Leutnant Hans Schäufler, regimental signals officer with Panzer-Regiment 35, 4. Panzer-Division
Beginning of February to the middle of March 1945. Fuel for our tanks—that was problem number one at the time. They devoured fuel in huge quantities when conducting combat operations of this nature. We were supposed to be everywhere at the same time, but our fuel tanks were usually empty. The combat strength of our mechanized infantry had shrunk so much that sometimes fifteen men had to cover a frontage of two kilometers. We avoided the term “front” as much as possible. We invented the term “observation veil.” Our artillery had no ammunition. Whenever the Russian attacked somewhere, it was up to the tanks to take care of the penetration.
Correspondingly, out of the need for sheer self-preservation, we hunted for columns of Russian trucks whenever there was a chance they might be loaded with fuel. The report went from vehicle to vehicle whenever one believed it had made a “find.”
With regard to radios—that was the second rubbing point, for which only the regimental signals officer bore responsibility. Although all of the vehicles had received a complete radio complement, Ivan was jamming our radio traffic day and night with strong transmitters on all frequencies, as well as eavesdropping on all traffic and attempting to mislead crews with false orders and break down morale with propaganda.
I had to be very creative so that we could be heard by the opposite station among the stew of frequencies and, moreover, so that the comrades did not get wind of whatever we were thinking of doing.
The secret signals operating instructions, which had been worked out with great precision at the highest command levels had long since been in Russian hands. There was no relying on them any more—we discovered that daily. As a result of the necessary and single-handed improvisations that were bitterly necessary, we were always walking on the edge of court-martial proceedings. Effectiveness trumps secrecy. That was an old military saying, and the courts-martial were far to the rear.
My regimental commander, Oberst Christern, insisted on a well-organized and always functioning radio network. Given the situation, that was more than understandable. For me, however, it meant that I had to go from company to company each night on a motorcycle and coordinate the radio instructions with the head radio operators.
The 1st Battalion was still waiting for its Panthers, which were supposed to come from Kurland or God knew where else. As a result, I had the frequencies allocated to the 1st Battalion at my disposal as well. As a result, we often changed frequencies from message to message by the use of a code word so as to be able to get our traffic through at all. Up to that point, the system had worked terrifically and until such point as Ivan found our frequency again and attempted to disrupt or eavesdrop we had completed our traffic. As a safety precaution, we had an emergency frequency in case radio contact was lost in some manner due to a misunderstanding. That was not to be found in any manual, but nothing could have been worse in our situation that to be left hanging in the air. The success of these measures—in contravention of army procedures—justified them, even if the division signals officer did not approve of them, at least officially. But what he did not know did not hurt him, and the end justified the means.
Using that concept, we successfully conducted armor operations in the Tuchel Heath. We advanced in the direction of Bromberg and Nackel, then towards Kamin and then far to the west as far as Konitz. We chased the nonplussed Russians back everywhere, captured a bit of fuel here and there and, above all, won some time—since time was the most important thing in that hopeless struggle.
We heard the Russian “morning prayers” in our receivers everywhere: “Put an end to the war!” “You are encircled!” “You have no fuel and no ammunition!” “Stop resisting, if you want to see your homeland again!” Always the same old story. Although we didn’t imagine things and knew that the war could no longer be won, we had to do our part to hold open the route to the saving banks of the Baltic for the desperate people.
On 15 February, Tuchel had to be handed over to the Russians. We pulled out of the town during the night to keep it from being destroyed even more. We established a new blocking position at Heiderode. Then, on 24 February, the long-awaited Panthers of the 1st Battalion came to us.
The new signals situation demanded new thought. Usually, during operations, the two battalions were far apart from one another; the short-wave radios did not cover such long distances. As a result, the two regimental command vehicles, which both had medium-wave radios, were detached to the battalions and the signals battalion made a “goat,” that is, a radio SPW, available to the regiment. Oberst Chris-tern, who always gave me free reign in signals matters, agreed to the solution. Hopefully, he would also consider in the future the fact that he no longer had eight centimeters of armored plate in front of his head.1
February passed with armored thrusts, fuel worries and problems with radio traffic. We went tank hunting to the west, to the south and, in the end, also to the north. We were always close to being cut off and cashiered. The columns of refugees to our rear often advanced very slowly due to the congested roads; the Russian aircraft dominated the refugee routes. In addition, we needed the roads ourselves for our supplies. As a result, little ammunition, fuel and rations came forward.
Hold tough and fight for time—that was and remained the slogan. We accomplished more than we should have been able to. We put ourselves in the way of the advancing Russians again and again. The tank crews performed miracles, since the mechanized infantry had been bled white.
Our “Russian counterparts” attempted to break us down and intimidate us with all the means at their disposal. Day-in, day-out, the same old broken record. Beyond that, however, there were personally directed messages: “You won’t have anything to radio tomorrow, since we’ll be cashiering you tomorrow! . . . We’ll give you three more days, then the devil take the hindmost!”
We gradually figured out that we could get all sorts of information from those attempts to intimidate us. As a result, we listened to even the worst of the abuse without so much as batting an eye. And the bastard with the slight Saxony accent grew ever more venomous, since we never reacted, no matter how much he called us out and tempted us.
On 8 March, the Russians advanced with strong forces to the west of us all the way to the Baltic. Stolp fell into their hands. We had been cut off from every land connection. The 2. Armee, that is, what was left of it, had to be supplied in the future from the sea and the refugees had to be taken to safety by boat. It was going to get interesting!
An armored Kampfgruppe under Oberst Christern was sent as expeditiously as possible to Bütow to be loaded on trains, since there wasn’t enough fuel for the road march to the new area of operations around Neustadt. The deep flank had been torn wide open. The situation there was completely uncertain. We moved at almost a walking pace for hours on end on flat cars to the north. The train stations had no personnel. There were no German forces to be seen. But also no Russian. It was only the Russian fighter-bombers that laid into us. Then it started to snow, and we were happy as could be to get rid of the bastards.
Strict radio silence was ordered. As a result, we discovered nothing and were left up to our own devices and our lack of knowledge. It was like a dance on the volcano that could erupt at any moment. The troops were informed to be prepared for operations right off the transport train. That didn’t sound very promising.
The End on the Vistula.
(Sowjetischer Vorstoß zur Ostsee = Soviet advance to the Baltic; 21.1. Sowjetischer Vorstoß = Soviet advance on 21 January; Eilmarsch zu den Panzern = forced march to the armor; 23.1.45 von Kurland = from Courland on 23 January 1945)
All of a sudden, we halted on an open stretch. Oberst Christern was uninformed of what was happening, as we all were. I had no idea where we were at the time when we threw the “goat” off the train. “Throw” is not an exaggeration. We literally had to toss it off the car because there were no offload facilities.
Oberst Christern intended to personally reconnoiter to find out where the forward German lines were so that the combat vehicles would have the shortest route to the area of operations, thus saving the few liters of fuel in the tanks for fighting. We took off on a broad asphalt road, about a kilometer west of the tracks. It was intended for the train to slowly follow. I had everyone prepared to use their radios, just in case.
We kept going and going. No German soldiers, no German vehicles, no humans far and wide. I had never seen a section of land so dead. But, there also wasn’t any firing. Nothing at all. The environment there was eerie.
I uttered my doubts: “Something’s not right here. There’s no more German forces coming, otherwise you’d see trains and supply elements.” The Oberst, who was always brisk, sometimes too much so for my taste, waved me off.
We moved fifteen or twenty kilometers. Always the same picture. No signs of life to be seen anywhere.
Then I thought I saw well-camouflaged and fresh mounds of dirt, as well as vegetation, that did not seem right for the area.
“Herr Oberst, take a look through the binoculars over there!”
“What are you, Schäufler, afraid?”
I am not particularly sensitive, but even my commander was not allowed to say that to me. I replied, more drastically and loudly, than I intended: “No, by God no, but I’m still fed up from the last time!”
During a similar “excursion” about six weeks previously, Oberwachtmeister Wegener was killed and I still had shrapnel in my chin and a hole in my eardrum.
The Oberst, a tough warrior, who led his tank regiment from the front lines and who used the coarse language of a soldier, looked at me horrified. But I no longer had any time for an apology or my derailment, since I then saw Russian helmets flashing through the thin branches . . . there . . . there . . . there. And I also saw the barrel of an antitank gun that was directed toward us.
“We’re right in the middle of the Russians,” I yelled into the ears of the Oberst. But he still had his doubts, the perpetual optimist. I kicked the driver in the back: “There’s a gravel pit off to the left. Get in there as fast as you can!”
The Oberst yelled at me, but his ass chewing got stuck in his throat as the first antitank round whizzed just above our heads. The driver put the pedal to the metal and raced across the snow-covered field and then braked with a jerk. We slid down the steep gradient of the gravel pit. Above us, a hurricane of fire stormed past. Oberst Christern, no friend of overly hasty improvisation, looked at me for a moment with uncertainty before life came back to his massive figure. He indicated the radio set with his eyes and then looked at me questioningly. I understand his silent directive. I put on the headphones and switch to “transmit.” At the same time, under the direction of the commander, the crew ripped the machine gun out of its mount, grabbed submachine guns and hand grenades, occupied the edge of the gravel pit and let loose with everything they had. Everyone knew that seconds could decide our lives, which were not worth very much at all at the moment.
Damn it! No one answered.
“Alpine Rose . . . Alpine Rose . . . Alpine Rose . . . this is urgent, over!”
Finally, there was a crackle in my headset: “This is Alpine Rose . . . what’s going on?”
“We’ve been encircled by the Russians and can only hold out for five minutes. Urgently need help. Get here immediately.”
“This is Alpine Rose . . . understood . . . what’s your location? . . . we’re coming with three tanks.”
“We’re in a gravel pit in a heavy firefight with Russians attacking on all sides. Move along the road. Move now! Come quickly!”
Up top, they were already throwing hand grenades. Russian machine guns and submachine guns were rattling, and they were getting closer and closer. Antitank round flung stones against the armor plating of the vehicle.
“Alpine Rose . . . where are you? . . . I’m firing white signal flares . . . can you see them?”
Then the diabolic laugh of our “Ivan Saxon” entered the net: “Alpine Rose . . . now we have you . . . you won’t get away this time!”
No, they won’t take us alive! That was the only thought I had.
I yelled to the Oberst: “Three tanks are en route . . . they have to be here any minute!”
He raised his hand casually in acknowledgement and continued to fire. I wished I had his calmness!
“Alpine Rose . . . move as fast as your crates will fly . . . and fire with everything you have so that our friends forget about us for a moment!”
High-explosive rounds raced down the roadway. The firing of our crew picked up. I counted them. Everyone was still there. The firing by the Russians stopped all of a sudden. I tossed down the headset and crept up to the edge of the pit.
Good God! What a picture! Our three tanks were moving for all they were worth across the open field and fired with everything they had. The descended on the surprised Russian antitank-gun positions and overran them. The Russians were running en masse. They had identified the tanks too late and were barely able to get a round off.
I ran back to the radio set. Ivan was still crowing: “Is it all over for you? . . . Have we already finished you off?”
“You’re in a world of shit!” I was barely able to suppress the temptation to yell into the microphone.
The two radio operators came back to the vehicle with pale faces and retook their duty stations at the equipment. I was then able to observe the magic topside at my leisure. The three tanks were cleaning up and had advanced another 300 meters. They were able to knock out a few more antitank guns. And the crews ran as if the devil himself were behind them.
The Oberst sauntered up to me in a leisurely fashion. He laughed a bit, embarrassed, and called me a crude Bavarian, but he didn’t hold a grudge against me for my outburst.
Hauptmann Petrelli, the regimental adjutant, then reported that all of the vehicles had detrained. The Oberst gave orders to move out, and we awaited the main body of tanks. While waiting, we set off a situation report to the division.
It was pretty rare for a gigantic antitank-gun blocking position to be forced so easily. Even the Russians couldn’t believe it, since they offered very little resistance. We then received orders from the division to call off the attack, which was still going well.
No, there were no more German soldiers there. Even the Oberst was completely convinced of that.
“You were right once again, Schäufler!”
Nothing could shake up old Christern, neither masses of Russian antitank guns nor a signals officer who didn’t know his place. You had to give him that.
The “Ivan Saxon” kept silent for hours, embarrassed. I had the feeling that he had to change positions.
Urgent radio traffic from the division: “New situation. Russian tanks attacking Karthaus and Seefeld. Get ready to move immediately. Fight your way through to Karthaus as soon as possible!” Karthaus was way to our rear just outside the gates of Danzig. That couldn’t be true!
We assembled and moved along the main road back to the northeast. The closer we got to Karthaus, the more the streets were jammed with refugees, trains vehicles, horse-drawn conveyances. Some wanted to get into Karthaus, other out. It was impossible to get through on roads like that when there was so much chaos. Two tanks were given the mission of remaining behind to protect the refugees and look for an escape route to Gotenhafen. We then moved cross-country.
In Karthaus, we reported in to the local area commander. The old Oberst, who was sitting there, was in a state of panic and jittery. He was in no way up to the confusing situation. By order of the division, Oberst Christern assumed command.
He immediately had some of the tanks move southeast to screen. Almost half of the vehicles had to be towed into position, due to a lack of fuel. It was chaotic in and around the village. The access roads were completely overwhelmed with refugee vehicles. The distraught people ran around aimlessly since they did not know the situation. Vehicles without fuel hindered the flow of traffic.
The Oberst employed all of his soldiers, who were not essential for the fighting, as traffic regulators. The route to the Baltic for the refugees were reconnoitered, and the columns rerouted in those directions. The routes were screened by a few tanks.
It appeared that a dramatic competition was in progress between the German and Russian forces to see who could get to Danzig and its all-important Baltic harbor.
A few kilometers from us, strong Russian armored formations were marching in the direction of Seefeld, and we could not prevent them or join in the fight, since we did not have a single liter of fuel in our tanks.
Tank drivers and loaders, even noncommissioned officers and company-grade officers with Knight’s Crosses ran around with fuel canisters in their hands in an effort to beg a few liters of fuel so that they could at least move their tanks under their own power into a firing position. It was a portrait of unspeakable misery. No one wanted to sacrifice his vehicle, since everyone knew that every tank was urgently needed.
A route to the north, to Gotenhafen, was found and cleared. On 8 March, the village of Karthaus was cleared of all vehicles. It was only south of the town that columns still jammed up. They were increasingly becoming the targets of Russian aircraft. That only served to increase the confusion.
The situation around Seefeld gradually grew desperate. Correspondingly, the division ordered: “All available elements of the 4. Panzer-Division, are to assemble in the area around Karthaus as soon as possible, by foot march, if necessary.”
All of us were employed in clearing the roads. Disabled trucks were tipped over into the ditches without a second thought. Every liter of fuel was collected with a fine-tooth comb. We found a few hidden canisters of fuel of some trains vehicles. The horse-drawn vehicles were sent cross-country. Gradually, the chaos abated. A sort of “might makes right” ruled the roads. But there was no looking back. Even the stupidest or most stubborn of men could easily see that the Russians were using every means possible to cut us off. Rumors made the threatening situation even more uncertain. It was whispered from mouth to mouth that Ivan was already in Danzig.
In a last effort, our grenadiers descended one more time on the enemy; meter-by-meter, they fought themselves and the pitiful refugees clear. They had to fight to clear the essential roads not only against the Russians, but also against our own failures and against laggards and dawdlers. They sacrificed their own trains vehicles, so that the combat vehicles would get a few liters of fuel. Despite promises, no fuel arrived.
A friendly attack to open the road to Danzig bogged down. The Russians were already too strong there. The very last fuel from the trains vehicles was also used up. That meant that we were completely immobilized in Karthaus. We then heard that fuel had been set aside for us, but that it could not reach us, since it was not possible to bring it in from Danzig.
On 9 March, orders were received: “Keep only the valuable combat vehicles. All remaining vehicles are to be blown up immediately.”
We held the area around Karthaus for two more days and defended against fairly weak Russian attacks, and, for the first time, against a slowly mounting despair. Russian aircraft dropped clouds of propaganda leaflets on us; Ivan attempted to wear us down with loudspeaker propaganda. We waited hour-by-hour for the promised fuel, since the division had ordered that all operational tanks were to be preserved.
In bitter fighting with a few combat vehicles, Hauptmann Lange held the withdrawal route to Zoppot open for us at Schönwalde.
I don’t know how they did it, but two prime movers arrived on 12 March after moving through woods and open fields and brought the promised fuel. By then, Karthaus was devoid of civilians.
On back roads and through morass and bush country, we snaked our way with cunning and cleverness—and some luck—to the north past the Russians. We bogged down again due to a lack of fuel, but more was brought to us at nighttime. Through circuitous routes, we reached the large, but also abandoned Adlerhorst Flak2 position at Zoppot. We were able to get a full night’s sleep there in the bunkers.
It was only later that we discovered that our commander had had to fight higher headquarters for that few hours of sleep, since we were already expected for new operations at Oliva.
Early-model Panzer IV’s advance along the ubiquitous dirt roads of the Eastern Front. For obvious reasons, the roads became nearly impassible to armored vehicles during the so-called “mud seasons” in the spring and fall.
An officer in an Sd.Kfz. 250—a light half-track—confers with infantry. The tactical symbol indicates a 7.5-centimeter antitank gun towed by a half-track.
Panzer III Ausf. J’s and Panzer II’s of Panzer-Regiment 24 of the 24. Panzer-Division during a halt on the Eastern Front. This image was most likely taken during the drive on Stalingrad, which saw the subsequent destruction of the division.
Commander’s conference in the field. The officers are in early-model Panzer III’s with a short 3.7-centimeter main gun. To augment their relatively thin armor, track links have been mounted along the front hull and slope of the tanks.
The old and the new. A late-model Panzer IV passes a horse-drawn wagon on its way to the front. The Panzer IV has been outfitted with Ostketten—“Eastern tracks”—which were track extensions intended to lower the ground pressure of German tanks. Up through the Panzer IV, German tanks had high ground pressure because of the narrowness of the tracks, making them less maneuverable on snowy or very muddy ground.
1 Translator’s Note. The author is referring to the fact that Oberst Christern normally had a Panther as his command vehicle. Because of the slope of the armor in the turret, Christern had the equivalent of eight centimeters of steel protection.
2 Translator’s Note: Adlerhorst = “eagle’s nest.”