Obergefreiter Walter Berger, squad leader in Panzergrenadier-Regiment 10, 9. Panzer-Division
Late summer 1943, near Orel. Every experienced frontline soldier is familiar with the oppressive feeling that comes whenever it becomes clear, whether officially announced or unofficially making its way through the rumor mill: We’re encircled.
A mood sinks in from one heart to the next like that of a poor sinner on his way to the gallows. The knees turn weak and your guts start to rebel. It crawls high from the belly, turns the stomach on its ear and ties up the throat.
When we were advancing, it wasn’t so bad. We could still count on someone hacking us out as long as we held out long enough.
At that point, however, when we started withdrawing, being encircled meant something else: Remaining where you were, hopelessly lost, in front of your own lines, which were growing ever more distant.
The Russians made a decisive psychological mistake in those instances, which no doubt cost them a lot of time and blood. Without restraint, they took out their pent-up rage on the German, who fell into their hands.
The chances of surviving if taken prisoner were, therefore, slim. Even if you weren’t finished off right away with a bullet to the back of the skull—because you were unable to march due to a wound or the Russians had just received an order to that effect from above or they just wanted to have a little fun—you at least faced years of existence as a slave and the hardest form of drudgery with the underlying thought that could not be suppressed: Who knew whether you would be able to hold out?
For that reason, even the thought of being taken prisoner was something that could not be entertained for any of us. Even in the most hopeless situation, you would rather face any risk than to surrender yourself to death and perdition at the hands of the Russians.
But being “encircled” was not quite the same as being taken “captive.” Some troop elements gained considerable practice over the course of time in being encircled and then breaking out or exfiltrating. But you never knew with certainty from one mousetrap to the next, whether there was once again going to be a whole large enough to escape through.
There were too many Stalingrads, where there was no way to slide out any more, where all the experience in the world was to no avail. That knowledge had also started to make the rounds.
At the end of August 1943, we found ourselves in that situation again. The large-scale German offensive at Kursk and Orel had been turned around. At that point, the Russians were attacking with all of their vast superiority in numbers, and our forces had to pull back, step-by-step.
When we had been attacking, we had reached a line on a ridgeline. We had bogged down there and had clawed our way into the earth. We had established provisional positions, set up communications trenches and dugouts, which we improved over the course of time and aspired to reinforce. We were there for three or four weeks under very uneasy conditions.
After the heavy losses of the past few weeks, our company consisted primarily of wet-behind-the-ears youths—kids from Thuringia and the Rhineland, from Austria and Upper Silesia, a motley crew—who had only been sent to us recently from the replacement depot. They were inadequately trained and without combat experience. Most of them didn’t know what to do and lost their heads at every opportunity.
At the same time, the thinned-out ranks of noncommissioned officers had been filled up with gray-templed Stabsfeldwebel, who had been combed out of some rear-area duty station.
Correspondingly, they may have been masters of supply and administration, but they didn’t understand anything at all about combat leadership. There was a terrific lack of noncommissioned officers with frontline experience, which led to the fact that the couple of “old warriors”—Unteroffiziere and Obergefreite—had to lead patrols almost nightly along with the couple of reliable personnel that we still had.
In that situation, the Russians were of less concern to us than our own men, who, trembling with excitement, fired at everything that crawled around in front, even after they had been informed a good ten times that it was a friendly patrol.
My “colleague” from the 2nd Platoon, who had been sent out the same night I had been, was killed in such a manner when he returned—shot through the heart—while we, 300 meters farther to the left, had our noses in the muck and had to practice taking full cover while taking fire from our own trenches.
But it was not only in the dark of night that we experienced those happy events. They also occurred in broad daylight. One time, it occurred to the Russians to attack our positions with tanks and no infantry support. Their fires were landing somewhere in the area, but not in our positions, in any event. No need to get excited. Despite that, a right proper panic broke out among our green troops. They wanted nothing more than to climb out of their trenches and run away across the open, coverless terrain—and into certain death.
I apparently did the only proper thing, which they also understood: I started to scream and rage, pounding them with my fist and kicking them with my feet on their shoulders, backs, and asses. The result was that the herd of rabbits was apparently more afraid of a raging old Obergefreiter than a dozen T-34’s. They curled up small and inconspicuously in the bottoms of the trenches and allowed the rattling wave of tanks roll past them.
A hot reception was prepared for the red tanks further to the rear by the antitank guns and Flak. Just three or four of them returned in a panic towards the evening hours. So there you go! But nerves also took a certain type of combat leadership!
One long-range round reached a tank in the middle of no-man’s-land in front of us. It burned out.
Each night, the Russians established a nest in the blackened-red steel ruins with snipers, turning our life in the trenches miserable. All efforts during the day to blow the tank apart from rearward positions failed. The nest was empty each time. Finally, orders arrived: Engineers would blow up the tank; Berger’s squad would provide security.
We set up around the tank, but not too far from it, since no one knew for sure where Ivan was running around in the middle of darkest night. Whenever everything was prepared and ready to blow, we would be informed in time. That’s what we were told. That’s what we also believed.
We lay there and waited in a night devoid of stars and a moon. We couldn’t see anything at all. Behind us, around the tank ruins, there was the occasional sound of ill-define work noises. They gradually grew lighter and then disappeared. So . . . that meant we would be relieved shortly. We waited. They must have been working on the firing charge. Nothing could be heard. Man, they were taking a long time! Why was it taking so long? Just don’t become impatient! Listen up! Don’t just listen to the rear. Listen to the front, as well. Over there, where Ivan had to be . . . suddenly, a volcanic eruption behind us. A thunderclap, as if the earth were about to burst. Lightning and heat and a blast wave! And then nothing but a hail of steel remnants raining down, from the size of a walnut to the size of a desk. So . . . that had been the demolition! There was a lot of demo, in any event.
The upshot: one dead man and a number of slightly wounded. I myself got away with a few scuffs and bruises.
The explanation: After having prepared the tank for demolition, the engineers had run into one of my “men” while tapping around in the darkness and informed him that everything was ready. At that point, the engineers scrambled to get out of there. I could have screamed! But what purpose would it have served if I had had the bastard brought before a court-martial? The poor guy hadn’t had a clue what he was causing. The dead man would not have been brought back to life, and the others would not have been any better off either.
And then one terrible day, it happened: we were encircled! That on top of everything else. And with the personnel we had! The “old hands” had already had an inkling of that for several days. It had become fairly quiet in front of our sector, while the sounds of heavy fighting could be heard off to the right and left of us, sounds which gradually moved more and more into the deep flank. Very suspicious! We didn’t talk about it with our men or with our Stabsfeldwebel superiors, but we did think it. And then everyone knew what we had already guessed.
One day of stomach aches but otherwise it was amazingly—or suspiciously—quiet. Then, toward evening: All platoon and squad leaders to the company commander!
We discovered that the Russians were not only sitting behind us to the left in Staroiwanowskoje and off to the right in Malakonstantinowka, but also in between! Our Kampfgruppe—the battalion and attachments—was to snake its way through there that night in column formation. All security measures were to be followed—et cetera, so forth and so on. The rearguard was to be our company and our platoon, the 3rd Platoon, within the company! That meant that from the onset of darkness until midnight my squad—ten men, or what one was calling a “man” at the time—had to “hold” or “screen” a sector of at least 700 meters.
Perhaps Ivan wouldn’t attack, but he could be allowed to get any bad thoughts or to observe anything. That meant fire, fire some more and then fire even more after that! I hammered it into each one of my little men. Fire with everything you had. There was enough ammunition there, more than enough. Whatever we fired off didn’t have to be taken back.
We would fire and then run back and forth like madmen, so that there were muzzle flashes and the sounds of gunfire at the same volume all over the place. I grabbed a machine gun for myself.
And then the circus started: Three or four short bursts into the fog in the direction of the enemy, then shoulder the spray gun and take off at a pig’s trot a hundred meters to the left. Then: rrrrt—rrrrt—rrrrt. Off to the right. More fireworks and then run. In between, my little men fired unaimed individual rounds in the raven-black night. They had become courageous through the commotion I had caused.
The intent was for Ivan to gradually come to the conclusion that a battle-hungry battalion of slightly crazed Teutons was getting ready for the final victory at that location!
On occasion, the fire was returned. Gradually, it grew longer and more frequent. But the enemy’s fire was also fired in the blind, most likely out of nervousness and for demonstrative purposes. Russian mortars also joined in, but thanks to the wide dispersion of our one and a half men, there was little chance of getting hit. Occasionally, they covered a trench position with concentrated fire, where the machine gun had just finished rattling. It was at exactly at that spot that there was no one to be seen far and wide.
Doing something like that was actually enjoyable and raised one’s spirits and self-confidence. In the end, despite the unenviable position, we were almost in a sporty mood.
It soon turned midnight, and the order came for us to also pull back. While my men slipped past me, I rattled out some more fire with what I had left. Then, I also toddled off.
We marched for the rest of the night: Silently, on our toes, beating hearts, straining not to lose sight of the man in front of us. Just don’t lose contact; make as few sounds as possible. And none of that was very easy, since the night was as dark as a raven and the terrain under our probing feet full of surprises.
Occasionally, there was the sound of engines, tracked vehicles and distant shouts off to the left or right of us. Much further away was firing and signal flares. We hunched over and crept along, past black rows of bushes. Keep on going, always keep on going. Once in a while, there was a short halt and strained listening. Whispered orders . . . and then off we went again.
Finally, hours later, with the sun already edging up on the horizon behind us, there were outposts. They were from another unit. They addressed us quietly and directed us where to go.
At that point we knew: we had been lucky one more time—we were through!