Saturday, 30 November 2013

The Heiligenbeil Pocket (1945)

The Russian oblast of Kaliningrad is not the easiest place to access. To visit the main areas of military history interest a special permit is required in addition to the usual Russian Visa. I enlisted the help of a couple of Russian friends and we decided to use the land crossing at Bagrationovsk. My arrival at the 1st checkpoint was greeted with incredulity by the Polish border guards; "Why do you want to go to Kaliningrad - there is nothing there?" Then onto the Russian side where the line of enquiry was similiar; "Why do you want to enter Kaliningrad - there is nothing here?" Anyway, the long wait was worth it as Kaliningrad is a fascinating place.
Bridge blown in 1945 & still in place in 2013
I will be writing four or five entries to cover the trip but I'm starting with an account of our battlefield walk at Kornewo. Kornewo in German times was known as Zinten and prior to WWII it had been established as a training ground for armoured troops. Most German tank crews would have spent time in the town and in February 1945 it was the scene of a savage battle as the Russian 3rd Belorussian Front reduced the Heiligenbeil Pocket. The pocket had been formed in January 1945 when 24 German Divisions (4th Army) were encircled on a coastal strip just west of the city of Kaliningrad.
The battle damaged water tower at Zinten
Like so many old East Prussian towns, the fine old German houses in Kornewo are mostly derelict and the red brick church is a battle scarred ruin. The Russian locals prefer squat bungalows and it wasn't until I actually stayed in one that I appreciated why. They may not look pretty but they are incredibly well designed for the harsh Russian winters. The house I stayed at in Krasnoles'e later in the trip had a ducting system which directed a flow of heat right around the house. My host (a jovial ex Russian pilot) directed the flow by opening and closing shutters.
Derelict prussian house in Kornewo
I did ask a local why the Russians don't use the old German buildings. I got the impression that they still feel that the owners will come back and reclaim their old properties. The background to this is that during the period 1945 to 1947 the entire German speaking population of what was East Prussia was driven Westward - firstly in anticipation of the advancing Red Army and latterly by Stalin's policy of de-Germanification.
Russian memorial at Kornewo (Zinten)
Our walk took us from the destroyed Prussian church (which you can just see to the left in the picture above) past the water tower and down to the site of the old barracks - now a sea of derelict greenhouses. In February 1945 the 26th Panzer Grenadier Regiment fought hard to hold the line around Zinten but the town fell in bloody fighting.  The dismounted tankers of Battlegroup Einem (24th Panzer Division) counter attacked taking ground either side of the town. The Russian 5th Army held Zinten but at a heavy price - as can be seen on the Roll of Honour in the photograph above.
Chicken and Hammer & Sickle at Zinten
The Pocket was filled with civilians many of whom in desperation crossed the frozen water between the beaches North of Heiligenbeil and an isthmus of land called the Frische Nehrung. A German visitor told me how, in Jan 1945, her desperate Grandparents had traversed the melting ice at night - knee deep in freezing water and listening to the flows cracking in the cold night air. Unlike other Pockets on the Eastern Front the surrounded divisions had no easy access to port facilities or major towns. It was therefore inevitable that the fight would not be prolonged once the final Russian blow fell on 13th March 1945. 
Prussian farmhouse in Kornewo, Russia
The two weeks that followed, saw misery and destruction on a vast scale for Russians and Germans alike. German casualties topped 93,000 (5,600 for Grossdeutschland alone). The Russian casualties were on a similiar scale. Many civilians and soldiers were evacuated by sea - this included 60,826 wounded combatants. At the end some 46, 000 men of the German 4th Army faced an uncertain future in captivity.

Saturday, 16 November 2013

The First Shots of the Second World War

A month ago I took a road trip through Poland and Kaliningrad with a group of friends. This post concerns our jumping off point in the fascinating city of Gdansk in Poland. Prior to the start of WWII Gdansk was known as Danzig. In the inter war period the city held the designation of 'Free' on the basis that it was nominally a demilitarised trading port situated in Poland (sandwiched between Germany to the West and Prussia to the East).
Flats built on the site of the old dockyard in Gdansk
In 1939 the Nazi propaganda machine had attempted to convince the German people that Danzig was a German city. It was a 'goodwill' visit by the German battleship Schleswig-Holstein on the 25th of August which heralded the opening of hostilities. At 4:47 the guns of the battleship opened up on the military installations located on the Westerplatte. The Westerplatte is a thin isthmus of land with striking views of the harbour area. In the 1930s the League of Nations sanctioned the deployment of 88 Polish soldiers on this strategically important ground.
Start of Seaward Westerplatte Defence Line
At the time of the attack on the 1st September 1939 the garrison had been secretly increased to 176 men and 6 officers. They were armed with one 75mm gun, two 37mm Bofors antitank gun, four mortars and a number of machine guns. Their brief was to hold on for 12 hours until the Polish Army arrived. The Westerplatte came under concentrated attack by marines from the Schhleswig-Holstein and Wehrmacht Pioneers. The garrison did not succumb for seven days.
Southern Wing of Polish Barrack Block on the Westerplatte
Nowadays the site has been turned into a commemorative site. There is a huge memorial at the highest point on the peninsular with a wide roadway cutting right through the site of the old barracks. The remaining military structures are now preserved with explanatory panels providing every detail of the events of that first week in September 1939. Sadly the T34 which used to sit on the foundations of the old Westerplatte Guardhouse has been removed. I don't know why.
Bomb Crater in Gdansk (Danzig)
The city itself has plenty of other sites associated with WWII. There are bomb craters still evident in most areas. One of the more interesting structures is a massive Naval command bunker. Photographs taken in 1945 show this bunker as the only remaining structure after repeated bombing raids. Now the bunker is a night club. Internal features such as pipework and signage have been incorporated into the internal design.
The Bunker Nightclub, Gdansk
Some readers will know that there is a new WWII museum being built in Gdansk. It is a massive undertaking which will draw many tourists into the city. Near the site of the museum is a particularly evocative spot where the first shots of the war were fired in the city itself. This is Danzig Post Office where 52 workers put up a stubborn defence until artillery was brought to bear on the building. 38 survivors surrendered and were subsequently sentenced to death as franc-tireurs. Four escaped and survived.
Then & Now - Gdansk (Danzig) Post Office
Memorial to the Defence of Danzig Post Office
The road in front of the Post Office has been redirected and the area is dominated by a very impressive steel monument. Inside thePost Office (which is still operational) there is a fascinating little museum which contains a detailed exposition covering the defence of the city. Behind the building there is a separate memorial marking the execution of the defenders albeit not in the spot where this atrocity happened.

Sunday, 10 November 2013

Joe Parish - A Tragedy on the 11th November 1918

On the 11th November 2018 it will be 100 years since the armistice was signed.This date will also be the 100th anniversary of the death of Joe Parish from Swavesey. Joe died on the last day of the war having only been in France for 32 short days.

The Parish butchers shop in Swavesey, Cambridgeshire has now been converted into a house but in the first couple of decades of the 20th century this business had been run by Joe’s parents, Zachariah and Martha. The family who lived next door to the shop at Aylesford house were part of the local Strict and Particular Baptist congregation and like many in that community they were not closely touched by the war until the introduction of the Derby scheme and subsequently, conscription. As each young Parish came of age so he would start work in the shop displacing an elder brother who would seek work elsewhere. The job of butcher was one of a number of protected occupations.

Nellie, Murial & Joe
The first member of the family to join up was Arthur, one of Joe’s brothers. Arthur who was a carpenter by trade joined the Royal Engineers on 17th March 1916. The Cambridge Independent Press had no time for families who were not eager to send their sons to face the guns :

“The name of Parish is borne by more than one household in Swavesey, and Sapper Parish has the distinction of being the first of the name to join the countries forces.”

Joe had four brothers. Bernard was too young to enlist but John and Isaac both served, the latter having been conscripted into the Royal Sussex Regiment during 1917. Both survived the war and John (along with Arthur who had survived albeit with a shrapnel wound) took over the family butchers business whilst Isaac farmed at Fen Drayton.

Joe and Arthur Parish
 Norcot house which Joe rented still sits in Station Road on the village side of the Frere cottages overlooking Swan Pond. At the age of 24 on 21st October 1914 he had married Nellie (25), a boot sellers daughter from Manchester and in 1916 the couple had a daughter, Muriel. Muriel presently lives in Needingworth and was two years old when her father was killed.

Joe was a fruit farmer by trade and had an orchard down “The Hale” which is the roadway at the bottom of Taylors Lane. I recently spoke with a Swavesey man who remembers Joe sitting on his cart taking fruit to Swavesey station on a weekly basis.

Joe was conscripted into the 1st East Kent Regiment (The Buffs) on 12th June 1918 having previously served in the UK as a Sergeant in the Cambridge Volunteer Regiment. When Joe left to begin training Nellie and their daughter moved out of the family home in Swavesey and in with Joe’s mother in law back in Manchester.Joe left England on 9th October by which time the tide had turned and the Allied armies were in the ascendancy.

The Battalion war diary in the Public Records Office (PRO) shows 1 “other rank” joining the Regiment in France on the 9th with a further 10 on the 12th. Major Lord Teynham had assumed command and the Regiment was billeted in the Bohain area of France.

During the following few weeks the Battalion moved forward taking its turn in the front line trenches until by the 30th October Battalion HQ was on the outskirts of Pommereuil. It was on this day that Joe Parish received his fatal injury during an attack on the village of Happergarbes.

Grave Registration Card
A hand-written account or this action at Bois D’Eveque can be found at the PRO:

“The Buffs were ordered to seize the farm and the high ground. The operation was entrusted to Lieut. L.W.Barber M.B.E. who had at his disposal B & C co’s (and later a platoon of D co.), A section of 6th Machine Gun Battalion and two light TM guns.

Zero was 6.00 a.m. at which time a creeping barrage opened with heavy artillery bombarding the railway.The attack was made on a two platoon frontage. Two other platoons operating on each flank so as to protect the advance and 3 platoons were retained in support.

The attack on the farm was at first frustrated by our own barrage which fell so short that all but 6 men in the leading platoon became casualties in the forming up line.

When the barrage lifted, which it did in stages, the 18” pdrs at 6.10 and the 4.5” at 6.22 another platoon was moved up but the advance was held up by enemy machine gun fire. It was not until 10 a.m. that, aided by the right flank platoon using rifle grenades and smoke the farm with another beyond were taken.

Meanwhile the platoon attacking the high ground had also reached its objective and captured the enemy machine gun. Our barrage from here was correctly aligned. Later the platoon was forced to withdraw somewhat owing to the flanks being exposed.We were then forced to withdraw from the farm following a heavy bombardment and an attack in strength by the enemy.

The last reserves were then brought up under a well directed barrage by our light TM on the farm. We again attacked and captured at the point of the bayonet 2 heavy and 3 light machine guns were captured and heavy casualties inflicted. By evening the village of Happergarbes had been virtually cleared.”

Following the action Joe was taken back to a Casualty Clearing Station at Premont, some 20 miles to the rear. There is a Commonwealth War Grave Cemetery on the site of this old field hospital and it is in this tranquil spot that Joe now lies.

Joe' Grave at Premont
A final cruel twist was that having experienced the immense relief of the armistice and having, no doubt thanked god for the new found peace, on 23rd November Joe's wife received notification that Joe had been killed. Nellie always suspected that Joe had been killed by his own side since the fatal wound was in the small of his back.

The news of Joe’s death reached Swavesey on the day that Ethel Hepher got married and took some of the shine off the subsequent celebrations. Joe’s daughter Murial remembers her mother throwing her husband’s victory medal, war medal and commemorative death plaque in the family dustbin. The accompanying note from the king went on the fire.