Leutnant Hans Schäufler, platoon leader in Panzernachrichten-Abteilung 79, 4. Panzer-Division
19 July 1943. The Russians had turned the tables. On 12 July and then again on 15 July, they launched successful offensives from the northeast and east in the direction of the Orel salient. Unternehmen Zitadelle was called off without fanfare. One of the propaganda statements issued was that Karatschew was already under the fire of Russian tanks.
Our Panzer-Aufklärungs-Abteilung 4 was pulled out of the line and sent there as expeditiously as possible. The remaining combat elements of the 4. Panzer-Division were moved during the night of 17–18 July into the area around Gostoml and prepared for offensive operations.
Ivan had broken through there along the Trossna-Kromy road in the direction of Orel. His intent was to sew the sack shut. The highest state of alert was ordered. Major von Cossel’s tank battalion was already heavily engaged and had sealed off the point of penetration to a certain extent. It was directed that we throw the enemy forces that had penetrated back to the south.
I received orders to establish a wire network in the assembly area, set up a switchboard at a suitable location, connect the tank battalion, Panzergrenadier-Regiment 33 and Panzergrenadier-Regiment 12, and organize troubleshooting parties for the entire area.1That sounds so simple and uncomplicated.
When we got over the hill south of Gostoml, the air started to get filled with lead. There was a crashing and a howling to the right and left of us. The cross-country vehicle zoomed off at speed toward the valley floor. We tried to “hide” the wire nice and neatly in the roadside ditch, since there would otherwise be hell to pay when troubleshooting. The Russians were firing at every individual man. They were sitting on the hill across from us and had a great view.
Some good soul had taken good care of us. Not too far from the road, we found foxholes at regular intervals, in which we set up testing stations for the troubleshooters. The poor devils could catch their breath there, whenever the fireworks started.
We got to a built-up area that wasn’t printed on my map. It consisted of five squalid straw huts. But we also found an ideal bunker there, a magnificent edifice—many thanks to whoever it was who once built such a durable structure. It was in a fruit orchard between the row of houses and the edge of the woods. Thank God, the line also worked. We just couldn’t keep the vehicle there. Ivan would have made short work of it. We unloaded the equipment and the spools of wire and sent the vehicle back with our good wishes across the crest of the hill that was drawing so much enemy fire. The driver made a running start and disappeared in a cloud of dust.
We knew the larger villages in the area from 1941: Kromy, Ssewsk, Dmitrowsk. A dignified military cemetery at the end of the fruit orchard reminded us of the fighting from back then.
I reconnoitered the command posts of the 12th and the 33rd there on the valley floor and one for the tank battalion at the fruit orchard right on the road on the opposite slope. We quickly laid the wires. They were not too long.
In the case of mortar fire, you quickly learned how to run, even in blistering heat. The steel helmet always slammed maliciously into the bridge of your nose and then back on your neck. The field telephone you had slung around you bounced against the small of your back whenever you had to hit the deck. Sweat and dust glued your eyes shut. Despite that, we were happy when Oberst von der Damerau, Oberst Dr. Mauss and Major von Cossel were able to report back to the division: “Assembly area occupied!”
Dog-tired, we slipped across the terrain back to the switchboard and memorized all of the lines for the units. When we finally collapsed exhausted in the bunker, the bewitched line to the division command post was interrupted. It was no wonder, since the Russians were firing continuously on the damned crest behind us. The troubleshooters raced along the road, cursing. The line to the rear was barely sparking, when one to the front was interrupted. The operations officer was no longer able to get through to the command posts, and he chewed my ass royally. All of my people were constantly on the go. Despite that, it was only a matter of minutes before another line was down. Wherever the Russian mortars spared our lines, it was torn up by tanks, antitank elements and the SPW’s of the mechanized infantry. It was enough to make you despair!
20 July. We set up redundant lines to the front, but we had more work as a result, since both lines had to be maintained. Whenever the Russians started a barrage fire, all of the lines were destroyed at the same time anyway—and that was the spot where they were needed the most. We trotted here and there, but the Russians fired and fired and fired at the spots were our wires were laid.
My company commander, Hauptmann Berger, was apparently being hard pressed by the new operations officer, Oberstleutnant Kühnlein, since he was constantly on my case. Finally, I had an idea: the line was destroyed some 100 meters from the division communications center. Consequently, my troubleshooters had to run back eight kilometers, with the result that they were missing up front for four hours. I used the situation to cut a deal: Troubleshooting in the rear would go as far forward as the damned crest of the hill. I was successful.
“You need to take a look at the fireworks up here some time,” I lashed out in my excitement to my company commander. He was willing to do it, apparently, to get out of the line of fire of the operations officer.
“If he does come,” Unteroffizier Kordes said, “then the Russians won’t fire a shot. That guy’s always got the luck!”
Ivan launched another immediate counterattack and sprayed the entire area with mortar fire and Stalin organs.
All of a sudden, there was a rattling at the entrance to the bunker. It was turning dark. Someone was fumbling around out there. An endlessly long frame fell through the curtain, gasping for air: “Hannes, I’ll be damned!”
Hard to believe, but it was actually Hauptmann Berger, the high-bred one, the well-groomed one. At that point, he was encrusted in dirt and dust. His uniform was drenched in sweat and in tatters. His helmet was pushed back to the nape of his neck. He struggled for air and for words. We quickly patted him down. He was in one piece and not wounded. Slowly, his wits came back to him.
“Man!” was all he would say as he straightened out his limbs. No accusations, no ass chewing, just a gradual catching of breath. And the Russians peppered the fruit orchard monotonously. We grinned to one another.
“I threw the motorcycle in the ditch along the road topside,” he reported. One man went out silently and brought it back after half an hour.
“That was the revenge of the Russians for Teploje. You had also come forward to us there. It was at that moment, though, that the Russians barely fired a round, and you said gloatingly: What’s going on with you? It’s quiet in your sector!” I couldn’t restrain myself. I had to say it to him. He looked somewhat crestfallen, our company commander. Generally, he was a great guy!
A few hours later, the road leading to the rear was only released for combat vehicles during the day. Things went better for our lines at that point, since the Russians only had infrequent reason to fire on the road.
22 July 1943. A blood-red sky announced the rise of the sun. Thick banks of fog crawled out of the valley floor. Here and there, a lonely machine gun bellowed. The hills in front of us had changed hands several times over the last few days. There were muzzle flashes at short intervals over the crest. Rounds howled and thundered across our valley on their way out and burst somewhere to our rear. Our artillery responded from the rear. The cannon duel started. High in the air, a reconnaissance aircraft swam in silvery tones.
A clearing station had been established in a bunker along the road. The wounded could no longer be brought back in ambulances during the day along the road that could be observed by the enemy. It was intended for SPW’s to do that. They lined up like a funeral procession along the roads and next to the houses. If Russian aircraft saw them, then so help us God!
Acting to calm things down, both regiments reported: “No serious incidents.” Major von Cossel reported: “Twenty-seven tanks operational.”
Orders came from the division: “Take the last hill occupied by the Russians!” Artillery and aerial support were promised.
Our guns started to fire: Uiii—uiii—uiii. Crack—crack—crack. The fountains of earth rose skyward up top on the hill. A few Stukas dove like vultures. We could openly see the Russians run. The grenadiers worked their way to the crest, slowly but steadily. “The attack is moving swiftly forward,” Oberst von Damerau reported.
0910 hours. Von Damerau had hardly said that, when it started to rumble mightily over in the Russian sector: Blub—blub—blub blub blub blub blub. A terrific wave of fire descended into the creek bed in front of us and along the slope, right in the middle of the attacking grenadiers. A grayish yellow cloud arose in front of us, as if created by a hurricane. Heavy rounds whistled overhead and crashed into the artillery positions behind us. It sounded like a frog concert, except with a lot of horrible tones. Shrapnel, tree limbs and clumps of earth hissed through our fruit orchard. Wounded cried out in a way that went to the marrow of your bones: “Meddicccc!” During all of this, we were only on the outskirts, better said, we were between two storms of iron and gunpowder.
The remnants of our lines were hanging up above in the crowns of the trees. We involuntarily tucked in our heads in the corner of the bunker. Dirt tickled in through the cracks in the bunker ceiling and clumps of dirt sprang out of the bunker walls. We were primarily receiving mortar fire in the fruit orchard.
The Russian mortar fire raged for more than thirty minutes along the valley floor. It was like . . . well, there was no comparison. We had never experienced anything like it. There certainly couldn’t be anything left alive.
Then . . . just a sporadic crack—crack—crack and the entire spookiness was over in an instant. The troubleshooters wanted to crawl out on their backs with a roll of wire. I saw it in their eyes: They would gladly do it, just to get away from there . . . to have something to do . . . just not to have to sit there idly.
“Listen up . . . stay here . . . something’s going to happen, otherwise the Russians would not have put on the fireworks!”
I only had the lines going to the rear be fixed, since there was at least a foxhole every couple of hundred meters. After ten minutes, they reported: “Fifteen patches . . . we’re continuing to look!”
At that point, there was a familiar rattle and clatter over the woods and, high in the air, a metallic singing. Our hearts literally sank, since our nerves were not exactly steady at that moment. Russian fighter-bombers, Il-2’s, jumped over the treetops. That would not have been so bad, but there were condensation trails high in the sky—bombers, some thirty, sixty, ninety of them before we stopped counting, since the monsters were headed directly for us. They silently opened their bomb bays, and the bombs came tumbling out. Thousands of them. Directly down towards us. It was no wonder, given the collection of vehicles along the road and next to the huts! Ice-cold chills ran down our backs. There was a howling and a hissing in the air—it hissed for a damned long time. Were the bombs passing by us? Then there was a crash, as if the entire world was collapsing. The bunker shook as if in the middle of an earthquake. Some bombs must have fallen extremely close by. But where were the remaining thousand? We risked a look through the entryway. Outside, a mighty cloud of smoke and dust rose to the heavens above the road. It was swiftly borne away by a wind from the east. That can’t be true! There was another wave coming. Once again, there was another couple of thousand bombs hanging in the air above us. They landed in the monster cloud of smoke and dust, and they landed in the open field, where there was not a single soul. Five, maybe six waves dropped their loads. All of them tossed their destructive cargo into the gigantic cloud, which was growing higher and larger and which was being driven away from us by the wind. Only a few “strays” fell in the vicinity of the built-up area.
You need luck in a war—or an enemy who aims poorly. In our relief, we almost forgot that there were still Russian fighter-bombers and fighters. We were quickly reminded of them, when the tree limbs started flying around our ears and the strafing churned up the earth around us. The Il-2’s came back to take a look at their colleague’s efforts. Cannons bellowed and rockets hissed from the wings. The rockets life a trail of fire in the churned-up air and detonated all around us. Here and there, there was the hoarse cry: “Medddiccc!”
Soldiers ran around, bent over, to help their comrades, whom they pulled under cover. We hastened over to the clearing station. Like a miracle, nothing happened to anyone. But they begged us to get them out of that hell. We helped place them in the vehicles that were standing by, since a whole lot more capacity would be needed there soon. They were being drug in from all sides, the torn-up bodies.
The division signaled us. Despite everything, the troubleshooters had fixed the line. The tank battalion was desperately needed. I almost said: Don’t make me laugh!
“Leutnant Schäufler, remain on the phone. The ops officer wants to talk to you.” I prepared myself for an ass-chewing.
But he only gave me a mission that made my blood run cold: “There was a radio message that just arrived from the 35th that said that Major von Cossel had been killed. Check to see whether that’s true!”
I rushed out and down into the valley floor and then up the hill to the command post of the 35th. It was whistling on all sides. The earth-brown figures of the Russians were pressing down from the hill here and there and our few soldiers pulled back. Scattered soldiers stood around, leaderless. There were dead by the dozens in the creek bottomland and half way up the hill. Wounded were bent over and moaning, mutually helping ne another. They asked for the location of the clearing station and were carried or drug by comrades.
I stumbled over fresh shell craters and fell into bomb craters. I caught my breath in a hole that was still smoking and ran until my lungs were bursting. Everywhere I turned, it looked like a horrific natural catastrophe.
Distraught faces gazed at me accusingly. I could not, was not allowed to help. I had to go on. When I got to the first tank, I asked for Major von Cossel. A Panzerschütze pointed forward, wordlessly. A combat vehicle was burning there. I found Stabsarzt Dr. Schulz-Merkel, the “tank doctor,” in conversation with Oberleutnant Burkhardt. I wanted to ask where I could see the commander, but I dropped it when I saw the serious but determined look on the two men. I then looked at the burnt-out command vehicle.
“Is he dead?” Just a nod of the head.
Major von Cossel—as a young Oberleutnant, he had already received the Knight’s Cross—was considered a blessed one within the division. His courage, his calmness, and his manner of leading—all of that was something special with him. He had been there from the beginning—as a tank commander, as a platoon leader, as a company commander and, finally, as a battalion commander. In 1941, when the bridges over the Dnjepr went up in the air under his advancing tanks and he had been reported as dead, he held out with a few of his men for days on end right under the firing ports of the Russian bunkers. Only slightly worse for wear, he then returned to his company under the eyes of the nonplussed Russians by swimming across the Dnjepr. And he did it as if nothing at all had happened.
At that point, when he was no longer there, everyone seemed a bit flustered. I took in a few bits of conversation. No company commander wanted to, could leave his company in the lurch in that situation. They were also all men, who had been with their bunch since their days as recruits. Their men trusted them. It was at moments like those that they really felt their obligations as soldiers. Perhaps that was the secret of our “bear battalion,” of its exemplary comradeship and the unrestrained recognition of its successes.
To those not in the know, it might appear odd that the company commanders asked the “tank doctor,” as those in the 35th called him, to assume command of the battalion. He did not whine. He did not say much. He mounted the command tank of the battalion adjutant and rushed out front, ahead of his tankers.
The combat vehicles moved to a reverse-slope position so as to interdict the attack of the Russians, which also appeared to be leaderless at the moment. I ran back, since the firing started up again and grew stronger.
The line to the rear was intact. I could send my report: “Major von Cossel dead. Stabsarzt Dr. Schulz-Merkel is leading the tank battalion.” Oberstleutnant Kühnlein probably didn’t believe his ears, since he had only been with the 4. Panzer-Division for a week. I had to repeat my report.
We set up a new line to the 12th. There was basically nothing left of the original two. The report that went through was bad news: “The regimental commander, Oberst von Damerau, was killed by a direct hit from a mortar round. The battalion command posts were overrun by the Russians. A large portion of the company commanders and platoon leaders have been wounded or killed. The forces are scattered and, in many cases, without leaders.”
It couldn’t get any worse!
The Russians were attacking along the entire division sector. They were already pressing into the valley floor along the creek bottomland to the east of our switchboard. If the Russians did not encounter appreciable resistance in the next few minutes, the way to Orel would be open for them.
We then saw the first T-34’s coming. They pushed along on both sides of the road and down the hill farther to the west in large groups. What were we to do at that point? The Russians tanks had already bypassed us on the right and were engaging the artillery positions to our rear, which were desperately defending themselves. There didn’t appear to be anything in front of us any more. The last wounded men raced off in the SPW’s, already taking tank fire.
Then Russian bombers came back. That’s all we had been missing up to that point. This time, they would not miss their targets. In addition, there was rifle fire coming from the woods nearby to the east of us.
I don’t know who came up with the idea, but we ran into the cornfield, which was as tall as a man, in the direction of the woods occupied by the Russians. We assumed that the bombers would not drop their loads so close to their own people. Although the Russian riflemen took us under fire, they could not see or hit us in the cornfield. We hoped they didn’t come up with the brilliant idea of attacking us from out of the woods. In any event, we looked for a covered escape route, since we were not going to put up much of a defense with our little pistols.
At that point, the Russian tanks helped us, since they apparently thought the fire coming from the woods was intended for them. In any event, they took the edge of the woods under main-gun fire.
Schulz-Merkel’s tanks then pressed in from the right. The Russians were so busy with the woods, that they neither saw nor heard anything. Rumms—rumms. Two T-34’s were burning. Rumms—rumms. Another one went up. The tanks moved back along the road at full speed and left another one burning behind. We couldn’t believe our luck, and we crawled back to our switchboard bunker. It was pretty exciting there. A hit from a bomb had wiped out the wire hub. The fruit orchard had been churned up by the bombs and looked like it was in fallow. Most of the trees had been snapped in two. The bunker proper had half collapsed.
While we patched together some of the lines and completely replaced the others, we saw a lurid spectacle in front of us in the bottomland. One T-34 after the other flamed up. The tanks of Schulz-Merkel were cleaning up. They were positioned so well behind a swell in the ground, that they Russians could not return fire. They raced up the slope as if the devil himself was behind them.
As we started to get our heads above water, we ground our way through the valley and patched lines together with fingers that were still jittery. The tanks had torn them up with their tracks. Further off in the distance, the antitank forces also appeared to be cleaning up.
The first reports of success started to come through our lines. The 33rd reported that Panzerjäger-Abteilung 49 had knocked out sixteen enemy tanks, ten of them to the gun crew of a single Feldwebel. Our tank battalion reported: “Sixty-two T-34’s knocked out to one complete loss of our own.”
Ivan had missed his golden opportunity. The latch on the door to Orel had been bolted shut again. By and large, the old positions had been retaken. Here and there, there was still fighting. A gigantic cloud of haze, smoke and dust hung over the valley floor, arching its way from slope to slope and from friend to foe.
The sun hung over the woods like a blood-red ball of fire and disappeared into the grayish yellow cloud to the west. A difficult day was slowly coming to an end, a day on which the decision stood on razor’s edge a few times. The onset of night was accompanied by fires all around us. It slowly turned quiet on the slopes in front of us.
Wassil and Ivan: Two Hiwis Work Their Way through the Russian Lines
25 July 1943. I can’t swear with certainty whether the date is correct; my calendar got terribly messed up in the flurry of events.
All of a sudden, things were hot everywhere at the same time in the center sector of the Eastern Front. The rumor mill stated that the Russians intended on reducing the Orel salient. In any event, it was an absolute certainty that the Russians were marching west to the south of us. And there wasn’t a soul there that could slow them up.
Because of that, we were directed that night to disengage head over heels from the enemy, even though the front was holding in our sector, despite heavy losses and fighting. To the west of us, however, the Russians had overrun the 7. Infanterie-Division and were pressing in the direction of Kromy. There was heavy firing from the high ground around Trossna, because they wanted the major road to Kromy, no matter what it took, in order to bring their heavy weapons forward.
Our telephone lines were constantly shot up. Everyone who had a set of legs was out patching lines, since orders needed to be issued for the upcoming nighttime operation. Reports from the front concerning the current enemy situation chased one another. I soon had my ass chewed by the operations officer; then I was screamed at by the leaders of the rearguards. With the fireworks going on, the lines only lasted a matter of minutes.
The first units were already pulling back in accordance with their orders. The Russians immediately pursued. In the vicinity of our switchboard, the Russian machine guns were already rattling. Patrols were already firing to our rear. You could unmistakably hear the unpleasant clatter of Russian submachine guns. Correspondingly, we received orders from the company commander to close shop immediately and pull back to the forward communications center for the division at the ridgeline south of Gostoml.
It was then my main concern to notify and intercept the troubleshooters, who were still racing through the night. If only they would report in! I was sitting on hot coals. At the same time, we had to screen in the direction of the edge of the woods, since Ivan was already on line with us about 150 meters away. At the moment, he didn’t feel confident enough to come closer, because the mechanized infantry were pulling back along the main road. But it wouldn’t last too long, before we would be all by ourselves on the valley floor.
Hauptmann Berger pressed and pressed: “Hannes, get out of there . . . now . . . hurry up!”
But two men were still on the line to the 33rd. Who were they? Unteroffizier Theo Kordes thought it over: “Wassil and . . . and Ivan.” Those were two volunteers, that is, former soldiers of the Red Army, who were now serving voluntarily with our armored signals battalion and were called, in a somewhat deprecating manner, Hiwis. It had always been our wont that a German soldier was to accompany a Hiwi. In the confusion, both of them had rushed out without orders, since there was otherwise no one available.
Wassil was the longest serving of our Russians. He had been with us since July 1941. He came from darkest Siberia. I personally took him prisoner along the Dnjepr, and he categorically declared at the time: I remain, chief! And he did. He sort of wrote the rulebook, since his type of service had not been foreseen in the military regulations. Even when the battalion commander gave him an order, he would reply in his casual way: “I ask Leutnant, charascho?”
I only needed to wink to him with my eyes and he took off. But not before that happened. The Unteroffiziere and the all-powerful Obergefreite vented their spleen on him, since he showed them no respect. That didn’t bother him in the least. I was for him his friend and not his superior, because if had not sent him to the prisoner-ofwar camp, and he felt himself not to be the subordinate of anybody. He had no thoughts about either Hitler or Stalin. The only thing that counted to him was his Siberian homeland and his mamuschka. Politics and war were schisko jedno. In other words: he couldn’t give a shit.
Ivan, who had been with the company since December 1941, was a Ukrainian from Kiev. He was uncomplicated and Wassil’s vassal. Ivan loved a well-filled mess tin and a full bottle of vodka. He also could care less about war and politics.
In a nutshell, both of them were fine fellows who felt at ease in our company, despite occasional friction.
Both of them were off alone in the night, and no one could say to them that we were pulling back. They were wandering though the hail of lead, probably already in the middle of the pursuing Russians, since it there was already firing coming dangerously close from the valley floor up to us. Damn it to hell!
“Let’s go . . . right now!” my company commander thundered to me through the landline. We fired white signal flares. Nothing stirred. Just a pair of Russian mortars diverted their attention to us in a very unfriendly manner.
“The two Russians have long since scrammed, otherwise they’d be crazy,” Karl Möhler said. He was probably right. Despite that, I had the line to the 33rd be transferred to the new switchboard. We couldn’t retrieve the wire anyway, since the vehicle had long since disappeared.
We worked our way back through ripe cornfields to the north along the line. We patched it, wherever the tanks had torn it up or it had been shot up, even though Heiner Klippel secretly thought I was a crazy man—I could see it in his eyes.
Toward 0200 hours, we collapsed dog tired in the communications center on the rise outside of the village of Gostoml. We could get a few hours of sleep. But I was unable to rest. Nothing had been heard from Wassil and Ivan there, either.
I simply did not want to believe that the two of them had disappeared without a trace, even though they would have been stupid not to exploit the favorable opportunity. For that reason, I remained sitting at the field telephone, even though my eyes were closing due to over exhaustion, and waited. I was waiting for a miracle, despite my best instincts.
Occasionally, I listened into the line. All of a sudden, the phone rang, very slightly, almost shyly. It only rang a tiny bit. I put the receiver to my ear: “Wassil?”
“Ja. Here Wassil, Leutnant!”
“Where are you?”
“At the old switchboard.”
“Man alive! You’re far behind the Russian lines.”
“I know, Leutnant. Where are we supposed to come?”
Although I was pleased as punch, what was I supposed to tell him? Should I defy logic and tell the two of them to race towards a miserable death and advise them to fight their way through the Russian lines? The Russian soldiers would draw and quarter them if the two of them fell into their hands in German uniforms. In the end, I was also responsible for their lives. Perhaps not to the army command, but at least to their mothers. Wassil had always blindly trusted me up to that point.
The chances of getting through the tightly held lines were pretty slim, in my opinion. Wassil waited patiently. I could only think it; I couldn’t say it: Get Russian uniforms as quickly as possible. There are so many dead around there. Remain where you are. You’ll be able to come up with a convincing cover story!
Wassil probably had an inkling of what I was thinking. He spoke hesitantly, but resolutely: “We not here remain. We to our company come back!”
“Run along the line. Run, but be careful, Wassil! We are ion the high ground two hours away from you. We are waiting for you! Charascho?”
And then the line went dead. Down in the bottomland, between Wassil and me, I heard T-34’s rumbling.
“My company,” Wassil had said proudly. My company? We were an assortment of colorfully assembled men after four years of war, sorted by chance and constantly being reorganized due to death and wounds. A miserable, ill-disciplined group, if you went by bourgeois viewpoints. Half-finished theology students and prisoners paroled for service at the front; young teachers and hard-bitten truck drivers; and Red Army men who, preferred to remain with us as volunteers to going to a prisoner-of-war camp. There were also a couple of war-weary Obergefreite left who did not like the Hiwis, because they did not understand what they didn’t want to understand. But, strangely enough, they all stayed together, despite the differing backgrounds and despite the unavoidable friction. The wounded forewent hospitals and homeland so as not to lose the company. The convalescents at the replacement depot had only one wish: To return to this company. What was the secret of those bonds formed in war? That question bore down on me again and again that night. A peacetime garrison Unteroffizier would be shocked to be in our company. Wassil, the Russian, said it full of pride a few kilometers behind the Russian lines: “My company!” And he, the former Red Army man, was willing to put his life on the line and the life of his comrade to find his way back to a bunch of Germans. Besides those of us who were at the front, who would ever be able to understand that?
I could only have an inkling of the answer. I certainly couldn’t give one. Moreover, I could no longer stay upright on my legs. I let myself collapse and slept the sleep of exhaustion into what would certainly be another difficult day.
Toward 0500 hours, something poked and prodded at me. I only perceived it in my subconscious initially. But then it continued persistently. Sleepy eyed and hesitantly, I tried to gather my wits about me. I forced myself to open my eyes. Then I jumped up with a shock.
Filthy and with sprays of blood on his face, Wassil was standing in front of me. Right behind him was Ivan. I first thought I was dreaming. Wassil’s eyes were beaming from out of his broad face. He came to attention, something that had never before been part of his ritual: “Wassil and Ivan back from troubleshooting!”
Despite all military tradition, I had to hug him for a short time. It could not have been otherwise: “Man, Wassil . . . great, Ivan!”
I could see that both of them had a Russian automatic rifle with a scope, even though they were otherwise always unarmed—for understandable reasons. I didn’t ask them, however, how they had made it through the lines, so as not to embarrass them. I also saw how Wassil quickly wiped his eyes with the back of his hand.
The order arrived to pull back in anticipation of new operations, further to the west. And I was noticeably proud of “my company” and of the undisciplined horde, as our top sergeant, Walter Schubery, the super-Prussian guard soldier from Saxony, called it.
I knew that he loved these men in his own reserved way and that he only called them that so that no one would notice.
I also knew that we would not offer a pretty picture on the parade ground with our band of brothers, formed by fate and infused with comradeship. It was a band that was ruled by other laws, in which the leaders were formed, hard and inexorably, from the enlisted personnel, in which the influence of a superior is only accepted in combat by example.
Across the Dessna by the Skin of Our Teeth
Beginning of September 1943. We simply were unable to bring the Russian forces, which had moved out of the Kursk salient to the south of us to attack west, to a standstill. They had moved primarily in pathless terrain outside of the area of operations of our field army. Our 4. Panzer-Division was employed on the extreme outer wing of Army Group Center. It was soon helping out in the sectors of the 7. Infanterie-Division, the 31. Infanterie-Division, the 102. Infanterie-Division, and the 258. Infanterie-Division. The advance of the Russians to the south inevitably led to a slow but constant pulling back of the front in the Orel salient. Brjansk, Karatschew, Orel, Kromy, and Dmitrowsk were lost. At the moment, we were fighting for Nowgorod Ssewersk.
We prayed daily: “Dear God, please don’t let the sun shine!” The constant marches on completely jammed roads were an invitation to the numerically superior Russian air force to strafe and bomb to the point where it was more than humans could bear.
Whenever we saw that the sun was rising in a clear, cloudless sky, we knew we were done. It was especially the poor devils in the signals units who had to travel back and forth day-in and day-out on those goddamned roads that the Russian fighter-bombers owned. The fact that we also had an air force was something that we had long forgotten.
I solved that problem in my own way.
In the course of the withdrawal movements from one line of defense to the next and the racing around from one hot spot to the next, certain “rearguard specialists” had gradually emerged. I inherited that with my landline section within Panzernachrichten-Abteilung 79.
Generally, we had to establish a telephone contact point for the nighttime disengagement of our combat elements. It had to be maintained until the last combat vehicle had passed. Then, at first light, we worked our way through on the byways, along with the rearguards of the grenadiers, the engineers and Panzer-Aufklärungs-Abteilung 4. It goes without saying, that there were occasional clashes with Russian advance guards and patrols. At times, the Russians attempted to cut us off. The biggest danger was of losing your way in the darkness. Damage to a vehicle could also be deadly.
My signaleers and I preferred those dangers to sitting around on stopped-up roads and having to wait until a Russian bomb fell on our heads or an Il-2 turned us into sieves. Maybe I just had a phobia against aircraft ever since Trossna.
Over the course of time, we developed a special technique. We established our switchboard a little bit off to the side of the main stream of traffic. That ensured that the combat vehicles would not tear up the wire and that the damned aircraft wound not be on top of us. Initially, we selected the bottom of deep defiles for that purpose. The area we were in was filled with them. But then we were stuck. Rainfall during the night made it impossible even for tracked vehicles to go up the sides. The Russians knew that as well, and they cut off our route, since they could count on the fingers of one hand, where we had to come out. Moreover, at the bottom of a deep defile, you had no way you could observe.
We then stuck our switchboard like a swallow’s nest high up on the slope. If possible, on the east side. Before the Russian flyers could see us, they had already raced past us. The shrapnel from the bombs that fell in the bottom of the defile did not reach us up top. Whenever things got hot, we could immediately take off.
The rearguards of the other troop elements liked linking up with us, since they knew that the signals people were generally well informed about the situation and the platoon leader of the telephone troop had to know the best way to the rear based on the laying of the wire, which made it easier to find in the darkness. Up to that point, I had not disappointed my combat comrades in the rearguard. As a result, we had become quite the crew during the many days of withdrawals and had our own rules and customs. No one left anyone else in a bind.
Based on my calculations, it had to be 7 September. I wouldn’t swear to it, however. Any sense of the calendar had been lost during that hard defensive fighting and the race against death and captivity.
I had the mission of laying wire to Leskii from the forward divisional communications center. Once there, I was to establish a switchboard and hook up troop elements that arrived there. Leskii is an extended village that is not too far from the Dessna but on the eastern side. A thick, marshy patch of woods extended between the village and the river to the north and the west.
We placed the wire very properly along the edge of the woods, high in the branches, so that we would be spared unnecessary wire patching. We allowed ourselves time.
We set up our switchboard in a relatively nicely maintained house, somewhat away from the village. It was in the woods, surrounded by huge sunflower plants. The line was working, and the clarity outstanding. What else could we want? No aircraft, no Russians, no sounds of fighting far and wide—but also no German forces to be found anywhere.
For that reason, we went through the village. I was only able to pick out an armored-car section from Panzer-Aufklärungs-Abteilung 4 and a few military police. The leader of the bunch was Feldwebel Limmer, whom I had known forever. He was from Munich. A fellow full of life and with a somewhat rough sense of humor. That said, he was a great comrade, and someone you could depend on. We were in the motorized rifle brigade headquarters together in 1941.
There was not a single civilian in the village: no woman, no child, not even a chicken. Although that seemed a bit strange to us, it didn’t bother us in the least. The deathly quiet was something we liked after all of the hubbub.
It turned noon. We allowed ourselves a pan full of fried potatoes. It turned afternoon. Panzer-Grenadier-Regiment 33 did not appear; Panzer-Aufklärungs-Abteilung 4 did not cross our path. The forward division communications center had nothing to say in that regard. No one had shown up there either yet.
I went to see Limmer in the middle of the village. He had been directed to pass and direct the fighting forces. He didn’t have the foggiest idea, either. He adamantly promised to let us know immediately, if anything should happen.
It continued to be completely peaceful around us. We hadn’t experienced a day like that for a long time. But something just didn’t seem right to me. Something just didn’t add up.
Only the wire connected us with the rest of the world. But no one was checking in there, either. Two linemen waddled off in the direction of the wood line. When they were about 300 meters from the village, they started receiving heavy rifle fire from the woods. Things could get interesting!
At the same time, Feldwebel Limmer raced into the yard, standing on an armored car: “Call up the division immediately! The Russians are moving on the village and towards the Dessna!”
“Damn! There’s nothing on the line . . . it’s dead!”
“Then we need to move back right away. There’s no getting out going forward.” Wimmer said, in his youthful naiveté.
“Back . . . to the north? Something’s not right there. Listen for yourself? That can’t be kept quiet.”
The armored car moved in the direction of the linemen, who were still lying on their stomachs, and took the edge of the woods under fire with his automatic weapons. The two men jumped back across the meadow.
I took a hard look at the map with my old friend Limmer. There was no getting through to the north. We could forget about that. The Russians were approaching Leskii and the Dessna from the east via the village of Ssobitsch. There were throngs of them. There wasn’t any way for us to get out any more!
“We need to get to the river before the Russians!” I yelled at Limmer in an epiphany. He nodded deliberately.
We threw the switchboard, the field telephones and the small stuff into our Muli, an Opel Blitz with tracks.2 The armored car came racing up with the two line-men. Limmer tossed them out and packed his military police inside. And off we went, like the fire department. Every second was more precious than gold. That was crystal clear to everyone.
While en route, we picked up the other armored car. The Russians had already reached the first houses as we were leaving the village. We had to literally clear our path with fire. The two armored cars fired with everything they had. In exemplary comradeship, Limmer covered our unarmored vehicle with his armored plate. The fire started coming from behind. As a result, I went forward. The hellish journey continued. The vehicles disappeared in a gigantic cloud of dust.
The Russian trucks were already a good bit ahead of us on a parallel route. They moved towards the river very carefully, however. We could therefore assume that the crossing point was still in German hands. My driver got everything he could out of the vehicle. The field trail was piss poor. I was tossed from one corner of the vehicle to the next. The telephone operators were on the vehicle floor, looking for cover behind the toolboxes, since we were also receiving fire from the south. The two armored cars fired in support. They probably could not hit much in the bumpy ride, but the firing calmed our nerves and it apparently unsettled the Russians considerably, since they jumped out of their trucks and went into position. Damn! They were firing at us with antitank rifles. I heard the smacking against the running gear quite clearly. Just as long as they didn’t fire higher!
“Quicker . . . quicker!”
Ivan slowly started to lag behind us. A bridge appeared at the end of our path. Hurra! We had not expected to be so lucky. The Russians usually made do on smaller roads with fords.
We shifted up and move forward to the rear as fast as we could! We then started receiving fire from the bridge. It came directly towards us, with tracers.
“Oh, you dumb bastards!”
I fired a white signal flare for recognition. The firing increased, but it did not hit us. Had the Russians already occupied the west bank of the Dessna? That would be the crowning moment of this goat screw! No . . . there were white signal flares coming from there. But why were the dummies firing at us? Well, right past us? They were then joined in by antitank guns. And more and more white signal flares, which were visibly aimed towards the north. That could not be missed. That had to mean something?
A concerto of antitank guns kicked in. The fire trails went from the far bank to the south and into a cloud of dust. Damn it to hell! T-34’s were rumbling up. That’s the only thing we had been missing! At that point, they were about 800 meters from us. An ice-cold chill ran down my spine and sweat was dripping out of all of my pores up front.
No matter what it took, we needed to find the shortest route to the bridge, which was about 300 meters in front of us, if some of us wanted to have the chance to make it to the other side in one piece. But our comrades over there apparently wanted to block that route with their fire, even though they had to have realized that we were also German and in dire straits. What was the meaning of the circus?
Mad as hell, I moved off the road and into a field, since our friends were firing red signal flares along the road and white ones—over and over again—toward the north. I decided to swing out wide, until those guys were happy. Thank God that the pastureland had firm ground underneath so that the eight-wheeled armored cars did not bottom out. I could literally see the face of Limmer behind the vision slot and how he called me an idiot, because I did not see the road to the bridge. The two armored cars had not been firing for some time, since our comrades at the bridge had assumed that duty.
The pastureland started turning difficult, however. I turned back towards the bridge to the south. On the other side, they apparently no longer had anything against that tactic. Just keep your nerves until the end! Another 200 meters! Another 100 meters. The three T-34’s were also dangerously close by then, but they were fighting it out with the antitank guns.
We then just had to get past the roadside ditch. Following that, we raced across the bumpy bridge surface. The T-34’s were also storming towards the bridge. We churned our way through the sand on the far bank and up the slope. Then there was a horrible cracking sound behind us . . . once . . . twice . . . three times. Then there was a jolt that lifted us off of our seats. But the vehicle was still intact. Beams, boards and stones flew into the air in a black cloud.
We looked to take cover behind a group of German soldiers to catch our breath. Damn! That was close! They all looked at us stupidly, or so it seemed to us. We certainly didn’t have much to offer them, either.
“Well, well, well,” Unteroffizier Kordes said. “I believe I need schnapps.” He fished around in his secret bag for the “emergency rations” and conjured up a well-preserved bottle of real French cognac.
“No, don’t open it up. Feldwebel Limmer needs to get it. He got us out of there,” Small Reinhardt said. He grabbed the bottle and went to the armored car, all of us following. But he had all of his hatches closed. I banged on the armor plating with my fist. The turret hatch opened.
“Limmer gets this,” I said. I wanted to hand up the bottle, but no one would take it from me. I looked into the fighting compartment. Feldwebel Limmer was stretched out on the floor. Blood was flowing from his mouth. I then saw two small holes in the armor. Antitank rifle rounds that had penetrated! Limmer didn’t need schnapps any more.
“He was killed immediately,” the Unteroffizier said with a voice that was cracking a bit. “Give your bottle to the comrades on the bridge. They earned it.”
Bridge, right! There was no longer any bridge. And then we found out exactly what had happened.
The Russians had broken through all of a sudden. The operations of our division towards the south had to be called off. Panzergrenadier-Regiment 12 had to move as rapidly as possible, swinging out wide to the north, to be committed on the west bank of the Dessna, so as to prevent the Russian forces that had raced forward from taking the Dessna bridge in a coup de main. It was directed that all of the crossing points were to be blown up and the approach routes mined. Minutes before they wanted to set the charges, they saw us racing towards them like crazy men, directly towards the minefield. That’s why they attempted with all the means at their disposal to divert us from moving straight ahead. They used signal flares . . . they used tracers . . . they even used antitank guns. They delayed the approach of the three T-34’s; otherwise, the guys would have been to the bridge before us and would have been more than happy to blow us to smithereens from there.
As had been intended, two of the T-34’s than ran over mines. The third one went up in the air with the bridge.
“Many thanks . . . many thanks . . . you guys really deserve the bottle of schnapps.”
We then shoveled a grave for our comrade Limmer in the soft sand of the banks of the Dessna and decorated it profusely with an armful of yellow sunflowers.
We moved slowly back to the division command post, which was said to be in Nowgorod-Ssewersk.
The game went on: Forward comrades . . . march to the rear . . . march!”
Dry Bread in the Wet Triangle
Beginning of October 1943. Along the southern flank of Field Army Group Center, far to our rear in the so-called “wet triangle,” a marshy area formed by the confluence of the Pripjet and the Dnjepr, the Russians were attempting with all means available to form a bridgehead on the west bank.
Correspondingly, our 4. Panzer-Division was pulled out of the line and ordered there as expeditiously as possible. The reconnaissance battalion raced ahead, our tanks rumbled on behind it and the SPW battalions of the mechanized infantry followed.
We encountered the Russians in a movement to contact. We hardly saw any German soldiers. The reconnaissance battalion screened to the north. On the first attempt, the tanks of Hauptmann Fritz Rudolf Schulz, together with the 1st Battalion of Panzergrenadier-Regiment 12, took Karpilowka and Kopatschi. Ivan fled back across the Pripjet and left weapons and equipment lying about. He also left behind several hundred dug-in mines. Many prisoners were taken.
I received the mission of laying wire from Karpilowka to Kopatschi, hooking up all of the troop elements, establishing a combat switchboard and continuing to follow the attack.
When we arrived in Kopatschi, Schulz’s Kampfgruppe had already turned north and was attacking the village of Nagorzy. We found the perfect example of a bunker, which Organization Todt3 had probably built once at its leisure. Uh oh! There were still Russians in it. They looked at us mystified and surrendered without resistance. We disarmed them.
We set up a switchboard and established contact with the 2nd Battalion of the 12th. At the time, we could not take the three prisoners back, so they remained with us at the switchboard.
Red signal flares announced that Ivan was pressing across the Pripjet with strong forces to the north of us. That was why the 2nd Battalion had been employed against Nagorzy. Only weak forces remained in Kopatschi, when we received orders to extend our lines to the edge of Nagorzy.
Just as we started to work on the extension, our first sergeant, Hauptwachtmeister Walter Schubert, brought us rations: Cans of meat, sausage and fish and army bread. Although we were as hungry as bears, we had neither the time or desire to eat at that point. We therefore left the food for the entire platoon at the switchboard in Kopatschi.
Russian machine-gun fire was rattling from the dunes along the banks. We tossed down the wire from the rear of the moving SPW and quickly reached the southern edge of Nagorzy. All hell had broken out there. There was the sound of heavy fighting coming from the village. The Russians were covering us with artillery and mortar fire. Even though all of the advance elements of the division were committed there, the attack did not make any progress. Ivan kept sending new forces across the river.
All of a sudden, there was wild firing to our rear. Red signal flares rose in the fall skies, which were filled with gray smoke, and announced that the Russians were coming across the Pripjet at Kopatschi again. The switchboard there excitedly notified me that Russian soldiers were already in the village and the few men there were pulling back to Karpilowka. I was only able to tell the three signaleers to spike the lines and then pull back, when the line went dead. I did not know what was going on and was very worried.
A few tanks and an SPW company from the 12th raced out of burning Nagorzy and went to the assistance of the hard-pressed defenders of Kopatschi. We set up a communications point at the location of the 1st Battalion of the 12th at the outskirts of the village, but it did not have any contact to the rear. We joined up with the Kampfgruppe with our radio SPW so as to look after the men and the lines in Kopatschi.
Without putting up a lot of resistance, Ivan pulled back across the Pripjet. I intercepted my three signaleers at the outskirts of the village and we reoccupied our communications bunker.
But then I had an unpleasant surprise. Our three prisoners were still sitting there placidly. They had not allowed themselves to be freed by their comrades, they had not gone back with them, they had not fetched their weapons . . . no, instead they were devouring meat and sausage and fish from the rations cans with their bare fingers, a look of satisfaction on their faces. They stared at us with full cheeks.
“Enjoy your meal, comrades!” Unteroffizier Willi Dierl yelled at them. They raised their arms high and looked out into the light. I took a can out of the hands of one of them, but it was already too late. With the exception of a few dry pieces of army bread, there was nothing left. The piggy little bastards had eaten up the entire day’s ration for the entire platoon in that short amount of time. And we were so hungry that our eyes were bugging out of our heads.
When we then choked down the dry bread, they looked at us somewhat embarrassed. One of them could speak a little German, and he told us that they belonged to a Russian penal battalion and they had been told that if they were hungry, they needed to fetch food from the Germans.
One of the three, Ivan, remained with our company until the very end as a volunteer. Whenever the rations were tight, he would poke me with his elbow and smile impishly: “Leutnant, enjoy your meal, comrades!”
Taking a Peek at the Russians’ Cards
Middle of November 1943. All of the Eastern Front was shaky. Our 4. Panzer-Division was withdrawn from the “wet triangle” and committed to the area around Turowitschi.
The Russians had succeeded in crossing the Dnjepr at Retschiza. Their tank packs were advancing west across a broad front. It was directed for our decimated bunch to launch an immediate counterattack against them by moving through the Pripjet Marshes to the east in the direction of Retschiza. General von Saucken railed against the army corps, since he saw no sense in that action. But it was nevertheless still ordered; we formed up, never losing sight of the threat to the flanks.
We knew that a strong Russian force, vastly superior, was operating to the northwest of us. It was already to our rear. It could have cut us off at any moment. We also knew that we were at the completely at the mercy of a single road that went through the marshy terrain from west to east. We knew we had to keep our eyes and ears wide open.
Since the situation to the north was completely unknown, radio intercepts were employed. Our tank battalion augmented us with a veteran command-and-control vehicle, the IN 2. I was the “fortunate one,” who was entrusted with this operation. I was given a wire section and two translators. The Russians did us the favor of doing a lot of transmitting in the clear. I was connected directly to the operations officer and intelligence officer of the division staff through a landline.
Our tank armada, under the leadership of the regimental physician, Dr. Schulz-Merkel, had shrunk to a small bunch. Moreover, it was also engaged in heavy defensive fighting in Karawotitschi.
A chance occurrence came to our aid. The command vehicle of the Russian brigade commander bogged down in the marshland, which was only frozen on top. He was careless enough to radio his location and misfortune in the clear.
Two tanks that had been held in reserve were sent racing to his location, where they knocked him out, before his comrades could come to his rescue. One of the two tank commanders secured the Russian radio operating instructions and took them at top speed to the intelligence officer at his behest.
General von Saucken immediately realized his big opportunity and took one of his unusual ways. We were directed to assume the radio traffic of the eliminated Russian command vehicle, directed by the operations officer and the intelligence officer. Frequencies, code names, tactical shorthand, even the names of all of the tank commanders had been involuntarily provided to us by the Russians. We would be able to observe their customs and peculiarities for twenty-four hours. We just had to get closer to the Russian tanks, so that we could be heard with the same loudness. So . . . we snuck up to the vicinity of the knocked-out brigade vehicle and positioned ourselves along a woodline next to a solitary barn.
Initially, we only eavesdropped on the excited Russian radio traffic. We heard the report one more time that the brigade vehicle had bogged down and probably received a hit. That was our invitation. “We” received orders from a higher command—it was really more of a bawling out—that Tank Brigade “Volga” was to immediately attack the Germans. We acknowledged the radio orders in the format we had monitored, and it was confirmed. Having grown more confident, we reported up and down the chain of command, that the radio operator had been wounded, which was also the complete truth. That made the new voice believable. That was also confirmed from the reception station. In order to tell the complete truth, that was not my idea. We were receiving instructions from the operations officer. I was responsible for the technical side of things.
We then ordered three T-34’s to the location of the deposed brigade commander’s vehicle. They also quickly bogged down and were knocked out by our Panzer IV’s, which had been in ambush positions. The remainder of the Russian tank battalion—twenty-two vehicles—was directed to another suitable marshy spot and bogged down according to plan. Naturally, we had to report our “misfortune” to the superior Russian headquarters. “We” earned an ass chewing for that, which left nothing to the imagination. There was talk of saboteurs, leadership failure, and being held accountable. It was fairly difficult for us to feign contriteness. In its place, we received unre-served praise from the operations officer. The initial danger had been eliminated.
A new Russian tank formation was sent out against the evil Germans. Our “command authority” was over for the time being. We only eavesdropped on the radio traffic and passed on the information on the landline. As a result, the location, time and strength of the Russian tank attack were known well in advance.
Our attack on Karawotitschi was called off. Schulz-Merkel’s tanks were to be used against the Russian tanks that were due to come out of the woods shortly. Unfortunately, the positioning of the tanks was delayed somewhat. There was almost a screw-up. As a result, we disrupted the Russian radio traffic so as to win some time, since the T-34’s were already along the woodline ready to attack and our tanks were still engaged in the village. We were sitting on hot coals and sweating blood. If the Russian tanks succeeded in reaching Karawotitschi, then we would be cut off with our wonderful fake main gun constructed out of aluminum.4
Correspondingly, I ran over to two assault guns from another unit that were screening to the east along the road.
“Knock the bastards out yourself” was the coarse answer I received. How—with our fake main gun? They didn’t want to understand me. There was always a cross to bear with other units.
But, at that point, the tanks of our “tank doctor” came streaming out of the smoking village at full speed. The assault guns also received orders to go into reverse-slope positions in the direction of the woods. There was a hissing, a cracking and a whistling 500 meters behind us. Our landline was shot. The tanks were dragging the wire behind them.
While we were considering what we should do at that point, a T-34 approached our barn. Unfortunately, we saw it too late, because we were attentively observing the tank engagement behind us—a punishable offense. The Russians set up on the other side of the barn, without having seen us. We stayed under cover. The monster started sneaking up to our side. We snuck off towards the wooded side. We switched our radios to Schulz-Merkel’s—as a precautionary measure. But there was nothing to be gotten there, since they were in the middle of attack frenzy and were knocking out one enemy tank after the other.
We didn’t let our Ivan out of our eyes. He was separated from us only by the barn and was only five meters away. Damn it! Our tanks were getting even farther away from us! There was little help to be expected from them.
The T-34, which must have gotten our scent, moved to the front of the barn. We moved to the backside. We didn’t have a Panzerfaust or even a hollow charge, just a damned machine gun—and the Russians seemed to be hunting us at that point. We went around the barn five times. Up to that point, we had been lucky, since the Russian tank was following us very, very carefully. It also appeared not to have noticed that we only had a tin gun to use against it. We disrupted the Russian radio traffic; without directives, we couldn’t do anything else. Two men observed the monster, until our nerves didn’t want to participate any more.
We heard a lot of activity on the other side of the barn. The Russians appeared to be turning to get at us from the other side. That appeared to be a good moment to us to scram. We crawled into the turret, got a little wind and hurried past the corner of the barn. Crash! We had rammed the T-34 right in the corner. It practically threw me out of the turret. The two tanks were caught up in one another. After a second of terror, two of us jumped out of the turret and onto the rear deck of the Russian tank with a tanker’s bar in order to jam the turret. But . . . it didn’t have a turret either! I almost wanted to shout with joy. It was also a command vehicle! It had made itself scarce, since it thought we were a combat tank. Hand grenades! At that point, the hatch opened and two hands appeared. The crew surrendered.
It was a captain and his crew. He was the commander of the Russian tank battalion that was being taken apart outside the woods at that moment by our tanks. We put the four men on our rear deck, poured a can of fuel over the T-34 and threw a couple of hand grenades into the fighting compartment. That’s all it took. I could have hugged the Russian captain.
Dr. Schulz-Merkel radioed a report: “Fifteen enemy tanks knocked out without any losses.”
I corrected his report: “Sixteen tanks, including a command vehicle.”
Ivan reported the loss of twenty-two tanks. Ooops! We hadn’t counted correctly.
We dropped off “our” Russians at Hauptmann Götz’s location. In departing, I gave them a bottle of vodka. I didn’t have the heart to tell them that they had surrendered to a tin gun.
Following the successful breakout from the pocket at Saschtschebje and IN 2 reporting back to Hauptmann Grohe—Dr. Schulz-Merkel had been wounded—the driver pointed out the “kill” ring on the tin gun of the old tank. Grohe laughed heartily and said: “Is this some sort of joke?”
“Nein, Herr Hauptmann!” the driver replied, his feelings hurt. “The ‘kill’ rings just put in the wrong place. It actually belongs on the tracks.”
The Baptism of Fire of Our Youngest Soldier
21 November 1943. We had just come back from our successful radio intercept mission. We were exhausted, dog-tired, starving, and frozen through and through. The situation had become life threatening for our 4. Panzer-Division. The Russians had broken through to the north with large armored formations and was a good twenty kilometers to our rear. The Pripjet Marshes extended to the south, roadless and trackless. They were also dominated by strong partisan bands. There was only one improved road that led to the rear for us. But it was in the hands of the Russians. We had not been resupplied for days. The wounded from the heavy fighting of the last few days—there were hundreds—could not be evacuated to rearward hospitals. We were as good as encircled, and Ivan continued westward, unstoppable.
I knew that all too well, since I had spent several days with a specially formed platoon eavesdropping on the Russian radio traffic.
Just as I tried to lay down to sleep for a while, I was summoned by the division commander, General von Saucken. It had to be something special when a Leutnant was ordered to see the General. Still drunk with sleep, I reported to him in Saschtschebje, which was under Russian artillery fire.
His face was earnest, very earnest. He was never a bubbly personality to begin with. His face was gray and the scar on his forehead was visibly red. The General, who was normally the soul of calmness, could no longer hide the grave worries he had for our 4. Panzer-Division. He talked to me in a soft voice that was almost hoarse. There was an unmistakable urgency to it. He spoke deliberately, as if it were difficult for him to say what he was about to say:
“As you know and can see, the division is set up for an all-round defense around Saschtschebje. We now have to attempt to breakthrough the enemy to our rear. Elements of the 5. Panzer-Division have been directed to support that effort by means of a counterattack launched from the southwest.
“As a result of the large gap in the front, which the enemy created between the
2. Armee and 9. Armee, the enemy’s lead attack elements are headed westward, without encountering any appreciable resistance.
“It is therefore imperative that our division rips open the current envelopment in order to gain freedom of movement.
“It would be good for accomplishing this difficult mission, if we could take back an intact German ammo dump that the enemy captured. That would mean that our artillery would not have to husband its resources.
“The fact that the division has only a single road available to it to break out to the west with its heavy weapons, vehicles and wounded is very disadvantageous to us.
“If our intent were not to succeed, then we would be forced to destroy our heavy combat equipment and snake our way on foot through the almost impassable area of the Pripjet Marshes at night.
“In order to accomplish our mission, a landline connection with the elements of the 5. Panzer-Division, which are conducting the counterattack, of great importance.
“Your mission is to establish that line.”
I repeated my mission in so many words, assumed the position and zoomed off.
For special missions like that, I had a special group. Not because it was any better than any other, but because I had known every individual man for years and from many operations.
I conferred with Unteroffizier Willi Dierl and organized reinforcements in the form of the small connection section under Scheuermann, which would have to assume maintenance of the line, if we succeeded in breaking out of the pocket.
We then took off at a run. It appeared that luck was on our side that day, since we found completely intact transmission line poles on the road. We bundled the wires to a single line and were at the edge of the wood exactly half an hour later. The 33rd and the armored engineers were the last outposts there. Schulz-Merkel’s tank battalion had also been directed to assemble for the breakout effort there.
Heading to the west, the line poles were completely shot up. Poles and lines were tangled together. We cut those connections.
Major von Gaudecker from Panzergrenadier-Regiment 33 went up to the edge of the woods to reconnoiter on site for the breakout attempt. We set up a telephone line to him.
At that very moment, the Russians attacked from out of the woods to the north. They put down a barrage fire that took your breath away. They pressed forward with their battle cry of “Uurräää!” Hand grenades detonated all around us. The line to the rear was shot up. The engineers determinedly turned back the attack. We linked up with our line 200 meters farther back and put a line in to the edge of the woods, where there was still heavy fighting.
Right in the thick of things, I intercepted a young signaleer who was hopping about panic stricken in the midst of the hail of lead. I had never seen the fellow before, but discovered that he had been assigned to Dierl’s section that morning as a replacement. I didn’t know what the man’s name was and, since I didn’t know him, I somewhat sarcastically called him “Benjamin.”5
He was still a school boy, probably no older than seventeen, although he only looked about fourteen. He lay next to me, eyes wide open with fear. When it started cracking all around and the calls of “Meddddiccc!” could be heard, he wanted to run away. I pushed his head into the muck of the roadside ditch and pulled his butt down from the road. In the process, I noticed his entire body was shaking and the cold sweat of fear dripped out of every pore. I had a harsh word ready on my tongue, when it occurred to me in time that we hadn’t looked any better at the start of the war at Mokra in Poland. Back then, we were already grown men. The trembling milk face in front of me was that of a child, who most certainly felt all by himself, without a friend, without a comrade. The youth needed someone at that point to take him under his wing. I had the feeling he would soon be bawling for “mommy” otherwise.
Major von Gaudecker was speaking at the moment on the telephone with the General.
What Benjamin heard there was not exactly encouraging, even if the regimental commander was the picture of calm. A messenger got hit two meters away from us. I pressed my hand into the small of Benjamin’s back, so that he would not get any dumb ideas. That I tried to calm him, even though I wasn’t exactly feeling calm myself at the moment. He looked at me with thanks in his eyes. During a break in the fire, I sent him back to troubleshoot lines, even though the wire was intact.
There was an open area in front of us, about a kilometer in width. Then some low vegetation started up. The road embankment led straight as an arrow across the clearing. There was a tank burning on it, giving off a black cloud of smoke. Ammunition detonated. We had to lay our wire along that road.
About 300 meters farther to the north, parallel to the road, was a threatening looking woodline, which extended out in the direction of the road. It was apparently thickly held by the Russians, since there was firing coming from it without interruption. Between the edge of the woods and the cobblestone road, in the middle of the moor, were a few groups of bushes, apparently on some sort of dune. Russian antitank guns and mortars banged away from there in salvoes. The “moor fortifications” were only about 100 meters from the road. They dominated the road completely. It was not possible to get past them from there. The road itself was elevated. The terrain south of the road did not seem to be occupied by the enemy. In that area, the woods pulled back at least 500 meters. I committed every detail of the terrain to my memory.
If what the General had said was true, then the tanks of the 5. Panzer-Division had to approach from somewhere off back there along the road. I was unable to identify anything with binoculars, however, even though the road embankment led straight west, as if laid out by a ruler. I could see a good three kilometers. But there were no sounds of fighting coming from there. I saw no obstacles. I also saw no Russians.
For the time being, there was to be no advancing in this sector, since there was no relief advance from the rear. But we needed to get through with our line. Should we try it all by ourselves?
I held a council of war with my old hands: “Take a good look at it, since we have to get through, and immediately, if possible. I can’t tell you for certain whether we’ll meet up with any German soldiers on the other side. Up to this point, no one’s gotten through. But no one’s tried it yet, either. Who’s going with me?”
“It doesn’t matter to us. The situation is shit everywhere!”
And so we got ready: Willi Dierl, the Unteroffizier and section leader, the son of a hotel manager in Marienbad; Poldi, a waiter from Lübeck; Konrad, also known as Peronnje, who spoke a horrible-sounding German but a useful Russian, a handyman from Upper Silesia; and Wassil, the former Russian warrior, who always accompanied me like a shadow.
Everyone placed a backpack spool carrier with a kilometer of wire in the small of his back and put on some equipment. They then took their carbines in their hand.
Benjamin must have misunderstood me, since he was also carrying a back rack.
“You’re staying here, you little pipsqueak!”
“Can’t I go with you?”
It’s not going to be too nice out there,” I said, somewhat hesitantly. I left the question open, however. I was unable to give a strict no, because he looked at me with such trust, even though I really didn’t want him along. He persevered and kept the back rack on.
Willi Lanig, the driver of the Muli, organized the troubleshooters in the woods; Helmut Scheuermann took care of that from the edge of the woods back to Saschtschebje. I drilled it into those remaining behind—no, I implored them—to keep the line going under all circumstances, since the fate of our division was completely dependent upon it. We took leave of one another with a handshake.
“Cross your fingers for us!”
We gave some clearance with the line around the terrible corner of the woods, from which the road emptied into the clearing. We waited for a break in the firing and then took off with a jump.
Blub—blub—blub. The sound came from the vegetation. Ratsch—bummm. Ratsch—bummm. That was the sound we heard at our location. We hit the deck and the heavy back racks smacked us in the back. It was a feat of pure acrobatics each time to go from the vertical to the horizontal with the wire on the play-out, the bag of tools, the grounding plug and field telephone on the belly, the carbine in your paw. We were not spared crawling through the soft marshland of the pasture, either, since the road embankment was only about a meter high and only offered us protection against direct fire. Our “friends” in the bushes were quite nice to provide us with all sorts of things.
Once the engineers set out to conduct another immediate counterattack, we hopped behind the embankment like rabbits. The height of the road base was stupid. We had no other choice but to crawl along on all fours in the marshland past the Russians. Unfortunately, the back rack, from which the wire was being paid out, made a racket that could be heard at some distance. And the Russians listened well.
Blub—blub—blub. That was the response we heard from over there. They weren’t aiming too badly based just on hearing! We were moving forward damned slowly. It was only when the firing started up that we could take off in a trot. If the helmet only went a little bit above the edge of the road, then Ivan’s machine guns started rattling. We hoped they wouldn’t try to cut off our route. But I was thinking that the mechanized infantry at the edge of the woods were paying damned close attention. They kept on giving us comradely covering fire. They fired whenever we took off, so that Ivan didn’t hear the rattling of the back racks.
Gradually, we figured out that the mortar rounds, which only landed a few meters away, exploded in the marshland and could have little effect on us. They could only cover us with mud. Of the ones that landed on the street, the shrapnel could not reach us if we kept our heads tucked well in. It was only a very narrow section along the road embankment that could be life threatening to us.
We maintained an interval of 200 meters between us and crossed the open terrain in front of the noses of the Russians without incident. At that point, it was critical to watch like crazy to make sure the Russians didn’t come across the road and grab us. By then, we were already about 1,000 meters from the outposts on the woodline.
The attentiveness of the Russians was diverted at that point, because our tanks appeared to have arrived. A few of them came out of the woods, but they were immediately engaged by antitank guns. The island on the moor started taking our tanks under fire.
Thick vegetation started to appear on both sides of the road. Was it occupied by the Russians? I carefully spied over the embankment, but I did not see anything. We raced off. Wire out! A blind knot in the wire, and the next man raced off. The wire-man, who had just been freed from his burden, patched the wires together.
Benjamin never left my side. He acted like my shadow. Whenever I hit the deck, he also took a dive; whenever I jumped, he hopped along, light on his feet. Even when I stumbled, he promptly fell on his nose. Despite the serious situation, I was unable to stifle a slight smile. He no longer showed inordinate fear, since his mission took his entire attention. It was only for the two old Obergefreite, who apparently didn’t take him seriously or had even harassed him, that he got out of the way as much as possible.
After three kilometers of fighting the mud and doing up and down in the shadow of the road, we reached a bunker—exhausted—at the edge of the road. “Strongpoint 139.1” was written on it. We found telephone wire there that was completely intact. At the far end, a switchboard reported with a codename I did not recognize. My God! Were we really going to be that lucky and have a telephone connection to the rear?
“Tell me who you are?”
“This is the 4. Panzer-Division.”
Nothing, just a rush.
Damned secrecy requirements!
“This is Leutnant Schäufler from Panzernachrichten-Abteilung 79. Give me the corps signal officer, please!”
“This is Oberstleutnant so and so.”
I didn’t understand his name. It didn’t matter.
“Stay on the line!” I yelled at him. It was something that seemed to count the most in the military: “I’ll connect you with our operations officer!”
Damn it! The line was disrupted. Poldi and Peronnje headed out. After ten minutes, the connection was back. I discovered that the division command post was under heavy artillery and mortar fire and was being constantly attacked on three sides.
“Are you still there? Our ops officer would like to speak to you.”
The connection worked. The operations officer spoke with the operations officer of the corps. He didn’t say many nice things, and he also didn’t send any compliments his way.
The hard-bitten conversation and the drastic portrayal of the situation moved the corps to have the relief attack of the 5. Panzer-Division advance as far as our location.
We hoped they didn’t blow us to smithereens, since the 5. Panzer-Division was amazed that a little group of signaleers, of all people, had gotten out of the pocket.
Major von Gaudecker was also seriously concerned about us, since we were sitting all alone between the fronts, with the Russians right at our nose. He advised me to leave the connection on and establish security or disappear into the bushes.
After thirty minutes, nine German tanks worked their way carefully towards us. The crews looked at us in amazement. I grabbed the leader of the Kampfgruppe and put him on the telephone so that he could establish contact with the other side of the clearing. Major von Gaudecker ordered him to screen to the north. The tanks kept us from being surprised in no-man’s-land, but we also paid for it with a few mortar barrages.
I listened in to the conversation with division. Everything was switched to a single line. Panzergrenadier-Regiment 33 complained bitterly that it had not succeeded in identifying and eliminating the antitank gun and mortar positions in the moor. They had to be somewhere between the edge of the woods and the improved road.
It was our youngest man, milk-face Benjamin, of all people, who gave me a good idea: “There was a water culvert in the middle of the clearing, through which you could see really well to the north, without being seen.” That was true. But did that really matter to us at all?
Poldi and I slung on a field telephone and the tool bag and wanted to go get our bearings. Benjamin snapped. He asked me for permission to go along in such an exacting military fashion that I had to laugh. Poldi was happy to remain behind. I worked my way along the embankment to the middle of the clearing. The little one was right behind me. There was a concrete pipe there that was right across form the dune in the moor, where the Russians had to have a heavily manned strongpoint, since there was constant firing from the bushes in the direction of the woodline.
Barely 100 meters in front of our noses, I saw the Russians busy running back and forth. Unaided, I could see four antitank guns and a whole slew of mortars and machine guns. We entered the line, and I reported my observations to Major von Gaudecker, who reacted I a flash: “I’ll get the forward observer on the line. He’ll shed a little light on the subject.”
A few minutes later, he was there.
“There, where the two tall pines jut out of the moor . . . that’s right where the Russians are.”
“Identified!” he said. “We’ll fire a spotting round. Tell me where it lands.” A few minutes later: “Did you see anything?”
“No . . . because of the culvert, I only have a small field of vision. Besides, there’s firing everywhere. Many the round landed too far to the north in the woods.”
“We’ll adjust. The next round is smoke.”
Wummmm. There was an impact behind me. The black muck slammed into my back. Benjamin also churned his way out of the peat porridge, disgusted and disappointed. A cloud of smoke grew from the gigantic crater behind us. So that was the spotting round. The distance was exactly right; only the impacts needed to be adjusted 100 meters north. You had to be an artilleryman in order to direct the guns properly. But that was of no consequence at the moment, since the line was gone. Benjamin took off. I crawled a bit further into the culvert. You never know?
Blubbb—blubbb—blubbb. That came from the island on the moor.
Wubbb—wubbb—wubbb. That was from behind the woods at the location of our artillery. I could not differentiate between German shells and Russian mortar rounds. As I said, I am no artilleryman. All of the impacts were in the vicinity of the road, and Benjamin was off by himself. The poor guy was probably sweating blood! Then the line was back again. Bravo, Benjamin!
“As thanks for our help, you’re shooting us to bits. You need to fire 100 meters further north, you amateurs!” I screamed to the artillery Leutnant.
“Thank you! Tuck in your heads. It’s starting up!”
Benjamin crept into the culvert with me. There was a rushing, a howling a cracking—it didn’t seem to ever want to stop. Around fifty shells landed among the bushes between the pines. A few landed close to the road.
Then there was a howling behind us in the woods. There was a rattling and a rumbling. The tanks broke through the woods. The Russian antitank guns fired like crazy. It was terrible to have to watch and not be able to do anything about it. The artillery started firing smoke. The engineers stormed the woods across from us with the German battle cry of “Hurra.” The 33rd followed the tanks. The artillery fired again for all it was worth. It was all over quickly. The Russians scrammed to get out of there, heading west. They ran right into the guns of the 5. Panzer-Division. The 33rd stormed the moor island. Ivan started to cover the road with artillery fire. Cobblestones flew through the air, and fountains of peat sprang out of the moor. We hope not to get a direct hit on our heads! All of a sudden, the fireworks stopped. The line was gone; both of us scrambled off.
The sound of fighting coming from the woods gradually moved north. The wire from Strongpoint 139.1 to the division command post was under artillery and mortar fire again. The Russians wanted to block the road with their fireworks. Connections lasted for only a matter of seconds. I got on the line again, since there was little happening on the wire at the moment. Willi Dierl was working with his people between the strongpoint and the culvert; Benjamin ran from the culvert to the edge of the woods; Willi Lanig and his two men patched continuously in the woods; and Helmut Scheuermann between the edge of the woods and Saschtschebje.
A dark cloud of smoke arose from behind the woods. The Russian machine guns hacked in the vegetation. The tanks and the engineers pushed north, but there were Russians behind them again already. From my position, I had a marvelous viewpoint. The devil was on the loose behind us . . . or was that in front of us? What was the front or the rear in this case?
At that point, the road to the rear was clear. The first armored personnel carriers bounced along through the shell craters and past burning armored vehicles to the west with hundreds of wounded. Ivan threw another tantrum. The firing slowly ebbed. The first trucks and field kitchens jangled past us. The line was patched again. Benjamin and I jumped on the running board of a truck going past. All of us rallied at the strongpoint. Willi Lanig then came with his Muli. It started to turn dusk.
The division rolled westward for hours. There were no hold-ups, since there was no oncoming traffic. Benjamin slept the sleep of the just in a dark corner.
Toward midnight, General von Saucken came to our location. I had never seen him so relaxed and, at the same time, relieved. He thanked all of my men with a handshake. I also woke up Benjamin.
“Well, kid, your Leutnant says you were terrific.”
He didn’t quite understand what was going on, he was so sleepy. It was not until he saw the general’s boards that he slowly woke up.
The General then called the field army, cursing a blue streak. The army reacted sheepishly.
“The last vehicle of my division will get out of this goat screw you directed me into around 0200 hours. Until then, I can be reached at Strongpoint 139.1.” Bang! He slammed the handset on the receiver.
Against all expectations, everything worked out without a hitch. To the east of us, there was a rumbling everywhere. Our artillery fired to all sides from within the army ammunition dump until the barrels started glowing. The vehicles continued rolling past us to the west and out of this mousetrap. They were rolling to the rear and behind the Wit Canal. The next day, we assembled in Glinaja Ssoboda.
It was there that my fellow traveler, Willi Dierl, received a well-earned Iron Cross, First Class. Benjamin received the Iron Cross, Second Class for his very first operation at the front, although a few of the old Obergefreite reacted poorly: “We needed three years for that, and the little snot nose gets it on the first day!” I offered him my heartfelt congratulations, since he had really earned it.
I was allowed to ask for something special. And I did. A few days later, I departed Mosyr on four weeks of special leave. For the first time since 1940, I was able to celebrate Christmas with my young wife back home. Another pleasant surprise awaited me, as well. A friend of mine from my youth, Schorsch, whom I hadn’t seen for years, was on the same train as I was.
Artillery during the counterattack on Seredina Buda, 15 March 1943.
Assault guns of Panzer-Regiment 35 with winter camouflage, 13 March 1943. The vehicles also have winter track extenders—the so-called Ostketten—mounted on the regular track.
He no longer had the strength to dismount—a Soviet tanker burned to death in his knocked-out T-34, 19 March 1943.
Battlefield communications on Hill 238.1 at Teploje, 12 July 1943. From left to right: Obergefreiter Klippel, Unteroffizier Scheuermann, Leutnant Schäufler, and Hauptmann Berger.
A knocked-out German tank—in this case, a Panzer III—at Teploje, 10 July 1943. It was but one of many.
1 Translator’s Note. The signals officer was often used to locate the sites for the command posts, especially since he would best recognize the optimum locations for maintaining radio traffic.
2 Editor’s Note. The Maultier (“mule”) was a half-track conversion of the standard three-ton supply truck and used extensively on the Eastern Front. The load capacity was reduced to two tons.
3 Translator’s Note. A paramilitary organization that was responsible for a wide range of civil and military engineering projects. It was named after its founder, Fritz Todt, who died in an aircraft crash in 1942.
4 Editor’s Note. The command vehicle was probably a Panzerbefehlswagen III, Ausführung H, a converted Panzer III with a dummy main gun and additional radio sets.
5 Translator’s Note. A biblical reference. Benjamin was the youngest of Jacob’s twelve sons.
6 Translator’s Note. Although this is more commonly considered to be the battle cry of fighter pilots, it was also used in the army. It was used as both a greeting and a call for good luck. The term comes from hunting circles.