KNOCKED OUT AT FIFTY BELOW

From the diary of Gefreiter Robert Poensgen, loader in Panzer-Regiment 33 of the 9. Panzer-Division

27 December 1941. We spent the night in a panje hut in the vicinity of Tim, not too far east of Kursk. It was horribly cold outside. No one knew exactly how cold it was. Even if we had had a thermometer, it would have been hard to determine, since German thermometers did not work lower than 35 below [-31 Fahrenheit]. Later on, much later on, we discovered that the quicksilver sank to -54 [-65 Fahrenheit] that night. We only felt that it was unbearably cold. We were lying there in our dirty uniforms, wrapped in blankets, which had been reduced to rags, on the clay earth, trying to go to sleep.

The guards outside next to the tanks had to be relieved every half hour so they did not freeze. Every time the door opened, the cold air crashed into the room like a milky white fog. Whenever the guards took off the long driver overcoats, which reached down to the ankles, the coats were so frozen stiff that they simply stood up wherever they were placed, eliminating the need for wardrobe hooks.

When it turned light, we went out to the tanks. We were ordered to prepare to move out. Somewhere, not too far from there, Ivan was coming, and the thin line of riflemen could not hold him up.

Our vehicle, a Panzer III with a short 5-centimeter main gun—popularly and properly known as the army doorknocker—was almost covered under by the previous night’s snowdrifts. We shoveled and shoveled some more to retrieve it from under the white mountain of snow. We had so many layers of clothes on that we could scarcely move. Over the black uniform, we wore fatigues and a heavy overcoat above that. The head protectors were pulled up so high on our faces that only the eyes peered out. You could not take off one of the layers of clothing for fear of succumbing to the cold.

The turret was frozen in place; the mantlet would not move. We attempted to thaw out the ice with a blowtorch, but everything froze back together again. So we had to scratch and hack with pickaxes and shovels. The breeches of the main gun and the machine guns wouldn’t move either. The brown weapons oil was as solid as bee’s wax. We took a blowtorch to it, thawed it out and then thinned it with diesel fuel. But the diesel fuel was also as firm as vehicle grease.

The driver lit up a bundle of straw under the oil pan to warm up the oil enough so that the engine could turn over. There was no point in trying it with the starter right away. Although we had placed the batteries next to an open fire during the night, they did not have enough juice to turn the engine over a single time. That meant using the hand crank! Just millimeters at first . . . then, gradually, we could get the inertia starter going faster. We were huffing and puffing. The driver released the clutch. The engine turned over . . . two times . . . three times. We started all over again. We worked nearly half an hour before the engine caught. We let it warm up for ten to fifteen minutes. In the meantime, the weapons had frozen up again. Around 1000 hours we were ordered to move out. In between the singing of the wind and the fine rushing of the snow that was blowing in thick swaths, we heard bursts of fire from machine guns and individual rifle shots, all coming closer. The sun was still low on the horizon. It radiated no heat, not a single bit of warmth.

Even in the fighting compartment, we did not take off our overcoats. As the loader, I was barely able to move. But I had the feeling that without the overcoat I would freeze to death. Our breath formed small ice crystals on the steel walls of the tank. Everything glistened. If you grabbed ahold of anything, your hand stuck to it. There was no way you could work with bare hands.

We deployed in a combat formation. The distance from one vehicle to the next was about 80 meters. We were moving up a slight incline. Everything was a blur of white on white. The cold sun made the ice crystals sparkle.

Information was relayed over the radio: “Prepare to fire . . . high explosive, machine guns . . . no tanks . . . only enemy riflemen in groups!”

We reached the forward lines: A man here, a machine-gun crew there. Infantry in white snow smocks. Then we saw the Russians attack. Always in squad-size elements, eight to ten men at a time.

“Machine guns. Fire at will!”

The radio operator’s machine gun under me began to spit. The first belt rattled through in front of my eyes.

“Stoppage!”

Bolt back, a few shots of oil on the belt. It rattled again.

“Stoppage!”

The radio operator cursed at his machine gun and worked feverishly. That damned cold. Nothing worked any more. “No more bets” came to mind. To the left of my shoulder, the felt boots of Unteroffizier Frey were stomping. He was trying to keep his feet warm by stamping them. The bursts of fire came at ever-shorter intervals. Our vehicle lurched to the left and then to the right.

The gunner next to me had his eyes glued to the optics. He traversed the turret.

“We’re right in the middle of the Ivans. They’re taking off!” He yelled over to me.

Another belt was finished. The machine gun was working without practically any stoppages at that point. It was hot enough. Barrel change. Bolt change. And so it went.

We had reached the high ground and stopped there. There was a somewhat deep cut with vegetation in front of us. There were Russian sled columns on the opposite slope, tightly bunched together. I could not see anything myself, but the tank commander and the gunner provided details of the situation.

“Load high explosive!”

The breech slammed shut.

“Up!”

Rrumms!

A biting smoke from the shell casing filled the fighting compartment. In comparison, the little pipe that I clenched between my teeth was harmless, despite the machorka7 mixed in. Besides, it had gone out. Round after round left the barrel. Things were going better. The tank commander issued his fire commands, and the gunner executed them.

Rrumms!

To the right of us, we could also hear tank main guns barking. And then half a belt rattled through my machine gun. The tank commander fidgeted on his small seat.

“Turn off the engine so we don’t get such a draft in here!” he bellowed into the intercom.

The engine turned silent. You could only hear the whipping sounds of main-gun fire, the clattering of the Russian machine guns and the rattling of our machine guns.

“This is just like a shooting competition!”

The tank commander suddenly dropped out of his cupola like a lightning bolt. In the same fraction of a second, there was a terrible hissing sound passing over our heads.

“A tank’s firing or an antitank gun . . . fire up the engine and pull back!”

Frey was back in his cupola, spying above the edge. He gave the gunner a target: “It has to be down there in the row of vegetation!”

The starter yelped. Once again, there was a hissing overhead.

“Let’s go . . . pull back or he’ll get us!”

The gunner had the vegetation in his sights.

“Tanks!” he yelled. “Load antitank rounds!”

“Up!”

Rrumms!

Then there was more firing from the enemy’s side. The muzzle flash blazed.

Too short! The bastards were ranging us.

Our round was a bit over. The gunner adjusted. I had already loaded the anti-tank round, with the next one in my hands.

“Up!”

Rrumms!

“Fifty too short!”

What was going on with our engine? Good God, it wasn’t starting! The starter ground and ground. Frey yelled with a cracking voice from his station: “Give it to him! Fire!”

Rrumms!

“Add a hair!”

“Antitank!”

“Up!”

Ivan had also fired again. The impact was so close in front of us that the snow sprayed our vehicle.

“If he fires again, he’s got us!”

But we were able to fire first.

“It must have hit!”

But there was no visible effect. Damned peashooter!

Then there was a terrible blow. Everything seemed on fire in front of me . . . next to me . . . fire . . . fire!

A fist struck me on the right shoulder and turned me around in place. A clanging . . . screams. I sank to my knees. Without comprehending, I suddenly saw the sun through a giant hole in the fighting compartment; there was a tangle of steel in front of me. Flames licked all around. The gunpowder from the shell casings, which had been split open by the shrapnel, trickled out, flaming with a hiss. I no longer had any idea what was going on. I squatted among the ruins, and the world no longer made any sense. Slowly . . . very slowly . . . the thought worked its way through my tiny brain: “Knocked out . . . wounded!”

Although I felt no pain, there was a strange dull feeling in my right arm. Suddenly, something short-circuited on me. A strange, alcohol-binge-like idea flashed like lightning: “Hospital . . . nothing to smoke . . . where is my pipe? . . . I need my pipe!” I felt around with my left hand and actually found the pipe bowl. For a few seconds, I was satisfied . . . calm . . . almost happy.

To my right, the hatch was thrown open. The tank commander stuck his head inside and yelled: “What’s going on? . . . Why aren’t you getting out? . . . Let’s go . . . Go!” I gazed at him stupidly. He grasped for me, grabbed me on the shoulder and pulled me up. “Can’t you do this by yourself . . . come on!” I pushed my self up with my left hand. Suddenly, I was in the hatch with my upper body, whereupon I fell forward into the deep snow. At that moment, I saw that my overcoat was on fire—blazing. The gunner and the driver were suddenly next to me. They extinguished the flames with snow and yanked me up.

“Man, get away from the tank . . . the fireworks will start shortly!”

They both grabbed me under the arms and dragged me through the snow, which was knee deep. The arm started to really hurt. I stammered: “Careful with my arm . . . something’s wrong there!”

“Who gives a shit!” the tank commander gasped. “Just get out of here!”

A Russian submachine gun was rattling behind us; it was atwitter all around us. We pressed ourselves flat to the ground. For the first time I looked at our vehicle. It had just been struck in the turret again; it was ripped off. Pitch-black smoke . . . flames blazing. The machine-gun ammunition went up with a rattle; red tracers were spraying like fireworks.

Were there only four of us? There was the tank commander, the driver, the gunner and me.

“Where’s the radio operator?”

“Don’t worry about it . . . nothing’s bothering him anymore anyway.”

They dragged me farther along through the snow. The Russians behind us, whom we had overrun, were using us for target practice. The wing tank was pulling back at an angle, spraying the Russians with machine-gun fire. Impacts from Russian high-explosive and antitank rounds threw up the snow. We kept slogging on. I saw how the clothes were hanging in shreds on the bodies of the other men.

It was only another fifty meters to the wing tank, which was laying down covering fire. In the meantime, all hell had broken out. The main guns of our tanks were firing without a break. There was something being spit at us from Ivan’s side every few seconds. Down below, along the valley floor, there were two pitch-black smoky torches. That gave me a little satisfaction.

Finally, we reached the wing tank. Stabsfeldwebel Rüdiger climbed out onto the rear deck and helped us up. “Hold tight,” he yelled. “We have to pull back . . . we’ve also been hit.”

I lay under blankets on the rear deck and desperately held tight. The engine provided me some warmth. The tank swayed, jolted, and bounced. Every movement went through my entire body like glowing knives. Unteroffizier Frey had removed his gloves and was massaging his right hand, which was already pretty white from a lack of blood. “Hang in there!” He comforted me. “We’ll be there shortly!”

The damned high ground was behind us. I could no longer hear the sounds of fighting through the din of the engine.

We stopped in front of a panje hut, which had a small white flag with a red cross flattering in front of it. My comrades pulled me down from the tank. We all pressed into a small area. A few wounded were already sitting around, applying dressings to one another.

I was placed on a table. Stabsfeldwebel Rüdiger, a giant of a man, had carried me in on his arm like a small child. As if looking through a veil, I saw a medic cut open my overcoat with a large knife, peeling off my rags.

The others—Unteroffizier Frey, the gunner, and the driver—squatted in the corner and took off their overcoats. Blood, nothing but blood everywhere. I saw the face of the medic over me; he was wearing a pair of gas mask glasses. Somebody must have asked him something. He declined. I then got a shot and was gone.

I came back later and saw a shaft of blue sky. I heard the crunching of sleigh skids and the snorting of a horse. Covered to the nose in previously warmed-up blankets, I was on a sleigh. There was someone else next to me. My comrades were sitting off to the side. They were smoking a cigarette. When they saw that I had opened my eyes, they placed a butt between my lips. That’s how we got to the main clearing station—and I knew I had been saved.

A fuel truck hit by Soviet close air support, 30 June 1941, sixty-four kilometers outside of Beresina.

A Panzer III knocked out by Soviet artillery. The entire superstructure of the vehicle was ripped off the chassis by the force of the blast.

This Soviet armored train was destroyed by Schützen-Regiment 12 (of the 4. Panzer-Division) along the Beresina River, 2 July 1941.

The crew of the train fought to the bitter end, as evidenced by this fallen Soviet officer.

This aerial scout of the 4. Panzer-Division was forced down by Soviet Ratas, 3 July 1941.

The sturdy Rata, one of the first generation of Soviet fighters. It was maneuverable but too slow.

The radio SPW of the brigade commander, Oberst von Saucken. It was christened the “old hag.”

Most of Stary-Bychow was reduced to rubble.

Artillery forward observers north of Stary Bychow, 10 July 1941.

Footnotes

1 Translator’s Note. It was common practice for a formation’s signals officer to ride with the commander in his command vehicle.

2 Translator’s Note. The Germans used a different rank system for medical personnel of officer rank. A Stabsarzt was the equivalent of a Hauptmann (captain).

3 Translator’s Note. An affectionate nickname for which there is no ready English translation.

4 Translator’s Note. At this stage of the war, army tank personnel still wore an overseas cap, which had insignia on the front of it that could identify the wearer as a German. By turning it around, he was depriving the Russian soldiers a glimpse of the insignia, and it looked more like the rather shapeless headgear of the Soviet forces.

5 Translator’s Note. Stalin organ was German soldier slang for free-flight rockets launched from mobile launchers, usually modified trucks.

6 Translator’s Note. The so-called Gulaschkanone—“goulash cannon”—was a staple of German field kitchens throughout the war. The stove was mounted on a single-axle horse-drawn carriage and featured a prominent smokestack for the oven.

7 Translator’s Note. Machorka was a low-grade Russian tobacco, which the German soldiers reluctantly used whenever better tobacco was not available.

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