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.