Translated by Leslie A. Riggle in Kansas / USA
(Excerpt from "The Expulsion of the German Population from the Areas East of the Oder-Neisse", published by the former German Ministry for Expellees, Refugees and War Victims, Volume I/1, Pages 43E ff., Weltbild Verlag, Augsburg 1993)
Many refugees from East and West Prussia had been persuaded to remain in Danzig and Pomerania during the relative peace that existed in these areas. Even more was this true for the local population, with the exception of the small numbers who had managed to get to the west of the Oder River by train, by ship or by caravan. It was made even more difficult for the population to flee by the Nazi Party members who strictly prohibited their flight and even prevented the caravans from the east that were passing through Pomerania from continuing. As a result, when, at the beginning of March 1945, the Russians began their major offensive against eastern Pomerania and Danzig the population in these regions had decreased only slightly, but the influx of refugees actually raised the number by several hundred thousand. At least two and a half million Germans, of whom 25% were refugees, were living in the northern part of West Prussia, in the Danzig area and in eastern Pomerania, and only a small part of these were able to make their way to the west across the Oder after the beginning of the Russian offensive in the early days of March. Altogether there was a population of more than three million Germans living in Danzig and West Prussia and of these about 900,000 remained in the areas occupied by the Russian troops. It has been estimated that there were 2-300,000 refugees from East Prussia, from the southern and eastern parts of West Prussia, from the Warthe region and from the southern counties of Pomerania, who in February were concentrated in the still unoccupied regions of Danzig and eastern Pomerania, so there were a minimum of 2,500,000 Germans in these areas at the beginning of March.
In the last days of February the Soviet Army, supported by the 1st Polish army, launched a decisive offensive simultaneously in West Prussia and in eastern Pomerania to reach the Baltic coast and to occupy the land between the mouths of the Vistula and the Oder Rivers. From the south to the north within a bare 14 days they took possession of all eastern Pomerania. The two main thrusts of the Soviet troops in the eastern Pomeranian area drove on one side from around Friedberg, through Arnswalde to the mouth of the Oder at Stettin and on to the Baltic coast at Cammin and on the other side from the area around Schneidemühl - Deutsch Krone, by way of Neustettin and Bublitz, reaching the Baltic coast to the east of Köslin. Both goals were reached in short order, placing the refugees from eastern Pomerania in an impossible situation. By the 1st of March Soviet troops already stood on the Baltic coast to the east of Köslin, cutting eastern Pomerania into two parts and cutting all the counties east of a line through Neustettin to Köslin off from land communication with the west.
At the same time there was in the easternmost tip of Pomerania a movement of refugees in the opposite direction. Since the Russians had reached the Baltic east of Köslin, the inhabitants of the counties of Rummelsburg, Bütow, Schlawe, Stolp and Lauenburg no longer had an option to escape by land to the west. And all the refugees from East Prussia, West Prussia or Danzig, who found themselves here on their way to the west had to reverse and seek an escape to the east. Then the only exits left were the Pomeranian ports of Stolpmünde and Leba, and primarily those of Gdingen and Danzig. Since at the same time the Russians were attacking in Pomerania, they were also striking to the north through West Prussia in the counties of Konitz, Pr. Stargard and Berent, there was a massive exodus of refugees let loose in the first days of March toward the area around Danzig. Completely bewildered, the columns of farmer refugees in their wagons wandered here and there. Most of them could not bear to part with their last possessions and leave the caravans in an attempt to escape by sea. So it was that, especially in the area around Stolp, numerous refugee columns were overtaken by the Russian troops. Since the Russians were in Bütow by the 5th of March, by the 8th in Stolp and the port city of Stolpmünde on the 9th and 10th of March and already reached Leba and Lauenburg, and because the evacuation order was usually not received more than 24 hours in advance, there was a tumultuous flight by train, automobile and on foot toward the Danzig area. Soon all roads were clogged and in the eastern Pomeranian counties of Stolp and Lauenburg as well as in the West Prussian counties of Neustadt and Karthaus and there was an impossible jam. A very large part of the population of the villages, as well as the towns, was not able to escape. Even in cases where there was enough time, either the pointless weeks of flight or the fear of the dangers of a sea voyage, prevented the use of this last opportunity. The sinking of several refugee ships, especially the "Wilhelm Gustloff", which departed from Danzig and was sunk by a Russian submarine on the 30th of January near Stolpmünde, taking with it 5,000 refugees to a watery grave, frightened many from leaving by ship. In the cities of Stolp, Bütow, Lauenburg and in the villages thousands remained and were soon subjected to the horrors of the Russian arrival.
From the small Pomeranian ports of Stolpmünde and Leba there departed only a few ships and many refugees waited in vain for transport to the west until the Russians occupied these ports. Which the exception of Kolberg, which held out until the 18th of March, by the 10th of March all of eastern Pomerania had been occupied by the Red Army.
In the meantime the ring around Danzig grew ever tighter. In Gdingen and Danzig the quays were filled with people whose fear of sea transport was outweighed by their fear of the Russians and they waited eagerly for any ship. All ships that were seaworthy were ordered to the ports of Gdingen, Danzig and Hela, and transportation was prepared even in Pillau, where the threat against Danzig and Gdingen brought more of the hundreds of thousands of refugees who had gathered from East Prussia, West Prussia and Pomerania, where they were forced to the waterfront of the Bay of Danzig, and especially in Danzig itself. Transports were loaded daily with refugees in the ports of Danzig and Gdingen and these were taken to the west, but more and more refugees arrived to take their places. Thus it was after the middle of March, as the Germans of Danzig and Gdingen were loaded onto ships, their empty residences were again filled with refugees from West Prussia, East Prussia and Pomerania. On the 22nd of March the Soviet troops were able to break through to the coast between Danzig and Gdingen. That was the beginning of the end for these two strongpoints.
On the 25th of March, as the Russians were already nearby, some 35,000 soldiers and refugees crossed from Oxhöft, north of Gdingen, to Hela in boats and on rafts. Only a few thousand remained behind.
After the 25th of March the port installations in Danzig and Gdingen were blown up and ship traffic was halted and many thousands were left in Danzig and were still there when the Russians were in occupation on the 27th of March. Nearly a half million people were to be found in Danzig and at least half of them were able to leave by ship to west Germany or by ferry to Hela. Some 200,000 locals, and refugees who had sought shelter in Danzig and the cities of Zoppot and Gdingen and had survived weeks of air attacks, lived through terrible scenes as the Soviet troops forced their way in.
After the fall of the strongpoints of Danzig-Gotenhafen and until the capitulation of Germany, Hela and a small coastal strip along the mouth of the Vistula at Schiewenhorst remained the last exit points for refugees to sea transport. Due to their fortunate location, these two points could be held until the end of the war. Tens of thousands of refugees and soldiers found themselves in the small area of Schiewenhorst and Nickelswalde at the mouth of the Vistula and they were regularly taken by ferry and small boats over to Hela. There, at the point of the narrow peninsula in the Bay of Danzig at the village and harbor of Hela, was the center of the last sea transports in the months of April/May 1945. In addition to the 100,000 persons who were at Hela in March were added another 265,000 in April. Constant Russian air attacks caused not only high losses among the unbelievably crowded masses of soldiers and civilians, but was also an extreme threat to the shipping. It was a remarkable feat that the majority of these people were able to be transported by sea to Schleswig-Holstein or to Denmark. In the month of April alone 387,000 people left Hela by sea. The last ships with 40,000 soldiers and refugees left Hela on the 6th of May 1945. 60,000 people remained behind, most of them military personnel.