By late 1944 and into the beginning of 1945, Adolph Hitler knew Germany was on the brink of total defeat. He couldn’t accept the loss, nor the responsibility, so he killed himself and his bride, Eva Braun.
But before that final act, he wanted to make sure he left his country even less accessible to the Allies than the bombs had made it. So he issued orders that his underlings were to destroy the country’s transportation systems, primarily train tracks and bridges.
In March, 1945, he issued a decree that said, in essence, if the Allies were going to invade Germany and declare victory, they would have a difficult time doing it.
He would see to it that as much of his country’s transportation systems, infrastructure, industrial facilities and anything else of value were destroyed under a scorched earth strategy.
And so, the document was sent out to his commanders and their troops, formally called “The Decree Concerning Demolitions In The Reich Territory.” At other times in history, similar documents have been called “Nero Decrees,” named for the Roman emperor who first used similar tactics at home when he engineered the great fire of Rome in 64 A.D.
He gave orders that a piece of equipment his army had used in the Soviet Union be turned against Germany itself, the “Schwellenpflug,” or “sleeper plough” This sly device was built in 1942 at the Krupp factory, in Berlin, a manufacturer of a great deal of Nazi war planes, guns, tanks and everything else used in battle.
Hitler’s Minister of Armaments and War Production, Albert Speer, was appalled by Hitler’s decision to destroy as much of Germany’s infrastructure as possible. But rather than tell the dictator that outright, he feigned agreement and asked to be put in total charge of carrying it out. Hitler agreed to his request.
Speer then went to various generals and other officials in the rapidly disintegrating Nazi party and convinced them that the decree was a mistake. Consequently, far less destruction was wrought upon the country than might have been, had a different individual been in charge.
Still, the sleeper plough did plenty of damage in the places it was used. The machine was set up, historians say, quickly and easily, and it took just 10 or so army personnel to operate it.
There are brief video clips on You Tube that document German soldiers ripping up their own nation’s train tracks, and it is a fast and efficient machine at their disposal.
The soldiers wear expressions that are a mixture of confusion, hilarity and sadness, as if they cannot quite believe that they themselves are destroying an integral part of Germany’s transportation system.
This wasn’t the first time Hitler had ordered the use of the sleeper plough to wreak havoc on a countries infrastructure. He first used the plough after invading, and then retreating from, the Soviet Union.
Historians generally agree that had Hitler not taken on the massive, cold geography of the Soviet Union when he did, the war may have gone very differently for him. But he hated Stalin, and he didn’t count of the commitment of the Russian armed forces to fight back, thoroughly and utterly, the way they did.
German forces were overwhelmed by Soviet soldiers, and were ill-equipped to cope with the freezing temperatures and difficult terrain presented by the vast country.
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And so when his generals convinced Hitler to begin withdrawing from the Soviet Union, Hitler ordered his forces to destroy train systems as they pulled back. And when it came time for Germany to acknowledge that the Allies were winning, this modest contraption was employed once again – this time, against German train systems.