From the diary of Unteroffizier Gustav W. Schrodek, gunner in Panzer-Regiment 15 of the 11. Panzer-Division
11. Panzer-Division: Panzer Marsch!
23 June 1941. A knocked-out enemy tank on the road was the only sign that there had been fighting ahead of us. In the haze of a clear summer day, the outlines of a village could be seen on the horizon: Raziechow, our initial objective for the day.
Panzer-Regiment 15 spread out on line. The concentrated power was impressive, especially since it was enhanced by the 8.8-centimeter guns of the Flak forces, which had gone into position along a broad front. Behind us, the cannon of the divisional artillery had also pulled up.
What would happen next? We didn’t know. We also didn’t care. Based on this arsenal of weaponry, we felt stronger than ever before.
Aircraft came into view, a large formation of bombers. Finally, the first German machines we had seen in this campaign. At least that’s what we thought in our childlike simplicity. Wrong! We soon saw red stars under the wide wings. Heaven help us, if they dropped their loads on us! Thank God they had already let their bombs go somewhere else.
The lead company on the left moved out. A short while later, the remaining companies of the 1st Battalion followed. Our company, the 5th Company, was still waiting when the husky barks of main guns roughly disrupted the peace of the day. The tank engagement at Raziechow had started!
While we deployed into battle formation and moved up to the village, the sound of fighting was drowned out by the thundering of the tank engines. We then received the first salvo of fire. The first rounds impacted around us with an ear-deafening din. Thank God they did not cause any major damage.
“Halt!” was ordered, as if to grant us a final respite before the battle. We pushed open the hatches and took a look around. No, in fact, there hadn’t been any casualties among our ranks.
On the other hand, three Russian tanks were ablaze at the entrance to Raziechow. The terrain in front of us inclined slightly upward. We did not know what was behind the rise. We speculated it might be a military facility. That meant we had to reconnoiter the area in front of the rise. Our platoon leader, Leutnant von Renesse, who always liked to stick his nose well forward, volunteered, and nobody took issue with him.11
The five vehicles of our 2nd Platoon thundered off after we were given one final bit of information: one of our own tanks was also supposed to be forward as well. Three of the tanks of our platoon had the short 5-centimeter main gun; the other two had the 3.7-centimeter version.
We advanced in a wedge, knowing full well that we were on our own and only connected to our company by means of radio. But was there anything really bad that could happen?
We stopped in front of a road and sent a situation report. There was nothing interesting to report. We felt like we were sightseers, careening around there in noman’s-land. Nothing was seen nor heard from one of our own vehicles.
Suddenly, the sound of an engine could be heard approaching. Pay attention! Over to the right, moving along the road, was a tank approaching over a slight rise. Fifty meters behind it was a second one, then a third and a fourth. We couldn’t tell what kind of vehicles they were, since we had to look into the sun. We were convinced, however, that they were friendly vehicles. The idea that they could be enemy tanks never dawned on us.
But what the hell?! Why hadn’t someone told us that another platoon had been sent forward to reconnoiter?
As good soldiers, we sent out a friendly inquiry by radio.
The answer—that there were no German tanks in the vicinity except for us—was no longer needed, since we had seen the red stars on the steel monsters in the meantime.
Our hearts were aflutter. Was it the shock, the fear, or perhaps the joy that we would now be able to prove ourselves? Perhaps they had not seen us? Maybe they thought we were Russian tanks? Based on the size, we were about the same. Otherwise? We would have to wait for that.
About the point where we had them about 100 meters in front of our guns, the dance kicked off. Without showing any effect, the lead vehicle, which I had engaged, continued to move on. The same thing happened to the other comrades in my platoon.
What the hell?! Where was the oft-praised superiority we had over the Russian tanks? They had told us over and over again that our main guns would have an easy time with them. But the only thing we achieved with our rapid fire and clear hits was the fact that they quickly turned around and headed back from where they had come.
“2nd Platoon, over!”
“2nd Platoon, over!”
While we sent a few more rounds towards the fleeing Russians, we noticed for the first time that we were being continuously called over the radio.
We reported: “Engaged four enemy tanks. Type not certain, since not listed in the recognition tables. Despite numerous hits, our rounds had no effect. Have the impression our rounds ricocheted. Enemy tanks moved back without engaging. Should we pursue? Over.”
We received orders to return to the company. That was fine by us, since we weren’t feeling so good about the thought of pursuing an enemy who was able to digest well-placed rounds without any effect.
On the other hand, perhaps we had given him a good beating. It’s just that we could not see it. That was our hope, but we didn’t believe it.
A little while later, we were back with our regiment. We had to render a long report about our engagement, and we were proud to receive so much attention.
Our tanks were quickly refueled and rearmed. We also had just enough time to choke down a few bites. We then became tired, allowing us to sleep and forget everything. I don’t remember how long we dozed. Shouts and a banging on the tank walls brought us back to reality.
We must have slept the sleep of the dead. That’s the only way to explain how we slept through an artillery barrage that also managed to damage our left drive sprocket. We quickly changed the track links that were damaged. Then we noticed that there was only a mound of dirt left on the track guard where the rations crate had been stored.
Our division’s reconnaissance aircraft, a Fieseler Storch, descended and tossed out a report canister. A short while later, orders were issued: “Prepare for combat!”
“Elevated alert status!”
It was said that a large armored formation was headed towards us from behind the hill.
Well, then, let’s bring it on!
A quarter of an hour passed before they arrived: 10, 20, 50, 100. The numbers kept increasing.
The first few rounds hissed their way towards us. The impacts were way too short. Since our weapons were most effective at 400 meters, we had to keep our nerve and allow the mass of Russian armor to approach even closer. A depression in front of us removed the first attack wave from our sight. But when they appeared again, we had the best firing positions imaginable. Fireworks of an unbelievable size and scope started up. My first round was a direct hit. My second round tore a chunk of turret away from another enemy tank.
New targets kept surfacing. As if in a drunken rush, we took up our site pictures and knocked them out. The Russians couldn’t believe what was happening. More and more tanks kept appearing from out of the depression. They were not successful in penetrating our lines, let alone achieving a breakthrough.
Without suffering a single loss, our tanks knocked out sixty-eight Russian tanks at Raziechow.
It was not possible to determine how many each individual tank knocked out. The main thing, however, was the overall success, to which each of us contributed his part.
As it turned dusk, we continued eastward without enemy resistance.
It was 3 July 1941. A mixed Kampfgruppe,12 about the size of two companies, assumed the lead. Leutnant von Renesse would have died of shame, if our 2nd Platoon had not been a part of it. For the first time, we headed to the southeast. We ran into the road leading east from Ostrog and headed east on it.
After a few kilometers, a village came into view.Villages in enemy territory, particularly those along the avenue of advance, merited special attention. We regrouped, and Leutnant von Renesse was able to see to it that our vehicle took over the lead.
You have to have experienced it yourself to understand what it means to drive point. All of your senses are stretched to the breaking point. You won’t get anywhere without some luck and a certain nose for it. In addition, a very quick reaction time was also a part of it.
Tank 22, with an Oberfeldwebel in command, moved to the left of us. In intervals of ten to twenty meters, the other vehicles of the platoon followed behind. Behind them, at a somewhat greater distance, was the mixed Kampfgruppe under the command of the company commander of the 6th Company.
We got closer and closer to the village. During a security halt, we heard a few roosters crowing, otherwise complete silence. A suspiciously deceptive quiet—or so it appeared to us.
Then we got to the edge of the village—and we saw them. A few meters in front of us were two nicely camouflaged Russian tanks. I took up a sight picture on the one off to the right of the road. The gun reported—direct hit! Again and again. Tank 22 reported: “Vehicle knocked out!” At that point, the vehicle I had taken under fire started to burn as well. A Russian, probably the only survivor, bailed out. That meant we could also report knocking out a tank.
That terrible game repeated itself several times. Then we finally made it through to the other side of the village. Tally: Tank 22—five vehicles destroyed; our Tank 21—three more. That’s what our report said. In all, nine tanks were counted as having been knocked out. It was really immaterial. It would have been embarrassing, however, if only seven had been counted afterwards. At the end of the village, where we all gathered together, we moved out in line and had a great field of view to the front. The road disappeared into a patch of woods about three kilometers away. In front of it were fields and pastures, which sloped down slightly from the village to the woods. About a kilometer away and about 100 meters off the side of the road was a grouping of peasant huts.
It was a peacetime portrait, lit up by a terrific summer sun. But that didn’t last too long. We were rapidly called back to reality.
On the road in front of us, a column of trucks was approaching. As long as it was just trucks, it wasn’t so bad. Nonetheless: pay attention!
The closer the twelve trucks approached, the more it became obvious that they thought we were the Russian tanks that we had just dispatched. It was probably their trains.
Whatever the case, they presented themselves as terrific targets, which we carefully divided up among ourselves. But it still wasn’t time to open fire.
At that point, however, an unlucky radio operator, in his excitement, pressed down on the release mechanism for his machine gun. We had no other choice but to also let fly. Valuable seconds were lost and three of the trucks were able to turn and flee. It goes without saying that we would have liked to have kicked our own asses. Leutnant von Renesse solved the problem in his own fashion. He ordered our platoon to follow them.
And so we moved up, picking up speed as we went. We soon reached the road and figured we would catch up with the trucks, when there were fireworks up ahead. We were taken under fire by guns along the edge of the woods. I then heard that a radio message had come from the company, but I did not understand it. I only heard Leutnant von Renesse radio back to the company that he intended to assault and take the artillery position. He yelled to the driver to pull off the road to the left and give it full throttle to the artillery position.
And we sped out. Tank 21, the only one on the open plain. We actually felt the impacting rounds come closer by the second. We swung the vehicle to the left and then to the right. We were flying. I fired at random. We then moved through a corn-field. We turned a bit to the side and rocked along with the tank.
“Bunker!” someone in the vehicle shouted. And then there was a knocking. Lightning flashed; steel shrapnel hissed around. The sounds of pain. Moaning. And the vehicle remained stationary.
“Get out . . . get out now!”
I threw the hatch open, but I had to close it again immediately, since it was covered by a murderous machine-gun fire. I then saw them through the vision slot: bunkers . . . small ones . . . large ones . . . to the left of me . . . up front. And what was to the right? To the right! For the time being, I was able to see that the loader’s hatch was wide open and that my tank commander, the loader, and the radio operator were gone.
Our driver was at my feet, moaning and his shirt covered in blood. He had taken a lot of shrapnel.
And me? What was wrong with me? I didn’t appear to be wounded. I wasn’t able to find anything initially. Anything else? I still had my wits about me. I slowly started to think. Why don’t I just bail out like the others? I was no longer able to do that. For one thing, because I couldn’t leave our wounded driver alone. For another . . . they were firing on our vehicle from all sides like crazy. The heavier rounds, however, were sailing past our vehicle. Were the Russians really that bad of shots? Or were they firing at another target?
It wasn’t until later that I discovered that the leader of our Kampfgruppe had advanced fearlessly close to our vehicle, picking up the dismounted crewmembers. Unfortunately, he did not escape without a scratch. His vehicle was hit, which cost the radio operator his life. That was the reason for the increased amount of firing.
I was still camping out in our tank, however. Following my intuition, I traversed the turret a bit to the left so as to have more of a sloped surface to the front. Should I have just left well enough alone? Probably assuming that the knocked-out vehicle had come back to life, the next few rounds were intended for me. It was enough to drive you crazy!
Then . . . a murderous racket. It took my breath away. A hit on the mantlet. Fortunately for me, it ricocheted—thanks to the positioning of the turret. Then another muffled smack. It shook the tank through and through. The heavy jack on the track guards was no longer there. Old rags that were near me started to smoke. Just don’t let the rest of the vehicle start to burn!
All of a sudden, the enemy’s fires stopped. Silence surrounded me. What did all that mean? I cannot claim that I was especially comfortable with the thought that I was alone in a knocked-out tank with a badly wounded comrade in the middle of a bunker-spiked line of resistance. The only contact with the company, the radio, was destroyed. Signaling from the open hatch had little chance of success in being seen by my comrades at this distance. It was a different story with the enemy, however. This all meant that I had no opportunity to send out a sign of life.
Afterwards, I discovered that a Feldwebel from our platoon had been given orders to keep on eye on us. After a little bit of back and forth, he limited himself to the observation that we must have been dead for some time, since we otherwise would have already drawn notice to ourselves by then.
The “watch dog” of our platoon, an Unteroffizier, was not satisfied with that self-serving logic, however. He moved out in his vehicle, Tank 25, and raced out towards our tank from the left at full throttle. I saw him thundering forward and pulled the wounded driver up onto the gunner’s seat, hoping I would be able to switch tanks with him. Dear God, I pleaded, please allow 25 to get through to us in one piece! And, in the end, he was actually able to do it, ramming against the left side of the vehicle with a hard blow.
I gave the driver a shove and pushed behind him until he was on the track guard. By the time I was in position to attempt a jump, 25 took off at full steam. In the fireworks that were going off, he had not noticed what had happened.
I remained behind, abandoned and alone.
I had to get away . . . I had to get out of there! I considered the possibilities. I racked my brain. Stupidly, I started thinking about manuals and directives and what they said to do when abandoning a knocked-out tank. According to them, I had to dismount with my gas mask. I slung it around my shoulder. The manuals in the vehicles were also supposed to be taken along. I grabbed them. In addition to my pistol, I also slung the submachine gun on.
I had barely stuck my head outside the hatch when there was hell to pay—machine-gun fire. For the time being, it was all over with any thoughts of bailing out. Besides, the stupid gasmask and the cumbersome submachine gun were hindering me. Off with them, despite the regulations!
I sat there, considered my options, and thought some more. I have no idea how long it was. Then I heard the sound of an engine and saw an enemy tank approaching me from the woods. There was no more time for thinking. I got ready to jump and sprung out of the turret with a mighty leap. I landed in one piece, despite the burst of machine-gun fire intended for me. For a couple of seconds, I played dead. Then I pulled myself with a jerk behind the tank. So . . . at least I was that far. But what was I going to do then? There was open terrain behind me, followed by a barbed-wire entanglement. The cornfield was not until after that; it was the only thing that could offer cover.
Of course . . . the smoke grenades . . . they could help me. With the barrel of my pistol, I freed them from their mounts. Whether they would still ignite? Yes, sir . . . they lit up. Thank heavens! But I no longer had the strength to toss them far. When they started to get hot, I simply let them roll out of my hands. Where was the smoke headed? Instead of towards the Russians, it was drifting towards our lines. By then, I couldn’t give a shit. I crouched down to run and gulped down as much air as the smoke would allow. I took heart, geared up, and raced off. At some point in running, I grabbed for an officer’s cap, that of my tank commander. I then reached the entanglement, raced through it, and plunged towards the cornfield. I made it to the edge of the field, despite the hail of lead around me. From there, I waved to my comrades and collapsed.
When I regained consciousness, I saw a tank next to me. To be more precise: I saw a gigantic track and didn’t know whether it was friend or foe. Finally, I heard the saving words: “Jump up on the rear!” That was easier said than done in my condition. But I finally got up there and someone pulled me through the loader’s hatch. What did I care that the tank was also being heavily engaged? It knocked out the tank I previously mentioned and then put a couple of bunkers out of commission. I had nothing at all to do with what happened.
We moved back slowly. Heavy Russian artillery fire impacted to the right and left. A self-propelled Flak that had halted next to us received a direct hit. I was so completely out of my head that I threw open the loader’s hatch and jumped out in a panic. Then there was a rushing noise approaching me again. I ran to another tank and rode on it out of the beaten zone.
Finally, finally, I was out of there.
It was Leutnant von Seydlitz, a descendent of the famous cavalry general, who had picked me up at the forward edge of the cornfield. For his demonstrated bravery, he received the Iron Cross, First Class. There was no one who congratulated him in a more heartfelt manner than I.
On the following day, the heavily reinforced line of bunkers fell after an appropriate artillery preparation and the employment of our motorized riflemen.
On the afternoon of 4 July, the loader and I recovered the mortally wounded
21. The maintenance section repaired it enough that it could move back to the workshop in Ostrog under its own power. Lacking a driver, I sat myself behind the controls and took it back at a leisurely pace.
A few days later, our 21 was combat-ready again.
It was 21 July 1941. We were marching southeast, in the direction of Uman. Tank 21 had a new driver. Leutnant von Renesse, who was leading the platoon from another vehicle in the meantime, switched back to 21.
Four kilometers beyond Nestorowka, we reached a railway line, which led from Uman to Kiev. The point element must have caught a really big fish, since a shot-up freight train, which was loaded with innumerable T-34’s, was on the rails. That was the Russian tank, against which our main guns could barely do anything. They, however, were able to shoot us to pieces from 1,000 meters.
There was fighting in front of us. Progress was slow. When we got to the rails, it looked as though we would be staying there for some time. It appeared that they didn’t need our tanks up ahead; we were not summoned.
“Hey . . . take a look over there . . . tanks from the 16th Armor!” somebody shouted. There was no denying it: tanks were rolling through the terrain off to our right.
We knew that the 16. Panzer-Division had been employed to our right, but was their avenue of advance so close to ours? Not likely. But everything is possible in war. Correspondingly, no one was concerned when the tanks started to turn towards us. Maybe they wanted to pay a visit. What was that about paying a visit? The guys started firing at us! No wonder: they were Russian tanks. Shit!
In the blink of an eye, the motorized riflemen on the back deck jumped off the vehicle. Our 5th Company, which consisted of only seven operational tanks at the time, extracted itself from the vehicular column and moved on both sides of the railway embankment in the direction of the enemy. After a short exchange of fire, the Russians fled, as if in a panic. Three knocked-out tanks were left behind.
As a reward for the successful engagement, we did not have to advance any farther. We were left behind as security against any Russians tanks that might break through from the north.
Wonderful—especially since we figured that the Russians wouldn’t try anything in our sector any more. Based on the circumstances, we made ourselves comfortable. Fastening a few shelter halves to the track guards, we fashioned half-tents, which allowed us to stretch out our weary bones while sleeping.
Unfortunately, we did not get to indulge in that most favorite of all soldier occupations. And not because the evil enemy put paid to our plans. Oh, no—it was more on the lines of a sudden storm with a downpour of rain, with the result that we preferred to huddle together in the dry narrowness of our tank. It continued to rain through the morning of 22 July. And then the rain stopped as suddenly as it had begun, and there was streaming sunshine all around us. It was a day made for doing nothing.
Among other things the previous day, we had “knocked out” an enemy goose. We put roast goose on our menu for the day. The loader was given the honorable mission of plucking the feathers. In the meantime, we strolled through the area and took a look at the freight train with the T-34’s, where some Russian women were tending to the wounded. We then took off a few hundred meters farther towards the woods.
When we finally looked back, we were shocked to discover that we had distanced ourselves impermissibly far from our tanks. We immediately ended our excursion and took a mighty ass chewing from our company commander. We didn’t take it too bad; it wasn’t the first one and certainly would not be the last one. There was nothing to be seen of the enemy far and wide. Occasionally, a truck or a column surfaced on the avenue of advance towards Uman. Otherwise, there was a peaceful silence.
The goose was already in the bucket and was bubbling away quietly. But it just would not get done.
It turned five in the afternoon. The goose was still as tough as leather, however.
It turned six, and the beast still was not enjoyable. Well, we then wanted to wait until it turned seven. We would devour it then as it was. But then . . . right at the stroke of seven, there was a crash. We were in the midst of fire from Russian tanks. They were coming from that patch of woods where we had taken a stroll a few hours earlier. It took a while before we recovered from the shock. But then we got a fire in our pants. In a flash, we were at our battle stations.
We counted at least nine Russian tanks, and all of them were approaching on the side of the railway embankment where there were only four tanks, most of them armed with only the 3.7-centimeter main gun. Without exception, all of the approaching tanks were T-34’s. That promised to be exciting. Good grief! They were already opening fire at great range. We couldn’t do anything but hope they didn’t hit and wait until they had closed to a good range for us.
The antitank rounds flew past our turrets. I wanted to get out to untie the shelter halves, so that they would not be torn apart during our changes of position. We needed them, after all, since it appeared the war would go on for some time to come.
A headfirst dive and I was out. But no matter how much I pulled and tugged, the shelter halves could not be separated from the tank. Crap! Back into the tank. We had to get out of there; the Russians were starting to get our range.
Finally, it was time I could fire. Round after round left the barrel. Over there, where they were, there was no effect to be seen. “Shit!” Leutnant von Renesse yelled at me. But the other vehicles of the platoon weren’t having an easy time of it, either. It was enough to make you pull your hair out!
Farthest to the left was Tank 2, followed by Tank 1 of the company commander, and then our 21, the platoon leader’s tank for the 2nd Platoon. To the right of us, Tank 24 was fighting. That was our entire armada!
Wham! We took our first hit. It did not cause any damage.
The round in the breech did not want to fire. It was also jammed and could not be extracted. The whole piece of crap was hopelessly stuck. All efforts to clear the jam met with no success. There was no choice left but to move behind the embankment and there try to free up the round from the front. But my tank commander didn’t want to hear any of that. His answer: “We’ll stay here and lend moral support through our presence. After all, we still have a machine gun!” He couldn’t have given me a more stupid answer. A musket against nine T-34’s!
“Number 2 is burning!” the driver yelled, putting the tank into reverse.
I looked through my vision port and saw that Number 1 had just received a direct hit; my company commander and another man of the crew were dismounting. A few seconds later and the commander’s tank was ablaze.
Now it’s our turn! Those were my thoughts. Then there was a hit.
Hatch open—and out! I was out.
My vehicle set back a little bit. Hauptmann Zügner, the company commander, who was crouching behind his vehicle, saw me and called out: “For God’s sake, go to your vehicle and try to move back.”
Fine. I climbed back up on the crate. At the same moment, a hissing sound approached. I threw myself onto the track guard and felt a powerful blow. It shook me powerfully. My ears were already so deaf, I was barely able to hear the detonation.
But I did hear cries from within the vehicle. Horrific cries . . . again and again. It was gruesome.
I finally jumped off the vehicle, looking for cover behind the tank. I found our loader there.
Something exploded in the fighting compartment, and our 21 started to burn. There was only one thing left to do—get away from there as soon as possible before the entire thing went up. But where?
Our last tank, Number 24, turned and pulled back. We took off after it. We had to reach it. It was our last chance. It couldn’t get away from us.
We shouted, we waved, we screamed our lungs out. But who was going to hear our thin shouts in the midst of that inferno of exploding vehicles, bursting rounds and thundering engines?
Running through the grain, which had been beaten down by the rain, was sheer torture. But we were getting closer to Number 24. Another shock—it no longer had a turret! Only the driver was still in the vehicle. He was trying to put distance—meter by meter—between himself and the Russians.
Yes—and someone else was taking flight along with the vehicle: the tank commander of Number 24 or, to be more precise, what was left of him. When the turret was shot off, it also took his head and the upper part of his body. The tank commander was the Feldwebel who had declined to advance forward to my Number 21 when we were at the Stalin Line.
We pulled ourselves up onto the moving 24, since there was no question of stopping in the hail of fire. All of the fires from the Russian tanks were concentrating on that single vehicle at that point. It took a great effort to hang on. We continued on. 100 meters . . . 200 meters. We reached the avenue of advance. But the hail of fire also continued. That was more than a normal mortal could stand.
So . . . get away from the misfortunate vehicle, which was only a creeping wreck at that point. The loader was in agreement with me, and we jumped off. We ran to the left, crossed the embankment and thought we were finally safe.
Crouched over, we intended to run along the one side of the embankment to the avenue of advance and the rest of the company.
We didn’t look back. Fear? You bet, to be quite honest about it. Naked fear bore down on us and drove us on. We didn’t want to lose our lives at that spot—not by a long shot. And we certainly did not want to be buried at that god-forsaken place!
Our strength gradually wore out. We were no longer running; it was more like a falling and a tripping. And our goal was still so far away! It seemed we were barely getting closer.
Friendly light artillery was going into position along the avenue of advance. The guns were firing over open sights right towards us. Had those dumb asses gone crazy? We cursed up a storm and prayed they wouldn’t hit us. We simply did not understand that they were firing at the Russian tanks behind us.
Angry as hell and with our last bit of strength, we reached the friendly position. We collapsed, exhausted, onto the ground. There wasn’t anything more we could do.
The med who was tending to us was horrified: “Both of you are in bad shape. You have to go to the main dressing station immediately.” I had a piece of shrapnel in my back, right next to my spine. In the hubbub, I hadn’t even noticed it. The loader was in even worse shape.
We were jammed into a motorcycle sidecar and taken to the division aid station, which was just setting up in Nestorowka. After we were treated by the doctors, we fell into the sleep of the dead.
Sometime during the night, there was a pulling and a tugging around me. I jumped up with a start. I was supposed to identify a tanker, who had just died on the operating table.
During the summer, we never wore the complete tanker uniform, just the trousers and the shirt and, perhaps, a turtleneck. The Soldbuch,13 of course, was in the pocket of the tanker jacket.
The dead tanker was dressed in that manner. Despite his bad wound, it was said that he had continued to fire at a T-34 with his pistol. Was that really heroism?
I had a foreboding of who it was in front of me. I looked at him a long time. There could be no doubt: it was my tank commander and platoon leader, Leutnant von Renesse.
One of the worst things in war was to get separated from your parent unit. Correspondingly, I resisted the directive to transfer me back to a rear-area field hospital.
One day later, I reported out of the main aid station to head back to my company. Prior to that, I fulfilled a sad duty: I was at the simple grave of my tank commander, when they buried him.
But nothing kept me back after that. A vehicle took me to the trains of the 5th Company. I reported in to Hauptfeldwebel Linde: “Unteroffizier Schrodek, wounded, reports back to the company from the main dressing station!”
Nothing but silence. The first sergeant was playing cards with two comrades, his back turned to me.
I clicked my heels in a demonstrative manner and started my report all over again: “Unteroffizier Schrodek . . .”
The two other comrades looked at me with their jaws dropped.
The Hauptfeldwebel interrupted me: “What idiot is pulling my leg? Unteroffizier Schrodek has been looking at radishes from the root side for some time now. I personally buried him myself yesterday.”
All of a sudden, he jerked and turned his head around. He face turned white and his jaw dropped. He attempted to say something, staring intently at me, as if I were a ghost.
“Shit, Schrodek . . . you’re alive after all!” After a pause: “That can’t be true!”
He grabbed me on the arm, pulled me to a truck, pulled out a pine cross, and held it in front of my nose:
Unteroffizier Gustav Schrodek
5. Kompanie / Panzer-Regiment 15
Killed on 22 July 1941
He gave me a friendly jab and said: “Get over to the company clerk, so he can destroy the loss report before it causes all sorts of mischief!”
I read the report over and over again: “Unteroffizier G. Schrodek, killed and buried four kilometers south of Nestorowka on the Uman-Kiev rail line on 22 July 1941.”
I felt justified in asking how it could be possible that I was reported as having been killed and that I had even been buried. It demanded a plausible explanation. Here it is. Whenever a tank is hit bad enough that it starts to burn, then all of the ammunition in the vehicle explodes as a result of the heat. In addition to the machine-gun ammunition, that could be close to 100 main gun rounds. What then transpires in the fighting compartment is barely imaginable. In any event, what remains of the humans, what was not totally ripped apart by the monstrous detonation, also burns up. That includes the metal identity tags, to say nothing of the pay books. But in order to permit a dignified burial of the comrades who died that way, the remnants of bones, tatters of uniforms, and ashes are distributed among as many ammo cans as the number who perished. In place of the identity tags that were no longer available, sealed bottles with corresponding inscriptions were placed in the ammo cans. There was really no other way to do it back then.
It was therefore understandable that mistakes were made, as was my case, when one did not know who had been able to dismount, especially if the missing had disappeared without a trace.
In war, there is nothing that does not exist, including the situation where a soldier whose comrades consider to be as dead as a mouse is standing at the field mess stuffing his stomach full and then burning his own grave marker.
And that’s exactly what I was doing at the time—jarringly alive and glad to be so.
German artillery fires across the Bug River, 22 June 1941.
A one-man bridge has been built for allowing riflemen and motorcycles to cross.
Pionier-Bataillon 79 (of the 4. Panzer-Division) uses pontoon rafts to carry vehicles across the river.
While being attacked from above by howling Stukas, deploying Soviets are suddenly confronted on all sides by German tanks. Panic surfaces, and much equipment is simply abandoned.
Simply pushed off the roadway, this Soviet BT-5 light tank will fire no more.
Slusk, destroyed from the air.
1 Translator’s Note. For each of the armored divisions discussed in detail by the authors in this book, there is an appendix with an abbreviated order of battle and list of commanders for that formation.
2 Translator’s Note. Nehring is referring to the “Guidelines for the Treatment of Political Commissars” (Richtlinien zur Behandlung politischer Kommissare), which was issued on 6 June 1941 and rescinded nearly one year later on 6 May 1942.
3 Translator’s Note. As is typical of German writing style, an author often refers to himself in the third person, even though the account is essentially a first-person narrative.
4 Translator’s Note. When Nehring wrote this some three decades ago, these were assumptions that could not be proven by fact because of the hermetically sealed Soviet archives of the time. Since then, most of these assertions have come to be accepted as true after exhaustive examination of Soviet secret archives by authors such as Viktor Suvorov in his book Ice-breaker: Who Started the Second World War? (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1990). The matter is far from settled among historians, but the ideas advanced by many senior German generals after the war that the invasion of the Soviet Union was a preemptive strike has gained ground in some circles over the years.
5 Translator’s Note. The error of that assumption will be borne out in the upcoming accounts.
6 Translator’s Note. For those unfamiliar with German ranks, there is an appendix at the back of the book. A Panzergruppe was essentially an “armored” field army, although it was not exclusively or even predominately filled with motorized, mechanized, or armored formations. ThePanzergruppen were later redesignated as Panzer-Armeen .
7 Translator’s Note. Volhynia is a region of western Ukraine.
8 Translator’s Note. A panje cart was a simple horse-drawn wagon, usually with only a single axle and drawn by a small draught horse, known in Russian as a panje .
9 Translator’s Note. German accounts usually use official military time as opposed to local time. In this case, the local time in the Soviet Union was two hours ahead—0513 hours.
10 Translator’s Note. The original German uses the ubiquitous term of Rollbahn, which, depending on context, can mean road, avenue of advance, main supply route, or a combination thereof. To avoid any confusion, the term will be translated to match the author’s intent.
11 Translator’s Note. Not immediately apparent is the fact that Schrodek is von Renesse’s gunner.
12 Translator’s Note. Kampfgruppe = battle group. Unlike U.S. Army usage, no differentiation is made between size. Thus, a Kampfgruppe can be a team (company level) or a task force (battalion level) or even larger and can include elements from several different combat arms within it (plus, occasionally, combat service support elements). Usually, such groups were named after the senior commander in the elements, e.g., Kampfgruppe Peiper .
13 Translator’s Note. Soldbuch = pay book. Each soldier carried this booklet, which not only recorded disbursements of money, but also any special pay, the issuance of equipment and uniform articles, a listing of awards, and other items. It also served as an additional means of identification in case the soldier’s identity tags were lost.