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Smolensk, German Occupied Russia, 1943

Smolensk, Wehrmacht, Army Group Centre, Krasnyi, March – May 1943

On July 24, 1941, German Army units moved into positions north of Mogilev with Yelnya their final objective. Generaloberst Guderian ensured 18th Panzer Division relieved Infanterie-Regiment Grossdeutschland and this unit attacked Prudki due south of Smolensk. On July 26, Generaloberst Hoth closed the pocket east of Smolensk from the north. Ten Russian divisions were at the mercy of 3rd Panzer Group. This ended the first battle of Smolensk during Operation Barbarossa.

Commencing August 7 and lasting until October 2, 1943 the Red Army launched Operation Suvorov against Army Group Centre capturing Smolensk during the second battle of Smolensk. The Wehrmacht occupied Smolensk a full two years. The triangle of Vitebsk, Krasnyi and Smolensk (due west of Moscow) was where the action in this narrative occurred, see map.

Berlin based Feldgendarmerie Hauptmann Paul Rehbein (German Field Police) enjoyed his stay in excellent accommodation in Krasnyi 10km west of Smolensk with the adjacent Katyn Forest providing a safe, peaceful respite located 500km from the front line. The insanity, chaos and slaughter committed by Einsatzgruppen (Special Action Groups) on the Jewish and gypsy populations during the German advance ensured Russia was a place where the rule of law did not operate. 16,000 Jews from the nearby Vitebsk ghetto ended up in the river as human fertiliser late 1941. The SS butchered the inhabitants of Sloboda, Polotsk, and Biskatovo without any Wehrmacht interference. Hitler’s Lebensraum policy was designed to eliminate all Russians so that Germans could live peacefully in the space thus created. In the midst of such slaughter, how could one Berlin policeman achieve anything?

There were numerous intelligence reports of Polish officers, observed by local Russians, detained on a train standing at Gnezdovo (Goat’s Summit), railway station, just west of Smolensk, within walking distance of Katyn forest, during spring 1940. Many of these POWs may have been murdered by the NKVD, the Russian secret service.

The Germans decided on a display of horror as they found the bodies of hundreds of Polish officers while ignoring the burial pits of their own making. One leg bone brought into the canteen by Wehrmacht Oberst Jaeger’s dog, led to the exhumation of A Polish Admiral, 2 Generals, 31 Colonels, 79 Lieutenant Colonels, 258 Majors, 54 Captains, 17 Naval Captains and 3,500 NCOs, a total of 3,942 bodies buried in lines with sand on top thereby ensuring the site could only be detected at close quarters. Some were German speaking Poles – Prussia, changed hands three times between Russia and Poland since 1726 – who may have been detained in two Soviet induction camps at Starobelsk and Kozelsk. All had their hands tied behind their backs and were dispatched, Russian NKVD style, with a single bullet to the back of the head. Death was instantaneous, the eerie quiet of Katyn Forest ensured the shootings were not heard much beyond the trees, a well chosen execution site.

What to do, certainly, this was a propaganda coup against Stalin, the mass murderer, who killed many more people than Hitler. International exposure was the only option. Could this exposure divide the Allied cause?

The Wehrmacht Kriegs Verbrecher Buro (Wehrmacht War Crimes Bureau) continued to function from April 1943 until May 1945. Hauptmann Rehbein took operational control on the ground as a team of international experts was assembled under the administration of the overtly independent, Polish Red Cross. Hauptmann Rehbein organised a team of Russian Hiwis (Hilfs Williger - willing helpers), these were Russian POWs who worked for the Germans by choice, in order to stay alive, to exhume the bodies and serve as night watchmen to protect the site from looters.

Tolstoy says ‘Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way’, so, the tensions between these expert pathologists came to the fore almost immediately. The Spanish pathologist, the architect of Franco’s post war repression, was universally detested. Franco murdered 200,000 of his enemies between 1938 and 1975. Mass graves, from the 1936-38, Spanish Civil War, are still being discovered to this day. Experts from Geneva, Switzerland; Ghent, Belgium; Bulgaria; Denmark; Finland; Croatia; Italy; Holland; Bohemia and Moravia; Romania; Slovakia, Hungary and France. This was a selection of 16 expert pathologists from all countries outside America and England.

Almost immediately the Soviets broke off diplomatic relations with the Polish Government-in-exile in London. In America public opinion was divided. The British blamed the Polish Red Cross for naively playing into the pliant hands of Dr Goebbels’ German propaganda.

‘Grave number one revealed all 800 victims were shot in exactly the same way within a few millimetres, from very close range, at the same protrusion at the base of the back of the skull with the round exiting through the occipital area. There were twelve layers of bodies in grave number one, the heads of one row resting on the feet of the men below implying much pre-planning. Tons of sand was placed on top with earth-moving equipment which compressed the bodies into one large mummified plot. Fluids from the bodies formed an airtight seal around the plot. Birch trees were re-planted on the site ensuring only accidental discovery. There were 9 burial pits, evenly spaced, in Katyn Forest. This precision ensured a closely controlled military operation conducted in total secrecy, probably at night, spring 1940,’ concluded Professor Gerhard Goetz, Army Group Centre’s advisory coroner, a former professor of forensic medicine and criminal law from Heidelberg University and an expert on ballistics and formerly a Wehrmacht Oberst.

Professor Goetz stated ‘The ammunition used to eliminate the Polish officers as German 7.65mm calibre from the Gustav factory in Frankfort which was part of a batch of ammunition sold to the Baltic States in 1940 when there was a non-aggression pact with Stalin. So, German Walther service automatic pistols were used instead of Russian Nagants or Tokarevs because they did not jam or misfire when shooting large numbers of victims. These Walther pistols helped cover their misdeeds and reduced chance of discovery.’

Time marches on and the situation for Army Group Centre became critical in April 1943, with the Jewish uprising in Warsaw, where the SS set about suppressing the uprising with a brutality rarely witnessed on the Eastern Front. This ongoing incident mitigated the horror of the continuing exhumations. A visit the Cathedral Church of the Assumption, Smolensk replete with devout Russians and some equally devout German soldiers praying to Our Lady and Saint Luke, illustrated just how critical the situation in Southern Russia was with Army Group A in the Caucasus threatened with encirclement and the build up of German and Russian forces opposite Kursk 500km southeast of Smolensk.

Hauptmann Rehbein enlisted the help of the only female pathologist, the Moravian Dr Maria Klem, in order to interview the local Russian witnesses about the Katyn massacre. Dr Klem spoke German, French, Russian, Polish and Ukrainian and described how the Poles invaded the recently annexed Sudetenland in 1938 and behaved with much cruelty yet without the attendant adverse publicity.

The Russian population feared the imminent return of the dreaded Russian NKVD. Smolensk was located at the junction of several language groups. Ruthenian, (la terra sera tota nostra) incorporating Latin soundings words, Polish, Ukrainian, Russian and German were the working languages in Smolensk. Almost immediately, the battle between the Whites and Reds in 1922 during the Russian Civil War with their mass graves was mentioned by fearful Russian witnesses. Further, the pogroms carried out by Stalin against the Red Army in 1937 ensured more mass graves and more complications for the international pathologists. Older, more determined Ukrainians, described Stalin’s forced collectivisation of farms which resulted in 3 million deaths from famine between 1933 and 1935.

Retired Tsarist General Mirovsky, told Hauptmann Rehbein ‘The Germans should have invaded during the chaos of 1922 when everyone, non-communist Russians, Ukrainians and Belorussians would have welcomed them and joined against the Reds. Stalin killed those who did not approve of Lenin’s ‘Workers Paradise’. Lenin created a system they did not have to live in.’

Rehbein stated ‘Everyone in Smolensk knew about the Katyn massacre or massacres. Anyone who said they did not know was lying. They told lies because they hated Germans more than they hated the NKVD. Lying is the best way of staying alive in Smolensk. Three years previously the Russian militia closed the road to Vitebsk however they did not stop the trains. The people on the trains at Gnezdovo railway station heard the sound of shots from Katyn forest at least until the NKVD boarded the trains and ensured the windows were closed. Witnesses described how bad Smolensk would be with the retreat of the Germans and the imminent return of the revenge seeking NKVD.’

Dr Klem told Rehbein ‘She was uneasy interviewing the local resident witnesses primarily because they were reluctant to speak to a westerner and a woman.’ Hauptmann Rehbein had to attend the interviews which were held at night. Russians could not be seen to be associating with the Germans. There were many difficulties.

The German Katyn public relations officer Leutnant Georg Woronin was well chosen by Dr Goebbels. A journalist by trade, he carried key facts and figures in a binder he carried everywhere which was updated daily as the horrors from the mass grave at Katyn Forest unfolded. His insistence that the ethnic Germans, German speaking Polish officers and, who were Germans before the Great War, German East Prussia changed hands with Poland in 1918, should be re-interred separately, caused consternation with the Polish Red Cross. Hauptmann Rehbein, ever diplomatic, intervened directly with Dr Goebbels thereby ensuring there was no segregation on re-burial.

Correspondents from Spain, Norway, France, Holland, Belgium, Hungary and Serbia who were perceived as Nazi stooges added to the international presence in Katyn. Fortunately, Mikael Nyquist of Sweden’s Stockholm Tidningen and Jens Schweitzer from Switzerland’s Der Bund, both neutral, ensured objective reporting.

The autopsies were routine. A cursory opening of the chest cavity with the contents of the skull examined, ensured any remnant material was placed in the chest cavity and sewn closed. Clearly, the direction and calibre of the round traversing the cranium was noted. Re-burial was routine. ‘Forensic medicine requires only the quiet assembly of genuine scientific evidence and the construction of reasonable inferences based on honest observation which means that it is the one facet of the practice of medicine that was not hijacked by the Nazis.’ said Dr Klem.

The international commission, with Goetz and Woronin, easily distinguishable in their field grey uniforms, were surrounded by expert pathologists. Woronin translated Goetz’s remarks. Official photographers and international correspondents ensured there was a buzz of activity including the fetid air replete with mosquitoes.

Back in the woods the wild flowers were in bloom, it was difficult to believe there was a war on. Goetz agreed with Rehbein that the display of Polish documents recovered from grave number one was most effective and persuasive.

The Russians murdered four thousand Polish officers in Katyn forest, in the spring of 1940 and many others besides in several places unknown to the Germans, perhaps as many as fifteen or twenty thousand men. The German government ensured the International Commission report, completed May 1943, informed the world about Katyn.

The Soviet Union denied responsibility for the Katyn murders until 1991 when the Russian Federation confirmed responsibility for the massacre of more than 14,500 men. The Communist Party denies Soviet guilt to this day. Major Blokhin chief executioner at Katyn, died an alcoholic in 1955.

April 10, 2010, a Tupolev 154 aircraft of the Polish Air Force crashed near the city of Smolensk, Russia, killing all 96 people on board, including the President of Poland Lech Kaczynski and his wife Maria, the former President of Poland in exile Ryszard Kaczorowski, the chief of the Polish General Staff and other senior Polish Military officers, 18 members of the Polish Parliament and relatives of victims visiting Smolensk for the 70th anniversary of the Katyn massacre.

Operation Barbarossa June 1941 – May 1943, Cartography Hibernianscribe

Grossdeutschland infantry and armoured troops, Russia, 1943

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