Leutnant Hans Schäufler, platoon leader in Panzernachrichten-Abteilung 79, 4. Panzer-Division
May 1943. We encountered large-scale Russian partisan formations for the first time in the large tracts of woods around Trubschewsk. In the middle of that dirty war, I received the mission of picking up five half-tracked vehicles in Brobruisk with fourteen men, a radio center and aKübelwagen.1 They had been earmarked for our signals company.
In the rear-area city on the Beresina, I reported as required with my assembled group to the military administration. After the hard winter war and all of the hullabaloo, I had the understandable desire in my heart to spend a couple of days taking it easy at the military movie theater and the rest center.
“That’s great . . . you also have a comms center with you!” the heavyset rear-area Oberst noticed while going through my marching orders. “I have a great place for you to set up!”
So much for the dream of having it pretty cushy. It was over before it even started. My men, who were really in need of some rest, and I were sent into a village in the middle of the woods. It was something that ended in “—witschi.” Apparently, the place was swarming with partisans. It was to protect the supply route, according to the “King of the Rear.” The comrades there emplaced mines nightly, blew up bridges and ambushed smaller groups of troops. They weren’t going to grant these poor frontline troops a few days of rest, even though the city on the Beresina was practically bursting at the seams with rear-area soldiers.
And so we went to our—witschi2 with a burning anger in the pit of our stomachs. In our naiveté, we thought we could get by there at night with a simple twoman guard mount. That was a bad assumption, unfortunately. There were stirrings at night all around our houses. The guards were engaged from ambush positions. A wet-behind-the-ears Gefreiter found out the hard way. He was taken down with a round through the lungs.
We didn’t even have a medic with us. Thus we had to evacuate the poor bastard by night through the partisans and mined roads to Brobruisk, fifteen kilometers away.
Rummms! We had rattled along about 500 meters when we ran over one of those damned mines, and we had another badly wounded man. There were figures sneaking through the vegetation everywhere. We tried a second time with a panje cart that we “procured,” wrangled our way cross-country, bearing a grudge and the wish that the “comrades” would at least fight us openly. But they didn’t do us the favor.
When we returned in the middle of the day, we saw an occasional civilian, who greeted us with spiteful grins. We would barely get another 200 meters, when we would receive fire from the rear. We simply couldn’t grab the bastards; we didn’t want to punish the non-guilty with the guilty. Were there, in fact, non-guilty parties here? We were beginning to doubt it. But I did not have the desire to win doubtful laurels in a fight with partisans. I only wanted to get the men entrusted to me back safe and sound from this mess.
Correspondingly, we set up three guard posts with two men each during the night in the village. They pulled guard every two hours. That meant two hours of being wide alert and two hours of leaden sleep—and then again another two hours of guard. Those kinds of nights were long.
But the few hours of sleep also came to a halt a few days later, since there was a young woman in labor in our hut. She bawled at intervals as if on a spit—one entire night, followed by one entire day. Initially, we had no sympathy for her; we even thought it was a part of the war of nerves being directed against us. Gradually, however, we grew to see that the poor woman must have been in unbelievable pain. She looked at us, silently and pleading. Should we look for another set of quarters? There was someone akin to a midwife with her. There was no Russian doctor far and wide. But we couldn’t let the poor woman die like an animal!
I remembered that the doctor who had attended our two wounded in Brobruisk was a gynecologist and obstetrician in civilian life. Could we take her to Brobruisk? When I spoke with my comrades about that possibility, a few of them categorically rejected that idea: “Are we supposed to take the wife of a partisan to the doctor and then get blown up in thanks?”—“The bastards fire at us in ambush and shoot our comrades down like rabbits, and we’re supposed to take their women-folk through the woods to the city to a German doctor so they can bring more partisans into the world!”
By God, who could blame them? So I waited another little bit; the Russians didn’t do anything to indicate they were going to try something. She’s going to die, they said laconically. That would put an end to it, they thought.
“Who’s going with me?” I asked my soldiers. Otto, my driver, spontaneously said he was willing. The father of the young woman got a panje cart and we set off. As we started to head cross-country, he indicated decisively that there was no danger for us along the road. All of the scoundrels had hidden themselves under a blanket!
We reached the city without incident. Only the military police caused us some problems. But, as an officer, I was able to have my way in the end; I was given a spiteful grin. I took it in stride; since it was not a daily event to see a young German Leutnant swinging through the countryside with a Russian woman, who was in labor. The doctor was very nice. Without any type of formalities, he promised to help. We trotted back through the partisan territory, toward—witschi.
Our vehicles still had not arrived in Brobruisk, when the young mother was brought back into the village with a robust little baby boy about a week later. The partisan war slowly melted away. Although we had been observed in our every move in the intervening time, nothing had been undertaken against us. We were given vodka and food. From that point forward, a simple two-man guard mount was sufficient.
My unit kept on radioing: where are the vehicles? No matter how much we wanted to, we were unable to pick them up at the train station, since no vehicles had come.
A new problem then surfaced. The young mother was unable to breastfeed her baby. The child needed milk, and there was no longer a single cow in the village. Rear-area German facilities and partisans had drug away all of the cows. Thus, two soldiers set out one night to a neighboring village where there was a German logistics unit in order to “procure” a milk cow so that “our” baby got something in his stomach.
The next day, a paymaster showed up with a section of military police to search for the cow, which had been stolen from the local military command headquarters, of all places. The tracks led to precisely our village, they claimed. Further, the cow had been marked with red paint, so it was easy to identify.
So I had to keep the persistent people at bay until my soldiers had hidden the mark of shame with gasoline and a lot of patience.
The milk cow had been saved! We slowly started to understand the Russian resistance. Of course, the poor people did not have a whole lot beforehand, but under the German occupation they had nothing at all.
The vehicles just did not seem to come. We were not very upset about that, since life in—witschi started to become quite comfortable. Without exception, the locals were very friendly to us. A lively trade started blooming. We traded salt for eggs and tobacco for chickens.
One night—Otto was on guard—I slept alone in the hut. Something shook me a bit, and I thought I saw light. I mechanically grabbed under my overcoat, which served as more than a pillow, for my pistol. The excited voice of Lola, the approximately fourteen-year-old daughter of our host, whispered to me: “Leutnant not shoot . . . man wants to speak.” Something just didn’t seem right. A quick glance at my wristwatch indicated that Otto would not get off of guard for another hour.
From out of the darkness, I heard a male voice that spoke Russian. And Lola translated in her broken German: “You help our people. Your soldiers not our enemy. We not your enemy. Your cars tomorrow in Brobruisk and you go. Thank you for everything! I chief of the partisans.”
A cold shiver went down my spine. I tried to make it clear to him that his war and that of his men was a rotten one. He had Lola say: “We fight with the weapons we have.” Was I supposed to get excited and make a fool of myself?
When he shook my hand to say good-bye, he had Lola blow out the candle ahead of time, so that I could not see his face. A piece of paper with a note on it was thrust into my hand: “If you encounter partisans sometime or get captured, note well: the watchwords are Moskwa dwa! Moskwa dwa!”
Suddenly, the squalid room was empty. As silently as he had come, so silently he left, my eerie nighttime guest. But I also had the note in my hand. I was unable to read the writing. I also never showed it to anyone. In any event, it had a signature, even a stamp.
What I did not want to believe then happened. The locals of the village took their leave of us in a very friendly manner. Then the radio message came that our vehicles had arrived in the rail station at Brobruisk.
The people of—witschi stood outside of their houses, as we prepared to depart. I was allowed, no, I had to take “our” son once more into my arms. We took off over the mined road, past the local military administration and the train station to our company, which was then in Narischkino near Orel. We had become somewhat richer in terms of life experiences and knowledge. The word “partisan” no longer had the severe tone in our ears.
Ten months later, we fought in the area around Baranowitschi. During a courier run at night, I was caught in a bad position by some partisans. My driver, Otto, was wounded on the other side of the road. Whenever I tried to come to his aid, bursts of sub-machine-gun fire whipped down the road. The partisans were pressing in from all sides. I might have been able to make off in the darkness by myself, but Otto desperately needed my help.
It suddenly occurred to me that I had once been given a partisan password. Although ten months had passed in the meantime and the village was a few hundred kilometers to the east, I did not want to leave anything untried in that difficult situation. I kneeled behind a bush and cried out into the night:
“Watchword: Moskwa dwa! Watchword: Moskwa dwa!”
A practically unbearable silence ensured. A figure surfaced about ten meters in front of me on the road but did not approach any closer. I also stood up hesitantly.
“Watchword: Moskwa dwa! Charascho!” the figure answered calmly on the road. I carefully made my way forward a few steps, my pistol at the ready. Everything remained quiet. No rustling in the vegetation. I hastened across the road to Otto. He had a flesh wound in his back. He was able to move on his own, albeit with some difficulty. I supported him as far as the vehicle. I wanted to continue driving, but the figure signaled not to. A tire had been shot up. I had to change the wheel in the darkness. There was a deathly silence all around me. I turned the vehicle around on the road. The eerie quiet unnerved me. I then drove back without anyone taking notice of me. Otto looked at me with a horrified expression and said: “The comrades must have suddenly lost their senses.” That night, on that unique night, I gained back some of my belief in mankind.