Walter Panknin (1898 – 1977) and His Family – Part 14

Utter Chaos and Contradictory Orders

Near the end of March 1945, SS-Colonel Josef Dietrich had taken over the defence of Vienna. A few days later, artillery fire was thundering and warning that the Soviet frontlines were moving closer. Opa fortuitously recalled his marching orders commanding him to report for duty at his hometown Gotha. So with these documents on hand, it was in the eyes of the military authorities quite proper and legitimate for him to leave the endangered Austrian capital and not be considered a deserter. Yet, with his keen survival instinct, he saw a golden opportunity to be near his family in his leaving the city. Papa also saw a chance to get through the final stages of the war alive. To fall into the hands of the Americans as a POW was, in his mind, the lesser evil. He managed to reach Erfurt by train a short distance east of Gotha, which was already under attack by US troops and tanks. This event prevented him from taking on his new assignment there. So on the highway to Gotha, where he was walking, he joined the German forces in full retreat from the enemy. Papa did not indicate in his notes the army units under his command in the final stages of the war.

Erfurt 1945 – Photo: Wikimedia


Later, on a beautiful sunny April morning, when he would have preferred to take a relaxing hike with his family through the Thuringia Forest, he walked instead in the direction of the Central Station in search of provisions. When he passed by the railway station, the ordinarily busy and often overcrowded place was utterly deserted. Enemy tanks had bypassed the town during the afternoon on the previous day and threatened to cut off the local defence lines set up for the region around the city. Rumour had it that an order would come that very same night regarding a desperate attempt to hold the town with troops drawn from the so-called ‘Volkssturm’ brigades long enough for the bulk of the battalion to reconnect with the German defence lines farther east. Despite the town mayor’s opposition to the inevitable house-to-house combat and the danger of more destruction to his beloved city, the order was carried out to the effect that the regime-loyal Nazi officials had also taken flight together with a remnant of the retreating army. Expecting the arrival of the American vanguard of tanks and troops at any time and being no longer afraid of their oppressive regime, audacious town folks tore down the pictures of Adolf Hitler from public buildings and the walls inside the railroad station.

American Troops in Erfurt April 12, 1945 – Photo: erfurt-web.de

For Papa, these were turbulent times. With a small company of soldiers, he stayed behind, having received an order to fight as long as possible to delay the advance of enemy units converging on the city of Erfurt. On April 2nd, 1945, he recorded on his notes that the lines of command and communication were in a complete state of disarray. In the chaos and the rapid disintegration of the command lines, coordination of troop movements became increasingly more challenging to maintain. Often conflicting orders were sent out by the high command resulting in total confusion for the officers in charge down the military hierarchy. For instance, since his return from Vienna, Opa had received two marching orders, one for Leipzig and another for Dresden, while at the same time, he was supposed to provide leadership in the defence of Erfurt.

11 comments

  1. Steve Schwartzman · July 2

    I’ve often heard that German soldiers greatly preferred surrendering to the Americans than to the Russians—and with good reason. Many who surrendered to the Russians didn’t survive.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Amy · July 2

    Good for the good people of Erfurt, tearing down Hitler’s posters. And I am glad that the German soldiers like your father-in-law trusted the Americans more than the Russians.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Stella, oh, Stella · July 2

    The German army had committed terrible atrocities in Russia, so that may be another reason why they were afraid of the Russians. Their camps had a terrible reputation. Although I am sure they couldn’t beat Stalin himself as far as atrocities were concerned. In Ukraine millions of people died of hunger, because Russian troops “required” food and burned the rest, including the fields.
    There are no real winners in war, only mourners. But lucky for us, Hitler was finally stopped, otherwise, where would we be today?
    Papa did the only right thing in that chaotic situation: trying to survive!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Pure Glory · July 2

    It is amazing to hear of the survival instinct of Papa. I am sure that others prayed for him and he was protected during the turbulent times proceeding surrender.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. crowcanyonjournal · July 2

    A personal memoir has turned into a history of World War II. Wow!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Robert Parker · July 3

    I’ve seen pictures of teenagers and retirees, sent off in Volkssturm units, armed only with anti-tank weapons, it seemed like a pointless sacrifice. I was curious about the tank in your second photo. I think it might be a M18 Hellcat tank destroyer.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Ann Coleman · July 4

    Whoever said “war is hell” was absolutely right! I can’t even imagine living through such tough times.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. kopfundgestalt · July 4

    Utter Chaos…the right term.
    Yesterday we sat down for dinner in my hometown, where 16 year old had to defend and die in April 45.

    Like

  9. Steve Schwartzman · July 8

    By the way, yesterday I became aware of all the recent church burnings in B.C.:
    https://bc.ctvnews.ca/quit-burning-down-churches-indigenous-minister-pleads-for-an-end-to-the-church-fires-1.5497404

    To add insult to injury (as the expression goes), the director of the British Columbia Civil Liberties (so-called!) Association has tweeted “Burn it all down.”

    https://vancouversun.com/opinion/columnists/daphne-bramham-free-speech-or-hate-speech-civil-libertarian-lights-a-fire

    Liked by 1 person

    • Peter Klopp · July 8

      As you are witnessing, Steve, Canada is also spiralling downward on the slippery path of hatred and prejudice. In Winnepeg vandals toppled the statue of Queen Victoria. In Victoria the statue of Captain Cook was thrown into the sea whereupon others retaliated and burned a landmark totem pole.

      Like

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