Leutnant Rudolf Meckel, Panzer-Regiment 35, 4. Panzer-Division

Fall 1944. With the war coming to a close and the front moving backwards at an ever-increasing tempo, it turned out that former rear-area military hospitals turned into collection points in the blink of an eye for the wounded streaming in almost directly from the battlefield. Doctors, medics and nurses, who once enjoyed the pleasant quietness of the rear, saw themselves facing the horrors and uncertainties of the front. A sterile hospital atmosphere yielded to a hectic unrest, a sedate conservativeness to a desperate struggle with death hovering over shattered bodies.

That was also the case at the naval hospital in Libau, which housed more soldiers of the Kurland field army than naval heroes at the time.

Fate washed me ashore at that building on the sea, which resembled a palace, after the cannoneers of a Russian 122-millimeter mortar battery had managed to fire on my tank after a lot of exacting work. Our efforts to patch together our tracks and put them back on our tank were prematurely interrupted by that.

Nurse Alla, an energetic East Prussian, later told me that I had not been a pretty picture when I was admitted. They didn’t operate a lot on me, since they were directed to avoid vivisections.

As a result, I was sent to a large hall, which was divided into sections by portable walls made out of cloth. In my “department” were the unpleasant matters, such as those torn apart, ripped apart, or burned and for whom not a lot could be done. Almost all of them died—it was around forty of them—as I vaguely remember. Leutnant Hänsgen and I were left. But then, I’m getting ahead of myself.

In a practically miraculous manner, I had an unexpected healing, in which the aforementioned Leutnant Hänsgen had his part. His childlike sensibility got me all riled up all the time, which made it impossible for me to sink into that lethargy with which most of the comrades around us quietly faced the end.

You should know that Leutnant Hänsgen—six feet, two inches tall—was restrained to the bed due to a nailed heel and a stretching apparatus and bemoaned his status in a variety of ways. On the other hand, Hänsgen was the only lightly wounded man in our section. After the fact, the way he reacted may appear understandable since no healthy person, who is afflicted with a fractured lower thigh, wants to be hitched up to a procrustean bed. At the time, however, his lamentations were a source to me of grim embitterment.

It was said that Hänsgen was the acting commander of an antitank company, and his wounding was a direct consequence of that. Whoever remembers the narrow roads in Kurland, which were always accompanied by deep ditches to both the left and the right, knows that the opportunity to escape the sudden appearance of fighter-bomber attacks was slim and the insufficient training of the Russian pilots was sometimes your only salvation.

But Hänsgen had not thought about that. When he was riding along one such road in the commander’s staff car and he suddenly took notice of the scampering shadow of an aircraft above him, he took a flying leap out of the vehicle and into the ditch. Prior to that, he had forgotten to turn of the engine and pull the hand brake, as the regulation required. His vehicle, irritated by that fact, promptly followed him into the ditch. The results were a complicated lower thigh fracture and admittance into the naval hospital at Libau.

The greatest military doctor I ever encountered was the head doctor and chief surgeon of the naval hospital at Libau. He was Marineoberstabsarzt Dr. Steinbrücker. That vir vere humanus was a man who incorporated goodness, humor and level headedness in one person. When Hänsgen portrayed the anguish of his situation to the doctor for the umpteenth time during the latter’s rounds, Dr. Steinbrücker said in a friendly manner: “You see, my dear Hänsgen, that’s why you are a patient!”

As it turned out, fighter-bombers appeared occasionally and circled over the city. They were predatory birds, which the naval Flak engaged. Accompanied by the metallic call of the sirens, the bombs landed in the palace park near the hospital. What good did it do that a Red Cross was painted on the roof. The gigantic windows rang and the baroque stucco ceiling bore down on us like a threatening cloud.

With every impact, mortar and plaster drizzled down on the beds. We were fettered to our beds, however, as the result of our wounds and falling victim to the wretched fear of the defenseless. Panic lurked in the corners. But it did not break out, not even when a hissing concussive wave shattered the windows in the hall, sweeping glass shrapnel over the beds . . .

It was three Red Cross nurses who prevented the torch of blind self-destruction from flaming up out of paralyzing horror. If you thought that the strict and unbending East Prussian Alla could look terror coolly in the face, then it was a sheer miracle in the case of the other two: They were youthful things, who had just come from the homeland. One was a blonde; the other had black hair and possessed a Madonna-like beauty.

Like the personification of angels, they stood between the rows of beds. Their calm, alert gazes wandered from face to face. Whenever one of the helpless bodies threatened to rear up under the unbearable stress and fear, they placed a cool, gentle hand on a forehead dripping with sweat. By doing so, it remained still in the ante-room of death.

And so I learned from the wordless courage of those young women, who voluntarily forewent the protection of the bunker in order to help the wounded through the hell of fear, that the unreflected bravery of a man is nothing compared to the merciful love of a woman.

One night, while fever kept me awake, I discovered that a hospital train was supposed to be going to the homeland within the next twenty-four hours. The Russians were already almost to the sea at Memel.

When Dr. Steinbrücker saw my hesitation—it was more an uncomprehending joy than any conscious deliberation—he said to me with a very kindly, fatherly smile: Of course, you can stay here with us.”

Then it was difficult for me to show any happiness about the upcoming departure. I had that doctor to thank for my life and didn’t know what to say. And so I kept quiet and attempted a thankful smile under my thick dressings. Dr. Steinbrücker seemed to understand me. He placed his hand on my arm, a heavy, large and almost farmer-like hand. It was a farewell at midnight without sentimentality; it was almost without a word.

Very early in the morning, Nurse Alla was in front of my bed.

“How did you want to get out of here?”

“Well, with the train, of course!” I said in bewilderment.

Have you thought about what you wanted to wear?” I initially thought it was a dumb question. I felt perfectly fine in my armed forces nightgown.

She then said scornfully: “You have to leave your gown here. It belongs to the hospital. I had to sign for it.”

“Yes . . . and where are my things?”

“Your things?” Boundless surprise registered in the icy gray eyes of the nurse. “Didn’t you know that that’s all there is?”

And she held up a brownish red iridescent scrap of cloth. It was only with a great deal of imagination that you could see that it was once a bluish gray Panzer shirt. It had been shredded by a lot of shrapnel and stained by dried blood.

She eyeballed my perplexed embarrassment with reproachful severity and let me lay there in doubt and the fatalistic expectation that I would have to go “home to the Reich” in nothing more than my Adam and Eve outfit.

The day passed slowly by. No one looked after me. Only my friend, the smart but childlike medical corps cadet Henning slowed down a bit by my bed. Gradually, evening crawled through the window, and the crows assembled on the bald branches of the leafless park trees. The stretcher-bearers came into the hall. The picked up this man and that out of bed and carted them out into the night. I started to panic. Was I really going to have to drift out of there like Lazarus, “wearing” only my dressings?

All of a sudden, Nurse Alla appeared in the uncertain light of the bluish night lamp. She speedily unfolded a set of regulation armed forces underwear. They were white, long, repaired, and clean to the point of being sterile. She looked around carefully and whispered: “Quick, put them on. I just stole them for you!”

And so I discovered that all male logic is nothing in comparison to the tricky heart of a woman . . .

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