Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Kaliningrad (East Prussia) Road Trip - Part 2

The old Romintin forest is tucked away in the North East of the Kaliningrad Oblast. This picturesque area was traditionally the hunting grounds of Prussian and German high society. The Kaiser's Hunting Lodge was situated there and prior to his death in 1941, Wilhelm II was a regular visitor. The Lodge has long since gone and it is only now that the areas' prolific wildlife is recovering from years of exploitation. During our visit we encountered wild boar and a number of deer species.
Tolmingen Railway Siding
As I mentioned in Part 1 of this story, the local population are just beginning to wake up to the opportunities presented by tourism. So far, the number of visitors has been tiny but I suspect that one day this might change.

Lock on the Kanal Masurski
There was a time when trade was brisk in this part of the world. Nowadays the canal and rail networks are little used given that most of the routes run into modern day Poland and Lithuania.

The Masurian Canal connected the Masurian Lakes with the Baltic Sea. In 1942 the waterway was 90% complete and this is how things stayed once East Prussia was lost to Germany in the latter year of WW2. The lock we explored was an engineering marvel with a phenomenal drop. Sadly no longer operable.

Railway Bridge - Rominten
Our journey took us North towards areas of the Region which saw heavy fighting in both World Wars. Gumbinnen (now known as Gusev) was historically the regional capital in the East of what was known as Prussia). Now it is a pleasant town which is beginning to show some pride in its' German heritage. Some of the old German street names have been publicised alongside the Russian alternative and we saw recent murals showing how the town looked prior to WW2.

German heritage in Gusev
Cleaners take a break in Gusev
Gumbinnen saw one of the first battles of WW1 when, on the 19th August 1914, the local German commander, Prittwitz, pushed his 8th Army forward to meet Rennenkampf's 2nd Russian Army which was thrusting towards Konigsberg. The German's were pushed back and Prittwitz lost his job. Hindenburg was the replacement and the subsequent Battle of Tannenberg was a different story. We visited a well marked German cemetery to the East of the city (German place name of Mattischkehmen). The German war graves show details of the regiment as well as the name. For example: 'Lieutenant dR. Richard Solbrig, 2 Komp Jnf, Regiment 21'.
German & Russian Memorials

Mattischkehmen Military Cemetery
The cemetery contains the graves of 643 German soldiers and 438 Russian. Of the latter, 165 are buried in one communal plot.

The area saw vicious fighting in WW2 as well. The Goldap-Gumbinnen offensive was launched by the Russian 3rd Belorussian Front in October 1944. The Germans were able to prevail and retook much of the ground captured by the Russians. This was the first incursion into 'The Reich' and the German propoganda machine made much of the Russian atrocities commited in places like Nemmersdorf. Nemmersdorf fell to the Red Army on the 21st October 1944. It was the scene of considerable violence against the native population and a number of French and Belgian non combatants. There remains some dsagreement about the scale of the massacre but few doubt that it took place.

There are many contemporary photographs (most too graphic to publish in this blog). We walked through the village and managed to match two reference points which are shown in the 'Then and Now' photographs below.

Nemmersdorf Bridge - Then and Now
Military Signs - Then and Now
 From the tragic village of Nemmersdorf, we travelled North to the Lithuanian border and to the city of Sovetsk (formerly Tilsit). The town is dominated by the bridge over the Neman River. The bridge was destroyed in the autumn of 1944 but the one of the old towers remains. As is so often the case with important river crossings the town square plays host to a very impressive Soviet War Memorial marking the taking of this town on the 20th January 1945.
Border Crossing - Sovetsk
War Memorial at Sovetsk
The town has had some money spent on it. The main street has been restored to its' former glory including German street signs and a refurbished tram car 'destination Engelsberg'.

Restored Tram Car - Sovetsk
Remains of Bismark Tower
At this stage in our journey time was beginning to run against us but before we returned to Kaliningrad City, we made a couple of stops in the Labiau area. It is quite remarkable that a Bismark Tower can be found in this part of the world. There were originally 240 such towers scattered across Germany and East Prussia. 

At the end of our trip we did visit Kaliningrad's World Heritage site 'The Kurische Nehrung'. This is narrow spit of land which separates the Kurisches Haff from the Baltic Sea. It's an atmospheric place characterised by stands of pine trees and vast tracts of shifting sands. Ideal for bird watching and quiet contemplation. Somewhat short on military history though!

Click here for the Siege of Kaliningrad City (1945).
Click here for the Heiligenbeil Pocket (1945).
Click here for the Evacuation from Pillau (1945).
Click here for the full Kaliningrad Oblast Photo Set.
Click here for Part 1 of the Kaliningrad Road Trip.

Saturday, 26 July 2014

Kaliningrad (East Prussia) Road Trip - Part 1

After a three hour wait at the Bezledy Polish / Russian border crossing our party was greeted with incredulity by both sets of border guards. "Why do you want to go to Kaliningrad, there is nothing there" says the Pole. "Why do you want to come to Kaliningrad, there is nothing here" says the Russian 100 metres further on. "But you have the Kurische Nehrung, a World Heritage site" I say with the help of a Russian friend.

Russian Truckers Lunch

A blank look and a shrug and then we are in. Unlike the 99% of Poles crossing the border we don't head straight for the nearest petrol station - instead we begin a fascinating and throughly enjoyable road trip.

Our intention was to complete a circuit of most of the principle towns in the Kaliningrad Oblast. Our first stop is at Bagrationovsk (Prussian Eylau). The monument to the epic Napoleonic battle on 7th & 8th February 1807. The place where two 75,000 strong armies fought themselves to a bloody stalemate is marked by an impressive monument.
Prussian Eylau Monument

Another monument some 5 km outside of town marks the site of Stalag 1A, one of the earliest Prisoner of War camps built by Polish PoWs. This depressing site marks the place where Poles, Belgians, French and Russian PoWs endured captivity and, for many, death during the 39 to 45 period. There were even a few Brits interned there.

Site of Stalag 1A at Prussian Eylau
On the road between Zinten and Prussian Eylau we came across a small memorial besides a destroyed bunker at Domerau Castle. 32 bodies were recently discovered by 'black diggers'. One man has been identified, 31 remain unknown. All are Russian.

War Graves at Domerau Castle
Our next stop was the town of Friedland (Pravdinsk). This was the first place where we saw Prussian heritage being preserved. Firstly in some of the lovely old town houses and secondly in the old red brick church. The vast majority of churches in Kaliningrad have been left derelict with many being used to house animals. Pravdinsk is different and one can actually climb the tower to get a good view of the town.
Friedland Houses
View from Friedland Church
 Throughout Kaliningrad one comes across derelict Prussian houses, churches and factories. I asked one of my local friends, why this is so. They said that many locals feel that the original owners might make a claim one day.

Gerdauen (Zheleznodorohny) was our next stop. Again we saw examples of old Prussian architecture being protected from further damage. In particular, two lovely old town houses with giant beams in place to prevent structural walls collapsing.
Historic Buildings in Gerdauen
I would imagine that Gerdauen was once a beautiful place. Certainly there is a lovely vista of the old derelict church from across a picturesque lake. The old castle has been destroyed but it is easy to spot the original driveway and gate.
Gerdauen Church

12th Ulans Memorial - Insterburg
Travelling North East from Gerdauen, one reaches Insterburg (Chernyakhovsk).  It's perhaps surprising that some German WW1 memorials survive in the Kaliningrad Oblast. The most surprising one of all is the striking memorial to the German 12th Cavalry Regiment in Insterburg.

Old Factory - Insterburg
Krasnolesye Market Day
Whilst Kalingrad Oblast is a relatively small region, it is not really possible to do a full circuit in one day. Many visitors write Kaliningrad Oblast off on the basis of a visit to the blighted city of Kaliningrad. However the countryside is much more interesting and the most Easterly part of our journey was the most fascinating area of all. Rominten (Krasnolesye) was the old hunting grounds of the Prussian kings. It also lives in infamy as being the second home of Goring during the war. The hunting lodges, including Gorings' have long since gone though a remnant of the latter remains in the excellent little museum in Krasnolesye. We stayed in a couple of local homesteads and had a bed for the night plus evening meal and breakfast fro 10 euro. Everything on the table came from the local land - fresh and delicious!
WW1 War Memorial in Rominten

My host was a jovial retired Yak bomber pilot. I had no Russian, he had no English but nevertheless we got on like 'a house on fire'.
Through an interpreter I asked why there were no pictures of his aircraft in the house. I'd explained that my father worked for NATO Intelligence and said 'no matter he'll have plenty'. This prompted much laughter and another round of toasts.

I will cover the rest of our road trip in Part II ... to be continued.

Click here for the Siege of Kaliningrad City (1945).
Click here for the Heiligenbeil Pocket (1945).
Click here for the Evacuation from Pillau (1945).
Click here for the full Kaliningrad Oblast Photo Set.