EVERY MAN FOR HIMSELF

From the diary of Unteroffizier Gustav W. Schrodek, tank commander in Panzer-Regiment 15 of the 11. Panzer-Division

Beginning of December 1941, outside of Moscow. The capital of the Soviet Union was our attack objective. Would we reach it?

We crossed the canal, which led from Moscow to Kalinin, to the north of the city. From there, we advanced directly against the Soviet metropolis. We got as far as Kriukowa—indeed, a few kilometers beyond it. But then our attack bogged down, so much so that it simply would not go any more. We were palpably close to the Russian capital. I saw a traffic sign: Moskwa—18.5 kilometers.

We couldn’t do it . . . not even another kilometer closer. The Russian resistance was too great. The amount of aerial attacks, artillery fire, Stalin organ5 salvoes, and armored attacks is simply unimaginable—it was unbearable.

Of course, it came as no surprise that the Russian defensive effort outside of Moscow was enormous. That it would take on such enormous proportions was something that no one could anticipate, however. And all of it hit us full bore.

2 December 1941. It was thanks solely to the attentiveness of our driver that we were not knocked out. He saw a T-34 firing off to the left. He was able to pull the vehicle back a few centimeters so that the round intended for us whizzed just past the turret. But one of the vehicles from the company off to the right was hit. A direct hit on the front of the turret. I saw the tank commander and the driver bail out, before I could traverse the turret and take the enemy tank in sight. By then, it had already pulled back. It wasn’t until later that I saw that the tank commander no longer had any legs and the driver was frozen to the track with his bleeding hand.

Our ranks were getting thinner. A couple got hit every day. When would it be our turn?

We had our hands full with our dead as we were barely able to bury them. The ground had frozen as hard as a rock, so much so that we were unable to do anything at all with pickaxes and spades. It was only with hand grenades that we were able to blow out a shallow ditch as a grave.

The trust of the troops in the senior leadership dwindled; the morale had been battered. An order to retreat to the rear to a supposedly well-prepared defensive position did a lot to contribute to that mood. The “heavily fortified winter position,” which we passed a few days later under constant heavy pressure from the Russians, did not even have prepared machine-gun positions, let alone lines of bunkers with 8.8 guns.

Given the circumstances, everything went relatively well as far as Wolokolamsk. In and of itself . . . amazing. We had grown accustomed to quite other scenes during the Russian retreats. Was it because this was our first retreat? Possible?

After a long, long time, we finally received mail when we got to Wolokolamsk. We hadn’t written. What was the purpose? The mail wasn’t being sent, anyway. Moreover, we had other things to worry about at the time. We were being hunted and tracked, and the only thing that matter was saving our skins. It was clear to everyone that we could expect no mercy from the Russians. Ever since 9 December, we had been ordered to conduct a “scorched earth” policy.

“Scorched earth”—a terrible phrase! Even worse was the reality. Ever since Krijukowo, the villages abandoned by us went up in flames. It was a measure of primitive defense or a primitive measure of defense—however you wished to phrase it. It was hated by both friend and foe, but unfortunately necessary in order to prevent the enemy from being able to establish himself, while protected from the cold.

The graves of our dead were supposed to be flattened. Easier said than done. We limited ourselves to taking the grave markers, so as to deceive the Russians about our heavy losses and to keep the troop elements of the dead secret. We hoped to be able to spend a few quiet nights in Wolokolamsk. We set up quarters in whatever was available. Unfortunately, there could be no thought of sleep, since the hovels were crawling with lice. A pipe dream! One Feldwebel devised his own method for dealing with the insects. He went after the nesting places in the beam crevices with a blow-torch. The bugs burned up as planned, but the house also went up with them—not as planned. That’s all that we needed, since the fire alerted the Russians. Based on their previous experience, they had to believe we were evacuating the village. That meant we needed to get out of there!

But that didn’t occur without some dilly-dallying. The end of the story is this: We already had the Ivans at our throats in the middle of preparations for changing positions. Damn it to hell! That’s all we needed. At that point, everything went helter-skelter in order to get out of town. Whatever was not operational—unfortunately, that included a few tanks—had to be left behind and blown up. We could only pull back towards the south.

That went pretty well initially. Then, however, a simple ditch became an almost insurmountable obstacle. The first few vehicles were able to make it over. Then the walls of the ditch became so slick with ice that our tanks tracks could not take hold. It was not possible to take the ditch by making a run on it or to go around it. The only way out was to blow up a tank in the hole. By filling it that way, the rest could move across what was left.

When we reached Novo Petrowskoje, a village that had a road leading west out of it, it was burning like a torch. We crossed through it quickly in the direction of Pokrowskoje. It was only there that we were able to rest. The fuel tanks were almost empty. And there was no fuel available—at least officially. On the sly, I got two cans of fuel. Only a sure thing is a sure thing, or so I thought! But it’s a well-known fact that a soldier should not think. He should leave the thinking to horses, since they have the bigger heads.

That old saying came true the next day, 18 December. “Which vehicle is still capable of moving back on its own?” Feeling a bit cocksure, I reported, since it was also the truth. There was one other tank in our company that was not short of fuel.

All of the other combat vehicles were blown up, and the crews did not shed a tear. They were overjoyed, since they were allowed to march back to the passage points immediately and without having to fight. A few of them even rounded up some horses and sleds.

The two of us company riff-raff had to stay behind in Petrowskoje, together with two tanks from another company.

But things would turn even worse. The riflemen providing security were turning back a Russian attack at the time and were crying for tanks. Moving against the Russians was nothing we were looking forward to. But orders were orders! We took off immediately since we were needed urgently.

And so we took up “battle stations” and headed back towards Novo Petrowskoje. After two kilometers, we turned off to the left, where a built-up area could be seen about 1,000 meters away. That’s where our riflemen were supposed to be holding out.

The closer we got to the village, the stranger things seemed to be. There wasn’t a soul to be seen; that could not be possible! They couldn’t be sending us to a regiment that wasn’t there!

We then saw a few trucks and a German field mess. A slight amount of smoke was still curling out of the chimney.6 But where were the men? No guards, no outposts. Nothing. Uncanny. Unbelievable. Finally, a few figures appeared. Damn! They were Russians! Charge into them!

All of a sudden, there were a few German riflemen there as well. They were mixing it up in a big way. I moved with my vehicle further into the village to see what else was going on. It was the same scene in the village proper.

But wait a minute—it was not quite the same film. Heavily armed men stood guard in front of the biggest house. The two guards were Russian. We pushed forward carefully, closer and closer. Although we were barely twenty meters away from them and couldn’t be missed, no one took notice of us. The Russians continued to talk to one another without interruption, walking back and forth. When we turned off the engine, we heard them laugh—loudly and with gusto. That was too much. Did they think our vehicle was a Russian tank? If that was the case, then Russian combat vehicles had to be in the vicinity. That meant we had to act quickly. And that’s exactly what we did. After a short fire command and a high-explosive round, the Russians guards no longer had anything to laugh about.

Once gone, German soldiers came rushing out of the house. Disregarding any potential danger, they ran towards my tank, mounted up on the rear deck, shook our hands in thanks, and even smothered us in kisses. We were lucky that no one bothered us at that point.

So what had happened?

Around 1100 hours, the Russians had attacked so suddenly that the motorized riflemen had been overrun. The constant staying outdoors in the cold and the lack of rations and sleep had paralyzed alertness and the ability to resist. As a result, they were quickly overpowered and taken prisoner. The fact that we had been able to liberate them made up for a lot. It was also understandable that we then felt responsible for them.

It was clear that Russian tanks were nearby. The icy wind blew snatches of engine noise to our ears. Something had to be done quickly, if the tragedy of the morning was not to be repeated.

But we could not convince the officers in charge of the riflemen to evacuate the village, in spite of the fact that they were in a mousetrap. They had been ordered not to give up the village before 1600 hours, and they wanted to execute their orders as issued.

That meant things could get dicey. It went without saying, however, that we would not leave them to themselves. But holding out for another three hours with our four little tanks and the handful of hastily grouped-together riflemen? I could no longer stand idly by.

But all of the reproaches did nothing to change the situation. My success was limited to getting some of the exhausted men and the wounded out of there on the superfluous vehicles. We deployed our vehicles so that we could keep the withdrawal routes open.

It turned 1400 hours. And then the inevitable happened. The sounds of the enemy tanks drew ever closer. We still couldn’t see them, however. Our teeth started to chatter. I will be gracious and say it was due to the cold.

Took a look around—the rifle officers no longer appeared to be so certain of what they were doing. They ran up to us and asked us to move out against the Russian tanks. No way! They still believed in fairy tales and thought that we could scare away the T-34’s with our old crates as soon as we appeared. In the meantime, they intended to evacuate the Russian village, since they no longer thought it could be held in the face of a Russian attack.

We were to move forward—give up our good positions—play the role of range targets—allow ourselves to be cut off by the Russians! We weren’t about to commit suicide! On the road, we would be knocked out immediately; out in the open, we would have gotten stuck in the snow. All that meant nothing to the Russian T-34’s. They were able to churn through anything. In contrast, we immediately bottomed out.

While we, the tank commanders, were still in the process of explaining all the facts to the riflemen, I received a call from the turret of my tank: “Here they come!” We raced to our combat vehicles, and the rifle officers attempted to reach the positions of their people just as quickly.

Since my gunner had taken my place in order to observe while I was gone, I simply jumped into his seat when I sprang into the vehicle, since I saw a T-34 rapidly approaching us. Unfortunately, it was not the only one.

While I was taking up a sight picture on it, it suddenly came to a stop and fired. My vehicle was not its initial target. I thanked the enemy crew for that with a well-aimed antitank round. But as was so often the case, I didn’t do anything to him with my bird gun. On the other hand, the enemy tank came alive. The worst part was that it started to go after me.

It is therefore quite understandable that I devoted my entire attention to the tank opponent in front of me. As a result, I did not notice that the other vehicle from my company was no longer operational and, indeed, had dead on board. I also did not immediately notice that panic had broken out among the riflemen. The rear leaving their cover and attempting to escape across the open, snow-covered fields. Many were shot to pieces.

There was one other thing I did not see: a truck belonging to the riflemen that was approaching my tank, attempting to get past to reach the road. A swarm of rifleman were also climbing up on my tank.

While I was preoccupied with sending round after round over to the T-34, the monstrous truck rammed into my traversed main gun at full speed. The turret was flung to the side. Something broke. The turret could no long be traversed.

Combat ineffective! At that moment, of all times! As the result of such nonsense! No one will think the worst of me, if it didn’t matter at all to me at the moment that my main gun batted some of the riflemen in the back and sent them flying in a high arc. God knows, I had other worries.

“Let’s get out of here . . . give it some gas!” I yelled to the driver. He immediately caught on to what was at stake.

There was no possibility of moving fast, however, since riflemen were standing in my way, wanting to climb aboard. Using our combined strength, we were able to traverse the main gun to the rear from outside of the turret.

It wasn’t until then that I saw the entire drama playing out around me. The riflemen were in wild flight all along the line, hunted by the Russian tanks. The other tank from my company had been knocked out. By then, we were moving past another knocked-out tank. We no longer had any way on our tank to provide aimed fire. There was nothing more to be seen far and wide of the fourth tank. Everywhere you looked there were Russian tanks, which were completely unaffected by our main gun.

Eight riflemen were cowering on the front of my tank. Bunches of them were hanging off the sides. Despite that, more and more were attempting to climb up on the rear deck while we were moving. Many of them had already been wounded by all the shrapnel flying about. But being wounded meant nothing at that point, when you smelled an opportunity to escape the inferno.

Just don’t remain behind—that was all that anyone thought!

Trusting blind luck, I let loose an occasional round from my main gun. Of course, I did not hit, and the T-34’s drew ever closer. If one of them had halted for a moment in order to engage us with well-aimed fire, then all of our worries would have been over. As round after round sailed past us, we were just hoping to survive the next one.

Looking through the opened gunner’s vision port, I saw another rifleman attempting to climb aboard, be he got caught up in the track. I quickly leaned out, grabbed him and freed him from the track. At the same moment, there was a heavy impact next to us and the man was badly hit. He died in my hands.

“Sorry, comrade, but you have to stay here!” I slowly opened my fist and let him slide to the snow on the ground.

At that point, the road was open and we stepped on it. “My” T-34 remained behind. We had escaped death one more time! When we arrived in Pokrowskoje, we saw that two of the riflemen aboard had not escaped that fate. They had been hit by shrapnel on the way and had died of their wounds.

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