The Retreat

On May 7 they received an order to abandon all positions and retreat to west. In the morning of May 8, the regiment leaders Rebane, Maitla and Võhma had a meeting and decided to retreat through Czech, then reach Elbe and surrender to the US troops. Would have some other route been better and saved the men from what we now know as the Czech Hell and it still horrifies us, will forever remain unanswered. There was only one road from Hirschberg over Riesengebirge to Czech. What happened on that road during the day deserves a whole separate book. Tens of units went in endless confusion and every human was only moving because of one need – to save his life. Estonians and some others knew that surrendering to the Russians would mean death. Men went on cars, motorbikes, horse carriages, armored vehicles, on foot and by bicycles. They were mixed with German civilians, children, women and elders who showed up from somewhere. The line was endless. Again and again they stopped and no one knew why. They suspected a diversion, people swore, complained and were deaf of despair. In reality only a broken wheel of a carriage or a car running out of fuel would have been enough to stop this stretchy human river on this narrow mountain road.

Three possible destinies were waiting for Estonian men: death in Czech Hell, getting caught by Russians, which would have been equal with death but before it they would have suffered a number of physical and mental tortures, hunger, thirst and humiliations. The third option was to cross Elbe and reach Americans. There they would have to face sufferings too, often pain, but not torturing. The ones who made it so far could consider themselves alive. But there were exceptions. Now, as they were in this constantly tangling line, no one knew which of these three options they will face. The destiny will decide. The great chance.

There have been all kinds of talks about this journey. Some praised, some cursed. Some claimed that the officers ran away and left their men behind. Some said there were officers who didn't run away and died with their men. But most people who have heard these stories and were a part of that journey from Hirscberg over Riesengebirge have shook their head and said: in this mess, in the rerun of Pabel's mess, it was impossible to do anything. And they are probably right. Many have described Maitla on that journey. His image has been preserved in some kind of legendary meaning. We can imagine the neatly dressed regiment leader wearing his Knight's Cross and directing cars on a crossroad. Maitla told everyone to hurry. He himself decided to stay with his men and led them through this hell on earth. Voldemar Madisso, the 45th Regiment officer, saw Maitla in the noon of May 9 on one crossroad before Mlada Boleslav. Maitla's car was blocking the road to Prague and he directed trucks towards Mlada Boleslav. A. Toomsalu wrote from England: "I can see his image standing on the road during our journey through Czech in front of my eyes: fully dressed, with all of his signs and the Knight'c Cross, while all of us had come from the 'tailor's' and removed our signs." This probably was the time when Maitla had said about the Knight's Cross: "If it was good enough for me in the battles, it's good enough in death too." He was a wonderful officer and had no clue of his destiny. Maitla's men found a large number of trucks in one village in the hills. The men thought this was the one they had to take over. But what do you know – it was already full of German civil escapees.

The German civilians had no luck, though. None other than SS-Sturmbannführer Paul Maitla arrived, who according to Susi always did what was necessary in a very thorough and efficient way. Being fully in his uniform, as always, the skull sign in front of his hat, black squares with four silver rectangles on his collar patches and the Knight's Cross behind his neck. The Germans stopped resisting and quickly got off the vehicles. Maitla shouted and commanded, full of confidence as always. Germans obeyed in silence. Nevertheless his regiment shattered into small pieces while crossing the mountains and the pieces got mixed with other units and civilians. True, Maitla had sent his headquarters officer Hugo Lübik to go in front and check the surroundings. The latter drove passed the escapees as quickly as possible to some Czech men but he wasn't taken seriously. He was treated as a Sturmbannführer, not as the representative of the Estonians who were in trouble. But Lübik changed his clothes, escaped to the West and never returned.

Then the special squad of officers on motorcycles from the 45th Regiment's headquarters was sent to the Czech side of the Sudetenland. The squad was led by Captain Tamm. This squad also drove passed the escapers line and announced, where possible, that although the whole regiment will not be together, the best way to retreat would be Liebenau-JungPunzlau-Prague. All escapers did not receive this message, some escaped towards the West through Germany on their own and some even made it to their destination. But the ones who used the unfortunate outposts data got to Czech Hell and that was it for them. Thus the worst happened with Maitla's regiment: they got to Czech territory without leaders and being spread out and only a small number of them made it to the West and this thanks to special luck, outstanding skills or the enemy's stupidity, which according to Susi was never lacking. Maitla himself went to the bottom of the Czech Hell's kettle where the firemen were the Czechs and the Estonians were inside the kettle.