The End of Schorner’s Army Group Centre

Territories held by Germany (1st May, 1945)

The story of Ferdinand Schorner’s Army Group Centre, which formed the ‘balcony’ on the left or southern flank of the Russian forces operating on the Berlin axis. Schorner (promoted to field-marshal 5 April) deployed the Fourth Panzer Army along the border hills with Silesia to the north, the powerful First Panzer Army (Heinrici’s old command) in the Mahrisch-Ostrau industrial region to the north-east, and the Seventeenth Army prolonging the line to the south-west.

The ethnic ‘Czechs’ were quiescent until 3 and 4 May, when the railways were paralysed by strikes, and red flags began to appear at house windows. Communist partisan groups took the initiative in the open combat which broke out in Prague on 5 May, and on the next day the struggle took a bizarre but decisive turn when a force of Russians in German uniforms fought their way into the city. This was the 1st Division of General Andrei Vlasov’s Army, which had been recruited by the Germans from Russian prisoners of war, and had new turned against its new masters. Vlasov’s double turncoats were now in the position of being at war with both the German and Soviet armies, and the 1st Division retreated from Prague on 7 May before the Soviet forces could arrive on the scene.

The last two days of the war found about 1 million German troops still in ‘Czechoslovakia.’ The general direction of their movement was towards the west, for they hoped to be received as prisoners by the Americans. Their rearguards meanwhile executed a fighting retreat in the face of the Soviet forces, of which the most dangerous were the armoured spearheads of Konev’s 1st Ukrainian Front, thrusting into Bohemia from the north. The authority for this ‘organised flight to the West’ was given on 7 May by Army Group Commander Schorner at the suggestion of his chief of staff, Lieutenant-General Oldwig von Natzmer, who had received an order from the OKW telling him that a cease-fire must come into force at midnight on 8-9 May.

The Germans were naturally ignorant of the radio conversations which had opened late in April between the Soviet chief of staff, General Antonov, and the Allied commander-in-chief, General Eisenhower. The Soviets were anxious to rein the Americans back in the Bohmerwald and western Bohemia, and so leave the Russians with a clear run to Prague and the open country behind. On 4 May Eisenhower agreed to hold the American forces behind the line Karlsbad-Pilsen-Budweis, and when at the end of hostilities the German troops approached the Bohmerwald, they found that the Americans refused to take any more of them under their wing. A number of small parties infiltrated through, but most of the Germans had to resign themselves to being taken into captivity by the Russians.

We do not know with complete certainty what happened to Field-Marshal Schorner until he was recognised on 18 May by some civilians in eastern Austria, where his light aircraft had crash-landed. He was taken into custody by German officers acting under American authority, and he was duly passed to the Russians. Schorner was imprisoned as a war criminal in the Soviet Union until 1955, when he was released and returned to his native Bavaria. He was now confronted by angry German veterans seeking revenge for the thousands of their comrades who had been executed on his orders in the last stages of the war. In 1957 Schorner was sentenced to four and a half years of imprisonment on a specimen charge of manslaughter. He lived for ten years after his release and died in 1973.

There are two contradictory versions of what had happened to Schorner in that mysterious second week of May in 1945. According to Lieutenant Helmut Dirning, his aide-de-camp, Schorner had made good his escape in direct obedience to an order from Hitler to take command of an ultimate ‘National Redoubt’ in Bavaria. It should be noticed, however, that Dirning was a cousin of Schorner, and that he had not accompanied him on his flight from Bohemia. A much more circumstantial account was left by his chief of staff, Lieutenant-General von Natzmer. The story began at Josephstadt on 7 May, when Schorner stuffed his briefcase with money and told von Natzmer that he was going to escape by light aircraft, for he was too compromised to allow himself to fall into the hands of the Soviets. He offered some of the money to von Natzmer in case he too decided to run, but ‘in a cold and dismissive voice von Natzmer drew Schorner’s attention to the fact that on the next day the army group would be marching for its life. At such a juncture the commander should not abandon his troops, for never was higher direction more necessary than now’ (Thorwald, 1951, 362). Schorner replied that he had already given everyone in the army group freedom to escape to the west, and he was now merely claiming the same liberty for himself.

On the morning of 8 May Schorner’s car took off at such speed that von Natzmer’s vehicle was hard-pressed to keep up. There was no sign of the promised Fieseler Storch at Saaz, and the party remained there until a number of Russian tanks appeared on the northern side of the airfield and opened fire. The mad chase was resumed, and continued to Podhorsan, where it was discovered that a Storch had landed in a nearby meadow. Von Natzmer needed the aircraft desperately as a means of establishing communication with the Seventeenth Army and the First Panzer Army, which were out of radio contact, but when he addressed himself once more to Schorner, he found that the field-marshal had dosed himself very heavily with alcohol and had contrived to change into Bavarian national costume. Early on 9 May Schorner browbeat the elderly sentries into handing the Storch over to him, and he took off for the west.

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Field Marshal Ferdinand Schorner (center), Commander of Germans forces in Czechoslovakia, is pictured May 25, 1945, under guard in a US, Army jeep of the 42nd Infantry (‘Rainbow’) in Austria. (Photo by Photo12/UIG/Getty Images)

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Field Marshal Ferdinand Schorner (center), Commander of Germans forces in Czechoslovakia, is pictured May 25, 1945, under guard in a US, Army jeep of the 42nd Infantry (‘Rainbow’) in Austria.

The Last Days

When Hitler committed suicide, his Political Testament came into force, and Grand-Admiral Karl Doenitz was appointed president of the Reich and supreme commander of the Wehrmacht. On 2 May he made his first and most significant entry in his war diary: ‘At the present stage of affairs the principal aim of the government must be to save as many as possible of our German men from destruction by Bolshevism.’

At that time substantial bodies of German troops were still scattered over Eastern and Central Europe. Many of the Germans were assured of falling into Western captivity, such as the divisions in Schleswig-Holstein, Bavaria and the Tyrol. Others were doomed to be taken by the Russians, like the 190,000 men of Army Group North in Kurland (surrendered 10 May), the troops still holding out in the Vistula delta to the southeast of Danzig and the embattled garrison of Breslau (surrendered 6 May). All the rest were imploding from the line which up to now had been holding firm eastwards along the Sudetens to the region of Mahrisch-Ostrau, then south across eastern Moravia, the Danube valley and the Austrian Alps to northeastern Yugoslavia. Out of these forces about 1.5 million troops were able to disengage themselves from the Eastern Front between 1 and 9 May, and throw themselves on the mercy of the Western Allies, from whom they expected to have basic guarantees of their lives and welfare. Such hopes were not always fulfilled.

The official end of hostilities came on 9 May 1945, though some fighting continued east of Prague until the eleventh, and the surrender of the German forces in Yugoslavia was not completed until the fifteenth. The last remnant of the Third Reich was eliminated on 23 May, when a British armoured brigade captured Grand-Admiral Doenitz and his provisional government in their refuge on the Baltic.

The German defeat in 1945 was inevitable, given the weight of Allied material superiority, especially on the Eastern Front, and the fact that the Alliance held together politically. It remains to ask why the Germans lost in the particular way they did, and here every line of enquiry leads to the conclusion that the Germany of the Third Reich, for all its banners and stamping, fell short of being a united community in many fundamental respects.

As Colonel-General Guderian was aware, Hitler and some of his closest associates were men of the Danube or the Rhine, who awakened too late to the mortal danger to the old Prussian heartland of the Reich. It is striking how at the lower levels of command also the Germans attached so much importance to a man’s roots as part of his qualifications for such and such a task. It was judged important, for example, that General Krappe was a Pomeranian, Schulz a Silesian, von Saucken an East Prussian, and that Greiser hailed from the Warthegau. Panzerknacker Rudel arranged for his wing of Stukas to be moved from Hungary as soon as he learned that his native Silesia was under attack.

Real or supposed local origins account for the fate of Colonel-General Erhard Raus, who was dismissed from the command of the Third Panzer Army on 10 March. His end was welcomed by some elements of regional opinion, for he was ‘a native of Austria, and therefore alien to the land and people of Pomerania’ (Murawski, 1969, 72). The immediate cause, however, was a ludicrous episode in Hitler’s bunker, where Raus had gone to deliver a report on the state of his army. Guderian writes that he himself found the exposition outstandingly lucid. When he had finished Hitler dismissed him without comment. Raus had scarcely left the Chancellery shelter, where this conference had taken place, before Hitler turned to Keitel, Jodl and myself and shouted: ‘What a miserable speech! The man talked of nothing but details. Judging by the way he speaks he must be a Berliner or an East Prussian. He must be relieved of his command at once!’ I replied: ‘Colonel-General Raus is one of our most capable Panzer generals. . . . And as for his origin, Raus is an Austrian and therefore a compatriot of yours, my Führer.’

HITLER: ‘Absolutely impossible. He can’t be an Austrian.’

JODL: ‘Oh yes he can, my Fuhrer. He talks exactly like Moser, the actor.’ Hitler’s opinion of him remained unfavourable. When I pointed out that we had no surfeit of good generals my remark was ignored. Raus was relieved of his command. (Guderian, 1952, 420-21)

The fundamental disunity of the Reich was also evident in matters of organisation. Competition for authority and resources was shown in the lack of coordination in the development of weapons, the hoarding of ammunition and fuel, and the tardy and broken-backed mobilisation for Total War in 1944. Likewise the dissensions between Party and Wehrmacht were responsible for the lack of effective defence in depth on the Eastern Front, and for the deaths or needless misery of millions of civilian refugees.

When the Reich neared its end, it became clear that leaders had been fighting for different ‘Germanies.’ On the one side the moral contagion of those closest to the Nazi system became unmistakable. Field-Marshal Schorner, and those brown-jacketed heaps of filth the Gauleiters Greiser, Schwede-Coburg, Koch and Hanke were unsparing of the lives of others as long as there was a Nazi order to defend, and they then attended with great speed to their own safety. In contrast, Germany was honoured by the devotion of men like Hossbach, Reinhardt, von Tettau, von Saucken, Lasch, von Ahlfen, von Niehoff and many others, who proved that human responsibility could still be reconciled with soldierly duty.