Leutnant Hans Schäufler, regimental signals officer of Panzer-Regiment 35, 4. Panzer-Division
26 December 1944. The Battle of Kurland was in full swing. After hours of barrage fire, the Russians had been charging our bled-white positions again and again for four days. They had all of the advantages of the attacker. The front lines on both sides had been decimated. The snow-covered terrain was saturated with dead. The Russian tank concentrations had thrust through our lines while the artillery fire was still raging. No one knew where they were at that point.
All of a sudden, an uncanny silence descended, since there was no longer anyone there who could fight. Here and there, a wounded man cried out in a bone-chilling way for a medic. A lonely machine gun bellowed eerily into the silence.
Our regimental command vehicle, the RN 1, was located behind a group of trees. The commander, Oberst Christern, had taken the radio SPW to the division command post in Ozolini, to get a better feeling for the confusing situation.
Since there was not a whole lot for us to do at the moment, we dozed off apathetically, since we had been on the go constantly for four days and three nights—no sleep, no warm rations. There was a whistling in the headphones: “Meet to discuss operations at the XYZ farmstead!”
I pressed the binoculars to my tired eyes and observed the foreground. In the approaching darkness, I recognized a group of houses off to the left of us, which were being approached by individual armored vehicles. Exhausted as I was, I didn’t think about it too long: “Crank it up . . .direction of march is the farmstead off to the left!”
We plodded on over shot-up tree trunks, mounds of earth and ditches to the collection of tanks. We set up in the shadow of a tree and turned of the short-wave radio. We then allowed ourselves to take a nap. They would call us when everyone was here.
It was pitch black when I woke up with a startle. That’s taking a long time, I thought to myself, and I took a look at my watch. We’d been there for two hours. Need to take a look to see what’s going on! I struggled out of the hatch and knocked on the tank next to us. Nothing stirred. A transformer was humming inside. What were the guys radioing? No one’s monitoring the radio. Everyone’s here, aren’t they? I climbed up on the tank to set the guys straight.
Even though I knew every handhold, I kept missing them. The step from the roadwheel to the track guard was enormous. I practically dislocated my legs. My hands couldn’t find any handles, where they knew they had to be. What was wrong with me today?
“What company is this?” I yelled into the turret. A completely foreign face looked up at me. On top of that, the face was framed by a Russian tanker’s cap. I felt a massive turret with coarsely welded seams under my groping hands. A gun as big as a tree jutted out of the turret.
That couldn’t be possible! There I was, completely stunned, standing on top of a Josef Stalin tank! And there was a Russian crew inside. And all of the tanks around me, engulfed by the darkness, were all Russian tanks. If it doesn’t exist in wartime, it doesn’t exist!
In a flash, I was wide-awake. I took a headfirst dive into the darkness. While still in the air, I yelled out: “Crank it up!”
Oberfeldwebel Schmidt grabbed me by the collar and pulled me into the hatch. Feldwebel Eichhorn rushed out into the night with the RN 1. After about 300 meters, we bogged down in a clay pit. The engine choked out. All of the radios had been turned on “receive” for some time. We tensely listened into the ether and gazed out into a night pregnant with misfortune. Behind us, we heard the “sneezing” of the traversing gears of the Russian tank turrets. They must have heard something. Thank God that the earth had literally swallowed us up.
From the edge of the clay pit, I could count the number of Russian tanks by the milky light of the signal flares. There were twenty of them. An ice-cold chill went down my spine whenever I thought we had spent two hours sleeping among them without a worry in the world, with a fake barrel made of aluminum and a raft of classified documents on board.
“Alpine rose . . . alpine rose . . . alpine rose . . . over!” it croaked desperately out of the headphones.
Initially, we only radioed our location to the regiment.
“Are you crazy?” it croaked back.
I could almost see old Christern standing in front of me. Now he was probably angrily but also worriedly slipping the throat mike over his massive head. And I wasn’t wrong. I soon heard his rumbling bass voice: “What’s going on? Alpine rose? What are you doing there?”
I outlined our awkward situation.
“Stay where you are! We’ll get you!” he blasted.
In the distance, we heard the heavy tank engines turn over. We heard the tanks coming, casting shadows along the woodline.
We directed them over the radio, based on the noise. When they were close enough, we lit up the haystacks at the farmstead with signal flares. The Russian tanks stood out as if on a platter. Nine of them were set alight; the rest escaped into the night.
A sympathetic Panther drug us out of the clay soup. In low spirits, we steamed away with Tautorus’s company to the north, awaiting our ass chewing.
The Beginning of the End: A Portrait of West Prussia
End of January 1945. Head over tails, we were withdrawn from the Kurland bridgehead and out of the fight. It was rumored that everything was topsy-turvy on the east German frontier. We transferred our tanks, heavy weapons and vehicles to the combat elements of the 14. Panzer-Division.
At the Libau harbor, they pressed and penned us into battle-ready transporters and naval ferries. For our departure, the Russians dropped all the bombs they could spare on our heads so that we would keep them in our memories.
And then we headed out into the storm-tossed Baltic.
Air alert! But where could you go? There was no running away there. There were no foxholes on the Goddamned water. The only thing that helped was to pray that the on-board Flak fired well, since the German fighters had long since checked out.
Submarine alert! For land warriors, that was something completely new that slammed home in the pit of your stomach. Escort boats dropped depth charges. The underwater detonations hit the sides of the ships hard. The pitching and canting caused by the constant zigzag course was unbearable. It was enough to make you puke, quite literally. There was no demand for food on the ship.
Finally, finally . . . after a long day and a longer night, we saw the piers of Danzig. Thank God! Solid ground under our feet again!
It was like peacetime everywhere. We had a short break in a hotel in Zoppot, with everything you could imagine. The unaccustomed comfort seemed somewhat strange to us hard-bitten frontline soldiers, what with soft feather beds in well-maintained rooms. But it was bearable. But just as we gradually got used to the new lifestyle, we also slowly learned about the entire tragedy of the military situation.
It was said that the Russians had already crossed the Vistula at Bromberg. They were marching in a broad attack wedge to the west. They were supposed to have reached the Vistula Lagoon at Elbing with a battle group that had branched north. That meant they weren’t so far from our own front door.
And we had to wait around there without doing anything. We had no vehicles, no heavy weapons.
We were cynically informed: “There are enough tanks, assault guns, armored personnel carriers, armored cars, self-propelled artillery, and combat vehicles at the Gruppe training area, about 100 kilometers south of the Russian-besieged Elbing. You can have them! Go get them, if Ivan lets you, and you have the courage to do so!”
Might as well before someone tries to stupidly use us here as infantry! Without delay, we raced off to the south with tractor trailers, prime movers and trucks that we “procured” and stole from supply units. We moved through muck and snow, by day and by night, without stopping and without rest and past an endless snake line of refugees fleeing north. For the first time, we saw Germans taking flight. Our hearts were broken: caravans of children, led by young girls, nuns, and Red Cross nurses. Horse carts with the old and infirm, wrapped in blankets and overcoats, covered with snow and frost. Wounded and more wounded. Misery after misery!
All of them looked at us with reproachful eyes, begging us to keep the Russians off of them. Not leave them in the lurch.
Tattered and fought-out German soldiers blocked our path and clenched their fists: “Stupid bastards . . . keeping the war going!”
We started to doubt whether we were doing the right thing, if we put ourselves in the path of the Russians one more time. Then we would run into individual German Kampfgruppen, which tried to occupy defensive positions as well as they could with their weak forces and paucity of weapons. More and more columns of refugees, wounded, children, women, old people. They were the ones who obligated us to wager everything. The villages were abandoned, dead. Everyone was moving and wanted to head north to the salvation of the sea. They wanted to be helped by the German forces still fighting.
Fools like us were swimming against the tide, against those mighty floodwaters. We wanted to, had to protect the escape route of the procession of misery.
We actually did make it to the training area before the Russians. But what a disappointment! There were only Panzer III’s and assault guns there, most of them with Africa camouflage. And a whole lot less than we had been led to believe. There was enough, at most, for two companies.
A pair of ancient Obergefreite “managed” the arsenal. The finer folks apparently had found more important missions to do at more valuable places—where there wasn’t firing going on.
We took everything without any formalities. The ancient warriors scrammed as quickly as they could. Understandably, they were happy to be done with their final mission. One disaster after the other! The tanks had no transformers; most of the vehicles had no receivers. The combat vehicles had to be sent into battle without radios. We were just barely able to outfit the company commander tanks with a complete radio set. But that wasn’t the worst of it. The bitterly needed fuel was missing. Our tried and true “procurers” had to prove what they were worth. Hauptmann Bruno Schalmat got enough fuel at the last minute to make us mobile for thirty kilometers. It was poor consolation, but at least it was something.
Then the heavy motors were fired up. We didn’t need to move very far. The Russians did us the favor of driving up to our main guns. The ones so used to victory got a cold shower. After the very first encounter, a good dozen T-34’s were burning without any friendly losses. That gave us some self-confidence back, and it reminded the Russians, who had grown careless, to be more careful. It was only against the Josef Stalins that we couldn’t do anything. Even at the shortest distances, the rounds ricocheted off. Hauptmann Kästner was given the mission of finding some Panthers for the 1st Battalion.
A wide screen was established; there was no point in describing it as a front. We didn’t imagine that we were going to turn the wheels of history. With our weak forces, we only wanted to—all that we could do—was somewhat delay the unimpeded and fierce advance of the Red Army to the north to give the columns of wounded and refugees a chance to reach the saving Baltic before the Russians.
Our attacks were only a wasp’s sting in the body of the Red Army. Despite that, we were able to ensure that the Russians only advanced at a walking pace wherever we were.
Rearguard reporting center at the end of a balka near Nowgorod-Sserwersk, September 1943.
Commander’s conference at Major Schultz’s vehicle, summer 1944. From left to right: Stabsarzt Schulz-Merkel, the “Panzer Doctor”; Major Schultz; Hauptmann Möller; and Hauptmann Grohe (who was killed a short while later).
Major Fritz-Rudolf Schultz takes leave of his battalion, the II./Panzer-Regiment 35. In 1972, he became the ombudsman of the German parliament for the military.
Tankers cross the sea from Courland (Kurland) to Danzig, 22 January 1945. From left to right: Oberleutnant Peters, Leutnant Finkelmann, and Hauptmann Prast.
A command-and-control tank of the I./Panzer-Regiment 35, the Befehlspanther, March 1945.
All escape routes are clogged by refugees.
1 Translator’s Note. A type of chocolate intended for soldiers in the field that had caffeine added to it.
2 Translator’s Note. Mask in Blue was a musical directed by Paul Martin in 1943. It makes reference to the operetta of the same name by Fred Raymond, but it has nothing to do with the operetta.
3 Translator’s Note. Courland in English. A region of western Latvia with strong historical ties to Germany because of settlements formed there by the Teutonic Knights.