By Vincent Hunt
Blood in the Forest is the story of the Courland Pocket – a series of apocalyptic battles between the Red Army and German and Latvian forces in the final stages of the Second World War.
The author crosses modern Courland – western Latvia – gathering eye-witness accounts of each of the six battles. Many of these stories have never been told before in English. Holocaust survivor Margers Vestermanis describes life and death in the rarely-known Popervale Jewish concentration camp and machine gunners who won Iron Crosses describe the slaughter they witnessed.
An elderly historian produces handwritten papers detailing atrocities committed against civilians and a young girl who fled Riga clinging to the last truck out of the city describes how she later returned as President.
The German and Latvian forces retreating from the Eastern Front were cut off in Courland in September 1944; the Pocket proper began with the first battle in October. Red Army artillery, aircraft and tanks pounded the defences as Nazi troops fought to keep escape routes open through the Baltic port of Liepāja.
The Latvians in Courland were fighting for the survival of their nation, and to prevent the Red Army returning after the deportations and deaths of the Soviet occupation in 1940-41, which they called ‘The Terrible Year’. But there were Latvians in the Red Army too; some willingly, others pressed into service as the Soviets freed the east of the country.
The fighting was savage. Red Army soldiers ordered to attack by pistol-brandishing NKVD officers were mown down by machine guns until the piles of dead lay so deep the gunners had to find new positions. In the Christmas Battles of 1944 Latvians were in the frontlines on either side. Sometimes brother fought brother: the episode has scarred the nation ever since.
This is a journalistic travelogue through an area and a history the casual reader may have never thought of visiting, which sheds new light on one of the final frontiers of the Second World War.
In the forests the author visits a ghost village bombed into oblivion and its inhabitants deported to Siberia. The graveyard was used for target practice by Soviet pilots for decades after the war. Now villagers have erected a sign at its entrance which reads: ‘Sorry we could not protect you.’
The place where this hellish struggle, and the Second World War came to an end is marked by a slate plaque (pictured above) at a ruined church in the middle of nowhere.
‘In this place in May 1945 the victorious Soviet Army accepted the capitulation of the defeated Fascist troops’.
Below that is a quote from Latvian poet Eizhen Veveris:
‘Only the memory of victory remains. Too much blood was shed for it.’
There were few celebrations on the Latvian side when the war ended. It was just the beginning of another period of suffering. Those who couldn’t escape were either deported to Siberia or had an alien peace imposed upon them. They weren’t free to grieve: enormous statues to their liberators were erected (sometimes over monuments to their own dead).
One of those who did escape (first to Germany, then to Australia) was the real-life Crocodile Dundee – former Legionnaire Arvīds Blūmentāls from the Courland village of Dundaga. A statue commemorates him today – a symbol of the diaspora, disruption and distress caused by the war.
Even 70 years later, the war is not over for some. The brave officers of the Latvian Army bomb squad are still clearing up the munitions. Teams of volunteer ‘diggers’ track down and recover the fallen from their battlefield graves and the descendants of those who died there are still trying to find answers to their questions.
Blood in the Forest is a journey in chronological battle order through beautiful countryside and charming villages that hide secrets from 70 years ago in a nation still not completely at ease with its own history. The carnage that happened here was unbelievable, but the passing traveller would never know.
Blood in the Forest. The End of the Second World War in the Courland Pocket is available to pre-order here.