Oberleutnant Wilfreg Grigat, adjutant of the I./Panzer-Regiment 35, 4. Panzer-Division
Wind south-southwest, speed three, good visibility. With a raw wind, we run toward the southern tip of Öland Island, coming from Christians-Ö. The first lights of evening shine in front of us on the island. The goal is the skerries outside of Stockholm. Therefore: port or starboard for Öland? We would try it portside. That way, we could be outside of Gräsgord around 2300 hours, the same time as back then. I had already dealt with the concept of “back then” two times on this trip: When we went under the bridge at Vordingborg and then outside of Mön. Three days ago, we had anchored for a night outside of Möns-Klint, the chalk cliffs, just like back then.
There are two of us in the cockpit, exactly like back then. Twenty-five years ago, Leutnant Finkelmann stood next to me at the wheel. Now, in 1970, it is my wife, who is manning the rudder. Back then, there were some forty soldiers in all corners of the boat, wrapped up in their overcoats. Today, it is our two children sleeping in the forepeak.
While I set the new course, the question came back, a question that had occupied me for days and which wouldn’t let me go: What was it actually like back then?
Yes, what was it really like when the great Orlog2 came to an end twenty-five years ago? Certainly, everyone had frequently thought about it . . . on this or that individual detail . . . on a certain face . . . whenever you had old photos in your hands or encountered a book about the period or encountered old comrades from the war.
Twenty-five years . . . that was a quarter of a century. That which has already occurred is recognized as a generation. That which is about to come seemed like a light year to us at the time. One could not conceive of it. In any event, the way it is recorded in accounts written later most likely cannot be the way it was, in all likelihood not the way it was.
Do you still remember the names of comrades, of locations? A few of them are still there in memory; the rest is a gaping hole. And how often has it occurred that you see young soldiers and think: What a greenhorn, still wet behind the ears. But we were also that young back then. We’ve also forgotten that; that’s how old we’ve become.
Of course, we know that the ability to forget is a true blessing. The psyche is not capable of limitless stress. And when it becomes too much for it, it either throws the ballast off in succession, with the heaviest going first, or it come to the aid with a benevolent trick, in which it takes the unpleasant, the especially stressful and changes it in the memory so much that it no longer exerts pressure.
Be that all as it may, the question remained. And ever since I had been preoccupied with it on this trip into the past, no answer has occurred to me. Individual events have come back to life, however.
While setting the course and looking at the maritime charts, for example, I remember how we navigated back then.
Late in the afternoon, 9 May 1945. We still heard cannon fire at Hela, which had just disappeared behind us. I called out the usual “Everyone here!” and explained the plan to initially sail to Bornholm.3 When I received questioning glances, I explained that it was quite simple: We only had to sail west; initially at about 18 degrees east longitude to the north and then about 55 degrees north latitude to the west.
Our physician, Assistenzarzt Arthur Rathke, had opened up the stored inventory of a Danzig bookshop in the attic of a farmer’s house in the Vistula lowlands some time ago. Out of the great items—there was really a little bit of everything there—I was able to get Knaur’s Pocket Atlas, in addition to Morgenstern’s Mondschaf with which I was able to convincingly put together the plan.
I was almost touching to watch our warriors from Franconia, whose familiarity with bodies of water from home were limited to the Main and the Regnitz, attempt to understand what everything meant. Trust is good, but one of them still summoned up the heart to ask how we actually knew when we were supposed to make a left turn.
That’s where it started to get complicated. Although I had been to sea early in my childhood and had all sorts of relevant qualifications and had been preparing for days as a precautionary measure, I had yet to prove that I was a reliable sea captain. Quite the opposite.
We had set sail at 0230 hours at Nickelswalde. A mere ten minutes later, we had bottomed out on a sandbar just outside the mouth of the Vistula. There was, of course, an explanation for that. The normal sea traffic used the so-called “dead” Vistula, which led to Danzig. Our branch of the Vistula, the so-called Vistula cut-off of 1840, was correspondingly not dredged continuously and had become filled with sand. We just didn’t know the location of the sandbars. Despite that, I thought a special lesson was in order to remove any doubts about the qualifications of the sea captain.
And so I started with the circumference of the earth of 40,000,000 meters; divided it by 360 degrees, which comes to 111,111; which, in turn, is further divided into sixty parts, which results in an arc minute or a nautical mile of 1,852 meters. This went on, since I then needed to prove that we could measure the speed of the boat by means of a clock with a second hand. I thought we were back in school when we calculated the following together: if a boat covered a nautical mile in an hour, it would cover 30.87 meters in a minute (1,852/60) and roughly half a meter in a second (30.87/60). Through group participation, we came up with the formula: movement in knots, that is, in nautical miles an hour, equaled twice the measured distance in meters, divided by the number of seconds.
After we had tested that—we threw a piece of wood overboard and determined how many seconds it took to pass a previously measured stretch as determined by the reading of several military watches—there was a considerable increase in trust for our continued operations.
With a speed estimated by us at between four and five knots—we had cleared the sandbar around 1400 hours—we had to establish a western course around midnight. The fact that we had headed northwest due to the wind was not noticed by anyone. Correspondingly, when land came into sight towards evening of the next day, a general outcry started: “Bornholm in sight!” We had no idea, where we actually were. Only this much was clear: It was not outside of Bornholm. By “we” I mean the leaders on the boat. Besides me, those were Leutnant Uli Fintelmann, who had developed into a reliable helmsman, and two navy Obergefreite, whom we had found on board. One manned the rudder and the other supervised the asthmatic hot-bulb engine.
We had set a course for Karlskrona, since no deviation had been built in and we were unable to measure for the deviation of the compass by the metal parts of the boat. Since the boat had apparently only been used in navigating the Vistula—perhaps having once gone to Hela—no one had ever adjusted the compass or established a deviation table. On top of that, the entire Baltic in our Knaur’s Pocket Atlas was smaller than the width of a hand.
We had Sweden in front of us, that much was certain. But it could have been the southern portion of Öland just as easily as Hanö Bay. That we were at Karl-skrona, almost right in the middle of that area, I had not counted on. It didn’t really matter to us, however. We had the Russians and certain captivity far behind us; there was a peaceful country in front of us. What did it matter whether we were a few miles to the north or south?
By then, my boat was about three kilometers outside of Gräsgord. The wind had died down almost completely, and we gently bobbed up and down somewhat unpleasantly in the swells. With oilcloth over two pullovers against the moist night air and a mug of hot tea in my hand, my wife and I sat in the cockpit and looked at the lights on land and at the beacons whose labels we had identified in the beacon index.
It must have looked almost the same back then. How had it impressed us to see a peaceful village, not blacked out . . . to see cars with their headlights on! No one was sleeping on board. Everyone stood there and marveled as we secured the sail and chugged towards the harbor.
Of course, I was also happy to have the crossing of the Baltic behind me, but I wasn’t as pleased as the others. I knew all too well how treacherous the Swedish coast is and how uncomfortable the many rocky cliffs right under the water could be.
About at the spot where we were presently located, we pulled around and discussed how we needed to establish contact with shore and how to ask for a guide. Since there was no flashlight to be found that had batteries strong enough to send out a readable Morse code signal, I gave the machinist orders: torchlight. Out of an old broom, some cotton rags, some diesel oil and some petroleum, we produced a terrific torch, which was quickly confirmed from shore. Not twenty minutes later, a launch from the Swedish Coast Guard chugged out towards us. The crew insisted on appearing in steel helmets and carrying submachine guns. We then sailed slowly into the tiny harbor behind the launch. It was truly tiny, inasmuch as we touched bottom as son as we tied up at the berth. We remained exactly four and a half hours in Gräsgord. Of that time, we had to struggle for three hours not to be interned. We didn’t know at the time what a tragic fate awaited the German soldiers interned in Sweden, and the mood on board in this regard was not completely unanimous. Besides there were a number of soldiers, who were certainly good men on land but who had puked their guts out during the crossing, particularly during the stormy nighttime portion, and would have preferred not to continue the sea journey. Discipline, at least in the case of our people, was still completely intact, so that we did not have to take those voices into consideration. The man we were talking to, if I remember correctly, was a tenured instructor from Stockholm, who served as the harbor commander as a reserve captain. I had to sweet talk to him to convince him that we were not German soldiers who had been washed ashore along the Swedish coastline and he had to intern. Instead, we were simple mariners in a maritime emergency, who needed to be helped and had to be afforded the opportunity to continue their journey.
My arguments were not completely convincing. For one, we still wore uniforms and were armed. Moreover, I also had to ask that two badly wounded and three slightly wounded men be taken ashore, whereby the types of wounds were conspicuously not caused by an accident at sea.
Once again, I had the last few hours on the Vistula land spit before my eyes: How we had found the boat, the Brunhilde, and how we had taken it in a coup de main . . . how we then went on board and some two and a half hours after the capitulation were subjected to the bombs of a Russian night bomber.
I had formed two patrols. One of them had been sent north and the other south along the east bank of the Vistula to scout our suitable maritime capacity. We had arranged that a green signal flare would be used to indicate that something had been found. After twenty minutes, one went up.
The boat was a fifteen-meter-long former fishing cutter, which had been converted for passenger use, presumably for along the river, and still had all of its old sail-cloth as well as a powerful hot-bulb engine. The boat had a highly visible Red Cross painted on it; in the end, it had been used to transport wounded from the mouth of the Vistula to Hela. It was guarded by two grim-looking military policemen, who had announced in a decisive manner that the boat had been confiscated for a division headquarters. Since the military police had also heard talk that the war had been over for some two hours, it only took a question to get them to become members of the crew: Whether they wanted to go with us and stay behind. The patrol took the boat into its possession and a messenger was sent to the rest of us with orders for the rest to work their way to the boat, individually and unobtrusively, without haste or speed, and to only take the most necessary baggage. Unfortunately, I still had to think about the tens of thousands of soldiers, who were bivouacking at the edge of the woods, disciplined and quietly, and who had given up all hopes of escaping captivity. Any out-of-the-ordinary movement would have only led to a veritable assault on the boat. But to take all of them was impossible. At least our own people should go.
But at the last minute something happened that we had wanted to prevent. You know how that goes. All of a sudden, people started become uncertain. They didn’t know whether they might be too late. A casual stroll soon became a forced march. In the end, it was a flat-out run, none of which remained unnoticed. Before our last few people were on board, a veritable flood of humanity descended on the boat, with the result that we had to cast off even before the engine had been started. It was right during that movement that a Russian bomber dropped an illumination bomb, followed by a sack full of small bombs. I personally was hit in the back with a small piece of shrapnel; two mechanized infantrymen, who had come aboard, were hit in the abdominal cavity; three more were hit in the legs. Other than the obligatory first-aid kit, we had no way to help the wounded.
All of this is to help set the stage. Of course, the two badly wounded men had to have medical attention. I left it up to the three slightly wounded as to what they wanted to do. All opted to remain in Sweden.
All this meant that my negotiating position was not the best. In discussions that lasted hours, which were alternately conducted by the tenured instructor in proper English and then broken German and during which he constantly pointed out how burdensome the entire matter was for him, since he had to produce a detailed written report concerning the incident, I succeeded in finding some understanding for our position from him and, above all, from his superior, with whom he was in telephonic contact several times.
The wounded were taken ashore and transported to the nearest hospital. We were allowed to fill our water tanks, and I received a maritime chart that went as far as beyond Mön. By then it was 0330 hours. We were thereupon instructed more or less to cast off and set sail in the direction of Karlskrona, lying at anchor in the roads. That meant that our further fate had not yet been completely decided.
On the way to Karlskrona, routine gradually settled in and we went over everything that we should have done before but had not done due to the excitement and the special situation. We determined how much we had in rations on board; we had sufficient water at least as far as Karlskrona. While taking inventory, it was determined that almost all of it was cans of fish. There was almost no bread. Uli Fintel-mann was then given the mission of drawing up a list of all on board. It turned out, unfortunately, that a lot of our people were missing.
At this point, I need to flash back again: We had cast off with a completely overcrowded boat. There were so many people on deck that it was impossible to move from the rudder to the front of the boat. We moved very slowly downstream on the Vistula. One cannot forget that it was night, even though starry, and we were trying to keep in the navigation channel without a clear view. Barely 15 minutes had passed—we had just left the mouth behind us—when we ran aground with a loud scraping. It is hard to imagine the mood on board nowadays. Just a few minutes ago the men had been relieved to know that they had escaped captivity at the last possible moment only to then sit back in the mousetrap again. I must confess that my own mood was not much different. I had also received a fairly painful wound to my back as well.
After all of the attempts to free the boat with a reverse screw and heeling had failed, indifference set in along with an apathetic surrender to fate. I also lay down next to the rudder and caught a couple of hours of sleep. It was not until it had become light and we had a hasty breakfast that we started to consider the situation again. It became clear to me that we had to solve two problems.
On the one hand, we had to get free, which was obvious. On the other hand, we had to get rid of at least a third of the people on board, since we only had a chance to reach home on such an overcrowded boat if the seas remained as smooth as glass-and I knew the Baltic. By then, the number on board had increased by another twenty men. They were SS combat engineers, who had come aboard via inflatable craft. It was the inflatable craft, however, that offered me the solution. Even though it was very difficult for me, I had to point out that we were violating the terms of the capitulation by our attempt to flee and that we could count on being punished. That announcement had the desired effect in a very short time. Over the course of the next two hours, about half of those on board left on the rubber boats of the SS, which had been moving back and forth from the boat to the shore. As a result, the boat became a bit more seaworthy.
But when that relief did not suffice to free the boat, Oberleutnant Kolisch, Leutnant Fintelmann, and Leutnant Schulz, along with a few others from our group, went ashore to check out the situation. It was intended for contact to be maintained with the shore so as to be able to call back our people. Towards noon, a powerful wind from the northwest came in, with the result that the water rose somewhat and we were able to float free around 1400 hours. Although we fired the last two white signal flares we had, only Fintelmann came back. There was no trace of Kolisch, Schulz, and the other people. Correspondingly, we had to set sail to the open sea with a heavy heart with only a few of those from the 35th.
I thought of all of that as I took a look at the list drawn up by Fintelmann. Of the forty on board, only sixteen came from our bunch. Unfortunately, the list has been lost.
Toward noon, a Swedish Coast Guard ship coming from Karlskrona approached us. We had apparently been reported, and the ship ordered us to stop by means of signal flags. A naval lieutenant and four men came on board, reported properly to me and requested permission to search the ship. Somewhat horrified, they determined that we were armed to the teeth and asked for an explanation. I could only repeat my old, nice-sounding platitudes: We were poor, plagued mariners who were in a maritime emergency only insofar as we had no bread on board and that the weapons were meaningless, inasmuch as we didn’t have any intention of attacking Sweden now that the war was ended. The lieutenant smiled understandingly, when I admitted to him, that we had been determined during the sea movement to sink any Russian naval units with Panzerfäuste that would have made any attempt to seize our boat. To my great surprise, I received as an answer the statement that we had only escaped that murderous act of heroism by a hair, because the entire Russian Baltic Fleet had set sail into the Baltic last night and occupied Bornholm. Bornholm, of all places. It was where I had intended to sail originally.
Without commenting, the Swedes left the boat, but they came back a short while later with large quantities of crisp bread and great powdered milk. They brought me a recent English newspaper with the compliments of the local commander. Not wanting to be outdone, we gave them twoPanzerfäuste and an MG 42.
He had heard of those weapons before and he accepted both gifts with thanks. He asked whether there was something else he could do. Since the relationship between us had increasingly grown friendlier and more understanding, I told him that I had been hit in the back and thought a tetanus injection was in order. The good man promised immediate attention, and not thirty minutes later a doctor was on board. He regretted that he was unable to remove the shrapnel without an operation. Nevertheless, he gave me the tetanus and dressed the wound professionally. Once again, we could only pay with articles of war and handed over a submachine gun, an 08 pistol, a P 38 and—what might be called the highlight—a hollow-charge demolition. Our newly won friends presented their calling cards with a slight bow. Our Swedish friends took their leave of us and promised to keep an eye on us at least as far as Karlskrona. In light of the Russian fleet, that helped calm our nerves considerably.
Around 1500 hours on 11 May, we arrived at Karlskrona and dropped anchor at the spot we had been directed to.
Once again, there was a lot of palaver with an officer from the harbor command, who had come alongside with his launch. There was more discussion about internment; that issue seemed to have been removed from the list of topics. On the contrary, they treated us like soldiers of a foreign power, whom they wished to get rid us as soon as possible. In plain English, we were irritating foreigners. Correspondingly, everything revolved around the practical question of what we needed to get out of the country as quickly as possible. For the Swedes, getting out of the country meant Denmark. By then, all of it had been occupied by the English, with the exception of Bornholm. We, on the other hand, were thinking of Germany and either Kiel or Flensburg as our target harbors. We therefore argued about two or three maritime charts and—what was certainly a greater cost factor for the Swedes—rations and possibly also fuel for one to three days, depending on the weather situation.
That the Swedes won the day is self-explanatory. We could even understand why, since we were also familiar with the mentality of the rear-area paymasters. The target port was originally Copenhagen, which I categorically said I would not do, after they had shown me the map of the minefields in the sound, which looked pretty miserable. In the end—the Swedes understood our navigational issues—we finally agreed on Klintholm on the island of Mön, and we were only given one and one half day’s worth of bread, canned soup, powdered milk and fuel. My confirmation of receipt for those items has no doubt been sent to the Federal Republic of Germany in the meantime for payment. Regarding technical matters, the Swedes were more generous. We received maritime charts that went as far as Fünen, our compass was adjusted and, since our engine had stopped its benedictory duties two hours outside of Karlskrona, a mechanic came on board with the most important replacement parts. Almost as important was the fact that we received permission to anchor until the next day in the roads. Although the sailing from Öland had only been under a light wind—nowadays I would call it a gentle breeze—and had been quite pleasant, the Landser had been battered by the unaccustomed seafaring. The possibility of sleeping through the night while anchored in a calm sea was a pleasant prospect for everyone.
The first order of business was the compensation of the compass. While the Swedish mechanic and two of our maintenance people tinkered with the engine, Leutnant Fintelmann and a Feldwebel from the mechanized infantry established a meal plan for four days. We insisted on reaching Germany. Since we had even larger stocks of cans of meat on board that the Swedes did not know about, it was primarily a matter of rationing the bread and water.
At 1800 hours, the Swedish mechanic left without the engine running. It was the end of the day for him and, since he also took his tool along, it was also quitting time for us, as we referred to it in civilian terms.
Although everyone was dead tired, most stayed on deck in small groups until deep into the night. The men looked at the lights on land and at the stars above. Our thoughts wandered back to the Vistula Spit and to our comrades, who had not come along and who were then with Ivan.
We had been convinced almost to the end that we had a secure passage back for the remnants of the 1st Battalion. All of us had felt that the war coming to a close and, during the final days, there were concrete indications of capitulation negotiations, our source being the navy. It goes without saying that we prepared for that. It appeared to me to be a requirement as part of our obligation to take care of the men. On the other hand, there was no question that everyone would do his duty to the very end, but it was a bit easier to do, if you knew that the route back was open.
While our few remaining operational Panthers defended from the cuts in the woods along the spit, one blocking position at a time—a cat-and-mouse game with the Russians that was unusual for us, but which allowed us to backstop the 12th—a sort of crisis headquarters was established in Nickelswalde. Heading it was Assistenz -arzt Dr. Arthur Rathke. Good old Arturio, as we like to call him, was the man for the job. He was a real go-getter. He was a good battalion surgeon and, more importantly, an indispensible doctor of the mood and the soul. He was effectively a one-man-band, who sometimes played saxophone, sometimes the accordion. Whenever it was necessary, he could hold us in his spell with wild rhythms or move us to tears with melancholy notes. He also possessed the essential imagination and negotiating skills that were necessary for “chartering” the required maritime capacity for our transport to the rear.
The first mission of the crisis headquarters was “Operation Big Head,” which was the dissolution of our rear-area services. The headquarters, maintenance services and supply elements were still set up for administering to an almost complete battalion. In actuality, during the previous two weeks, only three to eight vehicles were operational at any given time, depending on the spare parts and fuel situation. All of the vehicles could be manned several times over.
At first, the people were simply listed as sick. That was only a drop in the bucket, however. That didn’t quite work, since we couldn’t have a regular epidemic breaking out. As a result, our dear, meditative Dr. Vogel, another surgeon, went to the division surgeon to get his advice. Not only did the division surgeon show understanding for our situation, he also came up with a suitable illness, with the result that a fair-sized march serial of “sick” could be released back to the homeland under the supervision of Dr. Vogel. Arturio served as the sea transport officer.
Just two days after assuming his new job, Rathke had requisitioned a real recreational steamer upstream on the Vistula. He had it drop anchor in the roads outside of Nickelswalde. It was well equipped and would have been sufficient not only for the 35th but there would have also been space for the remnants of the mechanized infantry. The steamer tore loose in a storm, however, and went aground. We had no way of freeing it. So we had to stand by and watch as the navy hooked on to it, and it disappeared in the direction of Hela. That was the end of that.
For his next effort, Arturio had established contact with the naval ferries operating between Nickelswalde and Hela. We gave them diesel fuel that was no longer needed.
Another march serial, consisting primarily of superfluous tank crews, was dispatched under the command of Leutnant Tautorus. That brave and combat-experienced warrior reported out of the battalion with tears in his eyes. He had received orders, just like Stabsarzt Dr. Vogel, to report toHauptmann Küspert of the 2nd Battalion in Schleswig-Holstein.
The fact that Küspert and almost 200 men of his battalion had gone down with the Goya was something we did not know at the time. Fortunately, I have to add. We also didn’t know that elements of the maintenance company that had been sent back previously had been on the torpedoedWilhelm Gustav.4
On the evening of 4 May, Rathke reported learning from the navy that a cease-fire was to go into effect at 0500 hours on 5 May across from the Montgomery’s forces, which included Schleswig-Holstein and Denmark. The navy’s orders read, however: “Transport movements of the navy at sea will continue to run.”
Correspondingly, the final preparations for the end were discussed with Rathke. He made arrangements for a naval ferry to pick up what was left of the 1st Battalion just behind the main line of resistance shortly after the capitulation. In order to ensure that happened, Rathke was sent to board the ferry. Our signals officer, Leutnant Schäufler, sent a radio section along and established frequencies and transmittal times for “Operation Finale.” The tank crews were briefed on the plan; I informed Major von Heyden, the acting commander of Panzergrenadier-Regiment 12, to which we were attached.
After the refugee camps in the Nickelswalde and Schwienhorst areas had been mostly evacuated and the end of the fighting could be foreseen, an increased tempo in the withdrawal of the forces was also stressed by the field-army command. Correspondingly, Oberleutnant Thiel, the commander of the Headquarters Company, Oberleutnant Bonfigt, the commander of the supply company, along with Leutnant Helmbrecht, and Oberleutnant Werner, the commander of the armored escort company, each left with a march serial.
As a result, we shrank to a small, manageable group. We comprised eight tank crews, along with a small maintenance section, a supply section and a signals “goat.” It did not appear that it would be any problem to disengage from the enemy after the capitulation and take the boat “chartered” by Arturio back into the homeland.
But the shock didn’t come until early in the afternoon of 8 May, when Arturio reported by radio from the naval ferry. At 2400 hours German summer time, the Eastern Front would also capitulate. The captain of the ferry refused to pick up our people after the capitulation as had been agreed upon, since that was contrary to his orders. I only had a single answer to this situation: “Thanks for everything. Have a nice trip home. Out.”
We immediately withdrew the crews of the non-operational tanks, and Leutnant Schäufler received orders to work their way to the rear on their own along with the rest of the rear-area services. Despite everything else, they were fortunate and able to link up with the remnants of Panzer-Aufklärungs-Abteilung 4. As I later discovered, all of them reached the homeland, albeit under considerably adventurous circumstances.
At the mouth of the Vistula, there was no longer that much of the feverish activity of the last few days that had been seen when Großadmiral Dönitz ordered the Navy to transport away as many people as it could in one final push, with the water-craft taking on as many as they could.5 There was only the occasional boat docking, including inflatable and outboard craft. There was no longer any organized evacuation. At that point, we really were alone: two Oberleutnants, two Leutnants, and approximately twenty men—what remained of the once so proud and powerful 1st Battalion of Panzer-Regiment 35.
The sound of fighting along the main line of resistance had abated, the war was dying. We slowly started to comprehend what that meant. The knowledge weighed down on us like lead: We were sitting in a mousetrap and Ivan was in front of it as the cat. Despite all that, there were no scenes, no regrets about not having quietly or otherwise having shirked one’s duty under some pretext previously, which might have been possible. Although a few others had done that, we had only cursed them vociferously initially and then, later, just smiled wanly. Disgrace never digests in your stomach, the quiet Leutnant Schulz added.
That evening, I was at the last orders conference held by General von Saucken. Closely pressed together, we stood around him in his bunker. Everyone was somber, when he reminded us to keep fulfilling our duty in dignity in captivity as we had so well up to that point. He bade farewell to all with a handshake. I saw General von Saucken for the last time, when he spoke to soldiers at the mouth of the Vistula. His presence alone helped quell any unrest.
“The officers are to remain with the troops in the field.” Major von Heyden reminded me of those words of the commander in chief when I reported out after the last orders conference. He could only shake his head when I replied that we wanted to try to somehow get through with our small group. Somehow.
We were thinking about that “somehow” while we lay on the deck of the Brunhilde in the roads of Karlskrona. Someone threw out the question whether the comrades that had been left behind would still want to try to get through with us. Something like shame was part of that, since we were part of the very few who had escaped the fate that had been ordained for us by means of unvarnished luck.
We had often talked about how we would get home after the capitulation. If there had not been a way to go across the sea, then the only way left was walking. Although it would have been long and difficult, we thought that all of us could do it, since we were in the best of shape. I was the only one that didn’t apply to, since my left leg was almost lame due to a wound. We had thoroughly discussed that option, which was located somewhere between the boy scouts and the Wehrwolf,6 in our youthful naiveté. We had set aside field uniforms, compasses, assault packs, march rations and inner tubes for the crossing of rivers with our luggage. We assumed we would break out on the first night of the capitulation, since Ivan would first drink himself senselessly drunk in his joy and therefore not maintain any effective security along his lines.
The part about getting drunk was right on the money. During the night of the capitulation, we listened to his nerve-wracking bellowing and saw his fireworks, consisting of signal flares and tracer ammunition. It was just that almost all of us were still together that night, with the consequence that a breakout from the pocket could not take place until the following night. Whether it would still be possible then was something we didn’t know.
The next day in Karlskrona, 12 May 1945, started with the usual routine on board: first call, washing by jumping overboard, a large breakfast with rationed tea, followed by maintenance. The latter because we intended to raise anchor that day, but we still had to get the engine running. When the engine finally turned over but then suddenly died, it could only be one thing: There was something in the screw. After several dives, it was Leutnant Fintelmann who removed a long piece of rope that had wrapped itself around the propeller.
We were ready to go then and raised anchor at 1600 hours. With western winds of medium strength, we sailed all the way across Hanö Bay. Toward evening, we held up close to land, since we had to run between Sweden and Bornholm during the night and didn’t want to encounter any Russian ships. Although they had told us that there were Swedish warships in that area, we didn’t want to take any risks. Unfortunately, the winds blew west the entire night, so we had to steam against them using the engine.
By the morning of 13 May, the dangerous island of Bornholm was backboard. A beaming green strip of land that was the Swedish coast surfaced starboard out of the morning haze. The winds continued from the west, that is, headwinds, and we continued to sail under power. In the course of the morning, the engine continued running ever more slowly, however; something wasn’t right. We turned the engine off and raised sail as soon as we were in a possible to reach Mön. We were around Trelle-borg at the time. In the afternoon, we sailed into Danish waters and, towards evening, Möns-Klint, the large chalk cliffs, surfaced in front of us. The winds continued to die out and we approached the coast very slowly. At 2230 hours, in seven meters of water, we dropped anchor.
By then, it was our fifth night on board and everyone had made some sort of sleeping arrangements by then. There were only two bunks on board, which had been for the two men of the original crew. I commandeered one of them, since my back pain started to become unbearable. The wound channel was obviously festering, but the pus did not want to come out. The shrapnel was too deep. And there was no one on board whom I would happily entrust with a knife to cut it out. There was neither doctor nor medic far and wide. Stabsarzt Dr. Vogel had to be with out people in Schleswig Holstein, just like Arturio. If only I had good old Oberfeldwebel Schwalb, a senior medic, but he was dead. I can still see him before my eyes: The endearing humor in his elegant eyes and the wire-rimmed glasses on his nose, which he struggled with constantly. He had to try to restore them to reason with the middle finger of his right hand every few minutes and push them upwards, while they, the glasses, felt much better in the vicinity of the tip of his nose. He got it at Kahlberg-Liep, when he jumped out of a bunker, because a wounded man was calling for him. It was really terrible there.
At its widest, the Vistula Spit was only 800 meters wide in spots. Our last Panthers operated along the sandy and rolling road along the spit and in the cuts in the woods running parallel to the road. They hunkered down in hull-down positions along the blocking positions that had been established in the swells in the ground that ran all along the spit. They were the backstops for Panzergrenadier-Regiment 12 and Panzer-Aufklärungs-Abteilung 4: Bix, Kolter, Hofknecht, Fintelmann, Igel, Eidloth, Schwaffers, Tautorus—the last tank commanders of Panzer-Regiment 35. All of it was under almost constant fire from the front and the sides. The light and medium artillery and the heavy mortars fired from the front; across the lagoon from the right came the heavy artillery. Occasionally, Russian light naval forces attacked from the sea or along the lagoon. The Vistula Spit was heavily wooded and you can imagine the fireworks that took place in the crowns of the trees. It was a tree burst that got our medic Schwalb.
It was just a few days prior to that that I had dropped anchor in the Moby Dick III right at this spot by Möns-Klint. I had paddled ashore in our small rubber boat with my wife and two small ones. The children had found calcified snails, crayfish and thunder stones among the chalk deposits; we had watched thousands upon thousands of European swifts build their nests, one after the other, on the steeply falling chalk cliffs. Then we clambered up to the top along a narrow and slippery path and enjoyed the view of the water from above. Close to the coast, but very small nonetheless, was our boat as seen from a bird’s perspective, something we had done for the first time. It was wonderfully beautiful in the thick woods and in the Liselund palace and its grounds. How different the landscape can look to a person based on his mood! What seemed to be the symbol of peace twenty-five years later seemed sinister, almost antagonistic to us in 1945. We saw moving lights everywhere along the coast; we heard voices and shouts. Car lights were directed on us from the high ground. They called out to us on loudspeakers, without us being able to understand it or feeling compelled to answer. But . . . to go on land, like we did twenty-five years later . . . no one had any desire to do that. The next day we discovered the reason for the unrest. Danish so-called “freedom fighters” had been the ones screening Möns-Klint. They were guarding against us, who were happy to have escaped the Russians and be in freedom.
Around 0400 hours on the morning of 14 May 1945, the engine ran after a fashion again, and we held a council of war, the first one since we had gotten the boat free outside of Nickelswalde. Where did we want to go? The harbor at Klintholm, which the Swedes had designated for us, was exactly four nautical miles away. No one wanted to go to Klintholm. The closest course to Germany went thirty-five nautical miles south-southwest to the southern tip of Falster and, from there, around thirty nautical miles west, then south to Fehmarn. From there, it was another forty nautical miles to Kiel.
The whole thing had a hitch, however, and a pretty big one. From the southern tip of Falster and running in a southeasterly direction was the feared Gedser Riff, which extended a good seven nautical miles. I had sailed there a lot in peacetime and, at the end of the riff, was the Gedser lightship. But that was only in peacetime. Even if you maneuvered well, which was possible with the engine, and found that spot, you were within ten nautical miles of the Russian-occupied Pomeranian coast. A bloodcurdling thought. If we waited until 1800 hours to sail out, I mentioned for consideration, then we would pass the critical spot around midnight, that is, while it was dark. And the weather was supposed to be good. That would put us in Kiel the next evening.
Even though I painted the docks at the Kiel Olympic harbor and the virtues of the Kiel Yacht Club—formerly the Kiel Imperial Yacht Club—in the most glowing terms, everyone had had a belly full of the Russians and no one want to take a risk after everything had good unexpectedly well.
That left one option: Sail through Grön Sound west of Mön and the Smaalands Channel. That meant going around Falster and Lolland from the north and into the Great Belt, sailing into Kiel Bay from there. There was a lot to be said for that, including the fact that the distance was not considerably greater. The only concern: Grön Sound and the Smaalands Channel were very narrow in spots, with the result that we would be reliant on our not-so-reliable engine for a good twenty nautical miles due to the predominant westerly winds. None of that had any effect; no one wanted to be anywhere near any Russian fast boats.
In short, I was outvoted.
When we hauled anchor at 0430 hours on 14 May—it was our sixth day at sea—and rounded Mön, taking up a course for Grön Sound, the narrows between Mön and Falster, the weather was not cooperating. The skies had clouded over, and it began to drizzle. Although there was only a moderate wind, it blew more from the north than from the west. That meant that we would have to chug along under engine power until far outside of Vordingborg. We passed Stubbeköbing at 09000 hours; the island of Bogö was starboard. The rain stopped and it started to clear up, but the wind had also picked up in the meantime. It was probably a four on the Beaufort Scale.7 In the choppy seas, the water occasionally sprayed up on deck. None of that was particularly worrisome, except for the fact that the engine started running noticeably slower again. Around 1000 hours, the large bridge that connected Falster and Seeland turned up. It was high enough to be able to pass, but the situation was becoming critical. In the maritime chart, the narrows were called Storström, which wasn’t a bad name, since it had to mean something like large, strong current.
The northwest wind sprayed the water against us as if through a nozzle. Our hot-bulb engine increasingly grew more listless, not even reaching half of its power any more. When we reached the bridge, we were moving at a walking pace. As a precautionary measure, we didn’t stop at the southern edge of the navigation channel. We didn’t pick up any speed. Since a change in the situation was not expected, the wind was actually increasing somewhat and we would not be able to put up sail for at least another ten nautical miles in the navigation channel, we gave up on the enterprise. With some difficulty, we were able to turn around and reach the small harbor of Orehoved around 1100 hours.
We stepped on Danish soil for the first time, although I wish it had been a more exciting venue. Prior to the construction of the bridge, Orehoved had served as a ferry harbor and where the ferries had formerly docked was where we tied up. A few ugly shacks could be seen and, a little further, some houses. Our Landser were not all that disturbed, since they had not had land under their feet since Nickelswalde. Correspondingly, they enthusiastically reconnoitered the area. After about an hour, the results of the patrol were available: (1) The local populace was very nice and accommodating but apparently keen on getting weapons. For an 08 pistol, they had been offered a kilogram of bread, a kilogram of ham, and a pound of butter. For an egg, they wanted two 08 bullets. (2) Danish resistance fighters were in the process of sealing off the harbor. I immediately issued orders: remain close to the boat, empty all weapons, wear small arms conspicuously, emplace three machine guns on land and two on board where they were visible. Do not allow yourselves to be provoked.
Visibly impressed by our gleaming weaponry, the Danes carefully went into position at the edge of the village. Their leader came aboard and explained to me in a short but not unfriendly manner that the Reich had capitulated and he had to disarm us. We answered in a short but not unfriendly manner that we were aware of the capitulation but that a disarming was only possible by the English. Moreover, we intended to set sail again the following morning. He didn’t have to worry about us and could move his outposts to behind the village. He agreed. Of most concern to us was the last point. We would soon be getting rid of the weapons anyway, but it was a whole lot better to trade them for rations, for which we needed contact with the locals, that is, the village. A portion of the weapons was therefore released for sale—minus the bolts, of course—with minimum prices established to prevent being undersold.
While two tank drivers and the navy man worked on the engine on board, we opened up our arms market in Orehoved. The menu that night: tomato soup, Swedish style; eggs over easy or scrambled, Danish style, with bacon or ham; white bread; milk. The weather remained unchanged on the morning of 15 May: wind northwest, speed four. The navy man thought the engine would make it. Correspondingly, we set sail at 0900 hours. After we had covered barely four nautical miles after a good hour—that is, not far enough out of the narrow navigation channel in order to put up sail—the engine started its fainting spells again. It was really too dumb. With the boat I have today, it would have been child’s play to sail out of the slight current. I would not even have needed to use my nine horsepower Wankel at all. But we were sitting on the weak-in-the-groins Brunhilde, and we had no other choice but to turn around for the second time and wait for better weather and winds from the south, north or, better yet, the east. At 1100 hours, we dropped tied up in Orehoved again. Lunch at noon followed by the arms market in the village.
In the afternoon, our Danish freedom fighters were back and announced they were going to get the English to disarm us. The arms sales took on new impetus. People came all the way form Vordingbord, on the other side of the island, to get their needs filled. By evening, we only had a machine gun, two assault rifles and a handful of pistols. Fintelmann and I still carried them openly, while others had sewn their 08’s into their backpacks.
Then 16 May arrived, the last day aboard the good Brunhilde. The Danes had reported us to the British that morning.
They arrived at 1100 hours. It was a jeep and a striking but unarmed English sergeant. While the last machine gun and assault rifles went overboard, he greeted us beamingly, shook all of our hands and distributed cigarettes. He explained that the Danes had complained about our invasion. We were directed to turn over the many weapons the Danes had talked about and put them in the back of his jeep. When we told him what had happened to our weapons and what the prices were, he started to laugh resoundingly.
The reaction of the Dane was quite different. He was the police chief there, and he told me the many German weapons lying around were already causing him concern. In that regard, I was able to calm him down when I told him our weapons were at best souvenirs. In the hands of the Danes, they most certainly would not shoot.
The German-Danish-English Peace of Orehoved was concluded with a final cognac. The Brunhilde was then ceremoniously transferred to the Danes. Fintelmann received orders to march off to a prisoner collection point. Together with two mechanized infantrymen, I wanted to go to the German military hospital in Vordingborg, which had been recommended to me by the Danes. Fintelmann had the men assemble. As we took leave of one another, the English sergeant saluted. That group marched off with a cheerful song.
No speech with fancy words for the history books was held; no one had spoken the motto of our former 2nd Battalion:
Ehre kannst du nirgends borgen,
Dafür musst du selber sorgen!
You can’t borrow honor anywhere;
You have to provide for it yourself!
We had only said good-bye to one another, take care, and let me hear from you sometime.
1 Translator’s Note: The title translates, A Person Does Not Like to Be Alone at Night .
2 Translator’s Note: Of course, he means the war, but defines it here in almost mythological overtones.
3 Translator’s Note. Bornholm is a Danish island in the Baltic east of Denmark, southeast of Sweden and north of present-day Poland. It had a large German garrison during the war, which effectively blocked direct naval intervention against German coastal areas.
4 Editor’s Note. The author is thinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff . The sinking of the former cruise ship on 30 January 1945 was the worst loss of lives in maritime history. Carrying more than 8,000 soldiers and refugees, the ship was torpedoed by the Soviet submarine S-1 3. More than 7,000 of the passengers died. However, as it was carrying military personnel, the ship was a legitimate military target.
5 Editors Note. In the largest, most successful seaborne evacuation in history, more than two million German soldiers and refugees were evacuated from various areas along the Baltic from 23 January to 8 May 1945. The much-maligned German navy, the Kriegsmarine, performed magnificently and heroically.
6 Editor’s Note. An abortive German attempt at a behind-the-lines resistance movement.
7 Editor’s Note. A measure of the wind speed in relation to conditions at sea or on land. A four on the scale is a moderate breeze of thirteen to seventeen miles per hour (twenty to twenty-eight kilometers per hour)—i.e., sea conditions of small waves and frequent whitecaps.