Our mobility, which had always given us an advantage over the vast but slow Soviet formations, was now only a memory.
Guy Sajer, an Alsatian volunteer in the Grossdeustchland Division, (The Forgotten Soldier, Ballantine Books, 1971)
Nazi Germany in 1945
As 1945 began, Adolf Hitler’s empire was fast shrinking and the end was finally in sight. His last substantial reserves were being frittered away in the Ardennes, while in the East the Red Army continued its ominous build-up all along the Front. Finland and Rumania had abandoned Nazi Germany, Slovakia was in rebellion, most of the Balkans had been lost and Horthy’s Hungary was only being kept in the war by threats and kidnap – the SS commando leader Otto Skorzeny had actually taken Admiral Horthy’s son hostage in a daring raid. German industry was somehow miraculously supplying the Wehrmacht with an ever-increasing amount of modern equipment, but the critical fuel shortages Guy Sajer noticed in the Grossdeutschland meant that most of this high-grade kit just sat idle. The horse was now the Army’s main method of battlefield mobility, while its ranks were increasingly filled with half-trained conscripts who were no match for the military juggernauts facing them in the East and West.
The Kriegsmarine was still operating in the Baltic, but the U-Boat battle in the Atlantic was lost. High grade aviation fuel was in even shorter supply than gasoline, so when the Luftwaffe could get into the air it concentrated on trying to protect German cities and it was becoming a rarity over the frontlines.
Making for home
Against this tide it was the remnants of the old élites whom Hitler and OKW would turn to for some sort of a miracle, and they would be rushed from one sector to another in a vain attempt to keep on saving the day. The inevitable result was massive, recurring losses in the ranks of divisions like the Wiking and Nordland, and the Scandinavian Waffen-SS simply could not afford the casualties. In this sixth year of the war they only numbered just over a thousand men, with the majority still in the Nordland, a minority in the Wiking, and a handful strewn over other formations. The Allied advance across Western Europe created a last big influx of volunteers into the Waffen-SS among the likes of the Dutch, Flemish and French as those lands were liberated, but the same did not happen across occupied Scandinavia. Coupled with this, the familiar recruiting pools among Germany’s foreign workers and the home-grown Far-Right parties had dried up. There would be no new waves of ‘Vikings’ into the Scandinavian Waffen-SS. So the burden fell on the thinning ranks of veterans. The Finns, bar a tiny handful, had gone home and were now mourning their country’s 79,047 war dead and abiding by their peace agreement with Stalin. With the Norwegians of the SS-Police Companies and specialist Ski Battalion repatriated, it was Per Sörensen and his Danes who made up the lions share of the remaining volunteers with some 70 per cent of the total.
From left: the Swedish Untersturmführer Gunnar-Erik Eklöf (platoon commander in the Nordland’s famous Schwedenzug – 3./AA 11), the German SS-Sturmmann Muzzi Emmerich, and the Swedish Unterscharführer Markus Ledin. The three men brew up coffee with their half-track in the background during the Dünaburg fighting in Latvia, July 1944. Ledin would later be cut off behind Soviet lines before escaping home via Finland in a requisitioned fisherman’s boat. (Lennart Westberg)
Erik Wallin, helmeted on the right, with his friend and fellow Swede Karl-Olof Holm. Holm tried to desert home from the Nordland in October 1944 while serving in Courland. He was caught, tried and shot. (James Macleod)
There were still a few dozen Swedes serving, although desertion became more common now it was absolutely clear that the war was lost. Hans-Gösta Pehrsson was still the ranking Swedish officer in the Nordland, and he intended to stay until the end, but he would not stand in the way of his countrymen who wanted to call it a day, either before or after the devastating fight at Trekni. Fighting in Estonia and Courland on the shores of the Baltic meant the Swedes could almost see home; and some went. Three volunteers, SS-Unterscharführer’s Sven Alm, Markus Ledin and Ingemar Somberg (the first two were veterans of the Winter War) got trapped behind the advancing Soviets when their armoured half-track broke down. Left stranded, they repaired the vehicle and decided to head to the coast. Arriving at the fishing village of Noarootsi, they killed the handful of Red Army troopers billeted there, grabbed a boat and headed for Finland. Arrested by the Finns, Alm and Ledin’s Winter War medals earned them all a quick release and they crossed over into Sweden and safety. Their erstwhile comrades Nils Berg, Elis Höglund and Knut Fagerström, followed the same path and took another boat with some Estonian refugees from a nearby port. They too made it home. Not all were so lucky though. Erik Wallin’s friend, the ex-Swedish Army sergeant Karl-Olof Holm, tried to desert but was caught, court-martialled and shot.
Resistance on the Home Front
It wasn’t just Pehrsson’s Swedes who knew the war was lost, back in the Scandinavian homelands everyone else knew too. In Denmark and Norway the occupation, and resistance to it, was becoming increasingly violent as the two sides fought it out in the streets. On 8 February, Quisling’s Chief of Police and commander of the paramilitary Hird, the ruthless and detested Sturmbannführer Karl Alfred Marthinsen, was assassinated outside his Oslo home. Acting on orders from the Norwegian government-in-exile in London, the Milorg resistance movement used a gun team to spray his official car with bullets, Marthinsen died instantly. In the aftermath, 29 anti-occupation Norwegians, including the leading lawyer Jon Vislie and the prominent Milorg supporter Kaare Sundby, were rounded up and shot in retaliation by the Nazi authorities. The whole of Norway went into shock at this unprecedented act of brutality. Across the Baltic things were just as bad in Denmark. The authorities tried to maintain order through repression, and the reaction was predictable. Two months after Marthinsen was killed it was the turn of his Danish counterpart, the leader of the Hipo Corps, Erik Viktor Petersen, to be gunned down in the street by his fellow countrymen.
The SS-Wiking in Hungary
While the Resistance cut down the Far Right on the home front, the Red Army was completing the task against their Waffen-SS counterparts on the battlefront. November and December had seen Hungary invaded and Budapest surrounded. Some 95,000 German and Hungarian troops ended up trapped in the city, with the core of the defence based on the cavalrymen of the 8th SS-Cavalry Division Florian Geyer and the 22nd SS-Volunteer Cavalry Division Maria Theresia. Hitler was obsessed with holding the capital and the Hungarian oilfields, which were the Third Reich’s last major supplier of fuel. No matter that his entire ‘Fortress’ and ‘hold to the last man’ strategies had proved themselves to be utter failures and that the oilfields in question could not even provide Army Group South’s needs let alone anyone else’s. As ever, Hitler refused to accept reality and the Ostheer was ordered to expend its last strength in vain attempts to relieve Budapest and defeat the Soviets on the Magyar plains in a series of operations codenamed Konrad (there were to be three in the end). Involved from the start was the Wiking, which was dispatched south from Poland along with the Totenkopf, and sent straight into the attack from its transport trains on New Year’s Day.
Advancing from Komarno, the Germans main base in western Hungary, the two panzer divisions surprised the 4th Guards Army and threw it back some 20 miles. But the Russians swiftly got over their initial shock and poured fresh forces into the struggle. The offensive slowed and casualties mounted. Unwilling to concede defeat, Hitler pulled Gille’s Corps back and moved them near Szekesfehervar to try again. With Hans Dorr’s Germania in the lead, the Wiking attacked again. Scandinavian grenadiers fell to mines, artillery fire and even electrified wires as their ranks were further thinned. But somehow they carried on, the Wiking’s King Tigers (an armoured monster that weighed 68 tonnes and sported the superlative 88mm gun as its main armament), creating carnage among the Soviet tank ranks as the division advanced to within a mere 12 miles of the centre of Budapest. The garrison, desperately battling for their survival among the smoking ruins of the once-beautiful city, could hear the rumble of the guns as the Wiking edged forward – surely they would be saved. Then disaster struck.
Dorr called a briefing for his officers in a barn in the just-captured village of Sarosd. A lone Soviet anti-tank gun and its crew had been overlooked by the assaulting troops and had kept their heads down. Sensing an opportunity, the gun commander saw the SS officers gathering in the barn near the square and ordered his gunner to hit it. With the trademark retort that gave the Soviet 76mm gun its nickname among the Germans of the ratschbum, the high velocity shell shot across and slammed into the building’s roof showering the assembled commanders with red-hot shrapnel. At a stroke the Germania was beheaded. Dorr, a Knight’s Cross winner and Cherkassy survivor, was wounded for the sixteenth time in his brief career and would later die of his injuries. Several other men were killed instantly, and almost everyone else was wounded by the razor sharp steel fragments. The stuffing was knocked out of the Germania by the losses and the offensive ground to a shuddering halt as the Soviets threw ever-more reinforcements into a counter-attack. Within days, not only had the Germans been stopped but the Wiking itself had been surrounded.
The former Norge and Danmark 1st Battalions were heavily involved in the fighting, particularly around the town of Pettend. Fritz Vogt, now Erik Brörup’s battalion commander, personally destroyed six Soviet tanks with hand-held panzerfäuste during the fighting that claimed the lives of several Scandinavian volunteers, including the ex-DNL veteran Fritjof Røssnaes (his elder brother Knut was also in the division) and the surgeon Dr Tor Storm, allegedly burned alive with his wounded charges after trying to surrender. The two battalions did manage to break out from Pettend and rejoin the rest of the division, but the price was astronomically high. The Danmark was effectively annihilated and was never resurrected, while the Norge could muster just 36 officers and men by mid-February. The Westland’s commander, SS-Obersturmbannführer Franz Hack spoke of the ferocity of the combat:
The Soviets attacked us frontally during the day, supported by artillery and Stalin’s Organs [German nickname for the multi-barrelled Katyusha rocket launchers]. The battle raged in and around the little town of Seregelyes, and somehow we captured a complete Stalin Organ with tractor and ammunition. Our artillerymen and infantry gunners, under SS-Hauptsturmführer Peter Wollseifer, turned the multiple launcher around and soon the Soviets were getting a taste of their own medicine.
The Red Army’s Vistula-Oder offensive
Peter Wollseifer’s success with the Katyusha was nowhere near enough to turn the tide, and Konrad 2 was abandoned. With it went a large part of the division’s Nordic past as most of the Wiking’s remaining Scandinavian grenadiers were either killed or wounded in the twin offensives. By now, the focus of the war on the Eastern Front, no longer the Russian Front of course, had shifted north. On the morning of 12 January the Soviets burst out of their bridgeheads on the Vistula River and struck west towards Berlin – the STAVKA plan was to end the war in just 45 days. Guderian, as Hitler’s Chief-of-Staff, had warned his leader of the danger on the Vistula, but Hitler had long retreated into a military fantasy world. The dictator even called the Soviet build-up ‘the biggest bluff since Genghis Khan’. His amateurish failure to recognise the obvious would cost the Wehrmacht and the Scandinavian Waffen-SS dear.
Spring Awakening in Hungary
So as the Red Army tore the Wehrmacht to pieces in eastern Germany, the Wiking was held fast in Hungary unable to influence the decisive battle being fought hundreds of miles away to the north. ‘Grossfaz’, a derogatory shortening of Goebbels’ sycophantic public description of Hitler (‘der grösste führer von alle Zeit’ – ‘the greatest leader of all time’), then proceeded to compound his original error massively by sending Sepp Dietrich’s entire Sixth SS Panzer Army to join the Wiking to try and inflict the ever-elusive decisive defeat on the Soviets in Hungary.
Operation Spring Awakening (Unternehmen Frühlingserwachen) was launched on 18 February by Nazi Germany’s strongest remaining field force. The offensive began seven days after the doomed Budapest garrison of 30,000 survivors desperately tried to escape the burning city. Forced to leave well over 10,000 wounded men to the tender mercies of the Red Army, the remaining Germans and Hungarians set off west along the Italian Boulevard and through the city’s drains and sewers. The Russians were waiting and cut down the escapees in droves. Pretty soon their few panzers and other vehicles were knocked out and everyone was on foot. It became a giant hunt, with packs of Soviets ripping the German/Hungarian columns to shreds. In the end only some 700 reached the German lines, the rest were either taken captive or perished like the SS-Polizei battlegroup commander, SS-Oberführer Helmut Dörner. Joachim Rumohr and August Zehender, respectively commanders of the Florian Geyer and Maria Theresia SS Cavalry Divisions, committed suicide during the break-out rather than face capture. Budapest is sometimes described by historians as the ‘Stalingrad of the Waffen-SS’, which is an overstatement, even so it was a momentous battle that wiped out the Waffen-SS cavalry arm, sealed Hungary’s fate and hammered another nail in the Ostheer’s coffin.
With Budapest finally lost, there was little point left to Spring Awakening, but on it went anyway. Dietrich now had the I, II and IV SS Panzer Corps under his command, but it was to no avail – fuel and ammunition were in short supply, the ground was marshy and water-logged, and the roads and bridges unable to bear the weight of the massive German panzers. Just as with every Wehrmacht offensive of the past 12 months and more, the initial breakthrough could not be exploited. Exhausted, the cream of the Waffen-SS was forced back to its start line and pushed onto the defensive. Remarkably though, there were still a small handful of Scandinavians fighting in the Wiking, one of whom was the Frikorps Danmark veteran Erik Brörup. Having served for some months in SS Parachute Battalion 500 based in Hungary, he had then been forced to watch as his old unit, the Florian Geyer, had been exterminated in the capital. Joining the Wiking’s Armoured Reconnaissance Battalion, where one of the company commanders was his fellow Dane Robert Hansen, he was pretty clear that there was still plenty of fight left in the Scandinavian Waffen-SS that springtime:
My most memorable encounter took place on St Patrick’s Day, 17 March 1945, near Szekesfehervar in Hungary. I was Adjutant, with the rank of SS-Obersturmführer, to SS-Sturmbannführer Fritz Vogt, holder of the Knight’s Cross. Actually I had heard of Fritz Vogt’s exploits in the West in 1940 during a lecture by my old tactics instructor from the Danish Cavalry when he was telling us about the Waffen-SS. Anyway the Russians had started their offensive the day before, which was also Fritz Vogt’s 27th birthday. Our unit was SS-Panzer Reconnaissance Battalion 5 [SS-Panzer Aufklärungs Abteilung 5].
I had established a command post in a small house and set up communications with a switchboard and radio while shells fell around us. SS-Obergruppenführer Gille telephoned to congratulate Vogt on his birthday and to tell him he had just been awarded the Oakleaves to his Knight’s Cross. His face lit up and he said: ‘This calls for a drink!’ We hoisted a few, then the Supply officers showed up bearing some bottles of beer, and all the other officers found time to show up for a quick drink. All the while the war was going on around us.
One company commander was having some trouble with the enemy, so I suggested to Vogt that I go out and try to straighten things out. Vogt laughed and said: ‘What’s the matter with you, do you feel like a hero today?’ I answered that he had just got himself a new medal and should let others have a chance to win one. He replied: ‘Okay but watch what you are doing!’ By that time of course we had all had a good drink and were in excellent spirits!
I got an SdKfz 250/9 [an armoured personnel carrier with mounted 20mm cannons] and went into battle. We were firing high-explosive shells and it seemed easy, like shooting fish in a barrel. Then the Russians brought up an anti-tank rifle and shot up my vehicle, forcing us to bail out. We ended up in hand-to-hand combat with them. I had a panzerfaust anti-tank rocket but it wouldn’t fire. I therefore used it like a club and cracked one Russian’s head with it. I was in trouble though. However Fritz Vogt then appeared with a few more armoured personnel carriers and got me out. He told me to take a couple of hours off, and later he and I went off alone on a reconnaissance behind the enemy lines. I got the Iron Cross First Class for all this. That Fritz Vogt was some character!
The SS-Nordland in Courland
While New Year’s Day 1945 found the Wiking’s Scandinavians getting off their trains and going into battle in Hungary, the Nordland’s volunteers were in the frozen north of Courland waiting for the next Red Army assault. Having fought off the Soviets during the First and Second Battles of Courland the previous October and the Third in November, both sides were gearing up for a further trial of strength. Guderian was still pressing Hitler hard to evacuate the peninsula and re-deploy the Army Group (now renamed as Army Group Courland – Heeresgruppe Kurland) in its entirety to Prussia, to defend the eastern Reich, but he would not hear of it. His argument, as before Christmas, was that the soldier’s presence kept the Red Fleet from dominating the Baltic, safeguarded Swedish iron ore imports and drew major Soviet forces away from the main front. While these reasons were arguably cogent, the end result was that the majority of two entire German Armies would be unavailable to the Ostheer when it needed them most.
Nazi Germany had now been retreating in the East for close on two years. For the men in the line it is hard to imagine how they kept up their morale as the ranks were continually depleted and the miles swept by endlessly. Incredible as it now seems, some still believed in ultimate victory, one such was the Swedish SS-Unterscharführer Erik ‘Jerka’ Wallin serving in the Nordland’s Schwedenzug that new year:
We knew that a significant part of the most vital German industries had gone below ground and were therefore invulnerable from the air. We knew that even better weapons would soon be mass-produced, and that the German forces in the West, just a few days before, had started a successful offensive in Belgium and Luxembourg. Soon the terrible pressure of numerically superior forces would have to ease. We just needed some months of breathing space. Then we would hit back with annihilating power, especially here in Courland … With our toughness and persistence against the furious assaults of the Red Army, we could offer a breathing space to the reserves, who were now being organised and freshly equipped in Germany.
It is difficult to comprehend how anyone could believe this was really the case, but Wallin had been fighting the Red Army since the Winter War and final defeat was probably too awful a prospect for the NCO to contemplate. Leaving Bunkas in the east of the Pocket on 4 January, the Nordland moved south-west some 40 kilometres to the town of Preekuln, just to the east of the main port town of Liepaja. Its neighbours were the 30th Infantry Division on its left and the 11th on its right, with the experienced 14th Panzer Division covering the whole sector as the mobile armoured reserve. Wallin for one was grateful to leave Bunkas, as he described in his book ‘Twilight of the Gods’ A Swedish Waffen-SS Volunteer’s experiences with the 11th SS-Panzergrenadier Division Nordland, Eastern Front 1944-45:
… we were relieved and could leave Bunkas, a real death trap. It lay in the open without any connections to the rear except during the dark of night. We were lucky to get out of there before Ivan had finished with his build-up for the great assault we knew was coming. Instead our successors had to face the storm a few days later and according to what I heard hardly anyone from the relief came out of there alive.
The Fourth Battle of Courland
Unsurprisingly that far north, January 1945 in Courland was damnably cold. The snow was not metres thick, but it was there, and the nights were clear so everything froze overnight. The Ostheer had finally learnt its lessons from the eastern winters, and the kit and equipment Erik Wallin and his comrades were issued with was a world away from the dire ‘jackboot and overcoat’ days of 1941. The grenadiers were issued with reversible white/camouflage padded uniforms, weapons were greased with anti-freeze, and heavy weapons had special lubricants to keep them working never mind the thermometer reading. But despite all of this welcome technical advancement every infantryman still froze – the weather is the weather and no soldier can beat it. Even the Scandinavians, no strangers to northern winters, felt the cold. But the Scandinavian Waffen-SS had precious little time to worry about the temperature after their move west, as the Red Army launched yet another offensive against Army Group Courland. This time it was aimed at the southwestern end of the Pocket, and designed to take Liepaja and deprive the Germans of the port. The main blow fell first on the 30th Infantry Division, and then the Nordland itself on 23 January. After resting behind the lines for a day or so, Wallin’s company were back in the line when the blow struck, as usual it was preceded by an enormous artillery barrage:
During the bombardment we received orders that our mortars had to go into action. The only thing we could do was to take a deep breath and run out into that hell. The area around us had completely changed character … ploughed away by Ivan’s artillery and a new landscape created. One of the mortars had obviously taken a direct hit down the barrel, because the remains hung like an opened banana skin over the mounting. The other mortars had survived, as had the stock of shells, about 150 of them.
What then followed was, for me, one of the most frantic episodes of the war. I guess it would have been too much to hope that the enemy should cease firing at our mortar position, so that we, in peace and quiet, could carry out our own action! However their fire didn’t show any sign of slackening at all. Every other minute you had to throw yourself down some hole to avoid being torn to pieces by a howling shell. During this we had to keep on firing according to the corrections that the field-telephone blared to us direct from the artillery observer who was somewhere out in front of us.
In that way we kept going all afternoon, hour after hour. The stock of ammunition ran out, but new boxes were delivered without any interruption in our firing. With wet blankets we ran from mortar to mortar to cool off the gleaming hot barrels. Our rounds spread a terrible destruction among the charging Russian infantry waves.
For days and nights this slaughter went on at Preekuln. Only at dawn, or sometimes in the afternoon was there a pause as the yellow-brown Russian infantry soldiers started to crawl out of their hideouts and spread over the terrain in front of our lines … the first shouts of ‘Urrah!’ from the storming Bolsheviks were drowned by the murderous defensive fire from our mortars, from the fast-firing MG42s [the MG42 had an incredible rate of fire of 1550 rounds per minute and was nicknamed the ‘Hitler Saw’ because of the noise it made when fired] and from the sub-machine guns closest to the enemy. Wave after wave of attackers poured forth, but they were all crushed to pieces or fell back and faded. Our line held.
Both the Nordland and the 30th Infantry Division were pushed back during the fighting, and the Danmark was all but destroyed, but vigorous counter-attacks by the 14th Panzer Division helped restore the line and forced the Red Army to halt their offensive. With the crisis temporarily over, Hitler agreed that Steiner’s Corps should be evacuated from the Pocket and brought back to Germany to re-equip and help defend eastern Germany. When Steiner broke the news to Ziegler both men breathed a deep sigh of relief, but it was a relief no doubt tinged with guilt at the thought of the undoubted fate of the Army comrades they were leaving behind. As Steiner took his leave from General Rendulic he almost certainly knew that the Sixteenth and Eighteenth Armies were doomed. They would fight two more huge battles against the Red Army, performing magnificently, before OKW finally gave its consent to the evacuation of Courland on 3 May. Hitler himself had committed suicide on 30 April and Berlin surrendered on 2 May. In a last ditch operation the Kriegsmarine managed to bring out some 26,000 soldiers before the last remnants of the old ‘Army Group North’ finally laid down their arms. Over 180,000 men then marched east into Soviet captivity.
Embarking at Liepaja at the end of January on the Karin von Bornhofen and other transport ships, the Nordland was ferried safely to Stettin where it set foot on German soil for the very first time since its formation two years previously. As the troops recovered, and new replacements and equipment arrived, the division was recognised for its feats in Courland over the preceding four months with the award of the Oakleaves to its commander, Joachim Ziegler. His citation read:
On January 23 1945 the Russians started out for the area of Preekuln, with elements of three Armies and the mass of the 3rd Guards Mechanized Corps (eight divisions and three tank regiments confirmed). After a preparatory barrage of fire, the expected big offensive began towards Libau. Annihilating the biggest part of the troops occupying the main fighting line, the Russians succeeded in breaking through in depth in spite of the bloody defence of isolated, surviving, resistance nests. Seeing the threatened breakthrough, SS-Brigadeführer Ziegler reacted immediately. He stopped the supply services and deployed the gathered troops in blocking positions. Then, with the small divisional reserves, he himself led a counter-attack.
Only thanks to his own brave and untiring performance on the battlefield, especially on January 24–25 1945, was the situation stabilised. He personally led into action small battle-groups and reorganised the resistance in sectors of the front which had lost contact with each other. SS-Brigadeführer Ziegler prevented the breakthrough towards Libau. Through his exceptional bravery Ziegler ensured the continuation of the fight in Courland.
Operation Summer Solstice – Unternehmen Sonnenwende
Back on Stettin’s quayside, Ziegler and his men disembarked, climbed into their vehicles and left the bombed-out city behind them. The Nordland’s grenadiers drove south into the quiet Pomeranian countryside where they married up with their panzer battalion, now reformed and boasting 30 Panthers and 30 assault guns. This would be the last period of calm the division would experience before its extinction in the rubble of Berlin three months later. From this moment until the end, the Scandinavian Waffen-SS would be involved in bitter fighting across the east German landscape, being worn down by battles at Arnswalde, Massow, Vossberg and Altdamm. At each location, now all in modern-day Poland, they would leave yet more comrades behind, lying dead in the mud. For now though, the war seemed a long way off as the men spent more than a week training during the day and then relaxing at night in the local Pomeranian hostelries, eating, drinking and dancing with the local farm girls.
To the east and south the Red Army was equally happy, but for very different reasons. Having surged forward from its bridgeheads on the Vistula, the Red Army had broken into Germany and was approaching the Oder River just to the east of Berlin itself. Successful though the offensive had been, the STAVKA’s plan to defeat Nazi Germany in 45 days had failed, as the troops’ logistics failed to keep pace with their leader’s ambitions. Having splintered Army Group Vistula, under the hapless command of a totally unqualified Heinrich Himmler, the Russians were now short of fuel and ammunition and their attack came to a natural halt. Guderian, probably Hitler’s best remaining general, was the first to see the opportunity for a counter-attack to destroy Zhukov’s overstretched 1st Belorussian Front, and give the Germans much-needed breathing space.
A plan was quickly pulled together that called for a double pincer movement to cut Zhukov’s command in half, a thrust from Stargard in the north meeting up with a southern one from Frankfurt-an-der-Oder. Guderian also proposed that, for the first time in the war, the operation be totally controlled by the Waffen-SS. He called for Dietrich’s Sixth SS Panzer Army to form the southern arm, and a new SS Army, the Eleventh Panzer, to form the northern one. This made sound military sense as it would position Dietrich’s veterans to defend Berlin in the coming battle, but there was now no place at all for sound military thinking on Hitler’s part. The dictator was still obsessed with Budapest and Hungary, never mind that the city had fallen and the country almost lost. He refused to sanction Dietrich’s move north, and insisted the northern thrust alone would be enough.
Felix Steiner and the Eleventh SS Panzer Army
That blow would be delivered by none other than the man who symbolised more than any other the incorporation of European volunteers into the Waffen-SS – Felix Steiner. Promoted from Corps to Army command, Steiner was now given ten divisions, most of them divisions in name only, and no time to properly organise his staff. Ammunition was low, fuel desperately short and air cover non-existent. Arrayed on a 30-mile front, the attacking force was split into three columns. The Eastern Group was the weakest being made up of the 163rd and 281st Infantry Divisions and the Führer-Grenadier Division, collectively called the Corps Group Munzel after their commander. Their goal was flank protection, and to push out towards Landsberg on the River Warthe. Steiner’s old command, the III Germanic SS Panzer Corps, comprising the Nordland, a Flemish SS battlegroup, the Führer-Begleit Division and the Dutchmen of the Nederland (now upgraded to a division), made up the Central Group under General Martin Unrein. Their mission was to punch south and reach Arnswalde (now Polish Choszno) before advancing further. Completing the counter-attack force was the XXXIX Panzer Corps known as the Western Group. This Corps contained the Army’s Holstein Panzer Division, as well as the 10th SS-Panzer Division Frundsberg, the 4th SS-Panzergrenadier Division SS-Polizei and Degrelle’s Walloons, like the Dutch, recently renamed as a division. Their role was flank protection, as with the Eastern Group, but they were also there to exploit and reinforce any success achieved by the Central Group.
Facing Steiner’s new army were no less than five Soviet ones, including the experienced 1st and 2nd Guards Tank Armies, the 3rd Shock and the infantrymen of the 47th and 61st. With each Soviet Army being roughly equivalent to a German corps in size, it was clear that even if the attacking divisions had been up to strength they would have been badly outnumbered by the Soviets. As it was, their only hope of achieving the three to one ratio all military manuals lay down as necessary for an attacker to ensure success against a defender, was to concentrate all of their combat power into one overwhelming punch. This, Steiner’s inexperienced staff failed to achieve. Confusion reigned in the troops assembly areas, men and vehicles clogged up the few roads, and a thaw made the ground boggy and restricted movement. As a result when H-hour came on 15 February, only the Nordland was ready to cross the start line. They attacked into the northern flank of Zhukov’s 1st Belorussian Front, but right from the off Soviet resistance was bitter, and the going heavy, as the rain poured down and the ground turned to slush. It wasn’t exactly blitzkrieg. Nevertheless the Scandinavians, Germans and volksdeutsche pushed on, and reached the beleaguered town of Arnswalde on 17 February. Just as with so many towns and villages across the east, the local Nazi Party hierarchy had not prepared the people for the invasion and evacuation was left far too late. Needless to say the ‘golden pheasants’ themselves, as Nazi Party functionaries were disparagingly called on account of their penchant for flashy baubles of rank, managed to escape in time, but for the majority of the populace the swift Soviet advance left them high and dry and at the mercy of a vengeful Red Army.
More than 2000 German soldiers, many of them wounded, had taken refuge in the town and beaten off several determined Soviet attacks while the civilian population cowered in their cellars praying for deliverance. For once that early spring, their prayers would be answered with the arrival of the Nordland’s grenadiers. As the camouflaged and heavily-armed young troopers stormed into town there was a surge of relief as thousands of people poured out into the streets to greet them. Ziegler’s men consolidated for the day and then surged south again, only to hit a veritable wall of Russian steel, as artillery, armour and aircraft fire deluged them. As the SS troopers struggled on, behind them the civilians of Arnswalde packed as many of their belongings as they could onto carts and their own backs and headed north to safety, saved by the Nordland’s advance.
Further gains were impossible, and in a matter of days the now-deserted Arnswalde was again the frontline as the Nordland was pushed back by ever-greater Soviet attacks. On 23 February the town was abandoned. Summer Solstice had failed and the Nordland withdrew back to the line of the Ihna River. So ended the Nordland’s last offensive of the war.
Ultimately unsuccessful as the operation was, Ziegler and the Nordland were commended for their part in the battle. The official report formed part of Ziegler’s citation for the Oakleaves to his Knight’s Cross:
On February 15 1945 the 11th SS-Panzergrenadier Division Nordland, in spite of the severe shortage of fuel and ammunition, began the planned attack to free encircled Arnswalde. Knowing that with the quickly replenished panzer grenadier regiments, the attack’s objective could only be achieved by achieving surprise and leading it personally, SS-Brigadeführer Ziegler and the regimental commanders supervised the deployment for the attack in detail. At the beginning of the attack Ziegler placed himself at the head of the foremost battalion. After breaking the first resistance of the enemy, SS-Brigadeführer Ziegler ordered his armoured group to undertake a violent breakthrough towards Arnswalde.
With further attacks of the panzer grenadier regiments, the enemy [a large part of the 7th Guards Cavalry Corps] was annihilated. Booty included 26 anti-tank guns, 18 heavy grenade-launchers and two batteries of heavy artillery destroyed.
The enemy was defeated by surprise with minimal casualties [one regiment had just seven dead and two wounded] and for the first time an encircled fortress [1,000 wounded, 1,100 troops and 7,000 civilians] was liberated.
Praise indeed, but though casualties were relatively few overall the Scandinavian volunteers were fast becoming a rarity in the Nordland. By the time of the retreat into Courland the division still counted 534 Norwegians in its ranks, this had dropped to just 64 in the Norge by the end of Summer Solstice, and barely a hundred in total throughout the formation. Their places in the ranks were taken by recently-drafted German conscripts and redundant Luftwaffe and Kriegsmarine men. Hastily kitted out, these poor unfortunates became so much cannon-fodder, with the Nordland’s remaining veterans providing it with its real combat power.
Solstice had indeed failed, however the Arnswalde relief had unintended consequences for the Germans. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, Stalin and the rest of the STAVKA still feared what the once-mighty Ostheer could achieve, and they were now worried about a more general German assault from the north. They were determined to avoid this by driving to the Baltic Sea on a wide front and crushing all of north-eastern Germany. This would clear their flank, and leave the way open to take Hitler’s hated capital and end the war. While this operation was being hastily planned and executed, the chastened Red Army also pushed west seeking to establish bridgeheads across the last natural barrier between itself and Berlin – the River Oder.
Prelude to Berlin
It was just east of Massow. I was ordered to take up a forward position with seven men. We were to stop Russian infantry attacks with two MG42s. In pouring rain and pitch black darkness we groped our way to our three pits. I took the middle one with Gebauer, a German farmer’s son from Rumania, and brought the MG in position, hoping we would have some cover when day broke. The second MG was to our left with three boys, and the remaining three crawled into the pit to the right with assault rifles and sub-machine guns.
In the case of an attack this position was hopeless. There was no connecting trench back to the main line … For three days and nights we had to lie in these godforsaken pits, waiting, waiting, waiting. The rain started pouring again, no food reached us and any connection backwards was unthinkable as long as the artillery fire raged between us and the rest of the Company. Suddenly Gebauer shook me violently: ‘They’re coming!’
A quick glance through the camouflage, there, only 30 metres away, a drove of Bolsheviks were approaching – no time to panic. I could already see a second wave of infantry emerging from the haze, only 50 metres behind the first one. I got the MG going and fired for all I was worth. My fire and the screams of the wounded woke up the other boys, and our weapons spat fire and death on the brown masses.
I happened to look to the left and saw a Bolshevik working his way through a depression towards us, to get at us from behind. In the same instant he saw me and disappeared. There he was again! He aimed a burst from his sub-machine gun at me. The duel was on. The distance was hardly 20 metres. I got hold of an assault rifle [by now the Ostheer’s trusty old Mauser single shot bolt action K98 rifles had mostly been replaced with the highly sophisticated Sturmgewehr 43 assault] and waited for him. Martin, the Rottenführer with the other MG could have touched the Russian if he had looked in his direction but he didn’t notice the duel. Finally the Russian made a mistake, I squeezed the trigger and there, he was up again behind his weapon and before he could react he had a hole between his eyes. His head was thrown back, then sank, disappeared and his limp hand dropped his weapon.
Furious, the Bolsheviks threw themselves against us, the situation was hopeless but the boys fought formidably. While I helped Gebauer to feed the MG with new ammunition I could hear myself swearing non-stop, wishing them the worst possible tortures in hell. I let Gebauer handle the MG alone while I fired alternatively with the assault rifle and with my sub-machine gun. He forgot the danger, pushing his chest above the parapet in order to fire better. ‘Down!’ I screamed but he laughed, he was just 19 years old. Too late. Gebauer suddenly jerked backwards and sank to one side. I turned him around towards me. He was hit under the left eye, the bullet passing through his neck. He was still alive, blood flowing down from cheek and neck. He begged; ‘Write to my mother … just a few lines …’ and then I was alone.
Martin was now also alone. I called out to him to grab his weapon and come over. He came rushing with wild leaps. To the right as well only one boy was left. All the others had died with a bullet through their heads. We got him over to us. I implored them to try and keep their heads down. Of course, Martin in his eagerness forgot my advice, and he broke down seconds later with a bullet just above the nose ridge.
‘Grab the gun and run!’ I bellowed to my comrade, as I got hold of my MG, hooked some ammo belts around my neck and ran. Zigzagging over the field in a crazy run, we reached what was left of the protective edge of the wood. My comrade was a few leaps behind me. As I threw a quick glance behind me, I saw him grab his chest, then fall forward. From the cover of the trees I looked up once more and saw him lying there weakly waving at me. Too late, nothing doing, the Russians were already there. (Erik Wallin)
The Soviets had waited barely a week before resuming their offensive against the Nordland positions on the Ihna River. Wallin’s entire section was wiped out in the fighting, as he recalled above, while his fellow Scandinavian Per Sörensen, now an SS-Sturmbannführer no less, was leading the Danmark’s 2nd Battalion in a struggle at nearby Freienwalde. Edi Janke was in the Danmark’s 3rd Battalion battling alongside Sörensen’s men near Vossberg. He remembers the tactics they used to try and slow down the Soviets:
We usually held a village for 24 hours during the withdrawal, and then came the order – ‘back to the next village’. First came the enemy tanks, we ourselves usually had just one anti-tank gun, which was set up to shoot the first tank. Then the tanks stopped and sent the infantry forward. The infantry was hit hard, then it got dark and we received the order to move back to the next village.
One day we were in a small village in Pomerania, on a reconnaissance patrol, when we discovered we were in danger of being cut off by the enemy. My commander ordered me to explain the situation to the commander of a nearby, solitary King Tiger.
The tank was commanded by an SS-Oberscharführer, a holder of the Knight’s Cross, who told me to make sure our own anti-tank gun didn’t open fire before he did. The King Tiger moved off towards the enemy and positioned itself behind a small hillock. It wasn’t too long before the first Russian tank emerged from the wood near the village. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven tanks came out. We became increasingly uneasy.
Only after the thirteenth enemy tank had appeared did the King Tiger open fire, shooting the last one, it burst into flames, and then our PAK gun joined in shooting the first. One could see the panic break out among the enemy tanks. They turned this way and that trying to avoid the danger, but to no avail. One tank after another was hit. The panic grew as the King Tiger continued to fire. It did them no good. Soon all the Russian tanks were burning without them having fired a single shot.
All the troops who had watched the action were jubilant. The danger of encirclement was still great, however, and we had to pull out of the village later that day. Nevertheless it was a day to remember.
Not far away from the jubilant Edi Janke, Erik Wallin was busy heading west in his trusty SPW half-track when he was stopped by another vehicle from the Schwedenzug carrying a wounded man:
I looked down to see a waving hand rise up from all the blood, oh God it was my fellow countryman and friend SS-Untersturmführer Heino Meyer, the favourite of the Company.
He was almost unrecognisable. A splinter had cut his chin in two and stuck in a neck vertebra and he was few a millimetres from death. He had also been shot in the shoulder and his chest was covered in blood. His legs were pierced by an immense number of shrapnel fragments. But he was alive and even tried to tell me of his misadventure. But his voice was weak and with his damaged chin his speech was slurred … He made it of course, the doctors picked out all the iron scrap except one small piece which remained in his neck as a souvenir, but he never returned to the Company.
The Swedish Waffen-SS officer, Heino Meyer. Hugely popular with his fellow volunteers, twice declared killed in action while serving with the Wiking and Nordland, Meyer survived the war and ended up living firstly in Spain and then South America. (James Macleod)
By the middle of March the Nordland had been pushed back to Altdamm, a river port that straddled the east and west banks of the Oder with a vital bridge connecting the two halves of the town. By now they were joined at the hip with the Flemings of the 27th SS-Freiwilligen Panzergrenadier Division Langemarck, and the Walloons of the 28th SS-Freiwilligen Panzergrenadier Division Wallonien. Grand sounding as this was, both Belgian divisions were no more than a few thousand men strong by this time. Nevertheless, this truly multinational force held back the Soviets on the Oder’s eastern bank for several precious days. The OKW report stated:
In the hard defensive battles in Pomerania that began with an enemy breakthrough to split the Front, the 11th SS-Panzergrenadier Division Nordland has stood as the focal point of resistance since March 3 1945. The Soviet units attacking the division were the 2nd Guards Tank Army, elements of the 61st and 47th Armies and parts of the 3rd Shock Army.
On March 17 after a strong artillery barrage and the deployment of newly-committed forces, the enemy once again tried to push through Altdamm towards Stettin. Ammunition was in short supply and battalions were down to below 100 men each. SS-Brigadeführer Ziegler stayed at his command post repelling sporadic enemy breakthroughs with his staff and repeatedly reorganising the resistance of his exhausted men despite the high casualties in officers. Loss of radios meant artillery fire could not be directed, ammunition was critically low, our panzers were out of action and a large number of heavy infantry weapons were destroyed. Only thanks to his exceptional bravery in this critical situation was the bridgehead held, Ziegler was the spirit of the resistance. In the period from March 3-18 1945 the 11th SS-Panzergrenadier Division Nordland destroyed 194 tanks.
Altdamm became an inferno. Wallin again:
Day and night an annihilating rain of shells of all calibres, from the heaviest howitzers, heavy Stalin Organs, 120mm mortars and infantry guns, down to 37mm anti-tank guns, beat against our positions in that narrow area. … Our casualties were heavy. Pehrsson, our company commander, was wounded and taken back to Stettin … We could stand the hunger, the exhaustion was worse. Our eyes smarted and our faces were stiff. There was no quiet place in that burning and exploding inferno. Everywhere the shells fell with their devastating and lacerating rain of shrapnel.
With six mortars my platoon had taken position in the yard of a house that had been completely riddled with bullets and shells. It lay a short distance outside the actual residential area of Altdamm. Our fire-controller was in a cellar in an advanced position. As long as the field-telephone worked the rounds rose in a continuous stream from our barrels.
No other platoon could have kept up their firing better, at least not under such conditions. But after all they were staunch guys, all of them. Several of them had been in the thick of it ever since the engagements at Narva and Dorpat. Even the newcomers stood up to prove themselves, inspired by their older comrades’ calm and presence of mind.
Not all the Nordland men were quite so sanguine though, as Wallin observed:
In the evening I was ordered by the new company commander to go over myself to relieve our observer. He had had a nervous breakdown. That told me quite a lot about what was waiting for me over there. I left the command post to the calm and reliable Kraus, a promising NCO, then I was off.
One of Wallin’s company officers who he would serve with right until the end was the Danish volunteer SS-Untersturmführer Mogens Schwarz. He had already had an eventful journey just to arrive at the Front:
At the beginning of March I was sent to a company, and was given maps and a soldier who appeared by chance to drive me. Unfortunately when we arrived the position was no longer occupied … we wanted to cross a small bridge but were instantly fired on by Russian infantry. I myself got over the bridge unharmed, my escort thought he had no chance and went back alone. Since it was impossible for me to get back across the bridge unseen, I went on in search of my company.
I only had a 6.35mm pistol and a hand-grenade, suddenly three Russian soldiers came toward me and talked to me. Naturally I understood nothing and patted a Russian amiably on the shoulder. I walked on about 100 metres when they called to me, I jumped over a ditch and found cover behind a single tree. They fired at me but I wasn’t hit, then I saw them deciding what to do next, they were only about 10 metres away so I took my hand-grenade and threw it among them. Then I jumped up quickly and ran away, hiding in a pond until dark. I went on in dripping clothes and fortunately I found our troops and heard Norwegian voices, I called out, ‘Same troop, don’t shoot!’, and when I heard the answer, ‘Understood’, I stepped into our own lines. At the command post they had already started to wonder where I was.
It wasn’t long before the new arrival Schwarz was ‘at home’ among his men and the ever-worsening battlefield situation at Altdamm, as Wallin testified:
The Danish Waffen-SS officer, Mogens Schwarz. Schwarz served in the Nordland’s Recce Battalion alongside the famed Swedish Schwedenzug right until the end in Berlin. (James Macleod)
Moaning wheezes came from two unbelievably mutilated bodies that had been laid on the floor, with a pair of shredded and bloody overcoats as their only protection from the cold floor. Neither of them could live much longer. One of them had no face. Where eyes, nose, mouth and chin used to be was only a hollowed-out, bloody mess. Out of the left corner of the other’s mouth ran a stream of blood … In contrast to this terrible scene there sat SS-Untersturmführer Schwarz, tough and unperturbed, without equal in the Company. He sat on a sugar-box beside a stinking piece of cotton waste, seemingly untouched by everything and everyone around him. He was squeezing lice. Each time Schwarz found a louse, and there were plenty of them as we never got rid of them at the Front, he lifted it with a pleased grin against the weak light, snapped it with his nails, the let it fall down in the hot oil in a tin can. He did everything with calm, almost lazy movements. Now and then Schwarz glanced at the two dying men on the floor and shook his head compassionately. He turned to the officer by the radio and said ‘Do you see now that it’s going to be hell for us.’
Our new company commander arrived and Schwarz rose to attention with his trousers round his ankles. The newcomer, a sympathetic SS-Oberstürmführer straight from Berlin, had not yet had time to become acquainted with Schwarz, a somewhat unusual officer, but he received his report with a straight face. It was clear that he was finding it difficult not to laugh. Then he caught sight of the bloody figures on the floor and went and knelt by them. He spoke in a low voice to them but got no answer apart from moaning, he whispered a question to the medical orderly and got a shake of the head as an answer.
The bridgehead continued to hold out. Only on 20 March did the last Flemings, Walloons, Germans and Scandinavians cross over Altdamm’s bridge before blowing it sky high. Berlin was less than an hour’s drive away. Both sides now took a breath and readied for the final act. The Soviets built up their forces for the push to Hitler’s capital, and the remnants of the Wehrmacht tried to upset those preparations and buy valuable time, though to what end now, no one knew.
Amidst the growing chaos, there were reminders of another world that were hugely unsettling in these surroundings – letters from home. Wallin was given one by Pehrsson, now back from hospital even though still bandaged up:
The first letter from home for more than a year, from a girl who still kept thinking about me. It was a little bit strange – I felt ashamed of the lump in my throat. For more than a month the letter had been on its way from peaceful Stockholm with its cleanliness and undisturbed life. There would still be neon signs and friendly shining windows, with no black-out curtains at night. Cinemas would be open and people would be strolling about. It was a letter from another world.
I tore open the envelope with hands that were now shaking more from joyful excitement than from exhaustion and the recent hardships harrowing effects on my nerves. My eyes swept quickly over the lines. Then I read it again, slowly, then one more time, then once again. Perhaps there was not very much in that letter. It was mostly about ordinary things and small events back home. But it strengthened and renewed me to think about life up north. It was all so far away and distant from the life of the frontline soldier. It helped me to indulge in daydreams as I sat down outside the barn door … Just like the others I was utterly worn out. A week of long, uninterrupted combat, without sleep, among collapsing houses, howling shells and human beings torn apart in dirt, smoke, fire and blood, had consumed all our strength … but now I was once again back home with my relatives and friends. I was back in the well-remembered streets of the Old Town and the South Side. My daydreaming went on until tiredness overwhelmed me and I fell asleep right where I was sitting, still dreaming of far-away Stockholm.
With the Oder line lost, all the enfeebled Wehrmacht forces could do was to try and delay the inevitable. Stalin was determined to take Berlin and Hitler with it, and his by now massively powerful Red Army would grind all to dust to deliver that goal. Who would the Soviets’ opponents be though? One glance at the Wehrmacht’s strength distribution map would be enough for anybody to realise that Berlin was almost totally undefended. Large German forces were effectively cut off in Courland and the Balkans, and a huge number of those facing the Western Allies were in the process of being surrounded in the Ruhr. The majority of the Reich’s military formations were still deployed in the East, as they had been since 1941, but the biggest concentration by far was in the south on the Hungarian-Austrian border. It made no military sense, and contributed to the Allies’ mistaken belief in the existence of a last chance ‘Alpine Redoubt’, where the diehard SS would hold out indefinitely among the high peaks. In reality nothing like that existed, but the mere threat of it worried Eisenhower immensely and presented Berlin to the Soviet dictator on a platter.
Swedish volunteer Erik Wallin in his SS camouflage fatigues. He was wounded in the Berlin fighting but managed to escape the city along with his friend and commander, Hans-Gösta Pehrsson. (James Macleod)
The OKW situation maps did indeed show a number of German divisional insignia between the Oder and Berlin, the Nordland being one, but just like all the others it was a division in name only. Casualties had continued to pile up and replacements were non-existent. From its establishment in September 1943 to the end of March 1945, the division suffered extraordinary losses – 2,937 men killed, 10,454 wounded and a further 1,278 missing – in effect in 18 months its entire original complement was gone. This is how Wallin described it:
The struggle was furious and our losses heavy. Our division soon had the strength of a regiment. It wasn’t unusual to see an Untersturmführer with a machine-gun across his shoulders, move off with an Unterscharführer and a couple of men carrying ammo boxes – and that was a whole company. What could we hope to achieve with battalions of forty to fifty men, and regiments of two to three hundred? … Our company, which had managed better than most in the division, now numbered no more than 40 men.
Ziegler’s division was burnt-out. But the war wasn’t finished with it yet.
The counter-atack that never was
Wallin and his comrades were granted a few days respite, and the Nordland reorganised as it was put to preparing hasty defences at Schwedt-an-der-Oder to the north-east of Berlin. Their opponents also used the first half of April to prepare for the last battle. The Red Army massed 2,500,000 men (carried in 100,000 trucks) and 6,200 tanks, supported by 41,000 artillery pieces and 7,200 aircraft. Alongside the Nordland, the Germans could only muster 300,000 men, 950 panzers, 1,500 artillery guns and 300 aircraft. However fuel was critically short, leaving many of the planes grounded and the panzers reduced to towing each other to conserve petrol.
At dawn on 16 April the Soviets went into the attack. Their strength may have been overwhelming, but not everything went their way. The Germans furiously defended the crucial Seelow Heights position, costing Zhukov’s 1st Belorussian Front an incredible 30,000 men killed in just 3 days. With the Russians stalled, Wallin and his comrades were massed for a counter-attack near Strausberg on 19 April. Driving their half-tracks into an abandoned village, where they were due to meet up with some King Tigers, the Nordland’s recce battalion spread out through the houses to snatch a few hours sleep before the assault began. Less than an hour later disaster struck:
A terrible thunder, as if the ground had opened up for a volcanic eruption, woke us with a violent shake and was followed by repeated close-up explosions in our immediate vicinity … The previously peaceful village had been turned in an instant into a hell beyond any attempt at description. Volley after volley from Stalin’s Organs and heavy artillery created a horrible bloodbath … Soldiers jumped terrified out through doors and from windows, others came staggering with their hands on their bleeding heads or pressed against torn open bellies, where their guts came out through their fingers. Others shuffled along with one or both legs cut off. But many were left inside the burning houses, dead or dying … A bloody arm-stump hit the side of my half-track with a splashing sound and the blood spattered my face …
Of the entire force that should have been the battering ram against the Bolsheviks’ bridgehead, nothing but shredded remains were left. The attack had been smashed to pieces before it had even started. Our recce battalion, an élite unit with few peers on the whole Eastern Front had had one of its bloodiest days of the war. Of the mortar platoon’s ten half-tracks there were just four left with reduced crews. All of this had happened in only about 30 minutes.
The Soviets had anticipated the Nordland’s counter-attack and reacted with crushing force. Among the casualties was the Danmark’s commander, Rudolf Klotz, who was killed in a direct hit on his vehicle at Strausberg airfield. His place was taken by the 31-year-old Per Sörensen. Finally the Danmark Regiment was led by a Dane, even though Danes now numbered less than a hundred in its depleted ranks. In turn, Sörensen handed his 2nd Battalion over to his fellow countryman, SS-Obersturmführer Rasmussen. The Danmark’s other battalion, the 3rd, was still led by the highly decorated and hugely experienced, SS-Sturmbannführer Rudolf Ternedde, while the Norge’s two battalions were under his fellow German, Richard Spörle.
Following up the massed artillery strike, Soviet tanks charged forward and splintered the division. In the chaos, some parts of the Nordland were isolated, cut-off and destroyed, while others were shoved to the north. One of the latter was Rasmussen’s 2nd Battalion. Unable to rejoin their comrades they were integrated into Felix Steiner’s command and retreated westwards to safety. Eventually the battalion would reach the Elbe River and cross over into American captivity.
For the rest, somehow Ziegler managed to restore some semblance of order; Wallin:
In the midst of this bloody confusion the staff of the Nordland were stunned but chilled. The scattered battalions and companies were gathered and made ready for action. The Front had really come into being and it wasn’t long before we were in contact with the Red Army again.
Those Nordland men Ziegler and his staff could gather were now more or less in the suburbs of greater Berlin, the very heart of Hitler’s ‘Thousand-Year Reich’. Most of them would never leave it.
Berlin: the end
Berlin’s last defenders were a true reflection of the sad, hopeless and bizarre place the Third Reich had become by that late spring. The ranks were filled with children, grandfathers and foreigners. Fourteen- and fifteen-year-old Hitler Youth boys stood alongside old men in their fifties from the Volkssturm, the German equivalent of Britain’s Home Guard. The Nordland’s Danes, Norwegians and Swedes were joined by a battalion of Latvians from the 15th SS, and a battlegroup of French SS men from the 33rd Charlemagne. Trying to exercise command of this pathetic garrison was the artillery general, Helmuth Weidling. Dividing the city into sectors, he split the Nordland up and used its various parts to stiffen his rag-bag of defenders. On 23 April, Wallin and the rest of the Recce Battalion were based in Neukölln in the south-east of the city, Per Sörensen’s Danmark held a bridgehead at East Cross, with the last of the Nordland’s assault engineers in Treptow Park and Plänterwald. The Norge defended the three main bridges over the River Spree in Schöneweide, while the Anti-Aircraft Battalion was in Adlershof using their few remaining guns in a ground role. All of the Nordland’s artillery were concentrated in Britz to provide fire support anywhere in the city. For once, ammunition was plentiful as the grenadiers found stockpiles pretty much all over the place. This was now street-fighting. All war is savage, but there is something about combat in the rubble of peoples’ houses and lives, amidst so many signs of otherwise normal life, that somehow makes urban battle the worst there is. The choking smoke and dust, the flames and claustrophobia of a city-scape are all horrible, and made far worse by the immense noise. Noise may not seem to be anything other than a nuisance, but in urban fighting it is a massive factor. Explosions and shots are amplified by the constricted nature of the buildings, all communication soon comes down to endless shouting and even your own weapons are truly deafening. The effect is disorientating and exhausting. The brain struggles to make sense of its surroundings and often just blanks them out instead, making men sluggish and despondent. Overall, men burn out quicker and need to be rotated out of combat after no more than a couple of days. Prolonged exposure to street fighting, with no time out of the line to gather oneself, will turn a unit into so much human rubble in a matter of days. This is exactly what awaited the Nordland, whereas there was an opposite feeling amongst the Soviets – no-one wanted to die now with victory so close – as Wallin observed:
There was no limit to their tank forces. The infantry we saw less and less of though. Time after time we realised that the forces ranged against us were exclusively tanks, assault guns and entire battalions of Stalin Organs. There wasn’t an infantry soldier amongst them. The motorisation of the Red Army had reached its peak, and the infantry were mostly transported in American trucks following in the tracks of the tanks.
Berlin was surrounded and dying. Neukölln was lost, despite a French counter-attack, Gatow airfield was destroyed and Tempelhof airfield threatened, with Soviet tanks on the edges of its runways. The attempt to hold this last link to the outside world led to a bitter-sweet moment for Erik Wallin:
We were suddenly pulled out of the battle and sent urgently southwards down to Tempelhof and Mariendorf where the Soviets had managed to make a dangerous breakthrough. The half-tracks were driven at a raging speed southwards along Frankfurter Allee, Skalitzer Strasse, Gitschiner Strasse and Belle-Alliance Strasse.
The Company arrived at a petrol depot among the airfield’s administrative buildings to refuel, and among the comrades I met there was Ragnar Johansson. During the hard fighting of the last few weeks we hadn’t seen each other even once. He was amazed to see me. ‘You’re still alive?’ he asked incredulously. ‘Yes of course I am.’ I replied. ‘But the boys said you got it at Küstrin.’ Ragnar couldn’t believe his eyes, then he smiled broadly and declared, ‘Come on, let’s celebrate.’ He pulled me over to his half-track and pulled a bottle from the back. ‘Danziger Goldwasser, great stuff, it’s the company commanders but I borrowed some, he can’t take too much anyway.’ Ragnar said beaming. We each took a big gulp from the bottle and then quietly enjoyed a cigarette. He was a fine man and soldier, and ever since most of the Swedes in the Waffen-SS had been gathered in our unit he had been the connecting link. First as a motorcycle dispatch rider, then as GP’s half-track driver, and in this role he had been a link to all of us, bringing us news and letters from home.
That was the last time I saw Ragge Johansson.
The fight at Tempelhof was over before it really began and the place was abandoned. The fighting was confused, there was no real frontline, and it was incredibly difficult to keep any sort of control among the wrecked and burning buildings. Unable to get a clear picture of what was going on around him, Sörensen shinned up a telegraph pole, clinging on precariously with one hand, while holding his field-binoculars with the other. It was too good a target to pass up, and a Soviet sniper put a bullet right into him. He was dead before he hit the ground. His men buried him the next day in Plötsensee Cemetery, in a makeshift coffin made from old ammo crates. The Norge’s Richard Spörle was killed at pretty much the same time, leaving both the Danmark and Norge Regiments leaderless. With all three remaining battalions mustering barely a thousand men all together, Ziegler amalgamated them under the command of the Danmark’s Rudolf Ternedde. Gathering up the exhausted grenadiers, Ternedde led them to the city’s inner defence ring, the so-called ‘Sector C’. There they established a makeshift defensive line along the over ground S-Bahn tram line from Treptow Park and through to the Sonnen Allee.
Ziegler out – Krukenberg in
The entire Nordland now numbered no more than 1,500 men, and as far as Joachim Ziegler was concerned his surviving Scandinavians, Germans and volksdeutsche had done enough, and he was determined to try and spare them more bloodshed. The tall SS general spoke to Weidling about how to best bring the fighting to a close, but the taciturn Wehrmacht man was having none of it and relieved Ziegler of his command on the spot. His replacement was an old acquaintance from service in the Baltic states – the SS-Charlemagne’s Dr Gustav Krukenberg. The militarily undistinguished 57-year-old would now command both the Nordland and his own French SS men. The German Nordland veteran, SS-Unterscharführer Burgkart, was a witness to the abrupt handover:
On the morning of April 25 1945, we – SS-Sturmbannführer Saalbach and SS-Sturmbannführer Vollmar and I – were standing talking in front of the stairway entrance to the advanced command post of the division in a building of the lung hospital at Hasenheide. Suddenly we were spoken to from behind, ‘Where is the Nordland command post?’ I turned and said, ‘Down there in the cellar.’ As I said that I saw the silver-grey coat insignia and knew it was a Brigadeführer. He went past me followed by a couple of SS men with machine-pistols under their arms; they didn’t say a word.
When I looked round I saw a few trucks carrying SS men had driven up, the men got out and formed a cordon cutting off the whole street. Everything was stopped. A short time later Brigadeführer Ziegler, his orderly and his driver, Hauptscharführer Emmert, came up the stairs, Ziegler walked straight up to me and said; ‘Burgkart take your kit and any private belongings out of the wagon.’ I asked, ‘Why Brigadeführer?’, and he replied; ‘Take your things out, I have to go now.’ Only then did we learn that the other Brigadeführer was Dr Krukenberg of the SS-Charlemagne and the men with him were French.
Emmert meanwhile had gotten into the wagon and started it. I took out my kit, overcoat and assault rifle, and Ziegler and his orderly went to get in. Before he did Ziegler turned to us, saluted and said; ‘Gentlemen, all the best.’ Vollmar turned to me and asked what was going on, I wanted to go into the command post but was stopped by one of the Frenchmen saying; ‘No, back, no, back.’ At this moment two or three armoured personnel carriers full of wounded SS men drove up. The crews were searching for a hospital for our gasping, groaning and shrieking comrades. The Frenchmen shouted at them to stop but the drivers ignored them and drove on. Suddenly one of the Frenchmen fired at the first SPW with his assault rifle. The SPW’s gunner reacted instantly and fired his MG34 into the French SS men. I saw three or four French SS men rolling around on the ground yelling and thought it was time to get out of there as fast as possible.
‘Boys, it’s all over’
Most of Berlin was now in Soviet hands, and it was burning. The weather was warm for the time of year, and the skies were clear. With no Luftwaffe, and much of the city’s air-defences knocked out, the Red air force had carte blanche to strafe and bomb anything in sight. If they could not level it from the air then the Soviets hit it with artillery or tanks. As the defenders’ heavy weapons became fewer and fewer, the Russians boldly wheeled their big guns down the middle of Berlin’s streets, smashing everything at point-blank range. The Nordland and the Charlemagne in particular still exacted a heavy toll from their attackers, but come 29 April their resistance was giving out. By that time the Norge was in the Spittelmarkt, and the Danmark around Koch Strasse U-Bahn underground train station. The engineers, anti-aircraft crews and the last five King Tigers of the Hermann von Salza were in the Tiergarten. Most of the Nordland’s Recce Battalion were fighting alongside Henri Fenet’s Frenchmen in Potsdamer Platz, with Pehrsson and the last of his Swedes and their six half-tracks defending the Reich Chancellery.
Then on 30 April, deep in an underground bunker, after a short wedding ceremony, a middle-aged Austrian crunched on a cyanide capsule and blew his own brains out with a small calibre pistol before the poison could take effect. Next to him his wife of less than an hour committed suicide too. Adolf Hitler was finally dead. Having caused millions of deaths the dictator lacked the courage to stand with his men and go down fighting. As his body was hurriedly burnt in a shallow trench outside the Chancellery bunker, the news started to leak out – it was over.
Krukenberg’s men, both Nordland and Charlemagne, were pulled back to the huge Air Ministry building on Leipziger Strasse, though the Norge was still at the Spittelmarkt. A lone King Tiger stood sentry in the street outside as everyone tried to work out what to do next. Pehrsson, though, was in no doubt. He gathered his men together and told them the war was over, that their oaths were absolved and they should try and escape the city.
Thousands of Berlin’s defenders simply sat down and waited to be rounded up by the Red Army. Others drank themselves into a stupor on rivers of alcohol that seemed to appear from nowhere. A few, like Waffen-Obersturmführer Nielands and his Latvian SS recce company, stayed in their positions and prepared to die – there would be no POW Camp for those Stalin regarded as traitors. Several thousand though were determined to try and break out of the city to safety. Their officers took them to the Weidendammer Bridge over the Spree at Freidrichstrasse. There they waited for nightfall to try and cross the bridge and head west out of Berlin.
In the waiting throng, private soldiers rubbed shoulders with generals like Ziegler and Krukenberg, and high-ranking Nazi Party officials, even Hitler’s deputy Martin Bormann was there. A few of the Nordland’s last armoured personnel carriers and panzers managed to reach the bridge by draining fuel from the rest, which were then disabled and abandoned. As night fell, the mass of would-be escapees prepared to make the dash over the couple of hundred metres of open bridge and road. The Soviets were waiting.
Just after midnight on 1 May, a group of men stormed forward onto the bridge, only to be cut down by shell and machine-gun fire. The next wave were undeterred and after marshalling the armour, they charged. After that it was more or less a free-for-all, as chaos reigned. The Soviets were determined to stop anyone from getting away and they poured steel and high explosive into the hordes of Army and SS men. It is impossible to calculate how many men died at Weidendammer Bridge, except to say it was carnage. No panzers made it beyond the far side, and neither did any half-tracks. Erik Wallin’s friend, Ragnar ‘Ragge’ Johansson, was driving one of the latter when it got hit on Friedrichstrasse. Johansson dived out, only to be caught and killed in a shell blast a few yards away. He was perhaps the very last member of the Scandinavian Waffen-SS to die in combat in World War Two. Some Nordland men did make it across the bridge though, and they swiftly dispersed and struck west. Among the lucky ones were two of the Norge’s Norwegian panzer grenadiers, Lage Søgaard and Kasper Sivesind from the 12th Company, and the Danish officer, SS-Obersturmführer Birkedahl-Hansen, who led a group of fellow Danes from the Danmark out through Spandau. Birkedahl-Hansen was suffering from jaundice at the time and several of his men were wounded, but somehow they managed to keep going north until they reached the Baltic Sea port of Warneminde. There the SS men half-begged and half-bullied a local fisherman to take them to Denmark. By mid-May they were home. As for Ziegler and Krukenberg, the two SS generals got over the Weidendammer and then split up. Just short of the Gesundbrunner U-Bahn station in the Humboldthain district, Joachim Ziegler was hit by a ricochet and killed instantly. Krukenberg managed to lay low in the ruins for a couple of days before being discovered and captured by a Red Army patrol.
Among the ruins, the columns of weary prisoners, and the sudden eerie silence, Vasily Ivanovich Chuikov, the victor of Stalingrad and now the conqueror of Berlin as commander of the Soviet 8th Guards Army, wrote in his diary on 2 May: ‘Everything was quiet in Berlin.’
As for the Swedish Waffen-SS contingent, only Hans-Gösta Pehrsson and Erik Wallin made it out of the city alive. Wallin had been wounded in the left leg by a shell blast on 27 April, and tried to find shelter in the crumbling city:
I remembered that one of my Swedish comrades, Untersturmführer Gunnar-Erik Eklöf, an officer from our battalion, recently had a command in Berlin as the city became the frontline. Perhaps he was to be found in his apartment at Getraudenstrasse. I went in that direction towards Wilmersdorf. Every street crossing had a tank barricade, it was difficult to get through. When I finally reached my destination, it was clear the house was empty. On again.
Wallin was lucky, and found shelter and medical care in an overflowing first-aid centre in a school in Nikolsburger Platz. He was still there when the city surrendered. Abandoning his uniform, he moved around Berlin for the next few weeks hiding out with other Swedes, mostly civilian workers, trying to find a way home. In a stroke of pure luck, he then met up with Eklöf, who was also in touch with Pehrsson. Pehrsson told Wallin about the death of his friend Ragnar Johansson on Freidrichstrasse during the break-out, and the two of them then resolved to escape the city as soon as practicable. On 2 June, with Wallin’s wounds healed, the pair of ex-grenadiers started out north on foot. En route they heard of an official crossing-point for displaced foreigners trying to get home, over the Elbe River at Wittenberge. Trekking to the site, alternately dodging and bluffing their way through the Red Army, the two Swedes posed as Italian refugees and smuggled themselves onto a ferry.
The Swedish Waffen-SS officer, Gunnar-Erik Eklöf, who served in the Nordland’s famous Schwedenzug, then the SS-Hauptamt in Berlin, before ending up with Otto Skorzeny’s commandos in the special forces unit, Jagdverband Nordwest. (James Macleod)
The feeling of having at long last got out of the range of fire from the Red Army was overwhelming. We reached the other bank and were greeted by laughing British soldiers, with the words, ‘Welcome back to civilisation!’
The end of the SS-Wiking
Away to the southeast, and following the failure of Spring Awakening, the Wiking had been steadily pushed out of Hungary and into Austria. Along with the rest of Dietrich’s men, the Wiking was caught up in the defence of Vienna and the fighting around Stühlweissenburg. In the chaos and confusion the division splintered, with much of the Westland separated from its compatriots. Some fell into the vengeful hands of the Red Army near the River Mur, but Karl Ullrich led the majority to the American lines at Radstad, where they laid down their arms and went into captivity. After four years of constant combat, all of it in the East, and having fought in Barbarossa, the Caucasus, Cherkassy, Kovel, the Vistula and Hungary – the 5th SS-Panzer Division Wiking was no more. Tens of thousands of men had been through its ranks, with so very many of them killed or wounded in the process, but the division had established a military reputation that equalled that of the very best Waffen-SS formations, and it was not stained by tales of wanton atrocities as were so many others. Overall the Wiking had won an extraordinary 55 Knight’s Crosses, of all the Waffen-SS divisions only the Das Reich (69) and the Leibstandarte (58) Divisions earned more.
Years after the end of the war, Erik Brörup emigrated to Canada and ended up serving in the Royal Canadian Armoured Corps. He is standing in front of his armoured car. (James Macleod)
Erik and Grethe Brörup at home in Canada. Erik suffered strokes towards the end of his life which left him severely incapacitated. His mind was still sharp though, until he passed away peacefully on 7 January 2010. (Erik Brörup)
The Wiking had always been majority-manned by Germans, despite its name and the intent of its founders, but until the advent of the SS-Nordland it had proudly carried the banner of the Scandinavian Waffen-SS and several thousand Danes, Norwegians, Finns and Swedes had worn the Wiking cuff-title. The establishment of the Nordland had effectively brought an end to the Wiking’s Nordic heritage, although even then a few Scandinavians continued to be found in its ranks – when Erik Brörup surrendered to the Americans on 8 May, just south of Fürstenfeld, he was not the only Scandinavian. Having surrendered, the men were well treated and sent to a detention camp in Upper Bavaria at the beginning of June. A hasty ‘de-nazification’ process was declared complete by September, and from then on men were released in batches and sent home. For those Germans from the now-lost eastern Länder (roughly translated as ‘regions’) there was no home to go to, and they started again among their comrades from western and central Germany. Things were not so easy for the foreign volunteers, who went home to face their vengeful countrymen.