Oberwachtmeister Hans Schäufler, platoon leader of the land-line platoon in Panzernachrichten-Abteilung 79 of the 4. Panzer-Division

January 1942. “Careful . . . partisan danger . . . road may only be crossed in convoy!” That’s what was written in bold strokes on the sign when we, the advance party of the 4. Panzer-Division, turned off toward Chwastowitschi at Karatschew in order to close a gaping hole in the front.

The instructions didn’t mean much to us. What were partisans? We only had a vague idea of what they were. Thus, we didn’t pay much attention to the notice and moved on carelessly. Woods and more woods . . . deeply snowed-over woods . . . biting cold . . . snowdrifts that barely let us perceive the route.

We shoveled through the masses of snow. Shoveling was a good thing . . . shoveling made you warm. The thermometer registered 35 to 40 below [-31 to -40 Fahrenheit]. Stop . . . shovel snow . . . move on another hundred meters . . . shovel some more . . . and so we fought our way forward with difficulty. In the end—and at the end of our strength as well—we reached Chwastowitschi toward evening. It was a large village in a clearing in the middle of the immense Brjansk Woods, which appeared to be drowning in snow.

Gray, snow-overcast sky the following day. Together with my landline teams, I was directed to establish a landline network for our forces, who were still fighting in the area of Below and Shisdra. My company commander, Oberleutnant Berger, a brand-new man, who had just joined us a few days previously, ordered: “Schäufler, first recon the routes to Lowat and Tubik with your people.”

Reconnoitering is good, but what did I have to do it with? The roadways, inasmuch as you could identify them, were covered in areas with up to a meter of snow. There was certainly no way you were going to do it in a motorized vehicle. That meant we had to use a horse-drawn sled. But where were we to get one of those? After a few hours, we located a local Russian police auxiliary and his ragged panje pony, which looked like a donkey and had shaggy legs like a bear. With them was a small sled.

But the pony would not have been able to carry more that one additional man through the snow.

There were no further sleds to be found in the locality. “Don’t go to your prince, if you are not summoned.” So how was I supposed to bother my commander with this? He was new and certainly didn’t know any other way. So, that meant the “people” had to remain behind, while Schäufler took a seat on the heaped-up straw behind the Russian, who did not understand a word of German.

He did not awaken a sense of trust, that fellow. You really couldn’t see much of his face, regardless. A ragged beard hid everything that the raggedy fur cap covered. A simple overcoat made out of sheepskin, most likely an inheritance from his great-grandfather, made his compact frame appear misshapen. His legs were wrapped with rags and knitwear. His feet bore leather sandals, as was the custom here. I was envious of his fur overcoat, however, since it at least kept him warm, while I was freezing in my quartermaster-procured puny military overcoat.

My men pressed a bottle of vodka into my hands to help keep me warm and two packs of machorka just in case.

And then we were off! In the beginning, the pony trotted at a good pace through the snow, following a sled track that had been slightly snowed over. Shivering, I drifted into a half sleep. My coachman, who wore the white armband of a Russian auxiliary policeman, tried to chat with me. But it is a miserable conversation, when one doesn’t understand the other language. Lowat and Tubik—those were the only two words that both of us understood. Otherwise, we were relegated to well-understood sign language.

No telephone poles far and wide. Flat land and, in the distance, a snowed-over woods.

We made good progress. I was wrong about the “donkey.” In about three hours, we reached Lowat, about fifteen kilometers away. The long village looked sleepy along the woodline. The poor huts were literally groaning under the weight of the snow. An advance party from the 33rd was already there, accounting for the sled tracks.

We continued on to Tubik. That was another ten kilometers. An undisturbed blanket of white stretched out before us. No road, no tracks. The pony had a tough time of it in the deep snow. His flanks glistened with sweat and his breath covered his fur with hoarfrost. His steps grew slower and slower. He fought his way through the pathless snow. The light sled flipped on its side several times. We then walked behind the sled on foot in order to give the poor animal a break. But that wasn’t a solution, either. We soon moved into a broad lane in the woods. A couple of crows flapped their wings and took off, carried by the wind. A lone fox crossed our path, curious. Otherwise, the world was empty and quiet.

No, not quite . . . a few dogs followed us at some distance. They walked along in the sled’s tracks, their noses just above the snow. Dogs—up to that point, I had hardly seen any in Russia. And here there was a pack of them. My Russian was becoming visibly nervous. He wouldn’t stop talking to me. I did not understand a single word. He pointed to the rear and talked and talked. And the pony started to run in a frenzied manner, without a whip, without a tap from the reins. His flanks were trembling and his breath was whistling. The dogs started to come slowly but constantly closer. I was able to count eight of them with the binoculars.

What did they want in this lonely region? There was nothing to be gained here! The Russian yelled at me. He talked with his hands and feet and also started to beat on the poor animal. There wasn’t something quite right about the dogs, since my coachman pointed back to them repeatedly in excitement. He was barely able to speak. And they trotted along, monotonously following our sled. By then, they were several hundred meters behind us. If those beasts were exciting the Russian so much, then I needed to chase them off.

I fished out my submachine gun from out under the straw and emptied half a magazine into the air. To my astonishment, that didn’t disturb the animals one bit. They only hesitated for a moment, before resuming their trot at a faster pace. I then peered intently at them through my binoculars one more time. It was no longer possible to speak to the Russian. He was beating on the horse, which was already steaming, sweating and snorting.

The dogs looked strange. All of them were the same size; all of them were a yellowish brown with dark hair on their backs, bushy and spikey. Damn it to hell! Those weren’t some friendly dogs . . . they were wolves! Eight ravenous wolves.

I stretched out on the sled and aimed as carefully as I could on the bouncing conveyance. I held the submachine gun firmly and squeezed off an entire magazine. The burst struck in the midst of the animals, but there was no effect. It wasn’t quite so simple to hit running wolves from 100 meters on a moving sled.

I had emptied one magazine. I still had three left. I tried firing short bursts in order to save ammunition. I was starting to turn a bit uneasy. I finally hit one, with the result that he went down. A desperate struggle broke out behind us. What did all that mean? We got some distance between us and the pack of scavengers. But not for long. Seven wolves started trotting again. It appeared that they had devoured the hit animal on the spot. A dark spot disappeared slowly in the distance.

I allowed the animals to approach within seventy or eighty meters again. It might have been better to have allowed them to come closer, but I didn’t have the nerve for it. Both the Russian and the horse were acting instinctively; they were no longer of sound mind.

After a few bursts, I succeeded in hitting another wolf. The same terrible scene ensued as before: A scuffling bundle and, after a short while, six wolves followed. Only a few clumps of hair and a spot of blood remained behind in the snow.

Dada . . . dada . . . dada . . . the submachine gun fired. But the pack continued to trot along, not bothered in the least. My fingers slowly started to tremble, spurred on by the nervousness of the two others and also because of the cold. I no longer hit any of the beasts. I had only one magazine left. I needed to husband my ammunition.

With practically my last round, I succeeded in finally killing another animal. It then took considerably longer until the wolves started following us again. It appeared that they were gradually getting their fill; their portions were getting larger now that they were down to five. I was almost certain that we were finally rid of them. But no, the pack started trotting along again. There was no house, no Tubik to be seen. Had we taken the right route, the right direction? We must have gotten lost! Damned Russia! And I had really enjoyed the sled ride. This land always came up with new dirty tricks to play on you, new surprises!

I still had sixteen rounds in the pistol. Although I was a good pistol shot and had won several prizes in peacetime, what was I to do with a pistol on a moving sled and aiming at running wolves? How were things going to turn out?

This time, I let them approach to within thirty meters, despite the hysterical cries of the coachman. Peng . . . peng . . . peng! No luck. The whole thing was turning serious.

But . . . there were houses ahead and it was no illusion. A few people appeared to be standing in front of them. They were waving and crying out. Peng . . . peng . . . peng! One wolf rolled around in the snow, leapt up with a limp and bit into the fur of another wolf. Peng . . . peng . . . peng! Empty magazine. I rapidly inserted my reserve magazine.

The Russian jumped off the sled, stumbling in a panic through the snow towards the people, who were still about 200 meters away. The sled turned on its side as a result of his jump. The horse started to gallop. I fell in the snow and grabbed for my empty submachine gun. The pack of wolves stopped. I sent my final rounds headed their way and, in the process, raced up to the houses.

The figures standing there could have been ones to fear. They looked me over with angry eyes. I had the feeling I was the first German soldier they had ever seen. In any case, they didn’t have any weapons. At that point it became crystal clear that I was completely defenseless. I no longer had any rounds in either the submachine gun or the pistol. The men stood around me in a tight circle.

An older woman then came out of the house and approached me. In the case of the Russian women, it was difficult to determine their real age. She yelled at the men and gestured to me to enter the house. She spoke broken German, very broken: “Charascho Pan, charascho!” She pointed to me with her finger: “You . . . you four wolves kaputt! Charascho!” She offered me a cup—no, not quite a cup, but some sort of ill-defined container—with a dark, hot broth. It tasted something like tea. It did me good.

I was only then that I noticed that my knees were trembling. She invited me to take a place next to the oven.

The men also came into the house, including the Russian auxiliary policeman. He no longer had a white armband on his overcoat. Something did not seem right. The sign—Careful! Partisan danger!—popped into my mind. I had jumped from the frying pan into the fire. No German soldier far and wide, and it started to snow and turn dark outside.

As a precaution, I went to the sled and fetched the bottle of vodka and the two packs of tobacco.

I saw the eyes of the Russians stalking me. Perhaps a miracle would happen? I handed the bottle to the first one available and gestured that he should pass it on. It was soon empty. Man, could they drink! Their eyes glistened happily. Then I let each one take a handful of tobacco. They made cones out of newspapers and poured the machorka in them. They pinched off the ends and enjoyed their smoke. In return, I received a few warm potatoes from the old woman. I gobbled them down ravenously.

But there was no way I was going to stay there among those dubious figures all by myself. I gave my coachman a sign that we needed to ride back immediately. Based on his reaction, I had to conclude that he thought I was crazy. “Njet . . . njet!” he said resolutely. But how was I supposed to survive the night; Tubik was in noman’s-land. But I also had to realize that a return trip by night was impossible. Moreover, I no longer had any ammunition. But the man didn’t know that—I hoped to God he didn’t find out. I tried to ignore the fact that I was terrified of the upcoming night.

A weak oil stove was burning in the room. I set myself in a corner, the empty submachine gun across my knees, and tried to ward off my tiredness. Just don’t fall asleep! Heaven was on my side—because of the lice, there was no temptation to close my eyes. The lice in my shirt also provided some entertainment.

The men cowered in the opposite corner, put their heads together and whispered. They were cooking something up. The old woman went up to them and gave them an earful. I didn’t understand what she said, but I thought I picked up that it was her house and I was her guest. She then gave me a worried look, a very worried look.

I jumped up repeatedly, thinking I heard a noise or light footsteps. But nothing transpired. The night was endlessly long. But even it came to an end. It no longer snowed.

Even then, my Russian could not be convinced to take the road back. He indicated to me that he would rather be shot than to have to conduct another race with the wolves. What was I to do?—I would not be able to find my way on foot, since the tracks had been snowed over. I also wouldn’t be able to cover the ten kilometers though the breast-high snow. A hopeless situation.

Toward noon, the woman came running excitedly into the house: “Nemjetzki soldier! Nemjetzki soldier!” She pointed to the window. With a jolt, I was wide-awake and ran to the door.

It was true! I saw three sleds coming through the snow. It was a patrol from Schützen-Regiment 33, as I discovered.

“Here you go, everybody! Take my tobacco. Take all of it! Come on, take it!”

I waved and waved and the men of the 33rd came.

The old woman took me to the side, looked at me with happy eyes and made an elaborate cross on my forehead. At first, I didn’t know what she meant, but then I felt it: you were lucky, young man, give thanks to God for that!

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