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.