Sunday, 13 March 2016

The Big Trek

Gridlock on the roads in East Prussia as refugees escape and the Germany Army retreats from the Red Army courtesy,_Ostpreu%C3%9Fen,_Fl%C3%BCchtlingtreck.jpg.

It was the winter of 1945.  The Red Army was knocking at the gate of East Prussia.  After the atrocities committed by the Germany Army over the previous four years (including the siege of Leningrad where almost 1 million civilians starved to death) the Red Army was bent on revenge.  

Hitler proclaimed that "No Bolshevik would set foot on German soil."  Yet, Russian soldiers had already invaded the town of Nemmersdorf the previous October where they had nailed the elderly to barn doors and murdered innocent women and children.  Even though the German Army repelled them, it would not be for long.  Hitler's orders remained firm:  the German population must stay put and to fight until the last man.

By January of 1945, Germans began to break this decree:  almost 8.5 million Germans began the Big Trek out of the Eastern Provinces.  The trains had ceased operation.  Many travelled by Conestoga wagons, pulled by the great Trakhener horses, some of which had won medals at the Berlin Olympics; some travelled on foot.  Like a line of ants on an anthill, they slowly made their way west.  Many headed for the Baltic Sea to board ships as part of Operation Hannibal, a last minute evacuation organized by Admiral Donitz.

During the coldest winter in twenty years, the German refugees commenced The Big Trek to the Baltic.  Anyone on the main roads risked being mowed down by army tanks.  They found alternate routes to travel.  Laden down with their possessions, the going was tough.  In order to reach the Baltic seaports, the refugees first had to cross the Frisches Haff.  An inland sea lagoon, the Frisches Haff, froze in the winter, allowing horses and wagons to cross, but not heavy tanks.

While the refugees were temporarily safe from the Red Army tanks, they were not safe from the enemy planes, which targetted them like sitting ducks on the ice.  Women, children and the elderly fell to the ground in a hail of bullets each time an aircraft droned overhead.  With the ice riddled with bullets, some of the wagons started to break through it, taking their passengers with them.

Once the refugees reached the Baltic seaports, many boarded ships which took them to safety in Denmark and other countries.  It is estimated that 800,000 to 900,000 refugees were saved by the sea evacuation.  However, thousands more drowned when their ships were torpedoed by Russian submarines like the Wilhelm Gustloff (see my previous post, Death on the Baltic, at

The Big Trek across the Frozen Frisches Haff circa January/February 1945 courtesy 

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