Walter Panknin (1898 – 1977) and His Family – Part 18

Papa’s First Experiences as a POW

As a US sergeant was marching a miserable lot of captured German soldiers to the railway station, a drunk Red Army man attempted to strike them with the butt of his rifle but refrained when ordered by the GI to back off. However, great was their horror, when shortly afterwards they saw an American soldier from under a bridge aim his gun at them apparently for the fun of target practice. Papa heard distinctly the click of the trigger followed by the soldier’s derisive laughter, clearly displaying his pleasure of having struck terror into the hearts of the hapless bunch of captives. After a tiring march, they finally arrived at a provisional POW gathering station, where they spent a cold night in the open-air facility. Their treatment was good. Papa felt great relief knowing that, at least for him and fellow prisoners, the war was finally over. He was also becoming optimistic about the near future after hearing the officer in charge of the camp say that they would be treated fairly in keeping with international law and the Geneva Convention.

American HQ near Erfurt April 12 1945

After another cold night without shelter, they received, considering they were POWs, a royal breakfast. It consisted of seized German army provisions such as pumpernickel, canned meat and even chocolate once intended as rations for the Air Force. Thus, strengthened by the high-calorie intake, they went on a four-hour march, bringing them to a stadium. They had permission to salvage wood from the dilapidated buildings to make a fire for cooking and to build primitive shelters for protection against the cold and the rain. During the next couple of days, they were being moved frequently from one place to another until they arrived by army truck at a camp at Kirchheim near the city of Bad Hersfeld.

Modern Bad Hersfeld – Photo Credit: Tripadvisor

When Papa had identified himself based on the official documents that he had always carried with him and thus convinced his captors that he was indeed a high-ranking officer, he was immediately given at least for now preferential treatment. He found some relatively comfortable sleeping quarters in the attic of a house confiscated and occupied by the American forces. When Papa arrived, eight other German officers had to share the room. By evening eight more POWs were added to their lot, making things so tight that Papa had to lie down under the table for a good night’s sleep. There was plenty of food. In his notes, Papa marvelled how quickly one could forget past ordeals if one only has some decent food in one’s stomach. The following day, he enjoyed taking in a sumptuous breakfast with delicious items he had not consumed for the last couple of weeks. He felt refreshed, and a new sense of optimism filled his entire being. Some of the items on the breakfast menu were cake and coffee, tea and lemon. Feeling liberated from the ideological shackles, most officers present, even those, who had once strong leanings to the Nazi regime before, displayed a very noticeable shift in their outward behaviour. Less than twenty-four hours after their arrival, they no longer saluted each other with ‘Heil Hitler’ but were quite content to greet one another with a simple ‘Good morning.’

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.

Ernst Klopp (1900 – 1964) and his Family – Part 30

Karl and Adolf’s Perilous Journey March 1945

Karl’s Report – Part 4

When we arrived at the town on the evening after the attack, where we had wanted to stay overnight, visibility was almost zero, the stench horrific, most certainly the smell of corpses. How we got over the relatively wide arm of the River Oder, by the name of Swine, I cannot recall. On account of the smoke I was unable to see.

In the middle of the night we reached Ahlbeck and found some rest in a vacation guesthouse, where a compassionate woman with a little son took us in. For the first time in ten days we slept in a real bed. Only now we began to discuss to which destination we should proceed. There were relatives, whose addresses we had in our heads due to a very active correspondence, in Freiburg and Erfurt. The latter was closer. Therefore, we decided to pedal on in a southeastern direction. Since we had neither maps nor compass, we did not choose the direct way, kept on pedalling six more days all the way to Neubrandenburg, where we became sick and tired of biking. We needed a rest, because the most recent journey went over the Pomeranian ridges, over hills and through valleys and into our bones.

We used a savings account booklet filled with entries from our saved pocket money to buy train tickets to Erfurt and pay for the shipping of the bikes. The savings account organization had made life easier for the refugees with the set-up of a generous transaction policy. It was a strange feeling to sit in a train, where to be sure there was incredible crowdedness, to be able to watch the landscape, to read the names of the cities of Mecklenburg-West Pomerania, of Brandenburg, and then of Saxony-Anhalt, places whose names until now had been unknown to me or about which I had a different perception.

Once in a while the train stopped in a hollow to await a bomber formation. Often enough low flying aircraft attacked trains or blocked the route in order to target troop transports. A friendly place-name sign ‘Wolmirstedt’ indicated to us that we were passing through the birthplace of our father Ernst Klopp. Slowly we were approaching Thuringia, where Uncle Günther and Aunt Lucie lived. It was an unknown place to us. A long trip in our childhood, especially during the war, was out of the question. Then came the giant railroad station that destroyed all small town Pomeranian perceptions, then the walk to the probable town section, the search in the long street with the name Nonnenrain and the confusion about the house number, 70 instead of 17. Aunt Lucie was speechless. Of course, she could not answer our first question about the whereabouts of our parents. That we looked like dirty pigs must have affected her rather badly as it would have anybody else. At mealtime there was information on the conditions in the city, above all on the almost daily aerial attacks and on the air raid shelters. Besides the American front was approaching from the west.

Erfurt after a Bombing Raid
Erfurt after a Bombing Raid – Photo Credit: TLZ.de

At first we did not heed the warnings of the aerial attacks, until a powerful explosion of a bomb taught us otherwise. Uncle Günther, who was at the time hospitalized due to health issues going back to WW1, was sent home, and we met again, himself looking quite worried. With the arrival in Erfurt the flight had come to an end, and the thread to our homeland and to the parents was totally cut off. What came next was completely different. End of Karl’s report

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