Leutnant Wolfgang Paul, acting company commander in Schützen-Regiment 52 of the 18. Panzer-Division
16 November 1941. The summer had driven us into the eastern flatlands, the fall had held us there with its unyielding, unforgettable mud and the winter wanted to drive us out again. It was as though we had stumbled into a world that we would never really get to know.
It seemed everything was cold, inhospitable, and arrayed against us.
In November 1941, we advanced through Orel to the Krassnaja Metscha River, which was part of the tributary system of the upper Don. Our Schützen-Regiment 52 moved along iced-over roads on German tanks, French trucks, and Russian fire department vehicles. There was a deep layer of snow, and we left tracks on the countryside, tracks in which wolves followed. An enemy was running in front of us, whom we thought capable of doing anything an enemy can do to another human.
During the afternoon, we arrived in a village that was in the vicinity of the river. We were tired, dissipated—as we were every day back then. It was directed for the regiment to cross the river during the night and establish a bridgehead. The engineers were to then build a bridge . . . the tanks would use it . . . the advance allowed for no delays—at least on the general staff maps.
I led a motorized rifle company.
I walked a few steps ahead of the others, who had to go with me that night and who had previously been spared. I walked neither too quickly nor too slowly; there was no special hurry. We had a long November night and time to establish ourselves over there in front of the enemy.
It was quite cold. The field mess had taken care of us. We were full and thought we would get everything over in a hurry. Then we saw the river. There was a village on this side and a village on the far side. A narrow wooden bridge appeared ahead in the darkness. We ran quickly across. It was dark; the sky protected us.
It was not until we were on the other side that the Russians started firing. By then, however, it was already too late; we had already established ourselves on the far side. Like us, the Russians were also freezing and had put out hardly any guards. That’s how we surprised them. A few of them were hit immediately, others surrendered, and most of them just got out of there. It was not until morning that we discovered how many there were in front of us.
I established outposts; there were small skirmishes occasionally. I then went to sleep in a hut.
Toward noon, there was a light wind, which allowed us to hear firing from a great distance. We figured that the Russians wanted to retake the bridgehead. Behind us, on the river, the engineers were in the process of building the bridge our tanks were supposed to use. In front of us were a few houses that we had not been able to take the previous night. I decided to also take those houses so that the Russians would be forced out into the open. By doing that, I thought I might be able to drive them away, since it was very cold and no one liked to be out lying in the open.
I took a few men and had our machine guns directed towards worthwhile targets. We then crawled through the snow over to the houses. The Russians soon discovered us, and they did not want to give up their last remaining huts in this area. That’s how the engagement started.
We first set the houses on fire though our fires. Only the last hut—the one at the outskirts of the village—did not want to catch fire. Finally, around two in the afternoon, we had closed to within fifteen meters of the house. A few of our number were hit; the medics took care of them.
A soldier practices his craft with playful but deadly earnest, which he needs to learn so as not to take matters too seriously. He often has the impression that he’s on a hunt and only has to knock off a few bucks, not other humans. In addition, there was the cold, and we had little desire to delay the matter any longer. I called out the names of a few men who were laying next to me in the snow and who had not yet been shot by the Russians. They were directed to get their hand grenades ready so that we could then jump up to take the house. That they did and, after a few moments and a little bit of hesitation, they called out to me that they were ready. And then something happened to me that I was only able to fathom later.
A few minutes followed my decision to stand up and put an end to the matter. In those minutes, I experienced something extraordinarily important for me. I want to say: In those few moments in the cold countryside along the river with the diffi-cult-to-pronounce name, I succeeded in overlooking that which one calls war.
Up to that point, even though I had participated in a few engagements and had also received medals for them, I had only had the feeling in those dangerous matters, which meant life or death, of being in the middle of them. But I had not known what it was like when one suddenly transcendseverything.
The terrain on which we lived and on which there was dying—usually matter-of-factly and without knowing a lot about the death that could come so rapidly—had still remained an unknown quantity to me.
I had no name I could give to this terrain, and I always attempted to accept everything as if it had been put there so that I would perhaps survive. I didn’t make any effort to ponder it in some sort of effort to perhaps finally discover where everything was leading.
I think that’s the way it was for most back then and, as a result, it also explains our successes.
Determined to put an end to the soldiers in the house, I pulled my left leg up closer to my body, looked around towards the others one more time and was lulled by that false sense of security one has who is dispensing death without any type of human feelings.
At that moment I did not know whether I would get out of there in one piece, but I did know that I had to jump up. In the next moment, it would depend on me, a Leutnant in a motorized rifle regiment, as to whether I would be courageous or cowardly.
I jumped up in order to toss my hand grenades. Snow fell from my overcoat. I shook myself and attempted to move my clammy legs forward in order to reach the house. I armed the hand grenade and threw it, standing right across from the door I saw in front of me.
While the hand grenade descended from its high arch towards the door, the door opened and a soldier stood in its threshold. He was someone from the other side, a Russian, who had done the same thing at the same moment as I had done—arm a hand grenade and throw it towards me.
And so we stood across from one another—he over there and I over here—and both of us had the dangerous explosives between us. I saw his cap first and then his face, a pale, unshaven and frozen face, a face like that of my men, no different. I saw rage in this face, also hate and, at the same time, a sureness that comes over someone who is attempting something in order to get out of a dangerous situation. I saw his moist nose and his tight mouth; cheeks that were well nourished and ears under a fur cap.
In his face, I saw the person I would be killing momentarily, and I waited on the explosion of the two hand grenades.
I did not throw myself into the snow so as to possibly survive the explosion. I did not jump to the side so as to get out of the way of the Russian’s hand grenade.
I saw how the Russian looked at me, as if he, too, had discovered a different world.
And I saw how he bent his head toward me—as if he wanted to greet me. Then a gray cloud rose from his feet, tore his legs away from his heavy body and tore him in two above the belt.
He died like a tree on which someone had placed demolitions on the trunk, filling his surroundings with a rapid fright and then complete stillness, as if the toppling had been completed.
A few bits of shrapnel from the hand grenade, which he had thrown, burrowed their way into my body and took me out of action.