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The story of Klemens Piosetzki - Missing since 1944

Updated: Jan 10, 2021

As part of a new series we are looking into individuals from all sides of the conflict, who remain lost in the Kurland pocket. Our first case is that of a German artilleryman missing since 1944.

This story is dedicated to Klemens Piosetzki and all the missing, who still lie in Kurland’s soil.

If you have a relative or story you would like us to look into, please feel free to drop us an email.

The Legenda Admin Team November 16, 2020

Wartime photo shows Klemens at the table wearing a side cap and neck scarf. Photo: Copyright Barbara S. 2020

The 29-year-old seasoned veteran Klemens Piosetzki closed the heavy door gently behind him. His mind was a whirlwind of emotions. Gratitude, that he had got to spend one night with his fiancée, fear about what the future held and, of course, sadness at their separation.

It was the early hours of October 23, 1944 … he stepped into the chill of the pre-dawn darkness, only his boots disturbed the silence, as his steps echoed on the ancient cobble stones of the still sleeping town of Marienwerder, a garrison town. He felt close to tears and didn’t dare to look back at the window, where he knew his fiancée would be watching him leave ...

Marienwerder Station - Picture: Web

From the small window Ursula Hirsch watched in silence, as the darkness slowly swallowed up Klemens, as he strode away. Having already lost another man she had loved early in the war, she prayed this would not be the last vision she would ever have of Klemens and she vowed to do whatever it took to protect the child she was carrying. She hoped he wouldn't glance back; she didn't want his last memory of her to be one of her crying ...

As he made his way through the Old Town towards the station, he noted the town was looking more neglected than he remembered, but five years of war had taken its toll on everything - himself included. He smiled ruefully, five hard years of serving in the war had certainly made him feel a little less polished than before. His scruffy, heavily worn boots proved that point. He wondered how many miles they had carried him since his enlistment in 1939, only five years ago, but it seemed like a lifetime away…

Artillery Regiment 181 - Seen here on the move. Copyright: Legenda Archaeology 2020

The rhythm of his boots was almost hypnotising. He had learned over the years not to think about distances or discomfort, but to turn your mind to other things. He was not keen to consider what the future held for him and his comrades, surrounded in Kurland. So, he decided to think back to his past and how he had reached this point in his life ...

He had been born during the early stage of World War I in Schomberg, in Silesia, and had grown up with two older brothers and a sister. On finishing his education he had held an office job within a local business, but had always yearned to do more, to see the world. When war broke out in September, 1939, he wanted to do his bit… He had grown up surrounded by many heroic stories of World War I and, like many patriotic Germans of the time, he wanted to help right the perceived injustices of the Versailles Treaty.

So, he had enlisted.

Klemens Piosetzki - Still missing in Latvia. Photo Copyright: Barbara S 2020

The Polish campaign had been over too quickly for him to see any action there, but with France and Britain still standing as enemies, the Wehrmacht continued its expansion. It was one of these newly formed units as part of this expansion that he found himself joining. The 81st Infantry Division, also known as ‘Eine Schlesische Division’ was formed of men from the Silesia region. Its main headquarters were in Gorlitz, but he was based in the pretty garrison town of Marienwerder, West Preussen, just South of Danzig, it is where he would later meet Ursula. Klemens was posted to the 12th Battery of Artillery Regiment 181. Much of their equipment was antiquated Czechoslovakian, captured when the country was annexed in 1938. January 19th stuck out as a big day: it was when they had undertaken their first live firing exercises. Morale was sky high and they were living in areas, where the locals had warmed to them and conditions were pleasant. By the end of February the Division was declared ‘ready for action’. But nothing happened.

Soldiers of Artillery Regiment 181 - Eating from their field canteens. Copyright: Legenda Archaeology 2020

Rumours swirled about action against France, but still they remained in Germany - training, training, and again, more training. However, it was during one of these exercises that news reached them that the war in the west had begun! A few days later, on May 16, the division loaded up on trains and headed westwards. On crossing the border they reached Eupen and Limburg on the very first day. They were euphoric, but soon suffered their first casualties, which was sobering for these enthusiastic, yet inexperienced troops. On they went, always advancing. The hot weather and being thirsty were two of his main memories of this time …. Funny, what sticks in the mind, he thought… First they headed towards Paris, through Spa, Stourmont and Ambleve: they were moving at a rate of some 40kms a day - it seemed like nothing could stop them.

Victory Parade in France - from the album of a member of Artillery Regiment 181 Copyright: Legenda Archaeology 2020

By May 24 they had crossed from Belgium into France and over the River Meuse. By June 2 they were at St. Quentin and passing through the old battlefields of the First World War, which was very poignant for them. They then turned south-westwards towards Soissons where the countryside was breath-taking in its beauty. It then read like a tourist trail, passing through so many places so quickly. They crossed the River Aisne on June 7 and despite stiffening enemy resistance and more casualties, his artillery regiment eventually entered Chateau-Thierry shortly afterwards. A brief rest and they were on the move again … The following days saw the advance continue: Briare was taken, marking their final river crossing of the western campaign, the River Loire. They were at the picturesque Chateau Blancafort, when armistice came and Artillery Regt 181’s western campaign was at an end. They had travelled over 800 kilometers and suffered some 24 killed in action.

Chateau Blancafort - from the album of a soldier of Artillery Regiment 181. Copyright: Legenda Archaeology 2020

After a few days of recovery, the division was ordered to return to Germany. The journey back was a hot and dusty affair through the detritus of war, that littered the roads and refugees returning home. They eventually arrived back on German soil on July 17 to a hero’s welcome. In every station they stopped, people flocked to greet and cheer them: it had been one of the highlights of his military service. However, as the ecstasy waned, 81 Infantry Division faced an uncertain future. It was one of the units initially marked for complete dissolution and, although ordinary soldiers had no way of knowing it at the time, secret planning for attacking the Soviet Union was already underway. It was for this reason that the order to dissolve was never implemented and instead, the unit was put ‘on leave’. This was a strange time: helping with the harvest, agriculture and industry was not what he had enlisted for, but the truth was that they were a reserve unit awaiting a new task …

His order to return to his unit came at the beginning of 1941. He remembered the feverish activity that commenced, bringing the division back to full readiness by February 1941. The question as to where they were going was soon answered: the Vendee area of France. He had been pleased by this news as he’d liked France and wanted to spend more time there: now he would get his chance.

An Officer of Artillery Regiment 181 inspects the wreckage on a French beach. Copyright: Legenda Archaeology 2020

The troop trains were loaded and headed for Les Sables d’Olonne. The Division’s orders were to protect the Atlantic coast from allied raids, be they by air or by sea. Being from an inland area, he found the rugged coastline and ocean mesmerizing. Added to this, the fresh air, good food and drink and pleasant local population meant it was the happiest time of his military postings. He even started to learn the language … The only action of note they saw was when the battleship Scharnhorst arrived at La Pallice in July. This duly attracted the RAF in a raid that damaged the ship, but also cost the attackers a number of aircraft. Other than that, it remained a peaceful posting amongst glorious surroundings.But, like all good things, it had to come to an end. With the fighting in the East now stalled at the gates of Moscow, it was only a matter of time until the order came, which it duly did … by early December the first units of the Division had started the move east….

Men of Artillery Regiment 181 on board a transport train. Copyright: Legenda Archaeology 2020

Moving an entire division was a large and complicated process. It took some 41 transport trains to move them across Germany and eventually to Riga. From here they moved east and got a frightening glimpse of the terrible Winter weather that awaited them. The Division was broken into three parts: he was with the headquarters group in the Staraya Russia and Lake Ilmen area. The cold was indescribable and unlike anything he had experienced ever before. That Winter temperatures dropped as low as minus 42 degrees and at times it felt as if it was the weather they were fighting, not the Russians. However, despite these inhumane conditions, it was where they would spend the Winter, often involved in heavy fighting in temperatures that regularly fell below minus 30. As Winter became Spring the frozen wastelands became a muddy morass. He was not sure which he hated more, the cold or the mud … Another grim issue in the thaw was that of the thousands of dead Soviet soldiers, killed during the Winter battles, now exposed and in need of burial, in order to stop disease becoming endemic. This was definitely not at all like the pleasant days in France …

Winter losses had taken its toll on the 81st Infantry Division. A number of the artillery units had to be merged and he had found himself joining IV Battery in the Jassry positions alongside the 5th Jaeger Division ...

The guns of Artillery Regiment 181 firing. Copyright: Legenda Archaeology 2020

A sudden deep, chesty cough brought him back from his reminiscences to reality, as he turned onto the Bahnhof Strasse. He was now not far from the station ... The cough, he knew, was a manifestation of the ‘flu he had picked up in Demjansk … They had known it as the ‘ass end of the world’ and even thinking back now it turned his stomach: it was a swamp even at the height of summer. The area had been completely surrounded, but a fierce German offensive had broken the encirclement and a tenuous land corridor formed. They had been sent there to protect it. Sadly, it was also a breeding ground for serious diseases borne by mosquitoes. That August was still all a bit of a blur for him: fever, nausea, eye pain and such fatigue as he had never known before, or since, and, of course, that cough ... He had been diagnosed on 15 August and three days later, he was transferred to the Field Hospital at Mawrino (See footnote *A). Such was the severity of his illness that he would not be declared fit again until again 6 October. This was just in time to take part in the fierce Autumn and Winter battles as the Soviets tried to surround first Staraya Russia and then Demjansk again. Throughout this time, the nine 150mm cannons of IV Artillery 181 were called into ever more desperate action to help keep the corridor open …

Graves of members of the Artillery Regiment 181. Date/Location unknown. Copyright: Legenda Archaeology 2020

They had hoped Christmas 1942 to be restful, as they were due to be pulled from the line, but this was not to be the case. A major Soviet attack was launched to the North and the still weakened division was again thrown back into the fray. The peak of the Russian winter was upon them with all its fury. The cold surrounded them and there was no escape from its icy clutches. It was in these appalling conditions they received orders to change positions. They were now being sent even further North to one of the most inhospitable sections of the front, Volkhov. They started loading at Staraya Russia for the journey. It was sad leaving so many of their comrades buried in the swamps around the Demjansk salient. Despite these sacrifices, in a few short weeks it would be abandoned to the Soviets anyway ...

Next came Leningrad… The Soviet assault had opened a narrow land corridor along Lake Lagoda, allowing supplies into the city. This threatened the entire German Northern section, which at one point was at risk of a complete collapse. It had been a time of constant action and ‘firefighting’ … constantly changing positions to close off Soviet penetrations. One stood out in his mind - the one when they had helped stop a Soviet attack on the neighbouring 132nd Division on February 17. It had been a close-run thing. However, as Winter once again turned to Spring, the thaw and mud slowed military operations down, thus allowing the Division to regroup and train replacements. The guns were getting ever more worn and unreliable, his battery was down to just seven 150mm guns. As to the replacements, he felt sorry for them. They were getting ever younger and more inexperienced. They tried to teach them, but at the front there was no substitute for experience.

Members of Artillery Regiment 181 inspect a destroyed tank. Copyright: Legenda Archaeology 2020

In late July all hell had broken loose with Soviet shelling destroying the positions between Neva and Pogostje, whilst fierce battles had raged for control of the Ssinjawino heights. Much of this offensive had fallen on nearby units, but they were regularly called in to help. It was clear the Soviets were planning ever larger offensives. September had seen the retreat from the Kirischi Bridgehead. They had been very lucky not to be surrounded by this withdrawal, as his unit was one of the last to leave its positions, providing covering fire for the 96th Division. His last actions on the accursed Volkhov front were on October 7, supporting Grenadier Regt. 81, by stopping a Soviet tank attack in the Cherennaya area.

In mid-October they had finally received new guns, not a moment too soon, as one crisis now followed another on an almost daily basis. The part of the front line they now held was a memorable one: it ran approximately 14kms long around 1km North of the Pushkin Estates. This was known, before the war, as the ‘Potsdam of the Tzars’ and had been home to the world famous Amber Room. It was now a poor shadow of its former beauty, destroyed by years of fighting … But there was no time to enjoy the history, or anything else for that matter, as Soviet advances south-west of them meant there was a real risk of being cut off. To counter this they were pulled back, first to Gatchina, then Pskow and then Pustoschka. In the heavy fighting around the village of ‘Bokarowo’ on New Year’s Eve 1943, he had got shot in the foot. It hurt like hell, but his comrades told him he was lucky, as he had a ‘million-mark wound’... this was a wound bad enough to get you home, but not bad enough to be life changing. With the pain surging up his leg he certainly hadn't felt lucky at the time ... Initially, he was sent to a first aid station in Morosowo, (footnote *A) before being sent back to the reserve hospital in Marienwerder where he eventually arrived on the 18th.

Klemens seen here in civilian clothing. Copyright: Barbara S. 2020

A welcome period of recuperation leave followed as his foot slowly healed. It had, indeed, been good to be away from the front and sleep in a proper bed. Once declared ‘fit to return’ he was allocated to a replacement battalion - the 44 Heavy Artillery Replacement Battalion - based at the airfield at Ohlau. This unit was responsible for despatching replacements to a number of different Artillery Regiments including IV/ Artillery Regt.181. On June 23, the Soviets launched their long-planned offensive « Operation Bagration ». Such were the scale of losses on Army Group Centre, that there was a fear the whole front would collapse. It was this critical need for men that had brought to an end his time at Ohlau. Due to the chaos of the retreat it had been hard to find his unit, but, on July 20, he finally caught up with them in Lithuania. They told him of how they’d had to fight their way through Polozk in Belarus to avoid being cut off. By August 3, they had repositioned in a forest area just North of the village of Biksiai (see footnote *1) and three days later, on August 6 (a significant date in the story of Klemens see footnote *2) the unit found itself around Grumsliai on the Lithuanian/Latvian border.

An Artillery gun belonging to Artillery Regiment 181. Copyright: Legenda Archaeology 2020

As Summer turned to Autumn it was his turn to get wounded again. Fortunately it was only a minor wound (see footnote *3), but it was enough for him to get sent to the rear for treatment again. He was lucky, as the supply railway ran directly through Artillery Regt 181s positions (see footnote*4) and thus could be used, not only to re-supply them, but also to remove their wounded very quickly. He was declared ‘fit for service’ again in late September and set off to track down his unit, which was now in Latvia. However, before he could reach it, the Soviet 51st Army swept across the country reaching the Baltic Sea on October 10, so cutting off Army Group North and thus forming the Kurland pocket. With this encirclement complete he was unable to get back to his unit. The train he was on was halted and the men forced to disembark. An ad hoc reorganisation followed. It was amazing that the orderly army of 1939 had come to this, but, despite the chaos, men were quickly sorted into various scratch units (see footnote *5). Those next few days were all a bit of a blur: they were constantly on the move, never really sure where the enemy was and aware of wild rumours that the Soviets had surrounded them. He fell back with the scratch unit to Königsberg, a town where you could now actually feel the fear of the approaching the Red Army. However, with the immediate pressure off, the men could be sorted in a more orderly fashion. As a specialist heavy artillery gunner, he was ordered to report back to his regiment’s headquarters and seek transport to re-join his unit. Having got these orders, he started the 200km long journey back to Marienwerder via Elbing.

Members of Artillery Regiment 181 - Date and Location unknown. Copyright: Legenda Archaeology 2020

It took some six days of hard walking to reach Marienwerder, where he immediately reported to his regiment’s HQ. He had been thinking of visiting Ursula first, but it was far too risky to be caught anywhere without orders. The Military Police were notorious for their treatment of anyone, who was suspected of deserting. Having reported to barracks, his arrival was met with surprise. They thought he was dead, as he had been on the missing list since his wounding. He was ordered to be ready to leave early next morning from the railway station, where he would go to Danzig and from there a ship would take him to the Kurland pocket. He was then given permission to return ‘home’ for the night and see his fiancée (see footnote *6). He arrived at the heavy door that led to Ursula’s flat and knocked loudly. For a second Ursula had not recognised him, as she pulled open the door: he was cold, tired, dirty and hungry - when he glimpsed his reflection in the mirror, he barely recognised himself. He pulled off his battered boots and placed them by the door, where they stood in stark contrast against the clean, pretty wallpaper of the flat … ‘HALT !’ someone shouted, jolting him back to the present and taking him away from the pleasant memories of seeing Ursula last night … He had arrived at Marienwerder station. He showed his papers and was directed to the platform for the train leaving for Danzig ...

Artillery Regiment 181 -