Unteroffizier Robert Poensgen, war correspondent with the 4. Panzer-Division

28 March 1945. Midnight had already passed. The vehicles of the command group rolled out onto the road and took up positions behind one another. I rode on the running board of the general’s Kübelwagen. Feldwebel Lemm was at the wheel. He had been Betzel’s long-time driver. Next to him was Hans Putz, Betzel’s enlisted aide. The death of the General had affected these two the most. They had been with him for years, had accompanied him on all official duty trips and leaves, had been with him at his home. For them, he was their superior, their comrade and their friend—more than for anyone else.

The armored radio vehicle of the commander moved ahead of us, a few vehicle ahead in the line. The modest wooden casket, covered by the Reich war flag, had been placed on the rear deck.

That march through nighttime Danzig, a city of ruins, a march through rubble and smoke, accompanied by the howling and bursting of shells and from the cracking of collapsing houses, was the last march of the General. It was a funeral procession that choked the breath out of you. The entire headquarters rode behind the dead division commander; no one formed a cordon. Occasionally, a Landser from another formation tossed a shy glance at the covered coffin—and the Russians also fired a salute.

The procession moved past the Petri School, along the railway, across the train station plaza; we moved one more time through the streets that were so familiar to me. But the picture of the city had changed so fundamentally the last seven days! Wherever the eye looked: ruins, ruins, ruins. The city seemed lifeless and empty. It hearts had stopped beating. The burned-out facades, with pale moonlight falling through the empty windows, jutted towards the smoke-filled heavens like unearthly theater backdrops. The streets were barely passable: shell craters, shattered trees, rubble from concrete walls, shredded streetcar tracks.

There appeared to be something going on up ahead. The sound of fighting flared up. Antitank-gun rounds whipped through the night . . . machine-gun fire . . . detonations. Muzzle flashes blazed here and there. Correspondingly, we turned off to the left into Hundegasse.1

How often had I been there during better times? Had watched peaceful people engaged in hard work? I knew just about every house there—knew them once. At that point, Hundegasse was nothing but a row of ruins, just like all the other streets.

We had to stop, since a column of infantry was blocking the route. In front of us, standing at the spot where they had always been riding, were the motorcycle messengers of the individual troop elements. There were girls from Zappot and Danzig riding in some of the sidecars. They had been doing that for several days, and no one said anything about it. The cute little railway conductor was also there. The messenger for the engineers was in love with her and wanted to marry her as soon as the opportunity presented itself.

Eerily, the narrow gables of the old houses jutted into the heavens. There were only thin walls left, which appeared to waver in the wind. Before I could think things through to the end, a warning sounded up front: “Watch out! The gable’s coming down!” In a fraction of a second, I saw the motorcycles whiz past one another. The wall collapsed on the knot of people, breaking apart in the air several times. A crashing . . . a cracking . . . a strong blast of air . . . then an impenetrable cloud of dust. I remained on the running board, as if paralyzed.

All of us then ran to the unfortunate spot. The rubble was piled almost a meter high above the motorcycles. The soldiers were all there. They had grown accustomed to reacting in a flash and had been able to jump to the side. But the girls were not able to get out of the sidecars. All of them were buried. Cold sweat ran down our backs, as we started digging like wild men. We knew from the very beginning that it would all be in vain, but nevertheless, we did it anyway. We tore away at the rubble with our bare hands. Hardly a word was spoken. Then we let our hands sink. I had to turn away. I could not look—and I had already seen so much suffering. The small engineer messenger almost went crazy. We helped him lift his dead bride from the sidecar. He cleared off her face gently; it had been covered in a thick coat of dust. Her head hung far forward. The collapsing mass of wall must have snapped her neck. She had probably not felt a thing, since her face was so peaceful. There was still a slight smile on her lips. The engineer found her cap under some brickwork. He carefully tapped off the dust and placed it on the dark-blonde locks of the girl. Then he kissed her gently on the forehead. The gesture had something so touching about it that all of us were deeply moved.

The column started moving again up front. We hastily gathered the belongings out of the completely destroyed machines. The engineer told us with a tear-choked voice that he had wanted to send his bride-to-be away so many times, but that she always remained with him. She had always said that if they were to die, then they would die together. She was dead now, and he had to live on all by himself. A terrible fate! He had attempted to pull her out of the sidecar as the gable started sagging, but it was already too late. At the very last moment, a comrade had yanked him back by the arm.

The column moved on. We stole out like thieves in the night. We had no time to recover the other corpses. But we had turned a little bit more taciturn and contemplative.

We moved through the city gate and onto the Mottlau Bridge. It had been hit hard. The roadway had been cobbled together with beams and planks. It was the last passable crossing from out of the city to the east.

Above us, there were a number of harassment aircraft. The houses were aflame to the right and the left. The night bombers continued dropping their bombs on that brightly lit corner at the bridge. It was high time to get out of there! Widely dispersed, we crossed the bridge over the Vistula and then headed with full speed on the open highway to the irrigation fields.

A couple of Tigers were screening along the road. There was an antitank gun firing behind us. Rounds whipped down the road, impacting near the Tigers. A wounded man cried out harshly, stretching his syllables. His voice slowly died.

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