Unteroffizier Ulrich Sachse, squad leader in Kradschützen-Bataillon 34/Panzeraufklärungs-Abteilung 7
During the evening of 2 February 1942, Feldwebel Franz Oesterreich came into our hovel at the end of the village of Milejewo and brought orders with him stating that our company was to be prepared to move out at 0700 hours tomorrow. “We’re attacking,” he thought.
I got ready, along with three of my warriors, to relieve the moving machine-gun post. Packaged warmly in overcoats and felt boots, we climbed out over the giant mountains of snow in front of our door and headed out into the frosty evening.
We took over the machine gun from our frozen comrades and told them that they needed to get ready to move out. They then stomped away in the snow. After days and nights of wild snowstorms, the weather had cleared up. A magnificent, starry heaven glittered above us. It had turned colder again; it was already 40 below. It would certainly get colder that night. We walked out into the snowy desert a few hundred meters, past the last hut in the village. At the row of trees, which most likely accompanied a path in the fields over the rise to the next village during the summer, we turned around so as to look between the houses to see whether everything was in order.
All around us, there was nothing but snow, with the exception of the northeast, where there was a line of telegraph poles. A sign with the tactical insignia of one of our motorized rifle battalions provided a miserable set of sled tracks the character of a connecting route, which paralleled the telegraph poles to the next German strong-point, which had to be somewhere behind the snow-covered rise.
Whenever you took the route of the guard post to the north, that is, from the end of the village towards the row of trees, there was a patch of woods off to the left about a thousand meters away. We gave it our undivided attention, since that was the most likely place the Russians could appear.
The fact that the patch of woods was beyond our strongpoint system didn’t mean a whole lot, since there wasn’t a front in the conventional sense. Every strong-point was responsible for defending itself. The many kilometers between the widely dispersed villages were open season. The German and Russian patrols annoyed each other there and played “catch” with one another.
In the rear area, the insidious partisan war was in full bloom. The gangs conducted their mischief along the fifty kilometers of road between Karatschew and here. The fighting with the regular enemy forces centered around the occupation of strongpoints, since the brutal cold made a lengthy stay outside of the localities impossible.
It took a great effort to move through the snow. Where we had just finished stomping through, the biting wind had already filled in our tracks in the blink of an eye. We had to constantly turn our faces away from the wind and thaw out our frozen eyelashes in order to see anything at all. We had to rub our cheeks and noses with snow to keep them from freezing.
Despite all that, the two hours of guard duty went pretty quickly, since we measured it, so to speak, by the short stretch between the edge of the village and the row of trees, which we barely covered in two hours, even though it was not even 800 meters.
Our relief came punctually. It was not until we exchanged overcoats, that we notice how thoroughly frozen we were. My men scurried into their panje hut. I ran over to the company command post to make sure a sick soldier from my squad was evacuated in the morning before we departed.
Riders on horseback came riding up the village street. It was the lead elements of the 1st Company, which were already moving out to the tactical assembly area. Like a ghost, they disappeared in the direction of the sled tracks along the telegraph line.
When I scrambled back to our panje hut from the company command post, the long column of sleds from the 1st Company was moving through the night-drenched village. The runners of the sleds crunched in the snow, made a racket when crossing the ruts in the road and the drivers growled at the hardheaded panje horses. Good that we were granted a few hours of sleep that night!
But the unrest associated with the move-out disrupted our sleep. The unknown prospect of what was to come had taken hold of us. The attack we had been ordered to conduct worked its way into our short hours of rest. The knowledge that we were going to attack had cultivated the tension that we had already become familiar with from many attacks and with which you never become accustomed. Every soldier adapts to that issue in his own way; he can’t solve the problem in advance. Only the attack itself will solve the issue.
As we stood ready to move out the following morning in a long column of sleds, it was already almost light despite the early hour. Under a clear sky, the snow allowed the terrain to be seen for a long distance, and a light on the eastern horizon promised a sunny day.
Our acting company commander gave us the familiar signal to “Start engines!” It was a form of gallows humor to remind us of our formerly proud motorized past. We then shuffled out into the snowy desert in our eighty sleds. The track that the 1st Company had left behind during the night was already so slick that our platoon leader’s legs shot out from under him every ten meters, causing him to land on his hindquarters, much to the general amusement of everyone.
The sun climbed above the wintery monotony and made the distant areas very scenic. Destroyers providing escort from the air flew over us. A village signaled us on the far side of the sloping snow. It was palpably near and served as an orientation point for our march. But it took hours until we reached it, since the glittering expanse of snow messed up our ability to estimate and shortened almost all distances for our eyes.
After some hours, the road became better; it actually turned quite comfortable. Scores of Russian prisoners were occupied with snow shovels.
We moved through German strongpoints. The muzzles of antitank guns starred at us threateningly and machine-gun positions on the edges of villages had their barrels trained on us. While our company may have been approaching at that hour, a few hours later a Russian patrol could be there. Who could be sure? A little farther to the right toward the east, the Resseta River accompanied out march route. Behind it was Russian territory, which was contested only by German patrols.
Our attack mission had been borne out of necessity. It was to force the Russians in the north back behind the Resseta and wrest the final locality on this side of the river from them.
We took a lunch break in the village of Kzyn. Our panje horses wolfed down their ration of hay with the same fervor we did out noodles and meat, with the exception that they did it outside, while we pressed into the hovels of the village, where we were provided with horror stories by the rocket launcher and artillery personnel, who had settled in there two weeks ago as the strongpoint garrison. The tubes of their guns were pointed in all directions.
We moved on. We greeted a lonely Panzer III with a shout as it overtook our column. It was said that our attack was supposed to be supported by Panzer-Regiment 35.
“Heil, Panzerbrigade!” we yelled out to the tankers, who were sitting on the turret. “Heil, foot sloggers,” they bandied back. “We’re from the KPD!” Of course, that did not mean they were communists. In soldier slang, it stood for kaputte Panzer-Division.
As it turned twilight, we reached the village of Moilowo, where we took up quarters in a couple of miserable huts on the west side. Even though we were tired, we still had to set up a machine-gun walking guard on the edge of the village.
Before that, however, Emil Müller, a jack-of-all-trades, conjured up some mutton from under the clothes piled on his sled. He started a roaring fire in the oven. Karl Hage, our doctor of agriculture from the Rhön region, proved his mettle by using his homegrown talents to find a hiding place for potatoes. Otto Simon, the assistant machine gunner, prepared the hay on the floor. Adolf Volland, the technical wizard, illuminated our palace by a useful synthesis of an old meat can, some diesel fuel and a wick made out of a cleaning cloth.
While the measures being undertaken to raise our standard of living were underway, I went outside with the rest of the squad to pull the first shift as machine-gun guard. A terrible, bone-chilling cold radiated from the clear heavens. The snow crunched loudly under our footsteps. We circled our sector of the village for two long hours and kept the well-deserved peace of our company.
The deep silence all around us was only broken occasionally by the muffled sounds of artillery harassing fires far to our rear . . . the black darkness lit up from time to time by the muzzle flashes…torn by the report of guns firing and the impact of rounds . . . eerily illuminated by the red stream of fire of a distant rocket battery.
Dead tired, we consumed our portion of Emil’s festive meal after we were relieved and then slept like lead until about three in the morning, when we had to pull machine-gun guard again. Once again, the wintery night engulfed us. It turned hazy. The cold, on the other hand, remained barbaric. The skies showed furtively blinking stars, which appeared to be hanging lower on the desert of snow. It turned everything smaller and more muffled.
The vastness of the firmament was gone. It had helped us during our nightly wanderings—despite hunger, cold and tiredness—to remain alert and attentive. Everything seemed close, impenetrable and shapeless.
What was that along the fence? It was no bush, it was no ghost, and it was no Russian. It was Lattke, as we called Ernst Lattner, who had been an assistant machine gunner for three campaigns—in Poland, in France and in Russia from the very beginning. Obergefreiter Lattner was having a good laugh. Actually, he was only laughing with his eyes. That said, there was a mischievous sparkle in his eyes. He could laugh better with his eyes than many who laughed with their entire face.
“Na, Unoffizier,”4 he said in an intentionally mischievous manner—Unteroffizier was decidedly too long for him and perhaps too impersonal. “Na, Unoffizier. It’s about time.” The old Obergefreiter in him always had an earful ready for the young officer candidate. Ever since France it had been part and parcel of my daily routine that Lattke would call me out in his happy-go-lucky manner. The fact that we were more than on time was completely immaterial to him. It was his right as an old warrior to talk crap and harangue—and he did it masterfully.
Of course, I made use of my higher rank, as I always did: “Lattner . . . march, march . . . hit the deck . . . go to the telegraph pole . . . crawl under the fence . . . get in the cooking pot . . . cover it up . . . sing!”
Oh, did I ever intimidate the Obergefreiter! Symbolically, of course. Nothing actually happened except that I rattled off my commands and he wagged his butt at me, rolled his eyes and trotted off with an abysmal “Oooooch.”
Behind us, in the village, there was the sound of horse-drawn sleds. Artillery was being brought forward to support our attack. It had been directed that we were to attack early in the morning, but the bad roadways had delayed the approach of the artillery. As a result, the operation had to be pushed back twenty-four hours, that is, to 5 February. At the same time tomorrow morning, we would be waiting for H-Hour in our tactical assembly area or for the opening salvoes of the artillery.
There was something unusual about those twenty-four hours between us and the village up there to the north. Something like “To be continued . . .” in a series in the daily newspaper. The tension dissipated, went away. It was held over for a day, so to speak. It was something like that. The continuum had been broken that had riled up our subconscious from the move-out the previous day, through the sunny day we were experiencing the next, to the anticipated nighttime march, to the tactical assembly area, to the first shots of tomorrow. It all seemed silly to us. We hadn’t a clue as to what to do with the extra twenty-four hours that were there all of a sudden.
The blurry scenery of the hovels, the fences, the shrubbery, the trees, and the snowy slopes denied our senses any type of enlivening detail. The attack that had been ordered hid itself behind an abyss of time. And so it was like any of those innumerable nighttime watches: Separated from our selves, our senses lay in wait in the nothingness of night . . . ready to react in a flash to any suspicious something. Our own selves, our individual identities, withdrew from the unreal, shapeless present and, nonetheless, remained ready to move into action at any alert from the senses.
Our selves sought a way to the essential things, even there in the icy Russian winter night. I carried on silent conversations with my young wife and was delighted in my little baby daughter. I thought of my parents and brothers. I spent time with friends doing unforgettable work over long, rich years. Who among those who fought in Russia does not remember those hours of inner peace and renewal?!
And despite that, I can still read off the other tablets of memory—what the alert senses also inscribed on them . . . automatically, but reliably. There was a deathly quiet along the western expense of snow that extended into the unknown beyond the last fence. You could occasionally hear a rustling when loose snow was blowing along the crusted-over snow by a draft of air. The huge barns of the collective farms rose from out of the snow, large and dark.
There was nothing to be heard on the road leading out to the vantage point towards the north, other than the crunching of our footsteps and the occasional sleep snorting of our panje horse. The ammo belts sometimes clanked quietly, whenever the machine gunner gingerly shifted the machine gun to his other shoulder.
Our relief arrived. By the time we stumbled into our diggings, it was already starting to turn light. We lay down and dozed.
In the morning, I trotted over to the company command post to poke my nose into things . . . to take a gander at the cards of the strategists. The Leutnant would most certainly assemble the platoon in order to dispense last rites prior to the attack, but perhaps he would tell me something ahead of time that was not intend for a broad audience.
Chatkowo was extremely difficult to attack. One battalion had just had its nose bloodied something fierce recently and three tanks of the 35th had also gone up—one through a mine, the other two by antitank/antiaircraft guns. Very little was known about the current enemy situation. Deserters said something about sixty heavy machine guns. Information concerning the size of the force there varied between 200 and 2,000. There were certainly mortars and antitank guns there.
The village was in a large clearing in the woods. The vegetated and broken terrain of the riverbed of the Resseta only got to within 150 meters of the houses in the east. It was only there that an attack could initially be launched. That was where we were to be employed, after we had closed to within 800 meters of the houses by first light and had taken up attack positions in the closest tip of the woods. It was imperative that we remained undetected up to that point.
Three destroyers were supposed to drop hard objects on Ivan at 0700 hours, and the artillery was supposed to start covering the eastern portion of the village at the same time. While all that happy intimidation was going on, we were supposed to be hopping through the vegetated terrain at a pig’s gallop and cross the final, completely open stretch.
The moment we reached the edge of the village, the artillery was to be signaled by flares and its blessings immediately directed to the southern part of the village, allowing Pionier-Bataillon 41 the opportunity to attack from the south across a broad, open, and mined field.
Then the artillery was to be signaled to shift its greetings of love to the northern part of the village, so as to cut off and pin down the Russians until the I./Infanterie-Regiment 317 had arrived from the west.
“Well, let’s drink to that!” Oberleutnant Holzheid said after we had conquered Chatkowo on the map. And so we drank a toast to Chatkowo with some terrible stuff that tasted like denatured alcohol and diesel and called itself vodka.
In the meantime, the Landser were busy with their weapons and ammunition. Everything was made spick and span. Actually, a lot nicer than during an inspection, since your life depended on it the following day. Hand grenades were picked up and armed. Tracer ammunition added to the belts of ammunition. White coverings for the helmets prepared. Things were hopping, and the hours that had been given to us as a result of the delayed attack were put to good use.
“Du kannste mal sehen, wie die Weiber sind . . .” Otto Simon sang.5 It was his favorite song, even if he only sang it a short while. It was the only music he ever sang. He attempted to disguise his feeling at the time through his artistic expression.
The briefing of the 1st Platoon by the Leutnant was short and painless: don’t smoke . . . don’t cough . . . easy, easy, easy . . . so we can get into the assembly area undetected.
My knowledge of the battle plan was enriched by one additional point. A tank was to move along the road from the south as far as the mine obstacle and was directed to pluck machine-gun nests and similar novelties from the tree of knowledge with its main gun. In simpler terms, it was directed to attempt to identify and eliminate enemy positions from there. So we knew all there was to know. According to Adam Riese, it had to work. But Riese had also suffered frostbite to the feet in Russia, according to reliable sources. We would have to see. We had nothing against it.
We still had time. Chatkowo had to wait. The move-out to the tactical assembly area was set for 0030 hours. All the preparations had been made. We stretched our legs out under the wobbly table and caught lice. I had already account for twenty “kills.” Lattke most certainly would have awarded me the Oak Leaves to my dog tag had he been a witness to my success.6 Emil transformed the remaining mutton into a tasty pot roast. I awaited the results of Emil’s culinary skills by playing Karl Hage a game of chess.
I wasn’t too well pleased when I was summoned to the Leutnant again. We drank the last of the schnapps. The company commander also showed up later. “If I get killed, please send my things to my wife,” he requested. Toward midnight, we split up. I shook my warriors awake in their hay beds. Chatkowo was calling us.
“Na, Unoffizier. So we want to go out again,” Lattke said. We lined up in the company’s column of sleds.
The Oberleutnant gave a green light from his flashlight—the signal to “Start engines!” and “Move out!”—and off we went. It was miserably cold. The runners on the sleds crunched. The night march to the assembly area would be fifteen kilometers. The night was clear and filled with stars; you could see some distance.
It was probably about 0200 hours when we took the first break. I was dead tired. Everything around me was blurry. I felt my way through as if in a billowy fog. When I noticed that the sleds were stopping, I took a chance to stretch out for a moment. I told the driver that he should shake me awake before I ran the chance of freezing at 40 below. I had barely wrapped myself in a dozen overcoats, when I lost complete consciousness. A vibration woke me up. Amazing how far deep the senses could alarm you. The sled was moving again. I dug myself out from under the overcoats. I was amazingly refreshed. Like a new born. The complete relaxation had restored my strength. Had I slept forever? “How long was I actually dozing, Ganzke?” I asked my driver. “Perhaps three minutes,” Ganzke replied drily.
My feet were tingling. I trotted up front. Ganzke had lent me his felt boots. My feet were quickly warm again.
The sleds started veering off. Only one sled remained with each squad and accompanied it to the assembly area. The last house before entering the woods was the battalion command post. The lead elements halted. “Machine guns remain on the sleds…everything else off!” was whispered down the line. “Riflemen cover left and right! Skiers move forward! Move out!”
Our 1st Company was in the lead. The 2nd and 3rd Companies followed. The 4th Company had broken out its machine guns. Leutnant Niedermeier pushed past us on his skis and glided into the clearing, about 100 meters in front of the lead elements of the company. The edges of the wood line on both the right and the left got closer and closer to the road. Occasionally, the skiers stopped and listened intently.
A tank track could be made out along the path, a German tank track. That was somehow comforting. We could not follow the road much longer, since the Russians would be able to observe it after a few more meters. We therefore left it and marched off half right into a cut in the woods. We started to feel uneasy. The snow was knee deep, and if you took a step next to the tracks left by the skis, you sank up to your hips.
We went that way about 800 meters and then crossed a trail beaten into the snow, which came out of the vegetation to the right and then had to lead directly into the enemy-occupied village off to the left. It was probably the route taken by a Russian patrol. Let’s just hope we don’t get fired at now! Our lungs were bursting. It became increasingly difficult to move our legs through the snow. The distances between the sleds and also between the people increased to a dangerous level, since we were all in a column and the tired men could not be passed by those who weren’t as tired. The Oberleutnant stomped on ahead industriously in his fur coat. He carried his ski poles like one of Rübezahl ’s clubs.7 It was a puzzle to me how he managed to remain up front after he occasionally broke through the snow and lost the poles.
When was this cut through the woods going to end? We were sweating ourselves to death. The nags in front of the sleds were snorting like crazy and sank into the snow up to their bellies. The moon appeared garish at that point; you could see almost as if it were daylight. Gasping, we tortured ourselves step-by-step forward, weapons at the ready in our hands.
Finally, the cut in the woods came to an end. The woods opened up; there was a clearing in front of us. The lead elements turned off to the left. We had to be sufficiently wide east of Chatkowo by then; we started tramping our way west towards the village. We worked our way forward right on the edge of the clearing. Our lungs threatened to stop performing their duty; our legs were as heavy as lead. The clearing transitioned to open vegetated countryside, which was marked by foot trails everywhere.
We discovered individual abandoned bunkers, which we carefully searched. We didn’t want some Russian telephone operator or listening post to spoil the whole operation. Nothing happened, however, and the Russian telephone operators remained alive, since they were dozing safe and sound in Chatkowo instead of sitting in their holes.
Off to the right, the woods pulled back sharply. We could clearly see the first few houses barely 1,000 meters away. According to the latest intelligence, they had to be occupied. With an uncomfortable twitching at the back of our necks, we waited any second for the blast of firing that would send belts of machine gun rounds whistling our way from over there. But no shots were fired. The skies had already taken on a light color. The pale slice of moon was blurry in a greenish shimmer. Daylight was announcing itself. Visibility was practically unlimited; it was only between the trees that the last vestiges of night lurked in the shadows. We steered more to the left and into the concealment offered by the woodline and made efforts to cover the last stretch to the tactical assembly area through the stands of trees.
We crossed a path in the woods, which was covered deep in snow. In the middle of it, however, there was a footpath tramped into the snow, which proved that it served as the scene of active Russian patrol traffic. We stopped. At that moment, the commander came forward. With him were a few officers with map boards and in full war paint. Leutnant Jakobshagen could not restrain some bantering, which welled out from under his large nose in spite of the delicate situation. Nevertheless, the volume was somewhat diminished. Our commander, Rittmeister Bradel, sought to harmonize his native elegance with the horrible road condition which, with the exception of a few unavoidable efforts to maintain his balance, succeeded. He personally possessed an inimitable grandness. His visor cap sat true.
Even in that winter, he refused to comfort himself with ear warmers. The 40 below temperatures had forced him to make a single concession—he had turned up the collar of his fur coat. Weren’t his ears freezing off? Bradel must have had different ears than the rest of us foul-smellingLandser.
The Rittmeister remained standing there with his officers. Damn . . . the edge of the woods were right there. The houses of Chatkowo seemed close enough to reach out and touch through the trees. Not a single Russian was guarding to the east. They were probably sitting stubbornly on the southern edge, straining their ears towards the sound of armor, which was being caused by our single tank.
“Weapons ready!” came whispered back from the front.
The break in the woods—we were standing along its left edge—emptied directly into a large clearing, where Chatkowo was located. The point of the woods, where we were supposed to establish our tactical assembly area, was to the right of us. The woods arched back between it and us. Messengers hastened back to have the 1st and 3rd Companies turn off from the previous march route further back.
We were stuck in the snow where we were, since there was no turning back. Time was pressing. It was already as light as day. We had to risk moving sideways without cover despite the closeness of the enemy. As quickly as was possible, we tramped across the clearing. Chatkowo was to our left. Not a shot was fired; it was very strange.
The long column of the 3rd Company moved ahead of us into the wooded terrain. We were still churning through the deep snow of the open area, our heads turned tensely to the left. When were the Russian machine guns going to start spraying?
“Man,” Karl Hage said, “Uli, you know what? The Russians have split. There’s not a swinging dick in that village any more.”
Chatkowo was peaceful off to our left.
“Hurry up! Hurry up!” came back from the front.
Blue smoke climbed from a group of houses. It was the only sign of life.
There: pepepepepetsch . . . pepepepepetsch. A couple of Russian machine guns started rattling, firing in the direction of the clearing . . . excited . . . long, continuous bursts. We realized by the sound that those of us in front were not the intended targets. We churned forward and reached the edge of the woods a few minutes later. Behind us, everyone was on the ground. Whether dead, wounded or only seeking cover could not be ascertained. “Medic!” was also being roared out, however.
We worked our way through the trees to the front, in order to identify the machine guns and eliminate them. The machine guns of the 3rd Company were already replying from the tip of the woods. Lattner’s machine gun cut loose.
Looschen’s squad was the only one that had completely crossed the clearing. Of my squad, only Simon and Volland had gotten across with their weapons. I placed them between the trees to provide security. They only fired a few rounds blindly, since nothing could be seen from there.
The Russians soon got wind of the tumult in the woods and started firing at us, the bullets pelting the branches. The sprayed the entire edge of the woods.
My second machine gun was not available because Heese, the gunner, had taken a wild nosedive out of fright. The entire barrel was full of snow. I cursed like a drunken sailor, but that didn’t change anything. Moreover, all of my ammo bearers were missing. It was enough to drive you crazy! We didn’t go crazy, however, we fished a good Juno8 out of a coat pocket and covered ourselves in smoke.
The machine-gun rounds slammed ceaselessly into the vegetated area around us. The ricochets whistled and swirled through the air. Whenever they peppered us in the woods, they had to stop engaging the clearing. That gave the company opportunity to close up to us. My ammo bearers finally came. On the way, they got fat Lecke in the knee with a grazing wound.
We started receiving mortar fire. Rumms . . . rumms . . . rumms. The unpleasant stuff started detonating all around us. Now it was time for the shit to hit us. They had identified our assembly area. There was nothing we could do. We had to cover our ears until our artillery engaged. The three destroyers—on whose account the attack could only take place during daylight—mistook us for the enemy. Rumms . . . rumms. Their bomblets landed between the trees.
Pepepepepetsch—light Russian machine guns.
Tototototo—heavy Russian machine guns.
We tucked in our heads and tried to hide behind the thickest trees possible. We had to get out of there and release that knot of humanity. A direct hit by a mortar would have done us some serious damage. Besides, it was about time that the Germany artillery started. At that point, it was on to the enemy. We had to advance. But how? The Russians were firing ceaselessly.
Twenty meters into the woods was a depression. No time like the present to get in there! Hell, that was no depression! It was the riverbed of the Resseta. We slid down the steep embankment two, three meters toward the ice. It was brittle under the thick covering of snow. Every once in a while, someone broke through the ice and splashed around in the water with his felt boots. But this at least allowed us to avoid the lead-filled air and move forward. After the river started arching right after a hundred meters, that great respite was over. We crawled back up the slope of snow. Once we got us there, we tripped over a bunch of wounded, who were lying in a depression and being tended by medics. They were still quiet and in control. It still had not sunk in that they might be lying there for hours in the brutal cold. We worked our way further forward. There was the stupid river again. This time, we had to cross it. Franz Arling broke through and literally sank up to his neck. His teeth chattering, he made his way back to the rear.
Looking grim, the Oberleutnant came tramping forward, his ski pole in his hand. He was striking in his fur coat. His black armored recon cap sat like a little point on top of a bitterly mad face. You could read it on his face: “I’m not used to this infantry bullshit. This is absolute shit, if I may be permitted to express my self so vulgarly!”
Then, far to our rear and to the left, we heard bong . . . bong . . . bong. It never wanted to end. It was the short drumbeats of our artillery. There was a rushing sound that transformed itself into a rushing whistling noise. Bruch . . . rumms . . . ratsch. The packages were already there and were exploding among the houses of the village. Oh, boy! That was some magic the artillery boys were sending that way!
The face of the Oberleutnant was twitching. He turned around with a backhand and stomped away to the front like Rübezahl once did. Didn’t he notice how it was whistling all around him? He must have thought he was sitting in an armored car.
The enemy’s machine-gun fire slowly abated. The Russians ears were probably ringing. It was time to go forward . . . forward! We had to take advantage of the effect the artillery was having. Once again, we crossed the river, which curved around on itself like an earthworm.
It suddenly crashed above our heads from the far bank. There was a hell of a detonation between the trees in front of us. Branches flew through the air . . . a fountain of dirt and snow sprang high . . . one tree tilted forward and cracked apart . . . shrapnel hurled evilly through the air. What had it been? Was it a 15-centimeter shell that had gone astray? Russian mines of extremely heavy weight? Then there was another gurgling sound approaching us . . . and another one. Once again, the snowed-over Resseta was in front of us. Russian machine guns snapped at us. You can . . . wait, we were in a dead zone!
Our heavy mortars set up. Plopp . . . plopp . . . plopp. They were happily passing out their rounds, which they had drug cursing and sweating through the snow, to the Russkis.
There was a wall of snow, from which our machine gun could effectively engage the village in front of us. The heavy machine guns of the 4th Company fired over us, while we jumped over the wall. The defile started there. My men fell back. Only Simon with his machine gun and Volland with two ammo canisters were there. Karl Hage was directed to collect the rest and bring them forward.
To the left of us, I saw portions of the 3rd advance over the open expanse of snow. It was said that the 1st was already engaged in house-to-house fighting along the village street. Our company, which had been deployed along the portion of the village to the right of the road, was still working its way through the defile.
All of a sudden, we were there. Up to the road! Damn, we were out there as if on a dinner platter. We tried to at least get a little concealment behind a wooden outbuilding. The heavy machine guns from the northern part of the village had discovered us and were plastering us. The beams were splintering. Naturally, they offered no protection against small-arms fire.
I saw that we were had strayed into the midst of elements of the 3rd. “Make yourselves thin,” Oberleutnant Lemke said. “It’s pretty dicey here!” He did not apply that insight to himself, however. He sized up the situation while standing upright; he wanted to figure out additional employment options for his company. And as was often the case in such situations: His example outweighed his admonition. The men also remained standing and, after a few seconds, one of them clutched his body and sank groaning to his knees. Another man got his arm shot up. “Get out of here!” theOberleutnant said, shooing us away. I had been on my belly for some time and looked for a way to move while remaining covered. We hopped into some terrain that turned out to be an extended defile. We chased away some Russians with hand grenades and rifle shots; they had also been hanging around the area. We then linked up with our company again. The lead elements, following the course of the defile, were slowly pressing their way towards the northern part of the village.
I was completely exhausted. I sank up to my stomach in the deep snowdrifts of the depression. But at least Simon, Volland, and I had made contact up front again. Looschen, the indestructible soldier, was already providing security at the end of the defile. The Oberleutnant needed to get oriented first, before undertaking anything. We couldn’t allow ourselves to get bogged down. The terrain was too broken up. As a result of the continuous mortar and machine-gun fire, we were confined to the defiles. For a few seconds, the company commander considered attacking across the open expanse of snow. But that would have been suicide. I lay on the ground among them, at the same spot I had initially dropped down, and devoured snow, since there were no other delicacies available. It was impossible for me to stand up. Every time I tightened my muscles to do that, a cramp from an old wound in the lower thigh shot up my left leg to my hip. Catastrophic!
All of a sudden, there was firing down the length of the defile. Shit! Russians were sitting on our flank. It was a few individual rifle rounds. Impossible to make out the riflemen.
I then saw Lattke drop his machine gun and silently collapse. A rifleman from Meyer’s squad screamed out and fell over. My first thought was that we had to get out of there. We had to get at least as far as the next bend around the defile, otherwise the Russians would take us out one-by-one.
I crawled behind the Leutnant, who was moving forward into the concealment offered by the defile. I got the poor bastard from Meyer’s squad a hundred meters to the rear, where I gave him over to a medic.
When I worked my way back forward again, there was a crack around my legs at almost the same spot on the ground. I quite clearly saw how the bullets were marking their paths in the snow. I soon got the lead-filled spot behind me. Up above, Ernst Lattnew was in a small depression. I quickly ran over to him. There wasn’t anything I could do. Our Lattke was dead. Head shot.
Karl Hage, the assistant squad leader, had assembled the men in the meantime and established contact. I sent Gerke, the tall one, who was unable to move forward with his shot-up knee, back to the rear with the wounded.
The defile made an extended bend and ended in the vicinity of the village street. If we were to attack from that point across the snowfield, then we could help the 1st forward, which was only advancing slowly up the village street in heavy house-to-house fighting and was no where near our end of the depression. At that point, we were still fully concealed in the depression. It was imperative to seize the right moment.
“Meddddddddic!” someone yelled out, extending the syllables. “Meddddddddic!” It set your teeth on edge. The news was soon passed around: Oberleutnant Lemke had been badly wounded. A little while later: “Oberleutnant Lemke and the headquarters section leader have been killed.”
Russian and German machine guns were yapping at each other over the defile. The snow sprayed up along the edges above our heads, whenever the rounds hit back and forth. We held cigarettes in one hand and devoured snow with the other. We placed our rifles between our knees. We had to constantly move our toes in the footgear, which had frozen as hard as glass. As long as you could do that, no frostbite could be expected. A numb feeling inched its way up from the heels, however.
By then, it had turned noon. We had been attacking for seven hours. Where had the time gone? The German artillery fire was no longer on our part of the village.
“Follow” was ordered. The company commander had discovered a tributary defile, through which we could approach the village concealed. At the very end, we had to jump individually through heavy machine-gun fire. After a sprint of thirty meters, we collapsed, lungs bursting, into a depression, where there were wounded with blank faces. Belly and leg wounds, which did not allow them to be evacuated from there under any circumstances. Once we had caught our breath, we attempted the next leap, which would take us directly into the concealment offered by the houses.
The company assembled there and then rolled up the right-hand side of the street. We combed through yards, animal stalls and houses. The 1st had taken heavy casualties. It was pretty well scattered and was bogged down in house-to-house fighting about 100 meters in front of us. We had to relief it as soon as possible by advancing along the right side of the street. That was very difficult, however, since there was firing from all sides. Our consumption of hand grenades was enormous.
I charged a hand grenade, intending to throw it through the window of a house from which there was firing. I hit the window frame, however, and it bounced back, landing at my feet. Twenty-one . . . twenty-two . . . I looked for it desperately and couldn’t find it. I took a mighty leap to the side. Rumms . . . it detonated . . . and I received a mighty blast near my butt. I aimed better with the next one. Rumms . . . doors and windows blew out. Smoke billowed out of the hollow window openings.
The 4th Company set up behind us with its heavy machine guns. It engaged the northern part of the village and had good fields of fire. The fire from there actually started to abate. We moved forward more rapidly. We got as far as the street crossing, and then it was all over. We had to seek cover as quickly as we could, since a Russian machine gun was engaging us from pointblank range, knocking us for a loop. Fortunately, the guy was a bit excited, and he didn’t aim well. Correspondingly, we did not suffer any casualties. But we also could not determine, where he was located. We set the houses across the way on fire. The machine gun rattled on, however, even adding tracer ammo to the mix. In the flash of an eye, the hovel we had sought cover behind was burning like a torch.
The 1st Platoon attempted to cross the connecting street, but it clashed with a batch of Russians. It had to pull back after Unteroffizier Meyer was put in bad shape after several hits to the arm and shoulder. The damned Russian machine gun blasted away in between. It had to be in a stone house.
Oberfeldwebel Steinbeißer, an indestructible warrior from Bavaria and normally an armored car section leader, holed up in a pile of hay and took out one Russian after the other with his sniper rifle. The Russian machine gun continued hammering away, however.
We then saw lots of Russians fleeing. It had started getting to them. Horse-drawn sleds raced towards the northern part of the village and disappeared into the woods. Where were the engineers and the infantry? We still couldn’t allow ourselves to be seen on the streets.
The Russian resistance stiffened. At that point, Oberleutnant Holzheid jumped into our house: “The company will no longer advance. It’s to set up for the defense. Sachse, inform Leutnant Häusler and Feldwebel Gundelmeier.”
Karl Hage took off to inform the two platoon leaders. “Two squads under the command of Unteroffizier Sachse remain here. Leutnant Weidner takes one squad with him. I will try to open up the way to the rear again with the 4th Platoon. The Russians have moved out of the woods and are attacking in the same defile we used to come in here. Communications with the battalion commander have been broken. He’s most likely in the woods in a bad situation.”
Good God! We had finally taken the street only to wind up in a mousetrap.
Unteroffizier Meyer, a good man, could neither live nor die. I carefully rubbed the fingers of his right hand, which were slowly dying. The arm was bleeding heavily. The cold was really getting to him. We tried to keep him from freezing by bundling him in hay. He was being brave. Nonetheless, he was shivering from the cold and from exhaustion. I fished out a crust of cheese that I had in my trousers pocket and fed him.
Oberleutnant Holzheid came back. Peter Weidner was with him. The 4th Platoon had not made it through. It had gone into position and was screening in the direction of the woods from which we had attacked.
“So, Weidner, we have to see how we’re going to get out of this shit,” the company commander said. “We don’t have any contact with the Rittmeister. We have a choice of trying to fight our way back the way we came, or we can try to force our way through the minefield to the south.”
“Let me have a messenger, and I’ll get through to the Rittmeister,” Oberfeldwebel Steinbeißer said in such a resolute fashion that it was not possible to counter him. He didn’t even wait. He disappeared with the man, who had been standing next to him.
It had already started to turn dusk, and the sun was sinking on the horizon. The watch registered 1700 hours. We had been in combat without a break for twelve hours. The machine guns were jamming continuously. The ammunition was practically all expended. It was a really shitty situation. Otto Simon had taken Steinbeißer’s place in the observation post above and occasionally let loose with his blunderbuss. Suddenly, he called out: “Unteroffizier, what’s that over there?”
We were up there with him in a flash. Feldwebel Oesterreich got there the same time as I did. Soldiers were moving from left to right in large groups at some distance on the far side of the street crossing. We counted fifty men. All of them wore snow coats and were marching in column.
Over there . . . between the row of poplars in the distance . . . almost to the western side of the village . . . there were even more. A whole company . . . no, several companies. Simon initially thought they were civilians, who were coming out of the woods and back into the village, since the firing had suddenly quit. For a few minutes, there was deathly silence. We struggled to determine through the binoculars who and what they were. Were the Russians heading back to the north? No, only German soldiers marched in column that way. We then saw how they were carrying their machine guns. We saw that they also carried ammunition canisters. We fired a white signal flare for recognition—and they fired back a white signal flare from there.
“Those are the engineers!”
They occupied the northern part of the village; the western part was already in their hands.
Otto Simon sang: “Du kannste mal sehen, wie die Weiber sind . . .”
We felt unbelievable relief. The danger of being encircled was over. The terrible machine gun fell silent. They had probably figured out what was going on sooner than we had and had disappeared.
We then had to get Unteroffizier Meyer to a medic as quickly as we could! There were about forty wounded in a stone house on the eastern side of the village. Our dead were still outside in the snow.
It turned increasingly dark. Lively machine-gun fire echoed from the woods to the east and from the screening sector of the 4th Platoon. There were also the sounds of fighting to be heard from the southern edge of the village.
We went out into the street and attempted to warm ourselves on the glowing beams from the burnt-out house. There were crusts of bread burned crispy among the rubble. Ravenous, we devoured the seared crusts.
Then came the exhaustion. But we didn’t dare to sit down anywhere. The cold was fierce. It had to be more than 40 below.
Who was that coming up the village street? The Rittmeister. Elegant as always. He laughed in our direction when we tried to salute him awkwardly. Steinbeißer was with him.
Looschen said. “Lattner’s still out there. Can I go get him?” Looschen fetched him. Better said, he had to rescue him, since scattered Russians were still in the defile area, firing wildly all around them. But Looschen, that remarkable soldier, didn’t let anything deter him, even a grazing wound on his hip.
Lattner was then lying there in front of us. His happy sayings had been silenced forever. We placed him on a captured sled in a protected corner. We would not be able to recover our dead until the next day. There were twenty-one in all. For the present, we had our hands full trying to evacuate the fifty-eight wounded. The closest aid station was twenty kilometers to the rear.
I hobbled over to one of the houses, where a pitiful little fire kept the worst of the cold away. Leutnant Peter Weidner sat on a crate and slept, his head propped against the wall—the sleep of exhaustion. I had constant cramping in my left leg. Only some warmth could help. With some effort, I pulled off the frozen-like-glass felt boots, ripped the leggings out of the shapeless footgear and hung them up to dry out over the oven. I then stretched out on the floor and immediately fell into a deep and leaden sleep.
Our sleds came two hours later. I can only recall the fifteen-kilometer march back as some sort of dull nightmare. It was more of a stumbling than a walking. Finally, about 0300 hours, we arrived in our quarters in Ssusseja.
Seen here on 10 July 1941, the bridge over the Beresina at Stary-Bychow was blown up by the Soviets after the initial crossing of a platoon of tanks. On the far side, behind the impacting shells, are the five tanks of Oberleutnant von Cossel, which had stormed across the river on 4 July. Cossel and some of his men were able to swim to safety across the river when their positions were no longer tenable.
A typical Soviet peasant: poor but content.
The unfortunate village of Grjasiwez goes up in flames, 15 July 1941. The battle staff of the 4. Schützen-Brigade (of the 4. Panzer-Division) was wiped out there; the command-and-control element was then disbanded.
German antitank guns knocked out this Soviet light armored vehicle in the fighting for the bridges at Propoisk, 15 July 1941.
The division advances into the rear of the Red Army, 22 July 1941. The Kiev Pocket is in the process of being formed.
The night attack on Dmitrowsk is discussed, 1 October 1941. From left to right: Major von Jungenfeld; Oberst Eberbach, the commander of the 5. Panzer-Brigade; Oberst Schneider, commander of Artillerie-Regiment 103; and Generaloberst Guderian, the commander in chief of the 2. Panzer-Armee.
The Germans were not considered the enemy everywhere they went. In the Ukraine, they were often greeted as liberators, as evidenced by the garlanded arch to this village, September 1941.
1 Translator’s Note. The Kübelwagen was the ubiquitous German utility vehicle of the war, not unlike the American jeep in function, size, and capability. It was manufactured by Volkswagen.
2 Translator’s Note. SPW = Schützenpanzerwagen—roughly, armored personnel carrier. These were either the light half-track, the Sonderkraftfahrzeug (Sd.Kfz.) 250, or the medium half-track, the Sd.Kfz. 251 .
3 Translator’s Note. Landser is the term given to the common foot soldier of the German Army and is roughly equivalent to “GI Joe” in colloquial American military slang or “Tommy” in British usage.
4 Translator’s Note. This means, roughly, “Sarge.”
5 Translator’s Note. This roughly translates, “You can see for yourself sometime how the women folk are . . .”
6 Translator’s Note. The narrator is poking fun at the Knight’s Cross to the Iron Cross and its subsequent award, the Oak Leaves to the Knight’s Cross to the Iron Cross.
7 Translator’s Note. Rübezahl is the name given to a folklore giant who inhabited the wooded areas between Bohemia and Silesia.
8 Translator’s Note. A type of smoke grenade.