Halbe 1945 – Eyewitness accounts from Hell’s Cauldron by Eberhard Baumgart Translated by Eva Burke

ARRSE Rating
5.00 star(s)
I chose this book because I had never heard of the battle of Halbe. I now know more about it than I ever did, and am remembering the saying ‘be careful what you wish for’.

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It’s an excellent book, translated into English for the first time, and a story that must be told, as it has particular relevance to events in Ukraine and the fate of Ukrainian citizens at the moment. However, I do most of my reading at bedtime, and this is not a bedtime story. I believe it was worth several disturbed nights’ sleep though, to be reminded of man’s inhumanity to man, and how close we are to this all happening again.

The book tells the events of the German Ninth Army’s final struggle against Soviet Russia as the inevitability of the war’s outcome became obvious, and the Germans were trying to retreat. Through the detailed experiences of soldiers and civilians, told in their own words, the enormous human cost of this battle and the impact on the town of Halbe, south east of Berlin, and its citizens who survived after 1945 become apparent.

For the first time I read the phrase ‘raped to death’, the horrifying fate of many women and girls during the battle and afterwards. There are descriptions of the terrible things done to wounded and dying men, and to survivors both civilian and military. It’s a story of incompetent German leadership, lack of communication to and from their central HQ, confusion on the battlefield, lack of maps, lack of direction, fear and terror for the soldiers, of whom at least 30,000 were killed, along with around 20,000 Soviets and 10,000 civilians. The stories of wading / squelching through piles of dead bodies are particularly harrowing and the author and translator must have had nightmares for months after compiling the book.

There are descriptions of the fate of citizens who survived the battle and loss of their homes, farms and families, but who had been Nazi Party members (remember if you wanted a job you had to be a party member in 1930s-40s Germany). These folk were on lists held by the Commissars who travelled with all Soviet Soldiers. They were found, separated, interviewed and terrified. Many were deported to Russia and few returned.

There is a chapter on graves and memorials – the civilian citizens, some as young as 11 or 12, were made to bury the dead in mass graves, and re-bury corpses from battlefield burials. German soldiers were buried without dogtags, paybooks or anything that could identify them, as the Russians wanted them to be forgotten forever.

There are photographs in the book, which is its most disappointing aspect. Captions like ‘one of the forest roads leading to the autobahn’ mean that there’s nothing of relevance to the book in the picture. I realise that too much of its content couldn’t be photographed, and photographs of the aftermath are not available, but this reader would prefer no picture to several generic pictures of wartime Berlin, or Soviet Artillery which may or may not have been involved in the events being described.

Eberhard Baumgart, the author, was a young man during the events his book describes, and his Epilogue is heartrending. He describes the battle as a nightmare filled with horror and murder which defined the rest of his life. I can believe that.

His final paragraph may explain some of the behaviours we are seeing by Germany today ‘May the gods be gracious, may they ensure that Russians and Germans never again stand opposite each other in a battle of such magnitude. By letting eyewitnesses get an opportunity to speak in these chapters, I hope I have achieved my aim.’


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Looks good. Was the author a German soldier? I first read about the battle in Tony Le Tissiers book Slaughter at Halbe published in 2007. The author was a former Lt Col in the RMP who had served many years in Berlin. Speaking fluent German he interviewed many surviving veterans and visted the scene of the battle. Apparently it is one big graveyard with bodies being discovered all the time and much wartime debris still littering the forrests.

The focus of his book was on the spearhead of the breakout which iniately centred on the six remaining Royal Tigers of the 102 SS Heavy Panzer battalion, which had been detached from its parent formation, II SS Panzer Korps. Eventually they only had one Tiger left which was spearheading the breakout. Fuel was taken from any other surviving vehicle to keep it going. As a crewman was killed, he was replaced with another SS Panzer man whose Panzer was knocked out. In this way the crew was changed several times and although the Panzer was shot to sh*t they still somehow managed to keep it going until it and the surviving 25,000 troops and civilians reached the lines of the 12th Army. They didn't even keep count of the number of Soviet tanks that they knocked out.

When they reached the 12th Army's lines on the Elbe the Americans wouldn't allow any of the civilian's, women and children to cross. Fortunately the Soviets launched an Artillery barrage which made the Americans take cover. Under the cover of a 12th Army counter barrage the Germans managed to get the women and children across the river.

One story that I found amazing was of a German Officer Cadet who had been fighting in Russia since 1941 who features heavily in the book. He was in the spearhead of the column, fighting at close quarters with the Soviets and is with the survivors who make it to the Elbe. After the war he joins the Kaserne Politzei (Para Military barrack police, the forerunner of the NVA) and retires as a Major General in the East German Army.

Truly one of those battles that was a hell on earth for all concerned.

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Grownup_Rafbrat

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The author was indeed a German soldier.

That battle was horrific. No wonder he wanted it never repeated.
 

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