Chapter 6


Leutnant Walter Ziehm, regimental signals officer in Panzergrenadier-Regiment 12, 4. Panzer-Division

Someone might say that a tank or an armored personnel carrier was just a machine, a device that only needed to be serviced properly so that it functioned. No . . . no . . . an armored vehicle is a living creature that, behind a rough skin, has the capacity for joy and pain. Every vehicle is different despite the same exterior dress. No man who drives it is like any other. According to his rank, he is either a Gefreiter or an Obergefreiter. Normally, he’s just referred to as a driver. In reality, however, he is like a husband, who feels united with his companion in love and who has all of his attention.

When the engine growls and rumbles, the steel body of the tank trembles like a thoroughbred before a race. The hand of the driver lovingly strokes the cold steel or the rounded curves of the steering wheel. It is the secret expression of inner connectedness and spiritual kinship.

If words are spoken, then they sound like this: We’re off again and the two of us . . . well, we understand one another. To the inattentive observer it could be that it only sounds like a loud cursing. That’s also a part of it: Not only as a release for the tremendous tension, but also to hide it.

As with all things, there are good times and bad times for the driver. The good times are those where man and machine are on the march, in the darkness of the night, through dirt and mud or even through snow and ice and, not least of all, in deadly combat, where neither one may fail and where the concept of comradeship takes on its actual meaning. The bad times are those where everything is quiet, the front has stabilized and only short skirmishes remind one that there is still a war going on.

Drivers have abundant faces and very unique ones when they are behind the wheel. They also have chagrined ones when they also have to pull guard during quiet times.

One of those in the fraternity was Hannes. His former life back home, where he earned his daily bread as a craftsman, only seemed like a distant dream any more. At this point, the war was providing him his nourishment in accordance with much tougher rules. But that did not bother Hannes much; he did his duty and that which was demanded of him and in general behaved in accordance with the tried-and-true axiom of not standing out.

But he did stand out—as a reliable, safe driver and a tireless maintainer of his vehicle. For that reason, he was transferred to the 1st Company and took over the SPW of the company commander. That meant that his destiny was to always be out front.

In the summer and fall of 1942, there were no major events in the center sector, where Panzer-Grenadier-Regiment 12 was employed, but at the beginning of 1943, the Russians once again attacked in masses in the center sector of the front. It was around the time that the drama around far-off Stalingrad was coming to a close. But we also had our share of names that would go into the history books: Kursk and Orel.

Our regiment had been reconstituted with men and materiel. It had once again become what it once was: the fire brigade at the hot spots of the battlefield. The drivers and their vehicles had a special role to play. Depending on the changing situation, the regiment would attack and give hard-pressed units some breathing room until night came and offered the opportunity to reestablish contact with neighboring forces. Under the cover of night, the regiment disappeared and moved to another assembly area, from whence it would roll out the next morning into new fighting. That meant no chance to fully rest for the drivers; they could never get forty winks.

Hannes drove point. The engine roared and the tracks rattled outside. He knew that a long snake of vehicles was following him, and he also knew that it was all up to him. The men crouched inside the vehicle with their backs turned to the direction of travel. Their heads were tucked deeply into their chests in an effort to protect themselves from the icy snowstorm. The shaking and the jogging did not prevent them from sleeping like bears, however. They would need all of their strength later. They could rest easy, since they knew they were in good hands.

In a raging snowstorm, it was an almost inhuman task to drive. Hannes held the wheel until his hands were practically paralyzed. He stared through the vision port. The snow collected around the tiny slot and robbed him of his vision. He had to open his hatch. He was then able to see the path three meters ahead of him. It was silhouetted in the honeycombed flecks of snow that hit him in the face.

His eyes burned from the strain, and the flakes of snow melted on his cheeks from the warmth that climbed up from below from the engine compartment. It was roaring with a well-mannered strength as if it wanted to say: Just go slowly, I can handle it.

Snow and sweat glistened on Hannes’s face, and it almost appeared that there was a bit of joy there and the certainty that he would do it. He felt his way forward, slowly and in a measured way. He was prepared to turn the wheel around at any second, if an obstacle surfaced in the wilderness of snow. Hour after hour slipped into the night.

Hannes did not perceive any of that. He was in another world, in his world. When it started to turn light, he had covered eighty kilometers, but Hannes knew nothing of that. Once at the objective, he only stretched his stiff limbs for a moment before turning his entire attention to his companion. He knocked against the tracks and listened to the engine, ready to help like a doctor, who is checking to see whether a heart is healthy.

Ivan had penetrated into the eastern portion of Kursk and had already shot past to the north and south. In the face of the threatening encirclement, General Schneider had ordered the city be evacuated. Things were going according to plan. There was still a rearguard screening at the train station. Hannes was with it.

He was no longer driving an SPW. Instead, he was in a captured T-34, since he had once been in Panzer-Regiment 35. There was a howling and a cracking from the east; it was no less violent in all the other directions as well. It was time to disappear, before the last bridge—the one that led from Kursk to the west—flew into the air.

A paymaster came running up and said that there were still seven freight cars in the freight yard in the direction of the enemy that were loaded with comfort items: cigarettes, cigars, schnapps, wine, and a thousand other treats.

The phrase “comfort items” electrified the men of the rearguard. That was some sort of precious booty! But what was to be done? There was no locomotive to be seen far and wide. Moreover, the firing was getting dangerously close. There was only one thing to do Hannes drove onto the tracks with his T-34, turned onto the proper track and trotted along in reverse across the bumpy ties in the direction of the seven freight cars. He reached them, coupled them to his tank in the flash of an eye and slowly rolled west with the precious cargo.

The rearguard performed its duties with vigor and held the last bridge until the strange freight train had crossed it—and the Russians were firing with everything they had. But the seven freight cars were a terrific shield against shrapnel. Since Ivan followed vigorously and did not allow the withdrawing forces any breathing room, the bumpy ride on the ties had to be continued more than thirty-five kilometers.

It goes without saying that Hannes was massively celebrated after his Hussar raid and also received more than his share of the precious cargo.

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