IT WAS A LONG JOURNEY
From the Vistula in the west to Moscow in the east, and from Leningrad in the north down to the Caucasus in the south, the German armored divisions fought—the tip of the spear in the advance, the backbone of the infantry, always ready to launch an immediate counterattack when superior numbers pressed us.
IT WAS A LONG JOURNEY
Trying to make that journey come to life again in word and picture are a group of men, talented with the pen, from five different armored divisions. The purpose is not to describe strategy or tactics. It is simply to tell things the way they were.
IT WAS A LONG JOURNEY
Hard and onerous—it is still alive in us. But it was also colorful and full of uncommon events. From the safety of time, we can soberly say: Back then, the barely believable was accomplished. And it is important to know what humans such as you or me are capable of when everything depends on us.
IT WAS A LONG JOURNEY
From our own fading diary pages to a complete book, it was difficult—almost an adventure at times—to find the men who experienced the extraordinary back then and who could write down those experiences in an artful manner. Firsthand accounts and pictures had to be discovered. What is special about this book is that everyone tells his own story and uses the correct dates, names, and locations to stay true to what happened and relay the story of those who marched with them through the heat of the sun and the icy cold, through muddy morass and dust devils, through victory and defeat . . . until the very last hope died.
IT WAS A LONG JOURNEY!
General der Panzertruppen Walther K. Nehring, commander of the 18. Panzer-Division1
On 21 June 1941, orders arrived for a surprise attack on the Soviet Union at 0315 hours on Sunday, 22 June. An appeal by Hitler to the troops accompanied the orders. So did two ideologically motivated orders concerning the harsh treatment to be given to Soviet troop commissars and the civilian populace. Their execution was prohibited by the German Army High Command to avoid endangerment of the discipline of the German forces.2
Thus, the die had been cast for this war. Hitler’s decision, after months of deliberation, stood firm. Or was there a chance to change things? Could new suffering for the people on both sides be avoided? There was some optimism whenever one thought back to the use of military pressure in the execution of politics in the fall of 1938, when the occupation of the Sudetenland turned into a “Flower War” instead of leading to the flowing of blood. Hadn’t the situation been similar on 25 August 1939, when the start of the war that evening was postponed—if only for a few days—after the approach march of German forces to the Polish frontier.
At that point, the civilian leadership of the state had to decide. The precedence of politics over the military was the basic framework for doing things. Only the leader of the state had access to all of the material necessary to allow far-reaching political determinations.
Nonetheless, the division commander, who felt responsible for the soldiers entrusted to him, was having some serious concerns regarding the decision of the senior man in the state.3
The German-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact of 23 August 1939 had been well received at the time of its signing. One perceived it as the end of German-Soviet enmity. In its place, both partners then began the exchange of goods of all types, another well-received initiative. The exchange continued through 21 June 1941 and had benefited Germany significantly, ever since the autumn of 1939, when it had been isolated from the West.
It should also not be forgotten that it was only by means of that agreement—that is to say, Stalin and Molotov—that Hitler was afforded his success over Poland. Or was it possible that those two men only wanted to divert Hitler’s attention from their own country?
Finally, one could not forget the solemn declaration of Hitler to the German people in 1938 that Germany had no more territorial claims . . .
Why, then, the expansion of the war to the East, when it had already broken out in the West from the North Pole to Libya?
Moreover, one needs to observe and judge the development of the situation from another perspective. Despite the friendship treaty, political disagreements had arisen between Germany and the Soviet Union. They cannot be overlooked, especially in their far-reaching effects. Following the combined campaign against Poland, Stalin had forcibly incorporated the independent Baltic states into the Soviet Union and, in the following spring, had detached the Romanian province of Bessarabia through massive political pressure. On 30 November 1939, Stalin attacked the small nation of Finland in order to push the Soviet borders considerably westward. Although the Soviets, poorly led and inadequately equipped, had to pay a huge toll in blood, the Soviet political leadership achieved its goals in the end. Coupled with Molotov’s visit to Berlin in December 1940 were additional demands that were at odds with German interests, for example, in the Balkans and the Dardanelles. It remained an open question, however, as to what was to be done.
Also troubling to German interests was the strong support the Soviet Union showed Yugoslavia in the spring of 1941, when Hitler was at pains to conclude a treaty with that nation. When Yugoslavia failed to join the Tripartite Pact and was subsequently invaded by German and Italian forces in April 1941, the crisis atmosphere between the German and Soviet governments increased significantly.
The political situation between the two major powers had unfortunately escalated to the danger of war. Russia continuously assembled forces on its western frontier. Germany reacted correspondingly as a security precaution. The Russian actions were seen as a temporary measure to tread water while it built up its armaments. If Hitler did not succeed in forcing a clear decision in the West—if England did not relent—then Stalin would finally move into a position of decisive power. The deadly danger of a two-front war loomed over Germany, just as it had in the Great War, and against vastly superior forces, especially since England could count on the support of North America.4
Hitler, in his guise as head of state and commander in chief of the German Armed Forces, believed he could and had to avert that threat by quickly eliminating Russia as a potentially decisive ally of England. Correspondingly, he decided to conduct a preemptive war against the Soviet Union after Molotov’s crisis-filled visit. It was a war he considered more certain of success than an air and sea war against Great Britain. After the extraordinary successes of the campaigns that had heretofore been conducted, he was convinced that he could do the same thing in Russia. The German Army High Command, as well as other countries, shared that opinion. Within the army, there were differing opinions, of course. There were a number of great difficulties that could not be overlooked: the vast expanse of the Russian territory; the almost inexhaustible supply of trained reserves; the well-developed industrial base, which extended beyond the Urals; the extremely inadequate transportation network; and, as a result, the great sensitivity of motorized formations to weather conditions.
Above all, the relatively limited area of operations that one experienced in the previous fighting was missing. Areas where one could quickly break through the enemy’s defenses and his sources of human and material reserves—by means of motorized, mechanized, and armored forces—and encircle them, scatter them, and otherwise render them combat ineffective. In Russia, the situation was different. One ran into the danger of one’s own forces being split apart and the great difficulty in providing logistics in an immense area.
It was said the Russians had 96 infantry divisions, 23 cavalry divisions, and 28 mechanized brigades at their disposal. Facing them in the East were 110 German infantry divisions, 20 armored divisions, and 12 motorized infantry divisions. The Germans, it should be noted, had better equipment, better training, better leadership, better organization, and a great deal of combat experience.
One knew that the Russians had new types of tanks at their disposal, but it was thought they were only in limited numbers. On the German side, many considered the new 5cm main guns and antitank guns to be sufficient to deal with those threats.5
The Soviet soldier was considered to be a tough fighter, but company and field-grade officers were incapable of taking the initiative and the senior leadership had been considerably weakened by Stalin’s “cleansing” measures. The Soviet air force was considered adequate, but the Luftwaffewas considered to be far superior.
In keeping with German leadership principles, the German operations plan relied on sudden surprise, bold maneuver by motorized formations, and the establishment of a main effort.
As far as I, a division commander, knew, three field army groups had been formed—North, Center, and South—which had the objectives of Kiev, Moscow, and Leningrad, respectively. The main effort was apparently in the center, which had two armored groups. Panzergruppe 2, underGeneraloberst Guderian, was deployed to either side of Brest-Litowsk, while Generaloberst Hoth’s Panzergruppe 3 was just to the north. Army Group South had Generaloberst von Kleist’s Panzergruppe 1 allocated to it, while Army Group North had Panzergruppe 4 of GeneraloberstHoepner.6
It was intended to break through the Russian forces with these armored wedges and then advance deep into the enemy’s rear area, thus shaking up the entire defensive system through a series of thrusts. The non-motorized field armies were to follow as rapidly as possible, exploiting the successes created by the surprise moves of the motorized forces to complete the victory. The supreme command calculated that six to eight weeks were needed for that—at the latest, until the fall. Measures were not undertaken for a possible winter campaign.
The assigned operational objectives of the field army groups led them in different directions, which contradicted operational principles. Apparently, Hitler was so sure of what he was doing that he could accept that operational disadvantage as part of the bargain in conducting a rapid campaign.
Of course, for the division commander, it was tactical considerations that were of more concern than wide-ranging political and operational questions. It was more a matter of how the troops at the front were to master their missions as Army Group Center moved through Minsk (350 kilometers) and Smolensk (700 kilometers) on its way to Moscow (1,100 kilometers).
Before every large operation there is a great deal of uncertainty. Most of all, there is one big question: How will the new enemy fight? But there are others: Will the desired surprise be achieved despite the extensive build-up? What will be the effect of the poor transportation network on the vehicles that were not designed for it? Can the indispensible supplies of ammunition and fuel be assured? Those and similar questions raced through all leaders at the front on the day before the operation. They were not questions that could be answered in advance.
Every front soldier had done what he could to prepare. Every soldier knew what the new day would bring.
One needed to trust the political and military leadership of Hitler, who had heretofore raced from one success to another—frequently against the advice of his diplomats, generals, and admirals.
What had previously happened seemed like a miracle. The simple soldier did not have an all-encompassing view of things. He had to yield to the primacy of the political leader, who was obligated to weigh the pros and cons of his far-reaching decisions in a responsible manner. He was acting on behalf of the people, who had elected him in an overwhelming majority.
Therefore, the common soldier had no other choice. Tomorrow, on 22 June 1941, he would form up and move out, true to the oath of allegiance he had sworn on the flag to the Führer and Reich Chancellor, who was also recognized as such by the enemy powers.