Saturday 15 February 2014

The Battle for Konigsberg (1945)

Konigsberg is not the most attractive city in the world. The brutalist style blocks which dominate the centre of the city are a far cry from the old Prussian buildings which graced the banks of the River Pregel in the early part of the 20th century. The old city is gone as has the entire pre war population. Any unfortunate local inhabitants who didn't perish during the battle for the city in April 1945 were driven out after the war by the Soviet authorities who renamed the area as Kaliningrad and incorporated the city and its environs into the Soviet union.

The Unfinished 'House of the Soviets' in Kaliningrad
Locals attribute the destruction of the old city to the allied bombing raids in August 1944 which destroyed 41% of the local housing stock and smashed the old city including the cathedral and the historic university buildings. To finish the job, the newly installed Soviet authorities destroyed what remained after the war. The Konigsberger Schloss (castle) is long gone and the site is now dominated by the 'House of the Soviets' building which has never been occupied.

Diorama of Konigsberg after the 1944 Air Raids
I spent a few days in the city with some Russian friends prior to embarking on a road trip around the Kaliningrad Oblast (which will feature in a follow up blog entry). After an entertaining evening drinking the excellent Pivovar beer, eating warm shushi and watching well heeled businessmen trying to smuggle hookers into their hotel rooms my companions and I set off to uncover some of the WWII history.

Entrance to Ring Fort No. 3, Konigsberg
As the Russians burst into East Prussia in the closing year of the second world war, Konigsberg was declared a fortress 'to be defended to the last'. The city was invested by the 3rd Belorussian front in late January 1945 and was heavily fought over until April 9th when the defenders, mainly consisting of 3rd Panzer Army, finally surrendered. We went in search of Ring Fort No. 3 at Quednau which was defended by the German 367th Infantry Division.

Inside Ring Fort No. 3, Konigsberg
Without local help it would be impossible to find Fort No. 3. It is invisible behind a screen of trees on the main arterial road running East from the city centre. We parked up in a nearby petrol station and navigated through a scrap yard, past a fierce looking (but friendly) dog to slip into the old fort. We were rewarded with a truly authentic battlefield experience. The fort is a vast rambling stronghold set over four floors. Evidence of the fighting was everywhere - burnt brickwork, spent munitions and improvised 'rat runs' - testament to the weight of incoming artillery. It was clear that the defenders had worked hard to improve the defences - in particular pushing holes through the old walls in order to create optimal lines of fire for well placed MG42s.

Bunker Protecting the approach to Fort No. 3
The axis forces in Konigsberg were commanded by Otto Lasch and his command bunker in the city centre is now open as a museum. The bunker consists of a long corridor flanked by a series of rooms which now serve as exhibition areas. Above ground the entrance is framed by a couple of Soviet era artillery pieces nestling as it does amongst a ring of crumbling apartment buildings.

Otto Lasch Command Bunker, Konigsberg
A short walk from the Bunker Museum, lies Kaliningrad's most famous tourist attraction - a cold war era 'Foxtrot' class Soviet submarine. Submarine B-413 has a fascinating history having served in the Soviet Northern Fleet from 1969 to 1990, including involvement in the Cuban missile crisis. In 2000 the museum staff conducted a fund raising campaign for the families of crew members who perished in the submarine 'Kursk' and there is a touching commemorative display in the bowels of the sub.

Submarine B-413, Kaliningrad, Russia
Notwithstanding my earlier comments about the city I would recommend a trip to Kaliningrad - not to linger in the city though. The real interest is in the surrounding countryside where the old Prussian villages have been re-invented as Russian hamlets. The juxtaposition of culture and style is fascinating and there is plenty to see for anyone interested in 20th century politics / military history.

To see photographs of our road trip then click here.