Obergefreiter Walter Berger, Panzergrenadier-Regiment 10, 9. Panzer-Division

The end of November 1942. Our 9. Panzer-Division, badly battered by two intense operations in the summer and early fall, was undergoing battlefield reconstitution in the area around Gshatsk along the Wjasma-Moscow road.

Our 5th Company was quartered in Jekaterenino, a village about ten kilometers west of Gshatsk. Jekaterenino was a right proper panje village: a loose line of shabby wooden huts along an extended ridgeline, all threaded together by a “road,” whose otherwise limitless mud had been turned into a rutted field as hard as stone courtesy of the frost. All around, as far as the eye could see—and it could see immeasurable distances—there was nothing but countryside. The weather suited the landscape: It was a typical early Russian winter weather. The cold was still bearable and there were only occasional snow flurries, but the skies were always covered in a blanket of clouds that were leaden gray, heavy and low hanging. Under those clouds, it rarely turned properly light the entire day. In addition, there was a fine, but penetrating wind from the east.

In order to solve the quartering problem, that is, get places for the soldiers to live, we went about it in the normal fashion. In some cases, the Russians were turned out of their places and put in about half of the houses. They were used to it and, moreover, did not do too badly, since the German soldiers occasionally let something go for the local populace, even though they themselves lived frugally. Although it was not a cordial relationship, it was always polite. The Maruschkas washed our clothes for a few boxes of matches. Barter flourished, somewhat along the lines of cigarettes for sauerkraut. We even enjoyed the local sauna—the banja—although, as a security precaution, it was not with the locals. You still got lice, but they were not anything you immediately needed to chase down.

The 1st Platoon was quartered at the upper end of the village: a somewhat more presentable house for the noncommissioned officers and the enlisted personnel in two larger houses next door. Those of us in the platoon headquarters, the messengers and the medics, crawled here and there for our places. It was there that the story with the cat took place, a story that offered the company the stuff of conversation and laughter for some time to come.

It should be said in advance that Jekaterenino had its fair share of rats and mice—how could it have been otherwise?—whose activities were sometimes the cause of merriment, sometimes the cause of anger for us. In one of the enlisted quarters, there was also a half-grown cat, gray in color; it was very sociable and spoiled by everyone. I tried to procure it for the noncommissioned officer quarters once, but the effort failed in the face of determined resistance from all of the unwashed masses.

And then there was Gefreiter Knödel2—I swear that was his real name, hand on heart!—originally a student in a business school in St. Pölten. He was good natured, pretentious, very nervous, not dumb, but also not so smart as he would have liked to have believed. Despite his considerable body mass, he was fearful and uncertain. During the day, I stayed with the noncommissioned officers but went over to the house with Knödel, the cat, and others before going to bed because of a lack of space. So it was on the day of this story.

It was a pitch-black midnight. Despite “total war,” everyone was slumbering in total peace. All of a sudden, there was a crashing and banging and shrill cries going through the house. In a broad Austrian accent, we heard: “Help me . . . help me . . . I have him . . . help me . . . help me!”

We jumped up from out of a deep sleep from under our blankets and shelter halves, wide-awake and terrified. What was going on? Russians? Partisans? It only took a few seconds to determine that the situation was not at all that dangerous. The one who was screaming was unmistakably Knödel. But it didn’t sound like a death rattle or the cry of a badly wounded man.

“What’s up?”

“A huge rat . . . help me so he doesn’t get me!”

Flashlights lit up; matches were struck. Knödel became visible, like an apparition. He was sitting on his straw bed . . . hair disheveled . . . dripping sweat . . . bug eyed. Using both hands, he was frantically grabbing the . . . cat! By its throat!

The little cat hung there, motionless and lifeless. Like a damp rag. For a few seconds, everyone was frozen in place. Then the bomb went off. While one guy started holding his stomach as if he were going to die laughing, the others piled up on poor Knödel and tossed all sorts of abuse his way. That was something he no longer needed. He was already completely destroyed.

We took a look at the cat. It no longer stirred. All efforts to revive it . . . shake it . . . pinch its tail . . . were in vain. Dead! Too bad for the poor thing! But what could you do for it? We tossed the cadaver outside the front door.

The next morning, the dead cat was gone. Probably devoured by a dog. But when I was all alone in the quarters in the morning—as a messenger and a member of the platoon headquarters one sometimes had certain benefits compared to the common folk—there was a scratching outside on the door. It was accompanied by an unspeakably hoarse and pitiful cawing that was supposed to be a meow. I jumped to the door and ripped it open and in walked . . . the dead cat, somewhat worse for the wear but visibly on the road to getting better.

At noon, when the commoners came back from duty and saw our little cat sitting next to the oven, everyone was deliriously happy. Knödel, with his soft heart, was the happiest of them all. That morning, he had all of us swear that we would not tell anyone who did not live in the house about what had happened the previous night. Needless to say, the tale had already reached the other companies in the neighboring villages.

For safety’s sake, I decided to kidnap the cat, since who could know what might occur to Knödel—at the very end, he ran amok with his bayonet. Prior to the start of duty the next morning, when everything was in a state of turmoil, it appeared to me that a good opportunity had arisen. I had all of my stuff over in the house where the noncommissioned officers were quartered; in the evening, when I came over, I only had a small bag in which I had a training suit and house shoes. As usual, I put all of that in the bag and, when no one was looking, I grabbed the cat by the neck and stuffed it in as well. Everything went pretty well. The only difficulty was the tail, which, damn it all, didn’t want to stay inside. It kept coming our on top by the opening. I had to stuff it back in several times. In addition, there were some suppressed meow sounds as I wound myself out to the door with it. Fortunately, in the hubbub, no one heard anything.

I was able to get into the neighboring house undisturbed with my loot. I then told my comrades that I had brought them something. I placed the bag in the middle of the room and opened it. Everyone stared in expectation in that direction to see what was going to come out. Nothing came out. The cat was on top of the world in the bag with the training suit and the house shoes. It had rolled itself into a purring ball of wool and didn’t think twice about voluntarily leaving that warm and soft little bed. I had to vigorously shake all of the contents out to be able to show the others what I had obtained. At that point, everyone was happy and in agreement that the cat was to remain there from then on. Our new female comrade in the house, who had just been promoted from enlisted to noncommissioned officer cat, was even more spoiled than previously. Besides, its life was also safer than before. We soon had other worries, however.

The sleep area had been established on the long side of the room. They were roughly joined frames made out of beams and posts and had straw in them. The individual’s house shoes were under each bed. During a Russian winter, whenever you were not on operations, they were among the most important items you had. When Unteroffizier Sassik returned from duty the next evening, slightly frozen and tired, and placed his feet into his house shoes, he encountered resistance in the right one. He felt inside and brought a dead mouse to the light of day. It was Sassik, of all people of course. He was already a bit wound up. The audience crowed. After a second of outrage, even Sassik put on a good face to the prank.

On the next day at the same time—at the exact same time. This time, Sassik went off into a rage. The guy who was pulling these pranks needed to think up a new one or find another victim for the old one. It was starting to get old. We looked at each other. Each person looked as innocent as the next.

The following day, return from duty in the evening: Once again a dead mouse in Sassik’s house shoes. He was mad. He didn’t make a big fuss—that wasn’t his style—but he didn’t speak a single word to us all evening. We would have been happy ourselves to have known who the prankster was. Once again, everyone looked so convincingly innocent that no one was any the wiser. Finally, we transitioned to the day’s business.

The next morning, Leo Zadina and I were alone in the room, mending socks. The cat appeared with a dead mouse in its mouth. Bravo! We expected that it would soon settle down to someplace in the room to enjoy a lovely feast. Mistake! What did our astonished eyes see? The cheeky little thing marched straight across the room to Sassik’s house shoes, let the mouse drop into them and then pushed it all the way in with a daintily arched paw. It then stole away on light feet, a satisfied look on its face.

It took a lot of effort to get Sassik to the point where he would believe the actual truth of what had happened. For a long time, he was convinced that Leo and I had placed the mice in the house shoes and only wanted to blame it on the cat.

Such idylls don’t last forever, of course. The initial rumors started filtering through during the last few days of November that things stunk at the front. The rumors intensified in the days that followed. And then one morning when I went outside our hut, it could be heard: Indistinct and light at first, but also unmistakable, despite the singing wind—a monotonous, recurring rumbling and wailing. That was something I knew only too well: That was heavy, uninterrupted barrage fire. It might have been about forty or fifty kilometers away from us. But that meant nothing, if things really heated up! At that moment I knew that our rest stay in Jekaterenino would not be of long duration.

The beginning of December 1942. Towardsnoon, we arrived in a village that was located in a shallow depression. It was swarming with soldiers and vehicles, and there was a feverish, foreboding mood. And that, even though you could not only not see anything of the enemy and war, you also couldn’t hear anything far and wide, with the exception of the occasional rumbling of artillery.

We spread out among the huts, dismounted, and stood along the village street. What was going on? We also started to be taken up with the general unsettled mood. We engaged in conversation with a few of the people who were standing around and walking back and forth between the houses in a aimless and panicky manner—at least that’s the way it seemed to us. From what they told us in choppy and rapidly tossed out sentences, we sort of got a general picture of the situation, even though it was in no way completely clear.

This was it. The Russians had attacked, about a week ago. It was here up front, but not only here. It was also to the left and the right . . . everywhere . . . all along the entire front. Some of them had been interdicted, beaten back and cut off. At other places, however, they had been able to expand their penetrations and deepen them. In any event, the entire front was apparently in turmoil, not to mention that which was behind the front.

It had been directed that the 9. Panzer-Division assume this sector of the front. It was to do it as it was: Still decimated from the operations along the Shisdra, only just recently receiving some replacements, equipped in a deficient and improvised manner. We were furious.

It appeared that a proper “front” no longer existed. There were a few alert units up front and an infantry regiment, which had already been badly battered. And all sorts of things that were ill defined. No one knew what was going on; no one knew where the Russians were and where we were. In any event, Ivan did not appear to be doing a whole lot in our area at the moment; otherwise, we would have heard something. We started to gain the impression that the Russians had attacked in this sector with forces that weren’t especially strong and that, at the moment, they were also lying on their bellies and gasping for air. But in the short or long haul they would receive reinforcements . . . fresh forces. What we would see of that was something we could calculate based on our previous experiences. “A kick in the ass!” Gefreiter Ziebert, who hailed from Silesia, bellowed and then spat furiously onto the ground.

The field mess had opened its tin-metal gates, and it least there was something warm to eat. Better and more abundant than we ever had in Jekaterenino. It was the typical gallows meal. Despite that, we didn’t let it ruin our appetite. A short while later we were informed to mount up again. The column rolled on towards the east, as it had previously. After a few kilometers, we reached another village. We stopped and there was shouting, and then we moved on again. After a few more kilometers, the following came filtered back to us: “Dismount with your equipment!” It had apparently turned serious. An infantry company was in position there behind a swell in the ground in positions that had been hastily established. Outposts had been sent forward. As much as we could determine, this was the forwardmost element. Somewhere over there was Ivan, but no one knew anything for certain. Consequently, we were directed to feel our way forward, reestablish contact with the enemy but not attack, since everything was still up in the air off to the left and the right.

The company formed up and moved out slowly. Our platoon was in the lead; the 2nd and 3rd Platoons were echeloned in depth off to the left and right. We trundled off silently, tensely and doggedly. It was always the same at the beginning of an operation: The inner turmoil and excitement was so overpowering that you wanted to cry out or do something equally stupid. Things would calm down shortly after that.

The land spread out in front of us under a gloomy gray sky—melancholy, oppressive, and threatening. The gently rolling terrain in which we carefully pushed forward was broad and flat and also completely desolate and empty. Sparse, low vegetation traded places with broad open areas, on which there was only scrawny yellow grass, which was almost chest high sometimes. Perhaps there had been fields there, years ago, when war wasn’t being waged here. At this point, however, it was devoid of people and gone to seed. Even the war was silent at this point; there was no sound to be heard far and wide—no firing, no detonations, no engine noise.

In a valley depression, concealed by some brush, was a small group of soldiers providing security. The Oberleutnant talked to the men. I stayed close to him and listened in. There were no friendly forces in front of them . . . at the most, a couple of stragglers. An hour previously, a patrol had gone forward and scouted out about one kilometer. The high ground in front of them was also clear of the enemy, as well as the depression behind it. The Russian artillery fired into it occasionally from somewhere off to the left. They must have had some observation into the terrain up front.

We crossed the bottom of the valley and trundled up the gently rising slope on the far side in a loose column. We did it carefully and with skirmishers sent forward, since the uncomfortable terrain there was broken up. You didn’t know what the next clump of vegetation might bring. We reached the top of the rise without incident. And then we continued on. There was another shallow depression with a broad base, whose marshy ground was already frozen as hard as a rock. Down below, along the creek bed, in the middle of an open area, was a dead German soldier. He was stretched out on the ground, and there weren’t any visible wounds. In the middle of that limitless gray quiet and desolation, the dead man came across as almost unreal, specter-like.

We didn’t have any time to worry about him. Once again, we continued on through some vegetation and up a slope. We were already in the middle of completely unreconnoitered no-man’s-land. Consequently, the prospects of an unpleasant surprise grew ever greater. The platoon dispersed. In front was the Oberleutnant with the safety on his submachine gun off. As a messenger, I was right behind him. The squads followed on line, widely dispersed.

Moving like that, we reached the next crest and remained there a while and observed from under cover. Nothing at all could be seen. In front of us, it continued on, gently sloping down to the next valley floor. There was not a single bush, not a swell in the land all the way to the bottom. It was a scary situation; we were targets being served up on a platter. Oh well, there was nothing you could do about it. If it had gone well so far, it could also turn sour right now!

The Oberleutnant stood up and marched off; the platoon set itself in motion behind him. We had gone about fifty meters when we heard it—far off to the left: The reports of guns! Rummm . . . rummm . . . rummm . . . rummm . . . a break, then . . . rummmm . . . rummm . . . rummm. Then it came howling from over there: Huiiiii ... crack . . . crack . . . crack . . . crack. In front of us and all around us were crashing fountains of fire and iron, dirt and haze. The entire platoon landed on its nose. The fire was still primarily raging in front of us. But that was exactly where we had to go. We couldn’t stay lying there forever. Although it wasn’t a dense, impenetrable final protective fire, it was bad enough regardless.

The Oberleutnant pulled himself together and jumped up: “Follow me . . . let’s go . . . let’s go!” He raced off into the fireworks with gigantic steps. The men of the platoon likewise rose, but there still was no movement in them. I also got up and started—and felt the turmoil in my stomach and in my heart. It was always the same. When you’ve been in the shit mill for a week, then you get used to something like that . . . you get hardened . . . at least to a certain degree. But when you see death and destruction in front of you after weeks of peace and tranquility, then the unfathomable horror is back. You lie there or huddle there . . . a pile of misery, with shaking nerves. You feel it take you cold. But the difference between being a coward and a brave man is only a small step…just a narrow boundary. The selfsame man can stay on one side of the border one time and on the other side the next.

Huiiii . . . huiiii . . . crack . . . crack . . . crack. It didn’t want to stop. The Oberleutnant stopped, turned around and gestured vigorously. And then I made the transition from coward to brave man. All at once—it happened more or less instinctively as opposed to being something considered and conscious. I was behind the Oberleutnant again and started marching behind him, albeit with trembling knees and a lump in my throat. But no one noticed it besides me. And, as I turned around for a quick look back, through the whirring shrapnel and the smacking clumps, I saw how the entire platoon was coming down the slope.

In a wild, but deliberate haste—sometimes running, sometimes at double time—we reached the valley floor and disappeared into the vegetated terrain there. Behind us, the howling and the crashing sounds gradually abated. When the Oberleutnant counted the heads of his loyal men, he saw that nothing had happened to anyone other than a few harmless scratches. You’ve got to have luck! We interpreted that as a good omen for the rest of the operation.

We then went up the slope, between the spread-out groups of vegetation, which grew closer and closer together towards the top. We got to the top again and were at the edge of a vegetated area, where we saw another broad slope as flat as a board angling down in front of us, with the exception that this time it ended with thick woods in the valley floor. That was an even shittier situation! We could not believe that the woods in front of us was clear of the enemy. But how could we determine that beyond the shadow of a doubt? To take off marching there across the open plain would have been suicide. If a small patrol had to work its way across, then it had our heartfelt sympathy. To send a patrol off around to the side would have taken too long. Although it was only approaching 3:30, the cloud cover above us was growing ever thicker and it was already looking murky out there.

Everyone lay there rigidly and observed. I didn’t need to make any effort, since I didn’t see anything anyway. But even the eagle-eyed among us and those possessing binoculars were torturing themselves in vain. To try to make something out—let alone Russians—in the woods a half a kilometers away in that hazy weather was wishful thinking.

While the Oberleutnant continued to be undecided and nervously considering things, hushed calls could be heard on the right wing. They sounded more amazed and amused than anything else. And there . . . in the high grass, not too far from us—I didn’t believe my eyes—was a fox. The guys over on the right had probably caused him to bolt. Initially, it moved parallel to us in front of our noses. It then swung to the right and then headed off at a trot towards the edge of the woods. It went about fifty meters toward it, when it all of a sudden gave a jerk and stood there rigidly as if rooted to the spot. It tensely eyed the woods with an outstretched neck, whereupon it hooked around and hastened back up the slope towards us. Well, well . . . what was the matter? In about the middle of the area between the woods and us, it halted. Finally, it headed a bit more off to the left, where it then turned back to the woods again. And—fifty meters out—it exhibited the same striking behavior as before. We were already starting to think what might be lurking over there. We continued to observe the fox. He carefully made his way towards the woods over and over again, only to race back in a panic. You could see that the animal was starting to get nervous. Finally, in a wild gallop, it disappeared off to the left.

Well, at that point, we could save ourselves any more feeling our way forward or sending out a patrol. We had no reason to believe the fox was putting on a command performance for us. It appeared the fox hadn’t detected a solitary outpost; instead, the entire wood line was massively occupied. The fact that the Ivans had not stirred was no doubt due to the fact that they had observed us for some time but had wanted to let us approach close enough so hat there was no longer any possibility of our getting away.

Since our weak group had only been given the mission to push forward until we had made contact and then remain where we were, we could now take it “easy.” Outposts were established to the right and to the left, to the front and to the rear. The remaining men started to dig in. A messenger was sent back, returning a half hour later with an artillery observer. A short while later, our arty peppered the edge of the woods with a few well-aimed salvoes. Things seemed to become pretty damned unsettled over there. We could still see that much in the twilight. We started to understand why our good fox had shown so much respect for the edge of the woods. Our mood relaxed. A “patrol fox” was just the thing to have! Too bad you couldn’t raise them for that purpose. They might be able to save you from all sorts of adversity sometimes.

Of course, as a “punishment” for our artillery fire, we then started to receive Russian mortar fire. It was long overdue! But they were firing aimlessly around the area and did not cause us much concern for the time being.

Then things happened the way they usually did. After we had dug in for an hour and a half—with the sweat streaming out of all of our pores—and we had made our foxholes somewhat “domestic,” we got our orders: “Platoon assemble with equipment!” An infantry company had arrived and was to take over security in this sector. Thanks to the fact that we were still almost completely motorized, we were earmarked to be the “fire brigade” again. Capable of movement and demonstrating combat power, we were to be committed anywhere it “stank” at the moment.

We trundled our way back in the almost complete darkness, running into our vehicles in a depression, where they had been brought forward. We mounted up and rumbled off cross-country into the darkness.

We rumbled around for a good hour on waves of hard-frozen mud along worn-our roads . . . off to the left . . . off to the right. Once in a while, we stopped here or there for a while. No idea where we were. In the end, the command came form somewhere: Dismount!

It was pitch black around us, only the snow had a dull luminescence. A flat bit of high ground, a shallow ditch, a pair of lonely, spruce, their needles mostly gone. There wasn’t anything more to be seen. Our vehicles roared off. We were directed to screen. Against what? In what direction? No one knew anything. Even our Oberleutnant was clueless. Very soothing! There was nothing left to do but disperse the company around the area in small groups and drum into everyone’s head that he had to keep his ears and eyes peeled in all directions at the same time.

It was an oddly restless night. There was always something to be heard in the distance: A dull rolling sound, the reports of guns, machine-gun fire, engine noise. It was in front of us and behind us; it was to our left and to our right. It appeared that both friend and foe were once again hopelessly entangled and wedged together.

You started to be able to see better gradually in the darkness; to identify things more accurately. Perhaps the moon had risen above the thick cloud cover. Maybe there was a little bit of light penetrating down to us. It was the usual non-descript rolling terrain with individual groups of small patches of wood and vegetation, with ditches and defiles.

There was a rumbling and a rattling. It was far away, then it got closer, only to go further away again. It was off to the left, then in front of us. Then it was all the way over to the right. The tension drove any type of sleep, which was long overdue. Sometimes, you thought you saw something: What was that over there? Up front? Movement . . . figures. Dark shadows? But all of the patrols the Oberleutnant dispatched came back without results.

The engine noise behind us grew louder; it appeared to be coming nearer. Were those our vehicles looking for us? No, those were tracked vehicles. Perhaps they were friendly tanks or the prime movers of the artillery? The rattling seemed to be quite close; then it suddenly stopped. It pushed over to the left and stopped again. Well then, whoever it was, they were on a joyride. They must have had a lot of gas!

The sounds then got closer again; they became more distinct and louder. Over there on the slope right behind us . . . wasn’t there something moving there? Certainly . . . you could see something over there! Suddenly, the sound of the tracks fell silent. The dark shadows over there . . . as big as a barn door. Or maybe not, after all? The Oberleutnant said: “Berger, why don’t you fire a pyrotechnic?!”

I went a few steps forward to the barren crest of the hill, loaded the flare pistol, aimed towards the shadows—a direct-line trajectory—and squeezed the trigger. Ssssst! The flare went hissing through the night with a fiery trail. Then . . . plapp! The illumination element ignited and the terrain was bathed in a chalk-white magnesium light. There . . . in the middle of the light . . . three Russian tanks . . . T-34’s! One was really close, barely 150 meters away. The two others were a little bit behind it. Good gracious! I hit the deck and slid off a bit to the side and the rear, away from the prominent high ground. I wanted to get away quickly before the tanks came up with the brilliant idea of spraying the terrain with a few high-explosive rounds and bursts of machine-gun fire.

“Prepare hollow charges!” the Oberleutnant yelled out. Off in the distance, the engines started howling again. The tracks started to rattle. They were coming towards us! Wrong! They were racing away at speed . . . into the depression and somewhere off to the left. Apparently, they were scared even more shitless than we were! It was also possible that they thought my flare was the tracer element of an antitank-gun round. It had to be pretty spooky, after all, to be racing around in the enemy’s rear in the darkness and not be able to find a gap to get through to get home. Apparently, those three tanks were the shabby remains of a unit that had broken through but had been wiped out behind the front. Three tanks all by themselves would never break through. Their panicky discomfort was perfectly understandable.

The tension was relieved at our location by a liberating laughter. This is the kind of operation I like, the Oberleutnant said. Nothing serious happened, but the “new guys” and the “inexperienced ones” got to experience something of the adventure of war. Fine, if only everything else turned out as well.

Midnight had long since passed. In the course of the long hours, things turned quieter and, in the end, completely still. That meant sleep came as well. The platoon leaders put out guards. The other men then went to find suitable places to sleep, where they would not get frostbite. The temperature had sunk a fair bit below zero, although the cold was not biting so harshly yet. I went with a few of the men to the closest patch of spruce trees. We hacked down some branches and limbs with our shovels and drug some heavy loads to the closest depression. We spread them out into a thick layer so that we did not have to lie on the bare snow. We then layered ourselves, one man close to the next, and covered ourselves, sharing our shelter halves. We didn’t have anything else. But it also wasn’t so cold, especially since we all pulled our heads under the shelter halves, as was customary in those situations. The warm breath then worked as a sort of “central heating.” As a precautionary measure, we also took our weapons with us under the cover.

In fact, we slept really well. Laid there stiff as a board . . . no stirring . . . not to mention no turning over. At the same time, there were all sorts of ill-defined pointy objects in your back and stomach. To learn how to slumber like that—to sleep peacefully and be refreshed—that was something you only learned how to do in the course of a war.

We slept like that for two or three hours, before I started to feel very uncomfortable. Initially, while I was sleeping, then in a fitful half-sleep. Finally, I woke up. Damn it all, I felt like I was suffocating! Air! I pulled the shelter half back and stuck my head out into the open, right into the middle of loose, fine-grained powder snow. It had started to snow after all, and we were covered over by about a quarter of a meter. But the snow had contained our heat and made our sleep that much more pleasant—as long as the snow cover wasn’t too thick.

Gradually, everyone started to crawl his way out of the mountain of snow. Helmet . . . rifle . . . shelter half. We stamped our legs, which were still somewhat cold and stiff. And then our vehicles were there again. There was food and hot tea, and the smokers had the cigarettes they had yearned for. We discovered that the Russian penetration in our area had been interdicted. Consequently, the Russians had started attacking to the south again last night. They had already achieved a few penetrations. It was figured that the attacks would increase in the course of the day. That meant we were headed there—at least as a reserve for the time being.

It was still dark when we took off. It was the usual shaking and rattling . . . moving in a zigzag course with the usual halts in between. At that point, when it started to turn morning, the sounds of war came back to life: A droning and a booming, a rumbling and a stomping. It was distant and soft at first; then it drew rapidly nearer and loud. And there, where it was making the most noise, was the direction we were headed. Matted white and fire red lights twitched along the horizon behind gentle snow-covered rises and the black and jagged-edge silhouettes of spruces and destroyed houses.

When it started to turn first light, we entered a village. There were people moving quickly, racing and pressing together along the village street. There were trains vehicles, telephone operators, messengers and wounded. There was artillery fire in front of us, which was growing stronger all the time. But there was also a cracking and a wailing off to the right and the left. We were unloaded on a street at the end of the village that was turned away from the front. We were then chased into the houses with our weapons and equipment. Get away from the street! Consequently, we waited around in the closest panje hut and attempted to light a fire in the oven. Then we stretched out on the loam floor; perhaps we would be able to catch up on a little sleep.

Outside, it was rumbling and crashing, almost ceaselessly. Ssssiiiiuu . . . ssssiiiiuu

. . . a few heavy shells passed over the village. They were probably headed for the approach road. Huuuiiii! Crack! Damn, that was close! They weren’t going to get the bad idea of firing on our village, were they? Huuuiiii! Crack! Crack! Crack! I guess they were! The hell with them! The salvo descended a few hundred meters from us. Was it going to get any closer? But what could you do about it anyway? We had already determined that the house did not have a basement. But the powerful concrete block wall would also be able to withstand a lot. As long as we did not get a direct hit, not too much would happen.

Noise outside on the street: calls and shouts; a hustle and a bustle. Tracked vehicles rattled past. Once again: Huuuiiii! Crack! Crack! Crack! Damn it! That was a good bit closer. I spied out through the tiny window. I tried to identify something, but there was not too much to see. A twitching red glaring light fell upon the huts across from us. It mixed with the dreary cold gray of the breaking day. It was anything but cozy out there.

There was a crash every two or three minutes. A Russian battery had taken this village as its specialty. And then it came: Huuuiiii! Crack! The entire house shook; all of the windows blew out at once. Together with the hail of shattered glass, clumps of ice and dirt came flying in from outside. Mixed up with it all was the plaster from the walls and the displaced window frames. Everything clattered down on us. Once again: A howling and a crashing. The room shook and trembled. There was an impact in the house across from us. The remnants of beams and bushels of straw flew through around. White, dense smoke and biting gunpowder smoke filled the air.

“Everybody out!” The artillery fire had abated somewhat.

“Everyone assemble in the street!”

We jumped up and pressed ourselves with our weapons and equipment through the narrow anteroom leading to the house door, which was filled with rubble and debris. We deployed into combat mode, covering ourselves behind the corners of houses—at least as well as we could. There was a tangle of beams and posts. Debris and straw was on the street; a few dead mixed in, along with a small civilian car, which had been ripped apart by a direct hit.

“Up . . . let’s go . . . follow me!”

The Oberleutnant was shouting and running in front of us between the houses, past piles of rubble and through trampled vegetable gardens. The impact of heavy artillery could be seen in front of us, about 500 meters, on a piece of domed high ground. There was a constant trembling; gray columns of smoke were tossed up and welled skyward.

There was another hissing sound directly approaching us. Hit the deck! We tossed ourselves down among the clumps of earth as it started impacting: in front, behind us, to the right, to the left. The earth shook and trembled; shrapnel and clumps of things whistled, whirled and smacked around. It’s all over now, I thought to myself. And then I was practically amazed to discover that I was lying there as undamaged and alive as I had been before, just a bit stunned. But here and there there was a whimpered and heartrending: “Medic!”

The Oberleutnant had hunkered down next to me. He got up and looked around. The third one in our row, Feldwebel Krämer, was lying on his face and wasn’t moving. We jumped over to him and turned him over. It was all over for him! It seeped out from somewhere within the tattered overcoat—red, sticky, and steaming in the cold air of a winter morning.

“Up . . . let’s go!” the Oberleutnant yelled. His voice sounded both strangely hoarse and shrill. “We have to go up there. There are bunkers and positions there. We can’t stay here.”

We jumped up again and gasped our way up the slope. The fire had shifted; it was hitting the area off to the left. It was a rarity for a round to get lost and to land in our vicinity. With bursting lungs and hearts we reached the position half way up the slope. We let ourselves fall into the trenches and holes.

“We lost an officer candidate today . . . the Russians will lose even more!” the Oberleutnant said next to me, markedly loudly and firmly. It sounded glib, but perhaps you needed phrases in moments like that. Something you could hold on to without thinking about it.

The artillery fire had abated even more. The Oberleutnant walked the company line. Then: “Berger, go to the battalion and report that we have reached the designated position. Thirteen casualties.”

I shoved off to take care of my mission. There were still occasional artillery impacts in the village, but you could make your way through after a fashion. When I was on the way back, at the edge of the village, there where we had gotten hit before, I was called to from a bunker next to the road. “Berger, Berger . . . come help us! You’ve been trained as a medic. Come, it’s terrible!”

I stumbled into the low, dark room. A few men were lying next to one another on the floor. In the middle was Ziebert, from Breslau. He lay there and wormed around; he hit into the air and screamed and moaned. Two or three men were trying to keep him quiet.

“What’s wrong with him?” I asked.

“That!” said one of the men, throwing back the overcoat. Under the overcoat were his guts—nothing but throbbing guts: kidneys, liver, and entrails. A piece of shrapnel had ripped open his abdominal wall, and everything was oozing out as a bloody, slippery mush. And the poor man cried and whimpered and moaned: “Shoot me dead! . . . Shoot me dead! . . . Don’t let me croak like this! . . . Shoot me . . . I beg you!”

And there I was with my nice-sounding “Auxiliary Medical Orderly” training, and I was supposed to help. “Isn’t there a doctor anywhere?” I asked.

“We haven’t found any, but there’s supposed to be one at the battalion.”

Clueless looks and a shrugging of shoulders all the way around.

“I’ll look for one,” I said, getting out of that hole quickly. I just wanted to get out and not have to stand there and listen and watch, not being able to help or alleviate any suffering.

Although there was a clearing station established at the battalion command post, there was no doctor there. I discovered he was said to be somewhere in the rear. But further to the left there was supposed to be a clearing station from a neighboring unit. I raced over there in the midst of artillery fire that was gradually coming back. I wandered about, among houses and ruins, but I didn’t find anything. Valuable time was slipping away. In the end, I ran back to our clearing station and gathered up two medics with some difficulty. I led them over to the wounded Ziebert. He had turned somewhat still; he was still alive . . . but for how long? I needed to get going. What else was there left to do?

I decided to drop by the battalion command post again in order to get something. It was cold by then. The wind was blowing sharply and drove prickly, hard ice through the air. It blew into everything—onto your neck and against your throat. The turned-up collar of the overcoat was rubbing terribly. I had previously seen window curtains in the house, where the battalion command post had been set up. They were made of a horrific, poisonous green cotton. They would make for a sharp-looking scarf. Just the right thing for me. Ripppp! I tore one down!

While I was still putting it on, it occurred to me how squalid my gloves looked. They were in tatters and crusted over with blood and dirt. My fingers were poking out. But I knew a remedy for that as well. So I jumped on over to the dead Feldwebel Krämer. He had terrific, new leather gloves, just my size. Give them to me, comrade! You don’t need them any more; your fingers are no longer going to freeze. The feeling I had was a bit strange. But what wasn’t strange and macabre everywhere around here? And the gloves were warm and thick and smooth.

By then, I needed to get back to our company. I got there just in time for an alert to move out. Up the hill to the forward positions! The Russians were attacking!

We ran up the hill, jumped into foxholes and trenches, broke into groups and went into position. What was going on? Where did anyone see anything? We weren’t seeing anything. The wind was whistling sharply from that direction, sending ice and snow in a biting white veil towards us. It blew into our faces and eyes; it took away your vision and your breath.

But then again—out there in the blowing and driven precipitation—there was something to be seen. Pressing, pushing masses—dark brown. But weren’t there also horses under them? Yes, indeed, masses of them, as a matter of fact. It was real cavalry! Did that still exist in 1942?

They were still probably about half a kilometer away, but they were pressing forward slowly. A few rounds cracked next to us from the trench. “Idiots!” someone yelled. “What are you shooting at? You won’t hit anything at this distance. Let them get closer!” Yeah, and if our artillery had been there—but where was it?

It appeared that the Russian artillery had also been led somewhat astray. If those guys over there really had something serious planned, then a barrage on our positions was overdue. But nothing of the sort happened. The artillery impacts continued to be somewhere behind us in the village. But the brown masses kept coming closer, veiled and obscured by churned up clouds of snow. Our tension mounted. Riflemen loaded and machine-gun people tinkered with their sprayers to remove the ice that was constantly forming up. There was the rattling of machine-gun belts.

And then the mass of riders set out all at once in an abrupt movement. It approached us, like a tidal wave. A wild clattering and cracking started from our positions. It was a rush, something akin to hunting fever, that had taken hold. The belts rattled through the machine guns. The particles of ice hissed and steamed on the hot barrels. The riflemen took aim on the avalanche of human and animal bodies, fired and jammed in a new magazine. Everyone had turned into a wild automaton, a machine that neither thought nor felt.

What else was to be expected: The cavalry attack, a sheer crazy operation, collapsed a hundred meters in front of our positions. It broke up and fled to the rear. Horses and humans lay scattered in front of us. Some were stiff and still, others thrashed around wildly. Whatever had not been wounded fled and disappeared in the blowing veil of snow.

Artillery and mortar fire commenced and covered us. There was nothing left to do but tuck in our heads and turn small. The almost monotonous routine of daily life at the front had been reestablished.

Thirty-six hours later, we were still in that shi . . . modest position.3 All hell was breaking loose on the high ground in front of us. There were flashes and bangs. Dull detonations were mixed in, along with the ascent of pyrotechnics and the rattling and barking of machine guns. Figures surfaced in the flickering flames of burning houses. They disappeared again. There were cries and shouts and more banging and clattering. We were down below on the slope, ducking behind mounds of dirt and piles of rubble. We started up, on fire with excitement. No one knew what was actually happening.

The free-for-all up top gradually subsided; only the calling and cries continued, but they also grew softer as time wore Then, from the right, a voice: “1st Platoon . . . up . . . follow me!” We assembled to the right behind the ruins.

“What’s going on?”

“What’s happening?”

Excited voices; they all swirled together, practically whispered. In bits and pieces, the word got around: the Russian had employed an assault detachment . . . or perhaps a reinforced patrol . . . or something like that . . . to the left of the company command post. It was assumed that the attack had been beaten back; in any event, the Russians had apparently pulled back. The whole story was not very clear at all. It was said that a couple of our guys had been hit. Consequently, the 1st Platoon was directed to spend the night to the left and in front of the company command post at the place where there was a gap during the day, so that another mess could be avoided.

A few minutes later we moved out. We went up the hill in deployed for combat. The red flames flickered and twitched in an eerie manner out among the plain of snow in front of us. The action up front had settled down. We pushed past the company command post hunched over and disappeared into the communications trench. Frühauf and Lerner disappeared up front; we cowered in the trench, waiting and observing. We stared off into the darkness and into the mess that was illuminated by fires off to the left.

Frühauf reappeared amongst us: “Follow me, but be on your toes! I have no idea what’s actually going on over there . . . Walter, follow right behind. There’s supposed to be a few wounded over there!”

We climbed out of the trench and pushed forward in a loose skirmishing line off to the left. There was a narrow open ground in front of us and, ill defined in the shadows, the old, abandoned medic bunker. Next to it, there was a dark body, I it seemed as though I were hearing a slight whimpering. I needed to take a look! I ran towards the bunker. There—berrrrrrt—a brilliant flash directly in front of me and a hard cracking sound. A burst of fire for a few seconds. There was a hissing around my ears. I was flat on my face in a flash and disappearing into some sort of shallow depression. That’s how fast it went—reflexes at work. You didn’t have time to think. And that was a good thing! The next burst of fire—perhaps better aimed—hissed right above me. That had been a close one! Damn it all! I finally had a chance to consider things. It appeared that a Russian patrol had hunkered down in the bunker in front of us. And stupid me ran right in front of the firing port and lit up like a Christmas tree to boot! I heard Frühauf cry out something from off to the right. Of course, I didn’t understand a single word.

Wumm! Wumm! What was that? It lit up next to the bunker. Beams slip apart and rubble flew through the air. I then heard Frühauf cry out the German battle cry—Hurrraaaa!—and a few men jump up and advanced toward the bunker. By then, I was also up and running. Frühauf—a hell of a guy—had crawled up on the bunker with a few people in the darkness and had smoked it out with some hand grenades. We saw a black figure run away hunched over and disappear in the darkness. They needed to run!

Burst of machine-gun fire chirped above our heads from somewhere. We needed to get back in the holes; we were nothing but targets where we were. Nothing had happened to any of us. You’ve got to have luck! I gathered up one of the wounded from before into the trench behind the bunker. He had been shot through the upper thigh. Three of us carried him away down to the clearing station.

We looked around a bit in the battalion area and gathered what we could find: Bread and preserves; medical dressings; some rifle ammunition; and a box of Hindenburg lights.4 Heavily loaded, we started back “home.”

In the meantime, the situation had calmed down some more, at least as much as one would characterize it as “calm.” There was some mortar fire every few minutes. It was simply harassing fire, fired in the blind, but they had registered their pieces quite well during the day. There was a bumping each time in an uncomfortably close distance away. In between there was the whistling of bursts of machine-gun fire over the hill. Unfortunately, the trenches had not been established in such a manner that they were good for the current situation. Whether you wanted to go forward or to the rear, you had to always get out and cross open ground. The houses were burning behind us and provided an illuminated flame-red background, with you appearing in front of it as a very nice black shadow. It would have been too much to ask of Ivan that he didn’t fire at that. The only thing that helped was to run and zigzag—and hope that the Russian machine gunners continued to aim as poorly as they had before.

In the meantime, the 1st Platoon had hunkered down in the trenches and bunkers and felt out the area in front of it. The light from the flames did not reach that far, since the crest was in between. That had both advantages and disadvantages. We also had contact with the Flak off to the left and down below in the depression. That meant that we could get comfortable as long as it was quiet.

At least that’s what a layman would think! I was right in the middle of unpacking our loot, when the door to the bunker was thrown open and someone spat out: “Medic!”

“Where . . . what . . . who?”

“Over there at the company command post . . . Unteroffizier Gutmann!”

The company command post? It was supposed to have its own medic section. But who knew where it might be after all of the hubbub?

Off I went! Over the crest! Ffffit—Ffffit—Ffffit—Ffffit! Kiss my ass! Quick . . . down in the trench! So . . . where was he?

Gutmann was sitting in a bunker. Wound up . . . moaning slightly . . . Not a word out of him. Well, what had happened?

Not a whole lot, when you looked at him more closely: A grazing wound under the shoulder. Of course, things were frazzled and the blood was running, but everything was outside of the chest. No bone was smashed, let alone something else. Playing the role of a badly wounded man as the result of such a trifle was a bit overacting. Especially when Gutmann always liked to put on airs as the dashing, debonair and daring one. Of course, a few heartless remarks in that vein were incapable of changing his mood.

I tended to his wound, put his uniform back over it as well as I could and started to take my leave.

“But . . . but . . . I can’t stay here like this . . . oooch!”

“Of course not, Herr Unteroffizier, go as quickly as possible down below to the battalion aid station.”

“Go . . . I can’t walk . . . I’m much too weak!”

In an effort to help out, someone offered him a shot of Schnapps, but Gutmann turned it down with a moan.

“Give it to me . . . I could use one. Otherwise I might turn out weak in the end as well . . . Aaahhh! . . . What’s the matter? . . . Of course, you can stay up here if you want to and wait until you get your strength back. But it’s not too cozy up here!”

“No . . . no . . . I’m not staying here under any circumstances. But I’m not going down there by myself. Berger, you have to lead me down there. You have to . . .”

That didn’t sound anywhere nearly as weak as it should have coming from that limp dick of an Unteroffizier. But I wasn’t so stupid, either, that I was going to run next to that shit-scared bastard as another target. I tried to make it clear to him that one man could get through fire a lot better than two figures next to one another, especially when one all by himself can run a whole lot faster. It was the type of conversation that started with Sie and Herr Unteroffizier and ended with “you schmuck.”5 But nothing worked. Gutmann was acting like a small child. The others sitting with him in the bunker also talked me into schlepping him down the high ground, since they just wanted to get rid of him. In the end, I could have cared less, whether they got me at that point or the next day. The chances of getting me were hundred fold. Whether you escaped, one way or the other, was just a matter of luck.

“Off we go, Herr Unteroffizier, let’s go!”

Sounding doleful, he whimpered his way through the trench with me behind him. Then we jumped out. Ffffit—Ffffit—Ffffit!

“Run, damn it! Your hams are still fine!”

“Don’t leave me alone, Berger! . . . Berger, come here, stay with me!”

He was standing there, shaking, in the middle of the light from the fire. A big bullseye at the firing range.

I jumped over to him, hooked my arm under his and pulled him forward. There was a hissing and a whistling all around us. We tramped off. Then—a shrill cry—the man next to me jack knifed and turned as heavy as lead on my arm. He collapsed and fell forward. I threw myself down next to him. It was whistling just a hair above our heads. I grabbed Gutmann and shook him. He didn’t stir. I flipped him on his back and looked into the blank eyes of a dead man. I could scream at that point! Had it really been that necessary for you?

They would certainly get me shortly. My entire body was shaking. Was it excitement or terror or anger? Perhaps all three mixed into one? I carefully low crawled down the hill and into the cover afforded by the next mound of dirt. Then off to the side and out of the light of the fire. Taking a long detour, I went as quickly as I could back to the position. I had had all I could take for the time being!

Twelve hours later. We were still in the “leaden” corner. I climbed out of the trench and pulled the wounded man up. I grabbed him around the body and he hung around my neck; we then stumbled off. There was still heavy mortar fire all along the slope. With that type of load, you couldn’t simply toss yourself to the ground and seek cover whenever it came hissing towards you. The only thing you could do was to stubbornly steer a course straight ahead. If only everything would go faster! The poor devil moaned and whimpered with every step, but I pulled him along mercilessly. To show consideration out of sympathy at that point was sheer suicide. Every second longer that we spent wavering in that circus of fire could cost us our lives. The artillery was also starting to drop rounds in between. About half way up the slope, they had just got a couple of infantrymen. A black crater in the snow yawned wide in the middle of our route. Right next to it were four lifeless forms. Well, nothing was going to hurt them anymore. If you get the blast so close, then no amount of dressing will help. One of them was just a bloody clump. If you didn’t see a few pieces of uniform, you had no idea what was the front and what was the rear. Why did those infantrymen also act so dumb and run around together like sheep? Of course, the round always landed in the middle of them, and there was half a dozen dead all at once.

Of all the times for it to happen, the artillery impacts were landing below in the depression in the vicinity of the medic bunker, where we had to go. But that didn’t matter much, if we stayed here and waited until it had quieted down there, since they would then get us here on top. That meant keep going! And we succeeded in getting the last bit behind us. Relieved, we showed up at the entryway. Once again, we had been lucky! How many times already? How many times to go?

My “patient” fell like a sack in a corner, and I allowed myself a short break. It was packed in there, with everyone stepping on each other’s toes. If things continued that way, then all three companies would be assembled there shortly. Theoretically, at least, they were still holding the positions at Nikinowo. If an artillery round ever landed here as a direct hit, then it would all be over!

I stuck my head out the door. Outside, the barrage fire rumbled and seethed with a regularity that could practically lull you to sleep. It didn’t seem to be in our area, though. That meant it was time to get up and go! The slope in front of me was not being fired on. I trotted up the slope.Huuuiiii! Crash! I was just able to save myself behind the remnants of a wall. The shrapnel rapped against the brickwork. I had counted my blessing too early! It was artillery fire on top of everything else! The hell with all of them! Huuuiiii! Crash! That time I got a hail of hard-frozen clumps of dreck on my back and on my helmet. Well, then. My hat seemed to hold up well! My skull wasn’t about to withstand that stuff without some armor, but it would be better to get out of there.

It seemed to be quieter. Time to get up and move out! Let’s run another short bit. As I went past the crater with the four infantrymen, it looked to me as if one of them was moving. I had to be imagining things. That guy could no longer be alive the way he looked! No one would be surprised, if you slowly started to go crazy. And there certainly had to be a few topside that needed me. So . . . I couldn’t allow myself to be held up.

I arrived at the bunker up top without any more artillery salvoes. Two meters from the piled-up dirt from the trench, near the entrance, there was someone on his face. I would be able to quickly pull him into the bunker. But when I turned him over and saw glassy, turned-up eyes, I knew that I was no longer responsible for him. I needed to at least look for his dog tag, however. But then there was an incoming hissing sound—shrill, cutting, and hostile. Just fractions of a second. Jumping head first, I reached the trench leading to the entrance in time. At that point, the world turned topsy-turvy with a crashing, flames, black smoke and a hail of dreck and iron. After a few seconds, I could see some things again, but I was not overwhelmed with curiosity. I pulled myself up, hit the door of the bunker and stumbled in.

I initially had to get used to the semi-darkness that prevailed there. Whenever you came in from outside, you didn’t see anything at all. Moreover, the “oven” made out of a fruit can smoked so much that it took your breath away. Then I had to wipe away the ice that had formed on my glasses, ice that formed immediately upon entering the dank room from the cold outside. It wasn’t until those preparatory measures had been taken that I could take a look around.

Scheurer was sitting next to the oven; he was someone from my platoon. In the rear, whenever we were drilling, he always stood out like a sore thumb. He was holding his helmet with both hands in front of him, and it looked like a strainer. They must have sent something his way that exploded right in front of him. His head was a mass of blood, but he was completely conscious and was cursing like a drunken sailor. He would make it, but I had no idea where to start with dressing him. I fetched a couple of field dressings from the large first-aid kit and tried to wrap Scheurer systematically—round and around—until only his eyes and his mouth were visible. I then intended to carefully take him down to the medic bunker. But he said no. He wanted me to stand by for bad cases; he said he would get there by himself. Then he shook my hand so hard that I went down on a knee. With the portion of his face still visible, he attempted a grin. Then he pushed himself out the door and ran off. He was a hell of a fellow, even though he always stuck out like a sore thumb whenever we were drilling in the rear area. Or perhaps because of it?

The next one was an infantryman with some shrapnel in his hand. I didn’t take care of anything like that there. I showed the man where the battalion clearing station was and sent him off in that direction. The guys down below needed something to do as well. Two were sitting at the rear of the bunker on the makeshift bunk.

“What’s up with you?”

Nothing at all, they said, they only wanted to warm themselves up.

That was fine by me. I would send them out in fifteen minutes. I had the feeling it was always the same two who came to warm up. I had not seen Frühauf and Lehrner the entire day in the bunker, although they weren’t but ten meters away from the bunker in position. It certainly wasn’t any warmer there.

It was not until then that I noticed through the haze and the smoke that another guy was sitting in the corner. He was another infantryman. He then came forward. His left pants leg was shredded and there was some red dropping out—not a lot. I cut open his pants and underwear and saw that it was only a small bit of shrapnel, a flesh wound. It was rapidly dressed. He could make his way below without any problems. When I told him that, he turned paler than before. His eyes welled up out of their sockets in dismay and he struggled for words. Man, the guy was afraid! Good God! I certainly had no great desire to get some shrapnel in my back on account of such a wimp, and I told him that in unmistakable terms. I told him how fast this “wounded transport” was going to go. But that was not necessary at all. The guy could run like the devil, despite the shrapnel in his hams.

We raced past the four infantrymen and I had a fright—the one guy really was alive. He was a really young rascal. He raised his head a bit and looked at me with his eyes horribly wide open. His lips were moving, but the words could not be heard. I’ll get you shortly! Down below, I pushed the guy with me into the bunker. I didn’t go in myself; I only called through the door. Two or three men needed to come out to evacuate a badly wounded man, who was only a few steps away from the bunker on the slope. I only heard an indistinct and murmured Jawohl. I hastened back and threw myself next to the guy. Boy, was he a pretty sight! Blood was trickling from his forehead; it was steaming. The lower part of his right arm was a mass of hacked up flesh. Blood was seeping through his overcoat, and he had another hole in his upper thigh. And then they started peppering us with precision again. Ssssstttt—Wummmmm! Ssssstttt—Wummmmm! Ssssstttt—Wummmmm!

Did those guys like me so much that they had to fire wherever I was? Or was I only imagining that because I no longer took notice of the impacting rounds that weren’t landing close by? Ssssstttt—Wummmmm! Ssssstttt—Wummmmm! Ssssstttt—Wummmmm! How long was that going to last? And, of course, there was no cover here . . . no ditch . . . nothing at all. I grabbed the wounded man under the shoulder and drug him a bit into the shallow crater. But it was so small and so shallow that it offered hardly any protection at all. Ssssstttt—Wummmmm! Good God! Stop right now or at least let us have a direct hit on our backs! It just couldn’t be taken any more. I pressed myself flat over the wounded man and tried to make myself as small as possible. Ssssstttt—Wummmmm! That one went into the snow right behind us. The powdery ice was sifted into the area between my coat collar and the helmet. Finally, the fire shifted a bit. Thank God!

I looked at my patient again and wondered how he was still alive. Assault pack, ammunition cans, reserve barrel, carbine, gas mask, bread bag—everything was still hanging off of him. The half-dozen straps had conglomerated into a Gordian knot. Trying to untangle them was out of the question. Get the stuff off! I tried to make my way to my pocketknife. But it was not so simple to find my way through the different coats and blouses to my pants pocket with my frozen and torn-up fingers. Finally, I had the folding knife. It was a miracle that I had not lost it in the mess. Of course, I could not get the blade out right away with my trembling fingers. Finally, I did it. And then I had that wonderful moment when I was allowed to destroy military property without being punished. Sweet revenge against all the nastiness handed out by NCO’s in charge of the supply rooms and the arms rooms. Cut after cut, one strap after the other. I even cut the belt in half, because the jammed buckle would not budge. At least I had uncovered the poor guy. But I could apply dressing at that location. Where were the others? It was wonderfully quiet at that point; they could at least come. I straightened up and looked in the direction of the medic bunker. But there was nothing stirring there. What kind of limp dicks were they? I couldn’t haul this guy back by myself. But if I were to wait until they came up, peace would break out. I decided to fetch a couple of the lame bastards myself!

I ran back to the bunker and pressed inside through the door. You could barely move any more in there. They were all infantry people, but apparently nothing but simple cases. I couldn’t see anything serious with anybody. One or the other could help me without any problem.

“Come . . . please . . . two or three of you! One of your comrades . . . about a hundred meters away . . . he’s badly wounded!”

Icy silence. A few eyeballed, some dully, others with animosity; most of them, however, looked away and pretended as though they had not heard me. My blood slowly started to boil.

“Good God, people. Don’t be so stubborn and so cowardly. Is that guy out there supposed to croak? I can’t drag him in here by myself. He tore up pretty bad.”

Nothing. Finally, two figures pressed forward from the back. Of course, it was people from my company. It was Hadamla from my platoon. I had dressed his wound in the morning. It was wrapped thicker at that point, and he was carrying it in a sling. The other guy, with a bloody bandage around his head, was from the 2nd Platoon. I could depend on those two. Let’s go!

Of course, with all the stupid talking, we no longer had a break in the fires. Once again, there was hell to pay. Right outside the bunker, we had to crawl into the ruins. They were really thrashing away. But then we jumped up between the whistling shrapnel and the pelting clumps of dreck and raced to the crater, where the wounded man was. I grabbed him on the upper body, and the other two each took a foot.

We then shoved off. The fire had abated somewhat, and we were able to get to the medic bunker without incident. We couldn’t get inside, however. We had to place the wounded man on the snow-covered entryway. Hadamla and the man with the bandaged head stayed with him.

I squeezed myself into the squirming mass; I needed to take a look. It just wasn’t right to me. How they looked at me again.

“What kind of wound do you have?” I asked the first one sharply, as I grabbed him by the coat collar. “No . . . no . . . nothing!” I heard, astonished.

“And what’s wrong with you?” I yelled at a teeth-chattering pitiful creature, who happened to be standing right in front of me. The guy actually started to howl: “Oooohhhh . . . I feel so bad . . . the shooting and . . . the dead!”

“I also get ill when I see a shit figure like you!” What kind of sorry creatures were in this pigsty! Not everyone in our company was a hero, either, but this type of behavior would have been unthinkable. The one guy, crying, pointed at me, turned away and whimpered: “Oh, look at all the blood!”

I looked down on myself. It was true. I didn’t look all that appealing. My onetime snow-white camo cover was a single sheet of blood from top to bottom. A butcher on shiftwork couldn’t even compete. I continued my “interrogation.” The next few didn’t even provide an answer. Another one only wanted to warm himself; another get rested up. One man wanted to wait until the fire abated. He had been waiting three hours already. I had seen him sitting there that morning; he probably still had a long time to wait.

I had had the inner rage for some time. It then boiled over. I hit the closest guy in the stomach; the next one I struck in the back, causing him to fly out the door just as he was. I then started to yell just like on the parade field. I fumbled around with my pistol and said something about shooting on the spot, if space wasn’t made immediately for the wounded man. There was a violent wave of movement, with a pushing and a pressing towards the door. Everyone wanted out, but no one wanted to be the first one. I hoped they didn’t step on my patient out in the entryway. After a minute, the hovel was cleared out, except for the truly wounded. An old Obergefreiter came out of the corner, reported to me as a medic and asked whether he might be of service to the Herr Assistenzarzt.6 He could not see what kind of rank badge was hidden under my butcher’s apron. It was one other sign of proof to me that you only get authority in the army by yelling. It was too bad that I was always yelling at the wrong spot! I tapped my comrade on the shoulder in a friendly manner and said: “Idiot, I’m also only an Obergefreiter!” He looked at me, disconcerted. Then, however, I noticed that he now had more respect for the Obergefreiter than he previously had for the Assistenzarzt.

In the meantime, they had drug in the wounded man. I got to work with the old Obergefreiter. The lower right arm looked terrible. The bones were probably shattered in a dozen places, with some of them sticking out of the wounds at attention. It was probably all over for the arm. As a precaution, however, we decided to splint it. There was no materiel in the bunker. That meant out into the light once again. I didn’t have to look very long. The hut next door must have received a good dozen direct hits. The shredded roof beams were scattered around the area in abundance. I fished a couple of usable ones from out of the rubble and then went inside again. After we splinted his arm, we took a look at his other wounds. The hole in his upper thigh was only a flesh wound, albeit very deep. On the right side of the chest, his skin was shredded and torn open, but the wound was not any deeper than that. The head wound was also harmless. Even in his misfortune, the guy had been very lucky. After half an hour, we were finished with our work.

The poor devil’s entire body started to shake from the cold. That wasn’t surprising with the amount of blood he had lost. Besides, whatever he still had on his body was dripping wet with blood. If we left him lying there like that, he would eventually freeze. I talked to a couple of lightly wounded men, who were lying in the straw towards the back and got a blanket from them. Then we bedded the guy down on a layer of straw and wrapped him in the blanket. Outside, in front of the bunker, was a dead man. I removed his overcoat and spread it out on top of our problem child. He then received a big gulp of coffee, although it was unfortunately ice cold.

“So . . . stay lying here for a while . . . nothing more can happen to you . . . and your wounds are not life threatening. We transport you to the rear with the next vehicle and then you’ll be off to home. Your mom is certainly waiting for you.”

He didn’t say anything for a while. Then he felt around with his good left hand and found mine. Then, he quietly said: “You are a good comrade.”

It turned very quiet, and those five words remained in the stillness. All at once, I felt wonderfully at peace and happy.

“You are a good comrade.” It was said modestly, but it was perhaps the nicest award I received the entire war.

I then allowed myself a short break. I fished out a hunk of bread from my bread bag and chewed on it for a while. The particles of ice were ground up softly between my teeth; perhaps they were also bits of clay. It was a hard thing to tell exactly. It was also immaterial to me at the moment. One of the wounded offered me the luxury of a cigarette. Too bad I was a non-smoker; otherwise, a cigarette would have most certainly done me good. Unfortunately, no one offered me schnapps, because no one had any.

After a quarter of an hour, I got up, shook my stiff arms and legs and took off on my journey again. It was eerily quiet outside at the time. The way to the positions on top was practically a walk in the park. Even the weather was nicer than the previous day. The sun shone; despite that, the skies were not clear. Instead, they seemed to be overcast with a fine, veil-like milky mist. That produced a simultaneously strangely mild and yet at the same time unpleasantly blinding light. The wind drove the crystal-like snow powder in sparkling and flitting veils up the slope. It formed small dunes, only to whisk them away again. It wasn’t enough, however, to cover all of the craters nor the dead and the rubble and the carbonized beams, which imprinted the stamp of war on the peaceful countryside.

Bursts of machine-gun fire were chirping along the crest. As a precautionary measure, I hit the deck and crawled forward, as the regulations required. In my forward aid station, there were already a couple of guys sitting there, and they greeted me with happy amazement. I had already been gone for more than an hour, and those up front had already made the sign of the cross for me. Leo Zadina was especially cordial in greeting me. Blood was running out of his left ear. A piece of shrapnel had gotten him. It was puffed up quite a bit. I hoped that he didn’t lose his eardrum or that something else in the interior had been ruined! We’d find out soon enough. I softly whispered into the clot of blood: “Are you a nut cake?”

“No more than you,” he replied in a thick Bavarian accent.

Thank God! His ear was working. I wrapped Leo’s head confidently and wanted to send him off. But he would hear none of it. He said he wasn’t going to take off for that kind of scratch, especially now that everyone was needed like a piece of bread. Later on . . . when the relief came . . . he said he didn’t feel a thing.

It was not until I held a long anatomy lecture on how dangerous a sitting piece of shrapnel was at that place and all that could happen that he listened and bent to my scientific authority. But he insisted that he also take another wounded man with him. I was able to grant him that wish. So . . . send the next one to me. He had shrapnel in his shoulder and his back; nothing serious. I dressed him and turned him over to Leo. He shook my hand again and disappeared. I hoped that both of them made it through unscathed. There was already some rumbling outside again. At the moment, I was unemployed.

Correspondingly, I decided to go forward into the trenches to see what the others were doing. Frühauf and Lehrner greeted me enthusiastically. In their minds’ eyes, they had already envisioned me laying dead somewhere in the rear. Frühauf had been at the battalion command post in the morning and said that life up front in the trenches was almost peaceful and safe compared to that which was going on 500 meters to the rear. To contradict his claim, a round impacted right behind us almost as soon as he had said that. Half of the trench wall collapsed upon us. It was good that the ground was frozen so solidly; otherwise, the entire trench system would have been collapsed by then.

I raced back to my bunker, sat in a corner and listened. Wummm—wummm—wummm—wummmm! It came down at regular intervals, like the workings of a clock. And it continued to wummm the rest of the day. It seemed like the guys on the other side of the lines had unlimited amounts of ammunition. Whenever one of our mortars fired, it was answered a hundred fold. And even if they were lousy and couldn’t aim at all, they had to hit somewhere sometime. Wummm! That seemed to be almost right on the bunker again. Dreck rained down from between the roof timbers each time. A hundred mortar rounds on the roof would have been fine. Just as long as they didn’t think of sending us a direct hit by artillery, the bunker would hold out.

Everyone was still in an uproar from excitement when I got forward to the trenches. Among the dead was also Unteroffizier Sassik, as I discovered. He was lying over there! But I did not look at him; I was already choking up enough. Poor bastard! You were always teased and ribbed by us, because you were always an easy touch with your earnestness. You were such a good guy!

I took off to get back to Frühauf and Lehrner. Reported to them what had happened. Strange, how we could all discuss those things so soberly. Then . . . silence . . . skulking . . . waiting. Weren’t we tired to the point of falling over? Weren’t we sleepy . . . hungry? Who still knew . . . who still felt it . . . who even thought about it?

In the midst of that monotonous artillery rumbling there was a cry, off to the left, where the machine gun was positioned. Bent over, I raced to that location when a break set in. In front, along the cover, it was still smoking. There was a small cloud above the freshly churned up soil. It went in there. Gunner I, the small Janisch, was flat on his face, motionless. Gunner II was moaning next to him. I grasped Janisch on the shoulder and spun him over; his helmet was like a sieve and his head hacked up. Blood and more blood. Dead!

The other guy had a few bits in his shoulder, perhaps something elsewhere, but God only knew where. He was unapproachable. My teeth clattering and grinding, I went back to work. How many times had that been? And how many times to come? I was barely able to get my aid packets out of my pockets with my clammy fingers. I would have long since run out of supplies, if the abandoned medic bunker next to me hadn’t offered unending reserves. Good God! If only I weren’t so clumsy . . . so trembly and stiff! Sssst—wummmm! They were firing again! It was barely perceptible in my consciousness any more.

And then there was the hard crash of an impact right behind me. A hot, sharp blow jerked through my right leg and deep into my lower thigh. Damn it to hell! No, it really did get me. There was no pain, even though I was waiting for it. On the other hand, my leg suddenly turned strangely heavy . The blood was oozing and steaming through the hole in my tattered trouser leg. For a moment, I froze. Then I tried to pull myself together. Strange: It worked. Yes: I can still move my leg, practically without effort!

I was back at Frühauf ’s location in a single bound.

“They got me this time! Down below!”

“Jesus! Can you walk? For God’s sake, get out of here! Before it’s too late! None of us can help you!”

I knew that much. I only had one option left: To try to get back on my own. If the Russians ever got there, then everyone laying around here wounded would get a shot to the back of the head. We all knew that from personal experience.

A final handshake. Frühauf pushed and lifted me up over the edge of the trench. Then down and no delay. Down the slope! How many had I already dragged down there. Now I was the last one to go. The word “dragging” is a bit too dramatic. I was once again amazed: I certainly wasn’t too elegant, but it was going reasonably well. Once below, there was the long village street, or what used to pass for the village street: a hellish picture of fire-scarred ruins, rubble, craters, smashed equipment, and the dead—a burned out Schützenpanzerwagen with two completely carbonized corpses hanging down from the sides—and more rubble and dead, burnt framework from houses.

I hastened, stumbled, staggered down the street. Just keep going . . . keep going! There hadn’t been an aid station in the village for some time. To try to crawl off and hide somewhere would have been suicide. It was imperative for me to reach the next village further to the rear, about three or four kilometers away.

The rolling terrain, white under a leaden-gray sky, spread out in a seemingly limitless and oppressive vastness. Running through the middle of it was the dark ribbon of road. Even there, there were impacts, rubble, an occasional shot-up vehicle, a dead man, a couple of foxholes along the edge of the road and more opened-up and shredded earth. It appeared as if everything had died out. A couple of wounded men with bandaged heads and arms hastened past me towards the rear; once there was a small contingent of perhaps a dozen men headed towards the front. Keep going . . . just keep going! Damn it! My leg was getting heavier and heavier. A dull, icy, crippling feeling started to climb higher, from my knee into my hip. Every step became more difficult. I was distancing myself ever more slowly from the spot I had been in. If only you could just see the neighboring village! It had to be behind the ridgeline. But, man, how the road could twist on its way there! My heart was pumping; sweat was pouring down. Despite that, my teeth were chattering. Cold? Exhaustion? Excitement? Or even fear? Now, when I was defenseless. I was feeling how everything was collapsing in me that had held me together the past week.

I was just passing a couple of disabled vehicles when I suddenly heard the swelling sound of aircraft above me. Two Russian fighters jumped out of the cloud cover, raced along the road and made a straight course for the wrecked vehicles, presumably not seeing that they weren’t worth the gunpowder any more. Impacting rounds to the left and right. Of all places, they had to catch me there!

Fortune in misfortune: Right next to me on the edge of the road was a deep foxhole. Get in! I made myself as small as I could. Just disappear . . . hole up!

Then the aircraft disappeared. Get out—keep going! But, all of sudden, nothing worked any more. I was unable to get up. My leg wouldn’t cooperate; my entire body gave up. I clawed into the earth, pulling and pulling. My teeth were grinding, my pulse throbbed. Every muscle was cramped. I was in need of help, but I was unable to get out of the hole. Gasping, I laid back on the clumps of frozen earth. There were red and black shapes dancing and fluttering in front of my eyes. I was both hot and cold. I would have cried out—I could have cried—if I had had the strength. Give up! Stay where you are! Freeze in the ditch! Let yourself be shot! I could care less about everything—whether I got further to the rear or farther toward the front. One way or the other, it really didn’t matter any more!

My thoughts were jumbled and memory traveled in circles like a nightmare.

I didn’t stay there, and I didn’t freeze. Somebody came by, pulled me out of the hole, and helped me out. There were always comrades somewhere; one poor dog helped another. Somehow, I got to the village. There was a forward aid station there; it was filled to the brim with wounded and dead, with blood and dreck.

I disappeared into the masses of wounded, strength and desire gone. Incapable of feeling and thinking. Not much different than the others outside in the mass grave.

And so that’s the way it was in Nikinowo in December 1942, three weeks before Christmas. At the moment I was wounded, the company still had a “combat strength” of fourteen men, at least as far as all that allowed itself to be reconstructed. When it pulled back from the position in accordance with its orders at the end of the day, there were only seven men left! Frühauf and Lehrner were also wounded. In fact, Lehrner was badly wounded; his left foot had to be amputated.

But while all that was happening, a German counterattack was underway far off to our right with freshly introduced forces. It paralyzed the Russian offensive, and brought the entire situation in the Gshatsk area back in order. Our Nikinowo and the many other Nikinowos to the right and left of us had not been in vain.

At the end of our company’s sacrifice, there was a small, but symbolic incident. I didn’t hear about it until much later.

We had a career Feldwebel in our company—let’s call him Dietrich—who was a much hated and despised man. In neither case was it unjustified. Sometimes he appeared to be a character that might have been personally invented by E. M. Remarque7: capricious, quick-tempered, malicious, a hazer and harasser, intemperate with both wine and women. But he wasn’t cowardly; that much you had to give him. And sometimes, in shitty situations, there were moments where you could appreciate him. But all that would soon be over.

In Nikinowo he was one of the last ones remaining. In the end, he led what one still referred to as a “company.” When the last few men were evacuating the position, with the Russians pressing in from all sides, Feldwebel Dietrich was shot through both upper thighs, with a bone being shattered. His little group of men was clueless. Evacuating him was out of the question. Leave him behind? Everyone knew what that would mean.

At that point, Dietrich said, ice cold: “Leave the position immediately . . . go . . . go . . . leave me here!”

When his people started to hesitate, he yelled: “Disappear . . . right now! That is an order! I’ll personally shoot anyone who does not follow it!”

Dietrich was officially listed as “missing.” But his fate was never in doubt to any of us.

Legends emerged in long-forgotten times from those sorts of events—heroic legends.

A prime mover from Artillerie-Regiment 103 (mot.) (of the 4. Panzer-Division) brings forward a 10.5-centimeter howitzer to assist in the preparation for the assault.

By evening, the preparations have been made. The tanks of Panzer-Regiment 35 (of the 4. Panzer-Division) are on the outskirts of the metropolis on the Oka River.

Orel was defended in a heroic manner. Even wounded personnel from the officer academy fought to the bitter end.

Orel, 3 October 1941. Stuka formations, engaged by Soviet antiaircraft fire, attack the focal point of the enemy’s defenses, the airfield.

Soviet paratroopers, committed in the final round of fighting, were killed in this trench line.

Enemy antitank guns attempted to hold up the advance into the city. They were wiped out before they could even unlimber.

Mzensk also proved tough to take. The first snow fell as well, a warning that winter was coming. It melted, but the mud remained. Pictured here is the “road” from Orel to Mzensk. Supplies could be delivered only by air.

The defensive ring around Mzensk was finally blown open. Soviet dead remained behind in the positions surrounding the city, 25 October 1941.

A 10-centimeter cannon knocked out this T-34 along the main street of Mzensk.

On to Moscow! Tanks with mounted infantry during the assault on Tschern.


1 Translator’s Note. Woina is the transliteration of the Russian for the word “war.”

2 Translator’s Note: Knödel = dumpling.

3 Translator’s Note. The original German is “besch . . . eidenen Stellung, in which the ellipsis joins the beginning of beschissen (“shitty”) with the declined form of bescheiden (“modest”).

4 Translator’s Note. A field candle named after the commander in chief of German forces in World War I, Generalfeldmarschall Paul von Hindenburg. It was a shallow candle, somewhat reminiscent of a Sterno heat tab.

5 Translator’s Note. German uses both a formal and informal “you” when addressing someone. The formal “you,” or Sie, would normally be used by a subordinate rank when addressing a superior. In this case, the author indicates the relationship has deteriorated to the point where the informal you, or du, is used.

6 Translator’s Note. An Assistenzarzt is an intern.

7 Translator’s Note. Remarque was the author of All Quiet on the Western Front.

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