Major Martin Püschel, battalion commander in Schützen-Regiment 33 of the 4. Panzer-Division
An improbably bright midday sun incubated and flickered above the soil of Volhynia.7 Despite that, the occasional gust of wind caused our bodies to shiver as if under an icy breeze. You could look far across the terrain. Yellow fields of grain, light green pastures, interrupted by the blue-green flecks and strips of treacherous patches of marsh, white sand dunes, black woods, framed by luminous birches—all that gave the landscape its imprint. Despite the bright light, the viewer was unable to suppress the feeling of an inexplicable anxiety. The gigantic village on the horizon—with a church that dominated above the houses like a cathedral—seemed like a Fata Morgana. In the foreground were isolated and scattered farmsteads. The squat clay cottages, in a partial state of decline, appeared to have been abandoned by their inhabitants and reminded one of dwellings filled with evil spirits and witches from old legends and fairy tales.
Swarms of larger-than-life crows are the only signs of life. With their funereal appearance and husky crowing, they seemed like harbingers of death, who were announcing an approaching calamity. If we turned our gaze to the east, visibility was limited by a long, flat hill. On its crest was a wide, gray-white ribbon that ran from north to south. That ribbon was one of those infamous roadways that were hard to cross in the summer because larger vehicles sank up to their axles in floury dust and quickly ground to a halt. Whenever there was a rain that lasted for a while, however, they were transformed into a quagmire that made any traffic impossible. Whenever it was dry and the wind swept over them or a poor panje cart8 struggled laboriously to make forward progress, the clouds of dust climbed to the heavens. They would last for minutes at a time in thick clouds. The terrain dropped steeply right behind the hill, transitioning quickly into marshy pastures that were surrounded by sand dunes and individual fields of grain, which bordered the banks of the Bug, which wound through the lowlands in twists and turns.
From where we were standing, the river could not be seen, and the long hill also hid our side from the stealthy and mistrustful gaze of the far bank, where the Russians were sitting. Only the sails of a windmill, which appeared to move day and night over there, appeared in uninterrupted relief above the crest of the hill, like a scout who quickly appears and then, after a fleeting glance into the terrain, throws himself back down into the grass. But we were also curious and mistrustful, since we had every reason to withdraw ourselves from the view of our sinister neighbors. At our location, there were also secrets that were hiding in the dark woods that appeared drunk in magical stillness. Secrets that had established themselves there over the last few nights and which were growing by the day. Secrets: in the form of tanks and artillery, vehicles and soldiers from all arms of the service, which grew in number from night to night. It was during those nights that the ever-quiet woods spoke. You thought you could hear murmurs and whispers. Occasionally, it sounded like a screeching or an involuntary droning, then perhaps a hissing and moaning. Will-o’-the-wisps in the form of white, blue, red, and green colors shot out between the trees.
At night we lay on the banks of the river up front. As a result, we could only hear a distant hubbub to our rear. But from the east bank, the same sounds echoed, stronger and more accentuated. We were thankful for the constant wind from the east, which kept our own noises from the enemy and carried the sounds of his own work on over to us. With our trained ears, we made efforts to interpret all of their variations.
After the short nights around the summer solstice, the first light of day allowed the nighttime apparitions to quickly evaporate. As always, the woods appeared to be the height of quietude, and no eye, even with the help of the strongest of field glasses, could fathom their secrets. When the first rays of the morning sun broke through the dense crowns of the trees, every movement was frozen in place. Nonetheless, overnight, new branches and hedges had sprung out of the ground, where there had been none the previous day. One needed to get quite close to realize that new war machinery had found its way there during the night and, masterfully camouflaged, had denied itself to curious glances, even from above. The soldier, dead tired and bathed in sweat, who was attempting during the day to make up for missed sleep from the previous night, fought and swore in a hopeless battle against bloodthirsty mosquitoes and biting ants of hitherto unknown size and martial spirit. He then longed for the night. But when the ants and the mosquitoes went to sleep, millions of the smallest of flies awoke from the dirty marsh holes and selected eyes, mouth, nose and ears as their attack objectives. There was no weapon against them. The magic of the primeval forest! But that was just a small foreshadowing of the weeks to come.
The first day of summer 1941—21 June—came to a close. The sun sank blood red in the west. Great clouds, not unlike those of fog banks, started to rise, the likes of which we had not seen on any of the previous evenings. But it was not fog. It was the dust from the dry, sandy roads, which was being churned up by endless columns of vehicles. On this day, they were all aiming for the final assembly areas and attack positions. We weren’t too thrilled about that drama taking place and looked distrustfully to the east, where the Russians on the other side of the Bug were certainly keeping a sharp eye. In our opinion, those movements could not help but draw their attention.
That night we also had to break camp to occupy our jumping-off points along the river for the attack, positions we had scouted out weeks ago. The storm was to break early tomorrow morning.
As was always the case in such situations, our thoughts raced far ahead of the actual events. We read the attack orders over and over again; looked at the map; visualized the attack sector in front of us; tried to imagine how the initial action would go—crossing the river in assault craft and pontoon boats, which for the most part had long since been hidden in the high reeds and grass along the river bank. We would only have to put a couple of thousand meters behind us that night. It was going to be pitch black. The route was a difficult one and often led across narrow footbridges over numerous stretches of marsh that required our undivided attention. No vehicle could get stuck, no march columns could get intertwined, and utmost calm had to be maintained so as to reach the designated areas in the short amount of allocated time. The intent was to surprise and overrun, if we intended to reach the attack objectives of the first day.
The terrain on the far bank was in no way favorable. After a couple hundred meters of dry ground, we would encounter a two-kilometer-wide stretch of marsh that was not foot trafficable and which offered no cover or concealment of any type. A single broad embankment led across it. On the far edge of the marsh was that thick, dark and foreboding woods. We did not know what kind of secrets it held. Going farther into the rear area, there was one natural obstacle after the other. For the time being, however, the embankment was our main worry. It would only take a few courageous men and a single machine gun to defend it. Correspondingly, we had to cross it at the same time as the fleeing enemy no matter what it cost. Everything else was an afterthought.
All of those thoughts occupied us in the last few minutes before we moved out.
All of a sudden, it turned dark. Silently, the long columns of riflemen snaked their way out of the woods and into the open ground. The ammunition cans and pontoon boats weighed heavily on their shoulders. The orders that remained necessary were whispered. Only an occasional curse word or rattling could be heard. The movement proceeded like clockwork, as if it were the normal routine. And, despite all that, what an effort in work, sweat, and discipline.
The darkness allowed only a few meters of vision. Once again, as in the previous nights, the purring of the engines could be heard—vehicles moving without light at a man’s pace. But tonight, they were moving close to the Bug. Would the Russians finally wake up? Once again, there was a cool wind from the east, which dampened the noises. The enemy was still quiet, and the dark woods continued to unveil their secrets. They were still covered by the nighttime darkness, but that was only for another few hours.
Panting, the riflemen march with some effort through the darkness. One could slowly start to see a dim morning light in the east. The stars continued to sparkle in the heavens, however, and nature was still asleep. Only the crickets chirped. At that point, we spied the weakly gleaming, steel-blue band of the river along the bottom-land. We would soon be at our objective. The companies deployed and slowly pushed closer to the banks, using folds in the ground and the dense fields of grain.
An unusual rolling sound on the far bank made us listen up. A shrill whistling sound—everyone was flat on their stomachs. Then another long whistle. The rolling sound became a roar. Trailing a powerful shower of sparks, a train was passing the railway crossing guard shack several hundred meters from the east bank of the river along the line that paralleled it. The roar transitioned to a rolling sound and then disappeared gradually in the distance. We breathed a sigh of relief. At that point, we were certain that the Russians did not have a clue of our presence. But speed was also of the essence. The first light was becoming ever more intense. The outlines of hills and woods against the sky a few hundred meters away became sharper by the minute. In half an hour, the signs of life would return.
It turned cold in the vicinity of the river. We were completely drenched in sweat and could barely keep our teeth from chattering. Was it just the cold? Or was it the keyed-up nerves, over which we no longer had any control in the eerie, ashen first light of morning? Was it our own damned weaker self coming to light? We weren’t recruits, after all! How often had we had to master similar missions in previous campaigns? It was probably the nightmare of this damned eerie terrain, which never seemed to go away, even on a sunny day, and which never seemed capable of breaking the tight bonds around our chests.
By then, we had reached our concealed positions. A quick cigarette and then get out the entrenching tool. Deeper into the moist earth. The tenseness gradually went away. One after the other, the reports started to come in rapidly from the companies: “Jumping-off position reached; no enemy contact!”
Thank God! A glance at my watch indicated that we were right at ten minutes before H-Hour. At that point, only a few shadowy stragglers and messengers scurried bent over through the tall grass.
We kept nodding off. If only we could sleep! But the morning cold woke us up after a few minutes. Shivering, we pressed together in the hole. A bottle of cognac—one of the last souvenirs from France—made its rounds. The stuff tasted terrible on an empty stomach, but it burned and warmed. Then a few morsels of bread. Who knew when we might be able to do that again?
Morning broke. High in the dark-blue heavens, where the stars were gradually fading, the first larks started to sing.
A slight wind arose and caressed the fields of grain. Otherwise, everything was quiet. We continued to struggle with falling asleep. A couple of snorers were competing with one another. There were still thirty minutes to go; then the fire wizardry was supposed to start. The hands of the watch moved unbelievably slowly. Another twenty-five minutes! “Good God, put the thing away, otherwise you’ll go crazy!” The chirping of the crickets was gradually replaced by the buzzing of the mosquitos. In the distance, on the far bank, one pooch was yelping and was holding a dialog with the light barking from another dog in the neighboring farmstead. The cattle were probably being fed there.
There were only eight minutes left to go. Nothing could keep us staying down in the hole. We wanted to take in the deceptive image of peace one more time so as to free our thoughts of everything that was already behind us. Back home they were still lying in warm beds. One last time, my hand worked its way involuntarily up to my breast pocket towards the last letter from home. I hoped no one saw that. Sentimental feelings were out of place at that moment.
One more look at the watch. Another five minutes . . .
The eerie quiet that oppressed us was abruptly torn by a rolling thunder in the distance. Muzzle flashes twitched along the heavens, followed by the bursting crash of the impacts of heavy shells. Everybody jumped up from his half sleep. What did all that mean? It had to be in the sector of the division to the left, farther to the north in the direction of Brest-Litowsk. No, on the contrary, it was a lot closer to us. Were our watches wrong? The flashes twitched again. The thunder rumbled. Once again, the heavy impacts burst. You could also unmistakably hear the hammering reports of the light Flak and the rattling of numerous machine guns. Did they screw up or had the Russians beaten us to the punch? Everyone’s eyes were directed excitedly to the north, where the racket was continuing. Then there was a singing and a droning above us that did not want to stop. Our aircraft. Pretty high. It wasn’t light enough yet to identify them. Only a few position markers could be made out. Put the helmet on quickly . . . tighten the belt some more. You had to be prepared for any eventuality . . .
All at once, there was a long, continuous flash on the horizon behind us, a pulsating sheet of fire that didn’t want to end, followed by the dark reports of heavy guns and then the sharp barks of the lighter calibers, whose blasts were reverberated back from the woods. At that point, there was a whistling, a rumbling, and a howling above us like flocks of swooping geese. All of a sudden, we were wide awake. Lances of flame from the impacts twitched on the far bank; we soon saw fountains of earth shoot up. Mushroom clouds of smoke rose skyward. The fireballs of the ricochets formed ugly black specks just above the ground. We heard the old trees burst in the woods. Bright flames struck skyward. A haystack caught fire and illuminated the terrain around it far and wide like a torch.
The cracks of the firing, the sputtering, howling, and whizzing of the rounds, the detonations of the shells, the buzzing and clashing of the shrapnel—all of that was rolled into a powerful storm and the rage of an earthquake, which made the earth shake as if Judgment Day had arrived.
All nervousness was swept away. In the hard faces of the combat-experienced soldiers, the eyes glinted in grim determination. The new soldiers, who were to receive their baptism of fire, pressed themselves to the ground in a somewhat fearful manner. My thoughts were crisp and clear again. All of the soft impulses of the heart had died out. At that point, through the whizzing and hammering of the drumbeat of fire, the explosions of the bombs from the aircraft were overpowering everything.
Thick clouds of black and sulfur-yellow smoke were hanging above the woods on the far side of the marshland. The billowing white smoke from the smoke rounds drifted across the ground and blinded the observation of the enemy.
Once again, we had our watches in our hands, counting the minutes we had left until we jumped off.
We had to shout in one another’s ears in order to get individual words. It was still another twenty minutes until the assault. We intended to form up ahead of time, however, so as to get to the far riverbank as quickly as possible, despite the danger of running into our own fire. We wanted to use its protection. We were doing this on our own initiative, even though higher command levels were not in agreement with our intentions.
The rush of battle had us in its grasp. The bonds around our chests had been broken. All heaviness had disappeared. The example set by the unflappable men rallied the hesitant ones. We raced to the riverbank with long strides. The pontoon rafts hit the water with a splash; the engines of the assault craft started their song. Our machine guns fired in continuous bursts against the edge of the railway embankment.
The first of the boats moved to the middle of the river. They were joined by increasing numbers. We had to brace against the streaming water with superhuman strength. A rudder broke apart. We turned in circles. Then we got back on course. We moved forward, meter-by-meter. Just don’t break down! “Grab the reeds with your hand and hold tight so we finally get out of here!” And then the guy fell head first into the water! It wasn’t deep, though. Others voluntarily jumped in and waded to the shore. The boat was already heading back to get more comrades. We then had solid ground under our feet, the soil of Russia. The bayonets flew onto the carbines; the safety latches were released. Fists grabbed onto the hand grenades more firmly. The hurricane of artillery fire was still racing overheard. The wall of fire caused by the impacts was right in front of us.
The artillery then jumped forward. There was no need for any more commands. Everything raced forward.
Then it was our turn. Forward! The storm burst loose. The door had been kicked in.