From the diary of Leutnant Karl Burkhardt, liaison officer in the I./Schützen-Regiment 10 of the 9. Panzer-Division
Beginning of January 1942. Our 9. Panzer-Division was employed on the extreme outer wing of the field army group east of Kursk. The shrunken companies of Schützen-Regiment 10 established primitive bunkers in the frozen earth under the most difficult of conditions to protect themselves from the exceptional cold and the continuously attacking Russians.
18 January 1942. It was Sunday. A radiant winter sun sparkled and blazed over the ice-stiffened land. The sector of our 1st Battalion seemed endlessly long. The company bunkers formed the front lines. It was the same for the battalion command post.
Together with Major Gorn, I went to the 3rd Company early in the morning to discuss a reconnaissance-in-force mission planned for the next day. The 3rd Company was all the way over to the left. As we arrived in the sector of the 2nd Company, the air started whistling around our ears. In between was the sound of impacting Russian heavy mortar rounds. They left a unique imprint in the previously undisturbed snow: A black fleck in the middle, from which shrapnel left meter-long trails in the fluffy white.
We were rattling along in our Kübelwagen1 right in the middle of a Russian attack. The 2nd Company was able to turn back the attack on its own. There were at least sixty dead Russians in front of our positions.
The Russians had also attacked in the sector of the 3rd Company not much earlier. The advance bogged down in the minefields. But then they started to come from the left, the Russians. You could see them advancing with the naked eye, at least two companies of them. It was almost as if on the parade field. They marched in rank and column in a straight line through the knee-deep snow towards the west, exactly towards the place where our left-hand neighbors were supposed to be in position. The fireworks would be starting shortly.
But nothing happened. It was quiet as a church mouse over there. As a result, the Russians also attacked us frontally. Machine-gun fire came from in front of our positions towards our lines and forced us to take cover. Suddenly, to the rear of us on a piece of high ground, we saw about forty to fifty soldiers marching towards our artillery position. We breathed easier, since we were firmly convinced that they were our own people that the regiment had sent to protect the artillery.
But what we saw in our binoculars took our breath away. We saw that they were Russians, who were only about 300 meters from our guns. Not only we they deep to our rear, they were also doing it at a time that another Russian attack was demanding our full attention. To the left of us, two enemy companies were also marching unimpeded into the hinterland. An almost hopeless situation!
The battery commander, Hauptmann Moraw, was compelled to take drastic measures. He had his guns fire over open sights on the advancing Russians. At the very last moment, five tanks and three SPW’s2 of the divisional artillery arrived in Uderewka to help. With the combined forces, it was possible to get a little breathing space for the time being.
In the sector of the 3rd Company, Ivan continued to attack from three directions without interruption. When it turned dark, the left wing had to be bent back. The gap between us and the invisible left-hand neighbor grew larger. Highest alert status for the night!
19 January. As was his habit, Major Gorn personally led the relief attack that he had ordered of the tracked elements from Uderewka. At the same moment that the tanks and the SPW’s moved across the slope, a battalion of Russians stormed towards Uderewka from the northeast with their famous Uräää battle cry. The tank machine guns rattled, the main guns barked hoarsely and the 2-centimeter Flak thundered. From the other side, the automatic weapons of our 8th Company pelted the attacking Russians. The enemy battalion was completely wiped out. About 400 men were left dead in the snow, and 100 men surrendered. And all that was early in the morning, even before the sun had had a chance to shine!
Even though that slaughter had brought some relief, the Russians continued to attack—uninterrupted, from the front, from the left, and from the right. They even attacked with some scattered groups from the west.
A second relief attack that was launched from Uderewka that afternoon bogged down in the face of strong Russian defensive fires. When the twilight of a bitterly cold winter night descended, the situation in the battalion sector was still uncertain and extremely threatening.
In Russia, darkness did not equate to a break in the fighting. It was especially in the darkness that the Russians fought with a thousand tricks. We had often experienced the dead coming back to life in the darkness—only feigning death during the daylight hours. But that had to be impossible given the current conditions? Sure, there were some 400 Russian dead in the snow to the rear of us. Granted, the Russians had padded winter breeches and jackets, not to mention felt boots and fur hats. But who could live . . . survive . . . from seven in the morning until the night without moving in -42-degree weather [-44 Fahrenheit], all under our eyes. But there’s no thing like a sure thing! A squad received orders to check out the bloody scene of fighting from the early morning. We thought there were 400 lifeless bodies lying in a small area. But that was a grave mistake, just like a lot of things in Russia had already been.
The Landser3 went from man to man, kicking hard against the motionless figures. The dead were frozen solid, but that wasn’t all by a long shot. With about every tenth kick, the boots hit a soft, living mass, either waking a dead man to life or keeping a wounded man from most certainly freezing to death. We simply did not want to believe that a few dozen men were marching off to captivity instead of ambushing us unawares in the darkness.
The twentieth of January started with an alert from Uderewka: large Russian formations were swinging east behind our front and attacking our positions from the rear, while there were frontal attacks all along the front at the same time. Even the “fire brigade” ordered to help us—two companies in strength—which the highest command levels had dispatched was unable to provide a lasting change to the threatening situation. Causing the most apprehension was the fact that the only supply route from Uderewka was under the control of the enemy.
Artillery and mortars pounded the positions of the 3rd Company for hours on end. Based on our experience, that meant a larger Russian attack was coming there. The 1st Company had already turned back two company-sized attacks. The situation became so critical, that the men of the battalion headquarters had to be employed as a final reserve on the road to Uderewka. Those were clerks, messengers, cooks, and cobblers and whoever else could be found. Out into the night and fog, without protection, without cover, at forty-two below zero! Oriented to the west! A relief attack by our tanks brought some relief. But security needed to be pulled the whole night through and in all directions of the compass.
Finally, on 21 January, reinforcements arrived. They were formations that had stood in combat with the enemy forces that had broken through to the rear. The frontal attacks from the east abated; for the time being, there was only heavy mortar fire on the positions of the 3rd Company.
It was quiet on the front on 23 January, but there was hard fighting to our rear. The night saw a big attack on the positions of the 8th Company; the temperature registered -48 degrees [-54.5 Fahrenheit].
On 23 January, the crisis reached its high point. During the day, the thermometer registered -47 degrees [-52.6 Fahrenheit]. Early in the morning, the 3rd Company had to turn back an attack from the northeast. While that was happening, a reinforced Russian battalion marched through the gap to the left of the 3rd Company, pivoted to the east two kilometers to our rear and then promptly attacked us from the rear. It almost sounds like a fairy tale, but that extremely critical situation was mastered by that last-ditch ad hoc band of infantry, supported by two death-defying tanks.
Toward 1530 hours, the numerically superior enemy fled in a panic. Before it turned dark, the gap in the lines between the 3rd Company and the left-hand neighbor was closed. We were hoping for a quiet night, since all of us were in desperate need of sleep. But as was often the case, what we had hoped for was not what we received. The regiment alerted us. It was reported that the Russians were going to attack all along the front. Despite that dire warning, it remained quiet. Early in the morning, the news reached us that the enemy that had broken through to our rear was locked in battle and that the danger to us was growing less by the hour.
When the sun rose on 24 January, we were delighted to discover that it had become “warmer.” The thermometer was showing only 30 below [-22 Fahrenheit]. In its place, however, was an icy wind from the east, which was driving the powdery, feather-light snow in front of it. These were the worst types of snowdrifts, which prevented any kind of vehicular traffic. Although we were proud to call ourselves an armored division, we had taken precautions in advance and switched to horse-drawn sleds.