defence, retired and died in 1986 at the age of 88. Wenck was also a POW but released in 1947 and died in 1982 in a car accident aged 82

Comments

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on October 17, 2020:

There is a lot of truth in what you say Alan. I have seen photos and videos of the period between 1930 and the entry of America into the war and they show lots of Nazi parades and paraphernalia in America. Swastika certainly had some psychic connection with America because even now I find lots of right-wing extremists holding this swastika in America. Nazi philosophy maybe dead in Germany but in a modified form there are many others who are adherents to it all over the world. Even in Germany, I am not too sure because the extreme right is again espousing the old policies.

Alan R Lancaster from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire) on October 17, 2020:

As I've mentioned elsewhere on here, Major Otto Skorzeny - late of the parachute group that freed Mussolini - recruited Germans who'd emigrated to the US and returned out of blind patriotic fervour to serve 'the Fatherland' for a mission late in the war. They would 'blindside' US forces during the Battle of the Bulge, re-route reinforcements, remove explosives attached to bridges for blowing them up and generally cause havoc.

There were also a lot of German-speaking Americans who fought for the host country, some no doubt even coming face-to-face with each other and cementing the confusion.

Some in the US turned agents - spies - to hinder the US war effort and sink ships such as the 'Normandy' in New York. The old mantra, "there's good and bad in all" resurfaces: one of the Germans recruited in the US to spy for Hitler turned himself in and spilt the beans on the plotters.

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on October 17, 2020:

Most Germans emigres even in USA were supportive of Hitler.

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on October 17, 2020:

YES, YES A GOOD REMINDER.

tom on October 17, 2020:

stalin removed volga germans from armed forces and deported them ,a massacre

tom on October 17, 2020:

krushchev released all pows in 1955,some pows joined east german armed forces,uk and us released all pows in 1946,german pows settled in kazakhastan. volga region of russia had german settlers in tsarist times ,they fought for russia in two world wars,white russians in germany supported hitler,white russians in shanghai joined japanese army as russian legion

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on October 17, 2020:

Flourish, so nice of you to have commented.

FlourishAnyway from USA on October 16, 2020:

The sheer damage of those numbers. You can’t blame them for self-preservation and surrendering to the Americans. Great article as always. You are an excellent military historian.

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on October 16, 2020:

Liz, nice of you to have commented.

Liz Westwood from UK on October 16, 2020:

It is sad to read of such a large loss of human lives, but I can understand why the Germans preferred to surrender to the Americans.

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on October 16, 2020:

Stalin is the man of steel and Churchill I understand had a tacit agreement with him to hand over Russian defectors to the Soviets. I don't think Churchill had any love for the Russian defectors and that is the reason he expressly instructed to handover those surrendered Russian free army chaps back to the Russians.

Alan R Lancaster from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire) on October 16, 2020:

There was a reason we handed over those Ukrainian/Russian soldiers who'd taken the German uniform. The threat was made by Stalin that all Allied troops released from captivity in German POW camps in the east would be incarcerated in Gulags IF we didn't hand them over. Many were in POW camps here, and as many were country dwellers they were allowed out to work in local farms around the UK.

A large number had made their way through Eastern Europe, through Hungary to southern Austria where they surrendered to British forces near Klagenfurt. Brigadier Toby Law was OC there and was ordered to put all of them on a sealed train bound for eastern Austria and ultimately Siberia with their 'camp followers' (wives or concubines and offspring). They knew what would happen to them. Some were able to gash their arms or necks on broken glass and died on the train, officers were executed as traitors - although many had lived as exiles in Paris and some were born there, never having seen Russia until they rode at the head of their 'Einsatzkommandos' in German uniform.

Count Leo Tolstoy took out an action in the British court against the British CO, by then a peer, and lost his action along with his wife's fortune in fees. Brigadier Law had been put in an invidious position by an order from Churchill because the Allies' leaders - US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand etc - put pressure on him against his judgement. He knew the background to it all, and he knew Stalin wasn't joking. These Ukrainians and Russians were given the order by their SS masters to 'eradicate' communist agents and Jews behind German lines, and, given their predisposition they had carried out their orders enthusiastically. End of story.

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on October 15, 2020:

Alan, It is always a pleasure to interact with you. You are very right that the Germans wanted to preferably surrender only to the Americans who firstly had entered the war late and were not aware of the atrocities committed by Germans. They would also avoid the British because the word had spread that all the soldiers of the free Russian army who had surrendered to the British were handed to the Russians by Churchill. The German generals and soldiers who surrendered to the Americans certainly had it easy as after short detention they were all released except those who had been identified as war criminals. Even there the Americans cut short the sentences as the tension had built up with the Soviet Union and the Cold War had commenced. During the war years, Stalin helped the British rule in India. He passed instructions to the Indian Communist movement to support the Raj and when Gandhi launched his quit India movement in 1942 the Communist Party of India and all leftist did not join the quit India movement and the British had an easier time. Gandhi and his party were arrested and remained in custody till the end of the war. At that time Gandhi was under pressure to show that he was a nationalist and not a pro-british agent as in South Africa because the figure of Subhas Chandra Bose was looming over him.

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on October 15, 2020:

Pamela, thank you for sparing time and commenting.

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on October 15, 2020:

This is an interestng article about a very bloody battle and it is amazing many of them made it to surrender to the Americans. I appreciate your well-written accounts of the history of WWII.

Alan R Lancaster from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire) on October 15, 2020:

I've seen the documentary footage of cocky, smirking German officers and men as they rolled up to the US lines. Knowing they were on easy street because of the lack of background knowledge the American officers had about their conduct in the east, they could well afford to be cocky. They didn't want to surrender to either British, Canadian or French officers because they were more critical, having experienced German atrocities in France and the Low Countries.

They had precious little reason to smirk, but having surrendered to the US Forces the Russians could do little to reverse that. They had, after all, mopped up thousands of others between Berlin and Vienna, some Germans even willing to risk drowning by attempting to swim to freedom after all bridges were destroyed over the Danube Canal that cuts through the city of Vienna.

Budapest was evacuated by German forces ahead of the Russians' entry into the city, the Hungarian capital spared the experience Berlin and Vienna underwent. The previous head of the Roman Catholic Church, Pope Benedict had been based there before throwing away his weapon(s) and 'legging it' westward (not his words, but that was the gist of what he told a reporter in one of his interviews). I don't know who he gave himself up to, but they missed checking for tattoos under his arm. Most German soldiers found going 'the wrong way and without a weapon' were picked up by the SS and hanged.

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on October 15, 2020:

Tom, I have read Ryan's book.

tom on October 15, 2020:

koneiv became marshal of soviet union ,defence minister,he rival of zhukov.best book on berlin battle is cornelius ryans last battle,anthony beevor berlin 1945 downfall