A patch of pine forest and stifling summer heat played a crucial role in a little known, but critical drama that took place in central Ukraine during World War II. Seven and a half miles north of the city of Vinnytsia, hidden in the woods and consumed by secrecy stood one of Adolf Hitler’s command headquarters for the Eastern Front, Fuhrerhauptquartier Werwolf. It was here where he would be overcome by a feverish flu at the height of summer and it was here where he made one of the most fateful decisions of the Second World War. And it is here buried beneath rubble and ruined entryways that secrets still remain for future generations to decipher.
An Evil Design – The Fuhrerhauptquartier Werwolf
When considering the climate and environment of Ukraine, suffocating heat or pine forests rarely come to mind. The popular image of Ukraine consists of rolling agricultural land, some of the world’s most fertile soil, blossoming with waves of grain during the summer. The rest of the year is assumed to be bitterly cold with sub-zero temperatures for months on end. This is far from the truth. Ukraine is often home to stifling heat waves during the summer. It also contains patches of pine forests scattered throughout the countryside. A stretch of these woods can be found just seven miles north of the central Ukrainian city of Vinnytsia.
During the winter of 1941 construction began here on what would become known as the Fuhrerhauptquartier Werwolf. It was a massive undertaking, with no less than 14,000 Soviet prisoners of war and Ukrainian forced laborers working under the cruel direction of the Third Reich’s military engineering group, Organization Todt. Many of the workers were nearly starved to death during the project. The construction took seven months to complete, much of it done during the dead of winter. Ukrainian villagers from the nearby community of Strizhavka were sometimes allowed to feed the malnourished laborers, this kept them alive only long enough to finish the work. After the complex was completed, thousands upon thousands were executed.
Into the Abyss – Ever Deeper, Ever Farther
By June of 1942 the Werwolf sported an incredible array of military, domestic and leisure structures. Among these were dozens of cottages to be used as living quarters, a barbershop, cinema, sauna and teahouse. It was defended by a small army of guards and protected by anti-tank ditches and anti-aircraft guns. As for Hitler’s quarters, they consisted of a cabin connected to a private courtyard along with a swimming pool which the Fuhrer would never use. Hitler was much too busy planning what he believed would be the final death blow of the Red Army. There was also a bunker beneath his cottage, part of what is believed to be an extensive network of underground bunkers and tunnels. Since no excavation of the underground remnants has ever taken place, no one can say for sure what lies beneath. There remains, secrets waiting to be unearthed.
When Hitler arrived for what would become a three and half month stay at the complex in July, 1942 the German Army was once again on the move, pushing ever deeper into the Soviet Union. After the army had been stopped short of Moscow during the preceding winter, the Germans reoriented their offensive to the southwest as they drove towards the Caucasus region. Their goal was to secure vital oil fields in the region and eventually reach the shores of the Caspian Sea at Baku. With an endless supply of oil, the German armed forces would be unstoppable. Or so it was thought.
The problem was getting there. The further into the heart of Soviet Russia they pushed, the more resistance stiffened and the greater the logistical difficulties. The mechanized forces needed more and more fuel, but were running short. The smart thing to do would have been to focus all energy and resources towards the oil fields, but Hitler wanted to meet a series of objectives which had expanded due to initial Soviet failures early in the summer. One of these objectives came to include the taking of Stalingrad. Hitler believed his armed forces were unstoppable. The only way the Wehrmacht could meet this series of goals was to divide their forces. A decision would have to be made.
A Feverish Mistake – The Beginning of an End
At this point, by mid-summer 1942, Hitler was firmly ensconced at Werwolf, but he was far from comfortable. The Ukrainian summer had brought with it a wave of searing heat. Temperatures rose to over 110 degrees Fahrenheit (44 Celsius). The bunkers were filled with humidity, which only made the soaring temperatures worse. Amid this environment, Hitler came down with a severe case of the flu. This did stop him from making one of his most fateful decisions during the war, the issuance of Decree Number 45, which split his army into two groups, one driving towards Stalingrad, the other towards the Caucasus. Neither would meet their ultimate objective. The former would be utterly defeated with the loss of an entire army. The latter would have to pull back well short of its ultimate goal. The high tide of the German Army receded once and for all.
Hitler left the Werwolf in the autumn of 1942, by the time he returned in mid-February of the next year, the German Sixth Army had surrendered at Stalingrad. The offensive in the Caucasus had reached its limit and the Germans would only experience defeat and disillusion in the coming years. As for the Werwolf, it would not even last out the war. The destruction of the aboveground, fortified village, along with the entryways to the underground was effected during the German retreat in 1944. The Soviets declined to investigate the underground, as they feared the many booby traps they believed had been set by the Germans. Much like Hitler’s bunkers in East Prussia and Berlin, the Werwolf became shrouded in mystery.
A Memorial to Defeat & Destruction – The Werwolf Site Today
Today, the site of Werwolf is marked by a memorial to the thousands who were executed following the construction of the complex. A plan hatched in 2011 would have turned the site into a larger memorial, with more extensive interpretation and information on the complex. This turned out to be highly controversial. Many saw it as a way of glorifying the Nazi fascists who had once held sway over Ukraine and large swathes of the Soviet Union. State financial support was not forthcoming. Today the site remains a wooded park. The only lasting remnants are blocks of concrete, steel beams and Hitler’s swimming pool. Shattered physical remains of a site where the arrogance and megalomania of Hitler’s dream of a thousand year Reich began its descent into a bottomless abyss of defeat and destruction.