Gefreiter Hans-Martin Wild, loader in Artillerie-Regiment 103 of the 4. Panzer-Division
Bedded down on a few bushels of straw, I got a couple of hours of sleep. A comrade woke me up: “It’s time.”
It took a while to sink in. I rubbed my eyes and got up. The cannoneers were standing around in small groups, smoking cigarettes and discussing in subdued voices what was to come.
Another fifteen minutes! An unbearable tenseness bore down over the battery. War with Russia! No one wanted to believe it.
Cannoneers were getting the first rounds ready. They handled the familiar, but dangerous shells carefully, like a small child. The hands of the watch moved slowly towards the quarter-hour mark. The crews had assembled around their guns. They stood there silently. Everyone was thinking of his loved ones, who were dozing away a work-free Sunday back home without a worry in the world.
Up front, along the Bug, a shot was heard. Immediately afterwards, a machine gun fired. It was 0313 hours!9 The artillery fell silent. It took a little while, but then all hell broke loose. Hundreds of shells started spewing eastward and filled the air with a thundering and a crashing. I was barely able to hear the commands of the battery officer.
“Fire!” A jerk and the gun shot far to the rear. The first shell started rushing towards the enemy.
The cannoneers showed practiced hands. Shell after shell left the tubes of our 9th Battery. The earth trembled.
Dozens of batteries were nearby: howitzers, cannon, and mortars. All of them were taking the designated targets under fire. The important positions on the far side of the Bug were to be smashed in a deliberate fashion.
The tubes of the guns turned hot. In less than fifty minutes, more than 100 15-centimeter shells left the muzzle. The cannoneers cooled the tube with wet rags and buckets of water. Steam rose skyward.
Then they continued firing.
There was a broad cloud of smoke on the horizon. It was burning in every nook and cranny. It was fiery red looking towards the sky and twitching in the dark of the graying morning. A spooky sight!
The first few aircraft rumbled in the distance, two long-range reconnaissance birds. Right after them, a batch of fighters moved along the Bug to the north.
The prime movers churned their way through the fine dirt towards the avenue of advance. It took hours before the engineer bridge was reached. One column after the other bunched up at the crossing point. Off to the left, where the bottomland of the Bug was flashing silver, it appeared that an engagement was taking place. Cannon and machine guns fired without interruption. It was two Russian bunkers—completely isolated—that defended until the very end.
The roads worsened. We moved ahead very slowly. It was all over by the time we reached the start of the wooded terrain. Truck after truck had to be pulled out by the prime movers. Whole convoys of vehicles waltzed through the knee-deep dirt in that manner. The motorcyclists had an especially difficult time of it. They had to push their heavy machines—and it was brutally hot.
While in the middle of fighting that tiresome fight against the bad roads and the deep sand, we encountered the graves of the first men killed in this war. A peculiar feeling came over us at that location. Shells from German guns had impacted among the ranks of German soldiers. There had been a misunderstanding. The Russians had only offered light resistance and, as a result, our riflemen advanced faster then had been planned. They attacked aggressively into the beaten area of a targeted zone.
Schützen-Regiment 12, which our heavy battalion was supporting, was the flank guard. We stopped outside of Miedna and waited for the arrival of the 1st Battalion. Nearby was the command post of our 4. Panzer-Division. We saw our commander for the first time, Generalmajor von Langermann und Erlenkamp. Major Hoffmann, the commander of the 1st Battalion of the rifle regiment, came racing up.
The first batch of prisoners was brought in for questioning. Everyone gathered around and looked at the uniforms and equipment, which were still new to us. All of that was interesting, when you saw it for the first time. I had the dubious pleasure, thanks to my rudimentary knowledge of Russian, of being the translator. After a fashion, I asked the questions Major Hoffmann put together. My poor victim took pains to try to understand me. And we actually were able to bring about something tantamount to a conversation. The Russian breathed easier when I assured him that he was not going to be shot—he was a prisoner of war.
The time passed in fits. We were not moving forward. We were still outside of Miedna. Our tanks had been in Kobrin for some time and had reached Avenue of Advance I.10 At that point, they were also unable to advance, since they no longer had any fuel. The entire division was literally stuck in the dirt.
We found out that the divisional logistics elements had been rerouted and were heading towards Kobrin via Brest-Litowsk.
The roads worsened. Our prime movers towed an entire medical company through the sandy desert.
Miedna was finally behind us, when it turned evening. We had processed the initial images of destruction. The road became noticeably better. We raced through the night so as not to lose contact. A prime mover crashed into a gigantic bomb crater in the middle of the road due to the poor illumination provided by the night-lights. Fortunately, no one was seriously hurt.
Moving past the traces of the first day of fighting, our long column reached a broad, cobblestone road early on the morning of 23 June. It was Avenue of Advance I. To our left, there was the thunder of heavy artillery. We heard it was coming from the men laying siege to Brest-Litowsk, who were still fighting for the citadel.
A Russian bomber appeared in the glare of the hot summer day. Everyone became agitated and stared skyward. The aircraft launched the craziest maneuvers up in the air so as to avoid the fire from the Flak, which was firing like crazy. While diving, it fled the area.
Once beyond the city of Kolbrin, the column got jammed up again. We dismounted. Light Russian tanks were burned out along the road. A Russian lay wounded next to his vehicle.
A German tank with destroyed optics was located somewhat off to the side. An antitank round had hit it right in the vision slot. Moved, we stood next to the freshly dug grave.
Via Triumphalis is what you could have called the avenue of advance. Signs of victory followed the road far into old Russian territory. Vast quantities of light Russian T-26’s were shot up or bogged down or abandoned in panic along the roadside. We were stared down by extremely modern artillery, antiaircraft weaponry, prime movers, and antitank guns—tipped over or pushed into the ditch by our tanks. We frequently saw the results of German aerial attacks. Humans, animals, and equipment were mowed over, jumbled together. Dead horses stretched their legs into the air, their stomachs swollen from decomposition. The sweet smell of carrion lingered over the roadway. The trunks of trees—cut down, shredded by bombs—jutted out of the limbs of collapsed crowns.
Onward . . . onward . . . the march continued without interruption into the vast expanse. The German war machinery spread itself out with oppressive superiority and waltzed forward in a deliberate fashion. Fighters and reconnaissance aircraft monitored the roads in waves. Dive bombers headed towards the enemy; supply aircraft cruised just a few meters above the treetops, rumbling eastward with fuel for the lead tank elements.
No one had any doubts about a quick victory in this campaign against Russia. The initial misgivings started to slowly disappear.
By night, we reached Bereza-Kartuska. The town was burning. The amount of captured and destroyed Russian war materiel was immense. The area was saturated with rubble far and wide.
It could be seen by what was left behind in the Russian retreat that there was fighting ahead of us. When we moved out the next day to continue the march, one thing was clear: the war was just starting!