Feldpost – A letter from the Eastern Front, June 1942

A couple of weeks ago I acquired a collection of letters dating from World War 2. There are billions of similar letters around, but these are special. We are looking at the correspondence of two brothers. One, Walther, is a young professional soldier who his trying hard to become an officer (finally getting his promotion in January 43). The other is Theo, a student in a German grammar school, who aches to finish school to be able to become a soldier aswell and to follow in the footsteps of his elder brother. The whole correspondence ends in September 1943. A check with the Volksbund database tells us why. Walther is missing since October 1943, his body has never been found.

The brothers speak openly about their fears, their wishes and their dreams and whereas the younger brother is working hard to become a soldier and an officer himself, his elder brother seems to lose confidence and motivation constantly. I have chosen a random letter to start with, an interesting one dated 26th of June 1942.

Walther is serving as an Unteroffizier (NCO) in Artillerie-Regiment 299 which is deployed on the Eastern Front.

I will continue to publish them in chronological order as soon as I find the time.

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Dear Theo,

every time I receive a letter from you I am so happy that I just have to answer them immediately. My heartfelt thanks for the lines you sent on the 9th of June. You probably had not received the long letter I sent you? I hope you are holding it in your hands by now.
Dear Theo, I can tell you that there is a lot to see in war. Bad things and good things. Sadly you see the latter very rarely, but you have to be able to ignore that, because otherwise it would be hard to bear.

After a long and refreshing sleep I am now writing you this letter. This evening I returned safely from my first combat patrol. Our task was to destroy an important enemy position consisting of a number bunkers with observed fire. 
The patrol consisted of volunteers and was made up by a platoon of infantry and three artillerymen. I do not remember if I have told you that we lie in the foremost line and right in front of it is a large and thick forest which is held by the Soviets.
We had to advance about 4 kilometers into it and set up a radio station, with which we could guide the fire of our battery. The job of the infantry was to secure us against any kind of Russian counter action.

My dear Theo, I had no idea, what I had volunteered for! It’s not that I feel sorry about it, but it was a real suicide mission.
Three weeks ago another combat patrol was sent out into this primeval forest where it was ambushed and wiped out by the Soviets. After that the number of volunteers for such missions drastically decreased! The Russian is a beastly, malicious and devious enemy who is committing unspeakable deeds to the wounded and to the ones he takes prisoner. Theo, if you ever have to see a comrade that has been ravaged by them you will never forget it. The one we found had been in command of the previous combat patrol. There was a burning inside me, my blood was boiling and I didn’t know what to say. He had only just been awarded the Iron Cross 1st class. I will never be able to forget this sight. But you have to get rid of it. You have to forget it. If you don’t it will make you fail.
We slowly moved forward, stopping about every 20 meters, listening into the wilderness. That way it took us 5 hours to reach a part of the forest from which we could observe the enemy bunker line. The moral effect of our artillery rounds zooming over our heads and punching into the enemy position was wonderful. A tremendous feeling, which is hard to describe to someone who has not experienced something like that!

The Soviets had obviously not noticed that they were being hit by observed fire and their artillery started to open up aswell. Our guns managed to crack open two of their bunkers. After two hours of continuous firing we started to withdraw, but by then Ivan had finally realised that there had to be German artillery observers around. All of a sudden he opened up with everything he had and small arms fire was ripping into the forest around us. We had chosen a good spot though and did not suffer any losses. During our withdrawal we had to cover two dangerous spots ideal for an enemy ambush. One was a patch of grassland surrounded by dark forest, the other a swampy area covered with gravel. Both would have given the enemy a perfect opportunity to annihilate us, but nothing happened. We arrived at our position and were more than happy to have escaped from this hell with all our bones intact.

This forest is really a hell on earth which has cost us a lot of blood so far. It’s easy to enter, but terribly hard to get out again. The damned Ivan invites us in and then easily surrounds and ambushes us. An easy game in his position. Why don’t we just take the forest you ask? Our operations are to make sure that he does not (!) retreat without a fight. It is planned that in a few weeks from now a large-scale operation will be conducted with the goal of destroying the Soviets completely and you can only do so if the enemy faces you in combat. But what happens you allow him to withdraw and to continue his existence?

Dear Theo, with these lines I just wanted to give you an idea of our life here. At the moment I am back at the observation post.  I would not like to be anywhere else as there is no better place to prove and show what is expected of the future officer. In the future more patrols will be send out and I will make sure I will part of them.

Hope that you will be writing soon! Warm regards and kisses,
Walther

PS. It’s Mother’s birthday on the 3rd of July!

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Life in the trenches – Diary of a German soldier. Courcy, France 1915

The following text is an extract from an unpublished diary of a NCO serving in Füsilier-Regiment 73, the Hannovarian Regiment in which ranks Ernst Jünger served. The diary is wonderful as it gives a fascinating insight into the daily routine of a German regiment. I do not have the time to transcribe and translate it all, so I have chosen to publish a section that was written in March and April 1915, when the regiment fought in and around the village of Courcy, near Reims, in France. 

The area in which everything below takes place (Courcy and surroundings) can be found here. The windmill that is mentioned was where the road “le Moulin á Vent” is today:

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Saturday, 27th of March

Wake up call at Noon followed by Sauerkraut for lunch. In the evening it’s cleaning rifles followed by an inspection. After that we are ordered to Courcy to dig trenches there. I stay behind because I have problems with my feet. On Sunday there are no duties except muster in full gear and church service. Only the men that did not take part in trench digging go there. These are the sick men and the ones infested with lice. Lice are a widespread problem, but everything is done to get rid of them. As soon as someone notices he is infected by lice he has to report himself. He is then put into a bath and gets his uniform cleaned.

Monday, 29th of March

We equip ourselves to march off to the trenches. To combat the lice each soldier gets a neck pouch which contains an evil smelling substance. In the evening we march out. As my feet are still giving me trouble I am allowed to load my gear and backpack onto the company’s baggage cart. Just behind Courcy it is the first time I get to see our foremost trenches. They are extremely well built, wide and deep with strong parapets, embrasures and loopholed steel plates behind which a rifleman can find cover.
In daylight these loopholes afford a safe and excellent view across the terrain in front of the trench. At night the small holes are quite useless and you have to use sacks of sand as footsteps to be able to look over the edge of the trench.

On the backside of the foremost trench there are various types of dug-outs. Some are virtually proof against artillery shells as they have been cut deep into the chalk ground. Larger ones, being able to shelter 8 to 10 men are roofed with massive wooden planks supported by iron beams. They won’t resist a direct hit, but afford protection against shell splinters and shrapnel balls. The ground inside these dug-outs is covered with straw and they are furnished with a table, benches or chairs and have a window opening on the backside which is blocked with straw when it is cold outside. When there is no daylight, candles are used for illumination. Our company gets alloted to a section called the “Hindenburg” trench, which is only about 200 meters away from the enemy trenches. Its part of a protruding section of our line known as the “Friesennase” (Frisian Nose). It’s named that way because it looks like a nose on the map and because it has been manned by Frisians (IR78) since September.

Me and six men of my group move into a nice dug-out, the other two men are billeted in the dug-out next to us. At night time each group has to have four men on watch inside the trench while the others are allowed to sleep. The guards are relieved every 2 or 3 hours. Another group has to supply men for the so called “Horchposten” (listening post). These men lie down under the barbed wire, about 30 to 40 meters in front of our trench. Access to this exposed position is through a deep and narrow trench which affords cover against infantry weapons and which is also equipped with loopholed steel plates.

Our position is well equipped with weapons like machine-guns (including a Belgian and an English one), revolving cannon and lots of handgrenades. In case of an enemy barrage narrow and deep artillery trenches lead towards the rear affording the men with plenty of cover.
I had imagined there would be lively exchanges of fire here in the foremost positions, but that is not the case. Only when there is something happening on our side, for example when the listening post makes his way towards its position, some enemy rifle bullets whistle towards us. Sometimes the “Franzman” also shoots partridges and rabbits that run around between the lines, but apart from that it stays surprisingly quiet. During the first nights there was a full moon and there was excellent visibility. Now we use flares to illuminate the dark terrain.

Tuesday, 30th of March 1915

A quiet day. In the evening, at 5 o clock, some artillery shells are fired over our heads. The enemy is targeting an old windmill a couple of hundred meters behind our lines, where now and then a smokey fire is lit to draw enemy fire away from other sectors of the front. The fire is lit every day and put out at about 7 pm when everything gets quiet again.
Three times a day some men are sent back to Courcy to fetch coffee and food. A communication trench is leading to the village and without it, it would be impossible to reach the village in daylight. The food is generally terrible, only sometimes when it contains Sauerkraut or green beans it’s a bit better. There is plenty of bread and sometimes cheese, sausages and butter. The weather has been good so far, freezing in the nights and warm in the day. Still we spend most of our time inside the dug-out as the trench affords little room for a walk and there is a constant danger to fall victim to a stray piece of shrapnel or an aerial bomb. Each day enemy aircraft can be seen circling above our positions. They get targeted by our anti-balloon guns. Their shells detonate close to the aircraft without ever bringing one of them down. Most of the time the enemy planes do not drop any bombs. The damage they inflict stands in no relation to the danger the pilot is getting himself into. They are reconnaissance planes, mapping and photographing our positions and trenches.

In modern war impressive things are done. A while ago I had the chance to have a closer look at one of our maps on which the enemy trench system could be seen in every detail. It even showed camouflaged artillery positions! Of course I can not tell just how up to date this map was, but it seemed to be a comprehensive and detailed view. The enemy trench system was subdivided into numbered sections and even sported the enemies terrain designations (like our “Frisian Nose”).

All in all we live a monotonous life. There is not a lot to see. In the far distance we can see the two massive towers of the cathedral at Reims and to look over the parapet in daylight is extremely dangerous so there is not much to see there aswell. The only diversion is the mail which is delivered every morning and most of the time every comrade gets something, even if its only a newspaper from home. On the 3rd of April heavy rainfall set it which made our residence in the trenches unbearable. The rain turned the hard chalk into a sticky and slippery surface which forced us to cling to the parapet when walking the trench to avoid falling down. On the first day of Easter (4th of April) it was still raining hard, but we found consolation in the fact that the mail brought a lot of presents from home. Sadly there was nothing for me. A few days earlier I had received a parcel from my sister which contained a letter, a photographic card and the Reclam edition of Goethes “Faust“. My parcel finally arrived on the second day of Easter and the following days were brightened by all the wonderful gifts we had received from home which included oranges, cigars and cigarettes.

On the evening of the 4th we left the trenches to spend the next three days in the village of Courcy which lies only a short distance behind them. Normally the battalion spends six days in the foremost trench, six days in the second line (in and around Courcy) and six days in the third line (Auménancourt le petit) about 12 kilometers behind the front, but as the 92nd Regiment only just left this area, our time in the second line gets reduced as we had to take over some stretches of their former positions.
The time in Courcy was wonderful. Most of its inhabitants had left and most houses were shot to pieces, but there were some undamaged houses left which could be used for quarters.

I had the luck to be billeted with my friend Leutnant Reese and because of that I had everything in abundance. I could sleep in a proper bed covered with my coat and a blanket which made it possible to undress at least partially during the nights. The first night a loud crash tore us out of our sleep and we dived into cover as we were thinking that we were targeted by artillery. On the ground I lit a candle and we waited for the next impact. It stayed quiet and in the candlelight I could see that a large oil painting which had been hanging on the wall had fallen down which had resulted in the crash.

We spent the days drawing, reading and writing. The newspapers we had were already three days old, but for us every kind of news was new. The other two days were like being in paradise. Leutnant Reeses batman, who was billeted in the room next to ours used to serve in an army kitchen and was a master in “organising” everything we wished for. Ham, cheese, sausages there was nothing he could not get. In his civilian life he had been a soapmaker in Krefeld and he was a great chap who never asked for anything in return.
On the evening of the 6th and 7th of April things were less cosy. At about 4 o’ clock the French started shelling Courcy which forced us to take cover in dug-outs and in the strong, reinforced cellars found under most houses in Courcy (the village was part of the outer fortifications around Reims). Down in the cellars we were safe from the barrage, but it took a while to get used to the crashing sounds of the detonations again. Yesterday evening another barrage followed, but it did little damage to the village. Most shells hit the trenches. Our 10th company, which was still in position suffered one man killed and two wounded. The machine gun company had one man wounded. Our own artillery retaliated in kind, but I do not know if it had any effect.

At nighttime we left Courcy and marched back towards our position. The section we are manning now is similar to the one we were in before. My dug-out was a bit smaller and had room for only four men. Between 8 to 9.30 pm I was in charge of the guard. When that period was over I lay down to catch some sleep. An hour later enemy barrage hit a trench section close to ours. Was the enemy planning to attack? Shortly afterwards rifle shots could be heard. The alarm was sounded and all available men armed themselves and prepared to repel an enemy attack. I grabbed my rifle, put on my helmet and joined the men in the trench. The thunder of the guns and the cracking of the rifles was getting more intense every minute. Our own artillery started firing, sending its shells in a low trajectory over our heads. The night is pitch black making it impossible to see anything. When I ask around if everyone has a full supply of ammunition the answer is negative. Me and an officer’s assistant open an ammunition storage and hand out all bullets we can find.

Meanwhile the firing continues. Every minute an illumination flare is fired which spends enough light to check the terrain in front of us. No enemy in sight. The same on our left, where all the firing is coming from. Suddenly, as suddenly as it started, the firing dies down. A few more rifle shots ring through the night, then it is quiet

Later on a terrible accident occurred. A platoon of our pioneers sent to repair damage to the barbed wire entanglements was taken under fire by the men of our listening post. The men had not been informed about the repairs and were under strict orders to shoot as soon as they noticed anything suspicious. Expecting an enemy patrol they opened fire and killed one pioneer instantly. Another pioneer was shot through the head, he was still alive when he was recovered but he will be dying soon. How terrible it is to be killed by your own side…..

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MIGHT BE CONTINUED

Germany and the Centenary 1914/2014 – The forgotten war

It’s important that we remember the war dead on both sides of the line – the Germans suffered the same as we did.” – Harry Patch

I watched the funeral service of Harry Patch, when he was laid to rest in August 2009.

Due to the high levels of interest in the funeral, which was broadcast live on TV and radio, a total of 1,050 tickets were made available for the service. Some, wanting to pay their respects, slept overnight on the Cathedral Green in order to get tickets. Those who did not manage to get one watched the whole ceremony on TV or on huge video screens that were errected on the streets. The bells of Wells Cathedral were rung 111 times to mark each year of his life. In addition to pallbearers from The Rifles, Patch’s coffin was accompanied by two private soldiers from each of the armies of Belgium, France and Germany and an official of the German embassy is reading from the bible. A country in mourning, remembering the “last Tommy”.

When Dr Erich Kästner, the last German veteran of World War One died in 2008 no one took any notice. It was only due to an entry on Wikipedia, which was written by a German amateur historian that someone noticed his obituary in a German newspaper (which said nothing about his service in WW1) and edited the Wikipedia accordingly. Finally, three weeks after Kästners death, the first article about him was published in Der Spiegel.

Dr Erich Kästner (1900-2008)  and his wife

Dr Erich Kästner (1900-2008) and his wife

Germany kept no lists of surviving veterans of the Great War. Even the Ministry of Defence, the Bundeswehr or the German Armed Forces Military History Research Office had any idea how many of these men, who had taken part in the great slaughter between the North Sea and the Alps where still alive. And due to this nobody took any notice when one of these men joined the ranks of the Great Army.

The German veterans  and even World War One itself, have disappeared from the collective memory of the German people. They are a “lost generation” indeed, a generation whose suffering and dying in the trenches of the Marne and the Somme has been lost in the shadows of World War Two.

We still have time, a little time. It‘s not about an 11th hour decision which would demand a rapid change of direction to save mankind. The humble truth is that it‘s all about a wiser and not even germanocentric rememberance, reflecting on our role in European history.

We still have more then one year to think about how we will remember the fact that in August 2014 it will be 100 years since a chain of messy coincidences, lies, bad-, good-, and best intentions led to a war that would throw the 20th century off its course. Time to remember a war that was to trigger the tragedy of a century.

Not a day goes by on German TV without showing images of Adolf Hitler, proof of the dull power to fascinate still emanating from the man from Braunau and also proof that Germans take the accounting for their past seriously. You just have to compare Germany to Japan to see how successfully Germany managed to confront itself with its National Socialist past (after some hesitation and hushing-up).

Germans do not talk about “the dark years” anymore, like they used to do in the 60s and 70s when the curtains were down and plenty of drink on the table. The days of “don’t mention the war” are over once and for all. The facts are accessible to anyone, they are in our school books and most Germans know that it was Germans that commited the most terrible, racial holocaust the world has ever seen. I think it‘s ok to say that we in Germany have quarrelled more with our own dirty past than any other nation. We have looked into Evil‘s blue eyes and that is a good thing!

The problem about all this quarrelling and self-reflecting is that it has effectively severed the German citizens‘ link to the earlier past no matter if good or bad. Tons of surveys show how little “ze German” knows about the Thirty Years War, the old Empire, Prussia, The German Empire or the Republic of Weimar. These pasts are incredibily far away; they do not talk to us anymore, they have vanished in the Orcus of history.

This makes us Germans special. No other country has a long-term memory as damaged as ours and no other country has such problems to incorporate its history into its self-perception. It stops us from looking at German history in a European context. A context that was already firmly in place in the decades before the start of World War 1.

The assassination in Sarajevo on the 28th of June 1914, the hectic negotiations of the diplomats wearing stiff suits and monocles, young German soldiers going happily to war with flowers in their rifle barrels. This war seems to be much further than 100 years ago. It has disappeared from our conscience.

In World War 2 we saw an historical battle between the republican idea and the two major ideologies of national socialism and communism. What was World War 1 about? Certainly it was not about ideals…or was it? Was it not just about small quarrels and vanities, about some colonies in countries whose names we can‘t pronounce? Problems that useless diplomats could not solve?

We still have time to start planning the centenary of 2014. The others do it aswell: the United Kingdom, France, Russia, Belgium and Italy. We should be doing the same as equals. Our government has decided to stay in the background and to yield precedence on the big stage to the victors. There are supposed to be some congresses, some local events and maybe even a small international one, but Germany has decided to stay in the second rank.

A cowardly and wrong decision. We hide in that part of history which we think is our own: 1933 to 1945.

But it is not like that. The terrible years of 1933 to 1945 were preceeded by other terrible years and we have to include these to get the whole picture. It’s not about seeking rehablilitation or to transfer the guilt to somebody else. It‘s all about realising that there was no mandatory road leading into the German catastrophy. It‘s about keeping German and European history before 1933 alive. And we need Germany to do that…don’t we?

Military Book Review – Die Wehrmacht im Ostkrieg (IFZ)

Ostkrieg

Die Wehrmacht im Ostkrieg (The Wehrmacht in the War in the East), is certainly one of the best and most important books on the German army in WW2 I have read during the last 10 years. Sadly it does not yet seem to have been translated into the English language. The review below is not by me, but as its excellently written I take the liberty to publish it here (original text found on http://www.perspectivia.net/content/publikationen/francia/francia-recensio/2011-2/ZG/hartmann_strohn) 

If you read German, this title is a must have!

“Hartmann’s findings are striking and shed a new light onto many areas of the debate concerning the Wehrmacht and its role in the war in the East. He shows that the degree to which units were involved in war crimes was dependent on the role they had to fulfil in the Wehrmacht and occupational structure and was also influenced by rather random factors such as the area of deployment and time. Hartmann does not negate the fact that the Wehrmacht as an organisation was guilty of war crimes in many areas, but he argues for a more balanced and differentiated approach with regard to single units and individual soldiers. With his book »Wehrmacht im Ostkrieg«, Christian Hartmann has presented an outstanding work of scholarship”

Review by Matthias Strohn

The history of the Second World War continues to occupy historians and the interested wider public alike. Historiography has provided us with insights into the war, societies and virtually all other areas that have a point of contact with this conflict. German historiography in particular has undergone a number of changes in the approach to and views on this greatest conflict of modern times. Roughly speaking, the first twenty years after the war were characterised by memoirs of former generals and the thesis that Hitler had abused the German people and the German armed forces. From the late 1960s onwards, a generation of younger historians questioned this approach. Not only had they not been directly involved in the Nazi regime, but the opening of archives and the return of captured documents to Germany enabled this generation to look into new aspects and to provide new insights into the period. In line with the 1960s social changes and the advent of Marxist views in western German historiography, it was now argued that German society was far more important and involved in the Nazi regime than claimed hitherto. The same development can be seen in the historiography of the German armed forces in that period. Today it is obvious that the pendulum swung from one extreme to the other: Initially, all responsibility for genocide, war crimes and the like were denied by the former generals and the wider public. It was deemed appropriate to blame Hitler himself, his clique of Nazi leaders and the Waffen SS for all the atrocities committed between 1933 and 1945. With the advent of the new generation and their different approach to history this changed: the Wehrmacht was now regarded as an instrument that spread terror, committed war crimes and was an active supporter of Nazi ideology.

A low point in this development was reached with the first Wehrmacht Exhibition that opened in 1995. The crude arguments and the simplistic views presented in this exhibition called for a more balanced and less biased view and also awoke a new and wide interest in the history of the Wehrmacht. As a consequence, the prestigious Institut für Zeitgeschichte launched a research project which looked at the Wehrmacht and the role of the armed forces during the war. The aim was not so much to provide narrowly defined studies on operational or traditional military history, but to explore the role of the organisation Wehrmacht for and in the Third Reich. Another aim was to explore the social history of the Wehrmacht. In total, the project produced five monographs by Johannes Hürter, Peter Lieb, Dieter Pohl, Andreas Toppe and Christian Hartmann. The emphasis of the publication was on the war against the Soviet Union. Moreover, the members of the working group produced over 50 articles, some of which were published in the work that is part of this review and which marked the end of the project.

Christian Hartmann’s monograph explores the realities of war in the first year of the German-Russo war, the division between front-line and hinterland and the involvement of the Wehrmacht in war crimes and atrocities. His aim is not to understand the Wehrmacht as an institution and its role per se, but to provide us with an understanding of the 10 million German soldiers who were deployed to the Eastern Front. He concentrates his work on three fields that he regards – correctly – as the core areas of the Wehrmacht in the Second World War. Thus, his study is occupied with the biggest service of the Wehrmacht, the army, and its struggle on the decisive front of the war, the Eastern Front. Hartmann restricts his study to the first year of the war in the East, in which, as he puts it, »everything was decided, not only the war against the USSR«. Moreover, he claims that an evaluation of this period offers the best insight into the aims and ideas of the soldiers involved in this struggle, since the Wehrmacht was convinced of its strength and full of self-confidence, so that the actions of individuals and bigger social groups were not driven by outer influences, but from within. Within these three parameters, Hartmann examines the actions and histories of five German divisions. Divisions have not played a prominent role in modern military history, but Hartmann is right in arguing that the division was vital in the military organisation and that an examination of the divisional level offers many new insights: the structure of a division and its strength (the divisions examined were between 9,000 and 18,000 soldiers strong) put it in a place between two fields that have attracted most attention in military history; tactical studies and the fate of the individual, low-ranking soldier on the hand, and high-ranking generals and their operational and strategic decisions on the other hand. By choosing divisions as his study’s units, Hartmann closes this gap, because divisions operated at the interface between tactics and the operational level of war. He chooses five divisions that provide a representative view of the entire German army in the East in 1941/42: One tank division, two infantry divisions, and one Sicherungsdivision that was deployed in the hinterland away from the front-line and fulfilled a double-role as both fighting and occupation unit. Last, but not least, Hartmann examines the role of oneKommandant/Kommandantur des rückwärtigen Heeresgebietes or Korück(Commander of the hinterland), an example of the occupation forces that were deployed closer to the front-line. Even though not a division in the traditional sense of the word, Hartmann argues that a Korück’s size and structure made it comparable to such a unit.

This is the foundation on which Hartmann bases his evaluation. In five main chapters he then analyses the formations and their experiences in the first year of the war. The first chapter deals with the structure of the divisions and their composition, showing the differences in the individual units. In the second chapter Hartmann turns to the soldiers of these units. He analyses the social structure of the units; the soldiers’ backgrounds and their decorations and casualties as indicators for their bravery and combat effectiveness. Chapter three is devoted to the experiences of the individual units from June 1941 to June 1942. Hartmann clearly shows the different experiences of the units and their approaches to challenges such as regular and partisan warfare. These factors are picked up and developed in depth in the last two chapters in which Hartmann analyses the differences between front and hinterland and examines the contribution of the different units to war crimes and atrocities. Units of all five divisions were involved in war crimes in the first year of the war in the East, but Hartmann’s research enables us to differentiate: Maltreatment of prisoner and mass executions did not occur constantly, but were restricted to certain times and influenced by outer parameters. The worst behaviour in the sample group was shown by troops deployed in the hinterland, and, perhaps more surprisingly, by the elite 4th Panzer Division. Hartmann explains this with the social structure of the divisions: The 4th Panzer Division was commanded by a general who initially showed strong sympathies for Nazism and the region from which the division recruited was characterised by a strong general support for the Nazi regime. Moreover, the division between front and hinterland was of great importance. This is perhaps less surprising, but Hartmann shows this in a new clarity. The units at the front concentrated on their military core business – fighting, killing and getting killed. Occupational policy was the business of the troops of the hinterland. Even though this division of labour was sometimes broken down by deploying rear-echelon troops to the front and increased partisan activity in the hinterland, this division remained intact throughout the period examined. It was the regime’s aim to concentrate the army in the front area and to relieve it of as many tasks in the hinterland as possible. In 1943, 2.65 million German soldiers were deployed within seventy kilometres from the front-line while only approximately 200.000 were deployed further to the west as occupation forces. As a consequence, wide areas in the rear could no longer be controlled by the Wehrmacht.

Hartmann’s findings are striking and shed a new light onto many areas of the debate concerning the Wehrmacht and its role in the war in the East. He shows that the degree to which units were involved in war crimes was dependent on the role they had to fulfil in the Wehrmacht and occupational structure and was also influenced by rather random factors such as the area of deployment and time. Hartmann does not negate the fact that the Wehrmacht as an organisation was guilty of war crimes in many areas, but he argues for a more balanced and differentiated approach with regard to single units and individual soldiers. With his book »Wehrmacht im Ostkrieg«, Christian Hartmann has presented an outstanding work of scholarship. It is a prime example of German historical scholarship at its best. The structure of the book and the arguments are clear and compelling and they are supported by a vast amount of references. Also, the book is a »good read«, something that cannot be said of every academic book. Historians that have been educated in the English-speaking world might find the sheer amount of footnotes and the density of references a little daunting. It is up to the reader to decide if they want to see this as a weak point of the book. It should be clear that a scholarly work that can only be criticised for being academic is a great achievement. And Hartmann’s book is one of these works.

In contrast to Hartmann’s monograph, the last volume of the project published by the Institut für Zeitgeschichte contains a selection of articles by some of its members that also deal with the war on the Eastern front. In the introduction, the authors point out that an official view of the institute does not exist with regards to the war, German atrocities, etc. and this becomes obvious in the contributions of the authors, the approaches they have chosen and their conclusions. In total, the book contains ten articles by five authors. The first article by Christian Hartmann »Verbrecherischer Krieg. Verbrecherische Wehrmacht« picks up the themes discussed in his monograph reviewed above. Again, Hartmann points out the organisational structure of the German occupation of the Soviet Union which concentrated its forces near the front-line, and, as a consequence, resulted in the »dominance of military topics« for the Wehrmacht units, because they had to concentrate on their main task: fighting the Red Army. He then sums up the findings from his monograph with regards to prisoners of war, holocaust and partisans. The article provides a good – and much shorter – alternative to his monograph.

The second article by Dieter Pohl »Die deutsche Militärbesetzung und die Eskalation der Gewalt in der Sowjetunion« examines the role of the rear echelon troops and the occupation forces in the hinterland; that area that according to Hartmann was only insufficiently controlled by the Wehrmacht owing to both the weakness of the forces in that region and the fact that other organisations and party branches were often put in charge. Pohl concludes that the role of the Wehrmacht cannot always be analysed to the last degree, mainly because of problems with the availability of sources. Nevertheless, his findings put the Wehrmacht on the whole in a more negative light than Hartmann’s elaborations. Pohl argues that the military leadership accepted a »programme for murder«, which was implemented with the attack on the Soviet Union, but which saw a general radicalisation from September/October 1941 onwards, when it became clear that operation Barbarossa had failed. Another change is identified by Pohl for the months November/December 1941, when it was obvious that the war in the East would turn into a prolonged conflict, and that it would be important to utilise prisoners of war and the non-Russian population for the German war effort. However, the killings of Jews and other groups continued so that the spiral of escalation was not fully stopped. A further dimension of escalation was then introduced in 1942/43 with the increase in partisan activity and the German counter-measures that led to harsh reprisals and a massive loss of live. On the whole, Pohl argues that the increasing level of violence in the rear areas was not the sole responsibility of the Wehrmacht, but that a high level of anticommunism and racism in the armed forces contributed to this radicalisation.

In contrast to the two aforementioned articles which examine the Wehrmacht on the whole, Johannes Hürter chooses a case study. »Die Wehrmacht vor Leningrad« deals with the war-fighting and occupation policy of the German 18thArmy in the Leningrad region in the autumn and winter of 1941/42. Hürter shows that the decision to besiege Leningrad and to starve the population to death rather than to occupy the city came as a surprise to the troops who had prepared themselves for an attack on the city. Interestingly, this decision set in motion a radicalisation of the army’s occupation policy in its rear areas: if the death of a city had been decided by the higher leadership why should the soldiers worry about the fate of a few hundred thousand civilians in the hinterland? »Necessities of war« were now brought forward as the reason for a barbarisation of warfare, but Hürter shows that this term was used in a loose fashion and that the situation of the German troops in the Leningrad area was difficult, but not so desperate that the measures taken against the civilian population could be explained by military necessities. Hürter argues that, owing to the amorphous structure of the German state and also the German armed forces, the army level (between corps and army group) was the decisive level with regards to the barbarisation of warfare. At army level the directives from the higher leadership were turned into actions. In some areas, this worked in favour of the civilian population, because the armies tried to ease the fate of the population. Sadly, in the area of 18th Army under Generaloberst Küchler, it did not.

A second article by Dieter Pohl concentrates on the mass murder of one particular group, the Jews in the Ukraine between 1941 and 1943. His findings further differentiate our understanding of the »war of extermination« in the East. From July 1941 to July 1942, Pohl argues, different phases of an extermination policy in all stages of escalation occurred in this region. Pohl offers an interesting view on the German approach: In contrast to widespread belief, it was not the aim of the German occupation forces to exterminate the local population, but the killing of real or alleged enemies was seen as a tool for the destruction of the Soviet Union. It was this aim that was shared between the Nazi regime and wide parts of the Wehrmacht and which resulted in the comparatively small resistance from the Wehrmacht to this barbarisation. The prime target of this policy was the Jewish population that was widely seen as the main bearer of Bolshevism. Within the Wehrmacht Pohl makes out different opinions and views. The higher up the chain of command the issue of harsh measures was discussed, the more support could be found for it. He also sheds light on the co-operation between the military, the civilian authorities and the SS and police. While difficulties existed and the opinions of individuals sometimes differed from the official view, Pohl concludes that all organisations contributed willingly to the extermination of the Jews in the Reichskommissariat Ukraine.

While the first half of the book is devoted to the bigger picture, the second half deals predominately with individual impressions and experiences from the war in the East. The first article is Johannes Hürter’s »Es herrschen Sitten und Gebräuche genauso wie im 30-jährigen Krieg«. Hürter has worked in depth on biographies of German generals and this article follows the approach taken in his monograph »Hitler’s Heerführer«. The article offers a view on the first year of the war through documents of General Gotthard Heinrici, first a commander of an army corps and then commander of an army in the middle sector of the Eastern front. Hürter introduces the person Heinrici, his background and his life up to 1941. He then presents a wide range of personal documents, from diary entries to letters to his wife and his family. The changes in the occupation policy are reflected in Heinrici’s observations, for instance the shock of the invasion’s failure in 1941 and the realisation that the Soviet population had to be utilised for the German war effort, an approach that he encouraged in his area of responsibility particularly in the years 1942 to 1943. Nevertheless, for him Russia remained a »foreign, and backward culture like one from the middle ages…«. He experienced the deterioration of warfare and the increasing number of atrocities which appalled him. He tried to stop the policy of scorched earth during the German retreats, but finally he had to realise that »the trade of soldiering is no longer satisfying«.

Peter Lieb’s article »Täter aus Überzeugung« also concentrates on an individual officer and his experiences. He examines the role of Oberst Carl von Andrian, commanding officer of Infantry Regiment 747, one of the regiments of 707thInfantry Division. This division is of special interest, since it was used by the organisers of the Wehrmacht exhibition to show the ongoing brutalisation of the war in the East. The division, mainly used for operations behind the front-line, has a particularly bad reputation, because it was involved in mass executions to a high degree. Lieb provides an overview of the complex role of his article’s antagonist. On the one hand, Andrian supported the harsh measures taken by the authorities and excused them as necessary steps in order to pacify the country. On the other hand, Lieb shows that Andrian suffered from this situation and that he often complained about the brutal behaviour of German troops. The article makes clear once again that the question of brutalisation of warfare in the East was multi-facetted and that this development cannot be explained one-dimensionally.

Christian Hartmann’s article »Massensterben oder Massenvernichtung« sheds light on the fate of Soviet prisoners of war. Similar to the articles by Lieb and Hürter, he uses autobiographical sources (in this case a personal diary) to explore the realities Soviet soldiers were facing in German prisoner of war camps. The author of the diary was a re-activated national-conservative Major named Gutschmidt, from 1940 to 1944 commanding officer of several prisoner of war camps, from 1941 onwards on the Eastern front. Hartmann first gives a short account of Gutschmidt and his life, before exploring the German prisoner of war camp system on the Eastern front of which Gutschmidt was an integral part. The article shows the flexibility that Gutschmidt, who was »free of hatred« towards the enemy, had in organising his camp, but also the limitations of that freedom imposed on him by his superiors and reality, for instance the vast number of Soviet prisoners that were captured by the Germans and the resulting food shortage. Moreover, bad and cold weather took its toll of the weakened Soviet prisoners. The combination of these factors resulted in horrendous losses even in camps with sympathetic personnel like Gutschmidt.

The last article in this group of personal accounts comes again from Johannes Hürter who examines the reports from Werner Otto von Hentig, the representative of the German foreign office at the 11th Army headquarters. Hentig reported his experiences of the fighting on the Crimea in 1941/42 back to his superiors in Berlin. This article nicely complements the other contributions, since it concentrates on a civilian representative and his views on the war in the East. Accordingly, the emphasis of Hentig’s report was less on pure military matters, but rather on questions of policy, the treatment of the civilian population and prisoners of war. He heavily criticised the German approach which did not only result in horrendous civilian casualties, but also in an alienation of the indigenous population. The reports can therefore be seen as a rather drastic example of criticism of the German approach to the war in the East. At the same time, they are also a document of the powerlessness of traditional diplomacy in this gigantic struggle. Throughout the war, the foreign ministry was not able to influence German policy in the occupied territories. It was decided either by military necessities or – to a higher degree – by Nazi ideology. Obviously, there was no room here for traditional diplomacy.

The final article in the book is a rather short contribution (8 pages) dealing with an alleged order from Stalin dated from 17 November 1941 which stated that Soviet troops had to attack villages in the German hinterland. Not only would this weaken the Germans, but it would also alienate the population, because the alleged order stated that the Soviet troops should wear German uniforms. In their contribution Christian Hartmann and Jürgen Zarusky show that the version of the order stating that German uniforms had to be worn by Soviet troops was not part of the original order and that the order had been re-produced incorrectly for political reasons.

Overall, the final major work of the project of the Institut für Zeitgeschichte on the Wehrmacht in the Second World War offers a wide range of different views on the German-Soviet War. All articles, although differing in their general message, are well researched and presented in a convincing scholarly manner. It is highly recommended not only to historians, but also to the general reader, because it provides a good overview of the Wehrmacht and answers questions regarding the occupation policy on the Eastern Front – in particular for the years 1941 and 1942.

German veterans of Verdun (World War 1) – Video interviews

EK2In 1980, a German military historian conducted a series of interviews which were used in a documentary on the Battle of Verdun. The documentary itself is largely forgotten. There never was a VHS version and it has not been shown on TV for at least 20 years. I have been searching for ages to get a copy of it. Yesterday a friend of mine told me he had found a copy which he had recorded on VHS. 
Due to this I am now able to present these interviews (without the framework documentary they were embedded in) on my blog. As subtitling and translating is very time consuming I only did four interviews right now. Will add more at a later date.

Today all of these men and all other German veterans of World War 1 have joined the ranks of the Great Army. Material like this that should be preserved and shared. I hope you will enjoy these clips as much as I do. Feedback is welcome.

minzeschlucht5

…. They had conquered a notorious hill. They had lived in trenches that had been alternately French and German. These trenches sometimes lay filled with bodies in different stages of decomposition. They were once men in the prime of their lives, but had fallen for the possession of this hill. This hill, that was partly built on dead bodies already. A battle after which they lay rotting, fraternally united in death…. 
(Georges Blond – Verdun).

The Battle of Verdun is considered the greatest and lengthiest in world history. Never before or since has there been such a lengthy battle, involving so many men, situated on such a tiny piece of land. The main battle, which lasted from 21 February 1916 until 19 December 1916 caused over an estimated 700,000 casualties (dead, wounded and missing) on a battlefield was not even a square ten kilometres. From a strategic point of view there can be no justification for these atrocious losses. The battle degenerated into a matter of prestige of two nations…

minzeschlucht1

Verdunmap

minzeschlucht2

“Before Verdun, Friday evening, February 18, 1916

I say good-bye to you, my dear Parents and Brothers and Sisters. Thanks, most tender thanks for all that you have done for me. If I fall, I earnestly beg of you to bear it with fortitude. Reflect that I should probably never have achieved complete happiness and contentment….Farewell. You have known and are acquainted with all the others who have been dear to me and you will say good-bye to them for me. And so, in imagination, I extinguish the lamp of my existence on the eve of this terrible battle. I cut myself out of the circle of which I have formed a beloved part. The gap which I leave must be closed; the human chain must be unbroken. I, who once formed a small link in it, bless it for all eternity.

And till your last days, remember me, I beg you, with tender love. Honour my memory without gilding it, and cherish me in your loving, faithful hearts.” – Letters of German Students, London, Methuen, 1929

The “Musketier” you see in the first clip is Herr Peter Geyr. He was a native of the Eifel (Rhineland-Palatinate) and so he speaks the beautiful dialect my grandmother spoke. He was born in 1896, served in Infanterie-Regiment “Graf Werder” (4. Rheinisches) Nr. 30 and joined the German army as a volunteer in 1915. He passed away in 1984.

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ErnstWeckerlingThe following film shows Unteroffizier Ernst Weckerling. He is probably the most well known German World War 1 veteran as he made an appearance in the PBS documentary “People’s Century”. Weckerling volunteered on August 14, 1914 and was part of the German forces that, at terrible cost, sought to “bleed the French army white” at Verdun. In 1916 he was holding the rank of Unteroffizier in Füsilier-Regiment von Gersdorff (Kurhessisches) Nr.80. His story of the “Potatoe Helmet Spikes” is just brilliant. You will not find thing like that in the history books. 

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The next one was hard to transcribe. Herr Ernst Brecher was a Musketier in 3. Thüringisches Infanterie-Regiment Nr.71 which fought at Verdun as part of 38th Division from May to October 1916 before being moved to the Somme. 

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Herr Heinz Risse served as artillery observer in a Regiment of Field Artillery and tells us of his experiences in the fighting around the village of Fleury. He died on the 17th of July 1989 in Koblenz.

Johannes Kanth was born in 1896 and served as a Gefreiter in 1. Lothringisches Infanterie-Regiment Nr.130. 

IR130

Musketier Heinrich Dorn, served in a German Infantry Regiment and was drafted in 1916. 

Egloff Freiherr von Freyberg-Eisenberg-Allmendingen was a former 3. Garde-Regiment zu Fuß officer originally commissioned on the 27th of January 1906. He was born in Allmendingen on the 3rd of October 1884 and died there a hundred years later on the 11th of February 1984!


He served with 3. G.R.z.F. for most of his early career before receiving flight training with Flieger-Abteilung 1 from 1st May 1912 onwards. He remained in the Reichsheer after the war retiring in 1930 as a Major. Reactivated on 1 Oct 1932 as an Oberstleutnant, he eventually rose to the rank of Generalmajor on 1st June 1938 before finally retiring on the 31st of October 1943. He spent his war service as the District Airfield Commandant at Kolberg.

Von Freyberg was a holder of the Royal Houseorder of Hohenzollern with Swords. Bavarian Military Merit Order 1.10.15

Württemberg Friedrich Order-Knight 1st Class 23.11.17
Mecklenburg-Schwerin Friedrich Franz Cross 2nd Class.
Iron Cross 1st and 2nd Class

He held a Prussian Crown Order 4th Class from before the war, and was a Knight of the Maltese Order.

He already had a flying licence in 1913 and was the flying instructor of Prinz Friedrich-Karl. In the short clip below he gives us his opinion on von Falkenhayn, whom he was personally accquainted with. One of the last “Eagles of the Prussian Army” 

 

Voices from Iron Times 1864-1871, Veterans’ Tales

Just an article I pulled over from one of my old and now obsolete blogs. 

ek1870A couple of days ago I bought an old book on a flea market close to where I live. Its title is “Unsere Veteranen” (Our Veterans) and was published by a chapter of the Reichskriegerbund (Reichs Warrior Association) in 1914. Most interestingly for me the chapter was a local one. The veterans that were members of it lived in my town and the towns and villages around it.

The book itself is special. Privately published by an association member it was meant to commemorate the 25thanniversary of the Kriegerbund and contains the tales of its members which fought in the wars of 1864, 1866 and 1870/71. According to the preface only 524 copies were printed, one for each veteran of these wars still alive in 1914.

It’s not in any library catalogue so I suppose the one I have here might easily be the only one remaining and it’s easy to tell why. It was very cheaply made. The binding has rotted away and the whole thing is falling to pieces.

What astounds me about these stories is their honesty. They lack a lot of the patriotic “With God for King and Fatherland” pathos which can be found in most period reports and writings. It’s clear that no one censored or proof read anything. The language is sometimes crude and the writing style is naive. The veterans wrote for their comrades. There was just no need to change anything. Facettes of the wars which you don’t find in the “popular” histories. Blood, Gore, cowardice, friendly fire, the harsh treatment of civilians, war against partisans.

HERMANN ANHUF  

Hermann Anhuf in 1914 wearing his 1870/71 campaign medal and the 1897 centenary medal.

Unit: 12. Kompanie, Infanterie-Regiment “Graf Barfuß” (4. Westfälisches) Nr. 17

Drawing by Carl Röchling - "Vor Metz" 1870

Drawing by Carl Röchling – “Vor Metz” 1870

1870/71 – War against France / Battles and Sieges: (20. Inf.-Div., X. Armeekorps) 16.8.1870: Vionville-Mars la Tour, 18.8.1870: Gravelotte-St.Privat, 19.8.-27.10.1870: Siege of Metz, 23.9.1870 La Maxe, 27.9.1870: Bellevue & Franclonchamp, 7.10.1870: Bellevue, 3. u. 4.12.1870: Orléans (II. Batallion), 11.12.1870: Swequeu Château u. Mortais (II. Batallion), 15.12.1870: Vendôme, 16.12.1870: Vendôme, Tuilleries & Courtiras (II. Batallion), 17.12.1870: Epuisay (I. Batallion), 20.12.1870: Monnaie (I. u. F.), 28.u.29.12.1870 Château Renault, 31.12.1870: Vendôme, 31.12.1870: Danzé (9th and 12th company only), 1.1.1871: Azay (I.), 4.1.1871: Courtiras (II. Batallion), 6.1.1871: Azay-Mazange (I.  and II. Batallion), 6.1.1871: Montoire-Les Roches, 9.1.1871: Chahaignes & Brives, 12.1.1871: Le Mans.

“When the war started I was serving with 12th coy of Infanterie-Regiment 17. We crossed the border into France in August as part of II. Armee, which was commanded by Prince Frederic Karl. On the 8th of August we left our luggage and backpacks behind to able to march faster, each man only keeping his 80 cartridges and the “Iron Ration”. The weather was hot but no one was allowed to drink! All wells were guarded by provosts as there were rumors that the french had poisoned them. On the 16th of August we marched towards the sound of the guns. On the 18th, near the village of St. Privat we were sent into action in support of the Guards. The enemy kept up a murderous fire and the Guards suffered severe losses, dead and maimed guardsmen lying everywhere. It was a ghastly sight.

I heard an officer calling “Forward now men of the 17th! On them! Charge!” and forward we charged towards the French. By then the whole village of St. Privat, including the church, was burning fiercely. Our Sergeant was hoping to get the Iron Cross and tried to lead our section into the attack on the left of the village where there was a huge open field, with no cover at all. When our Hauptmann noticed that he called out “Sergeant Albers, stop at once or I will have the men open fire on you!” So we rejoined the company very shortly afterwards.

On the 19th of August I noticed a small crowd of civilians and soldiers standing in a hollow close to our camp. I went to join them as I was curious about what was happening there. There were two women, about 30 years old and with their hands bound on their backs lying on the ground. Our lads were beating them with rifle butts. They were getting punished as they had been caught in the night after the battle when they were plundering some our wounded that were left lying on the field. One had even cut off the ring finger of a wounded soldier get his marriage ring. The other had mutilated the corpse of one of our officers. A while after the beating we shot them both.

On the 20th we marched through a ravine near Metz which was under siege. On the 27th we took part in the skirmish near La Maxe. During a rest near Les Grandes we were cleaning our rifles when our Hauptmann arrived and ordered us to reassemble them as the enemy was advancing on us. We were encamped in a large farmyard. Two platoons of our company were ordered to take defensive positions behind a wall while the third platoon took position outside the yard. Soon we could clearly see the french soldiers and opened fire. We fired until we had spent all of our ammunition, but luckily an ammunition cart arrived which enabled us to continue the fight. Our rifle barrels were red hot and it was getting hard to hold and aim the rifle at all. There were so many good targets that our Hauptmann ignored the order to leave the position and soon we began to get shelled by our own artillery. I can not put any blame on the gunners as they thought our position abandoned. The first shell missed us by about 50 meters. The next one went into some stables on our right. The third shell detonated right between the men of our platoon, killing two comrades and wounding another twelve.

After the fall of Metz I was ordered to escort a french prisoner, an artilleryman, to the POW camp. On the way there we encountered three stray sheep. I shoved the Frenchman into a ditch told him to bugger off home and herded the three sheep back to my company. The lads were more than happy. A good meat stew was far better than a single French prisoner!  After we had slaughtered the sheep we traded the beasts intestines against some good bottles of wine in a nearby village. Stew and wine made this night the most memorable of the campaign.”

Hermann Anhuf

Battle of Poznan – Reminiscences Part 1 – Feldwebel W. Schenk

The letter below was written in 1968 by a former Feldwebel of the Fahnenjunkerschule Posen. It’s writing style is unusual and I tried to keep it that way when translating it. Short sentences, dry writing style and written in the present tense it contains some sentences that are quite hair-raising. 

Photos have been taken from the files attached to the collection of letters. Maps have been produced by the Association of Poznan Fighters to accompany this letter. 

feldwebel

On the 18th of January 1945 I was a trainee in training course 18a of the Infantry officers school Poznan (Kurs 18a, Schule V für Fahnenjunker der Infanterie Posen). I had joined the army in autumn 1942 and had been promoted to Unteroffizier, serving in Grenadier-Regiment 401, in June r 1944.

It is on the 18th in the Barracks of Kuhndorf when there is a call for volunteers to form a so-called “counterstrike-reserve” (Gegenstoßreserve).

As I only hear “Reserve” I ignore it and do not react. Many of my comrades volunteer as they think the emphasis lies on the word “Counterstrike”. Now I volunteer aswell. We expect to be deployed in the East soon.
In the Hardenberg school the Battlegroup gets formed. I get transferred to Gegenstoßkompanie Lt. Werner (missing). Later the company was taken over by Leutnant Schierts (missing).

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The men we are supposed to lead make a good impression and are all around 30 years of age. Not one youngster among them. Stray soldiers, separated from their units, most with a good amount of combat experience. Arms and equipment get distributed and we march of to Fort Brüneck (Map No. 7). There was a factory inside Fort Brüneck. There was a large machine hall and another large hall for draftsmen which had one wall made of glass. It was there when we heard that Fort Witzleben had fallen.

Our first order is armed reconaissance against Lawica, a village near the airport, into which the enemy had penetrated (Number 2 on the map).
Trucks bring us to the airport where a Leutnant of the Luftwaffe with 20 men is waiting to reinforce our platoon. When we arrive we get told that the Luftwaffe Leutnant is take over command during the operation. Handgrenades get distributed and with surprise we hear that our Luftwaffe comrades do not know how to use them. We need to give them some basic instructions.

Our artillery is firing eight rounds in support. Two shells hit the pile of gravel we are covering behind and explode right in front of our noses. Some Luftwaffe soldiers get sick, a couple start to vomit. Concrete tubes and more piles of gravel line the road and using them as cover we manage to advance quickly and soon come up to an observation tower. Behind it is open field but I spot a foxhole in the ground about 70 meters away. Under the cover of a machine-gun i sprint towards it in the hope of spotting another place where to take cover. Suddenly a soviet machine gun is opening up on me. My machine-gunner comes running up to me and an intense firefight developes with the enemy who is covering in some houses and gardens about 100 meters away. Feldwebel Kemper comes up behind us, it is getting crowded in our foxhole. We come to the conclusion that there is no more cover ahead of us. Kemper sprints back to redirect our attack. The soviets now use an anti-tank gun and mortar shells begin to detonate around us. We have to get back and are lucky to reach the observation tower without getting hit. One man (forgot his name) gets severely wounded by a rifle round to the abdomen. Soviet reinforcements are arriving the Luftwaffe Leutnant gives the order to retreat. We know enough and return to Brüneck.
When we return we find some StuG assault guns waiting in front of the fort and get told that there will be a larger attack soon.

ATTACK ON LENZINGEN (Number 3 on the map)
We organise material to camouflage the helmets and uniforms of the men not wearing camo suits and uniforms. When the attack starts we make good progress. On our left there is a Waffen-SS unit. Assault guns are moving forward in support. Crossing a gloomy brickyard we reach the outskirts of the village. We pass a row of about 30 dead comrades. All show signs of mutilation. Most have their ring fingers cut off. They must have been killed when the village was first attacked by the enemy. A SANKA (ambulance vehicle) is standing close by, it is riddled with bullet holes. The road is covered with bandages and medical instruments.
Suddenly we receive fire from Fabianowo, a village on our right flank. Unteroffizier Ewald Schmidt and his men are sent there while we continue to advance into the village. Soon one of Schmidts men come running up behind us. Schmidt has been ambushed.
I at once report to the company commander requesting to be allowed to rescue Schmidt. Me and Schmidt have known each other for two years.

We reach the village and start searching the buildings on both sides of the road when we get attacked by russian ground attack aircraft. We have to retreat. I have never seen Schmidt again. We repel a counterattack. Feldwebel Tattenberger, another old comrade of mine destroys two T34s with Panzerfausts. We have to clear Lenzingen on the evening of the 24th of January and move into position south of Fort Brüneck (Number 4 on the map).

Tattenberger

Tattenberger

We can observe endless columns of soviet trucks, infantry, tanks and guns driving from Lenzingen to Dembsen without any encountering any resistance. We know that sooner or later this mass of material will be moving against us. Our artillery stays silent! Flak and Pak would have had countless targets but nothing happens! We have strict orders to conserve ammunition. In Lenzingen I got hold of a russian Schpagin Mpi with which I fire into their ranks. Even if the distance is not ideal some russians dive into cover. An excellent weapon!

With a reinforced group I secure the open pasture between Fort Brüneck and Dembsen against tanks. We secure the gardens and an old, free-standing house. In the night a dual 20mm flak gun (self-propelled) arrives to support us. That day Leutnant Werner fails to return from a combat patrol (missing since then).

On the evening of the following day we get attacked by five tanks coming at us in line abreast. We are ready for them. About 60 meters in front of us they turn right towards the road from Dembsen to Gurtschin which is barely visible under the snow. The ground there is undefended, the only thing visible there are four lonely abandoned artillery pieces of a german battery.

The road is passing the driveway toward to the Fort! I know that the Flak is positioned somewhere close but will the comrades notice the danger approaching them before it is to late? Passing command to one of my men, I and another comrade sprint across the open ground towards a board fence enclosing a property adjacent to the road. We carry five Panzerfausts with us and I hope to able to hit the tanks from there. As soon as the tanks reach the firm ground of the road they increase their speed and before we manage to reach the fence we hear the sound of tank guns followed by a mighty explosion. We are too late and find the burning remains of the Flak and the torn bodies of our comrades.

One of our AT guns manages to destroy two of the T34s. One of them spews a huge jet of flame, its turret rises into the air and hits the ground about 10 meters away. The remaining three turn around and try to escape. I start chasing them but get recalled by Hauptmann Lohse who tells me that we are ordered to regroup all available personnel for a counter attack. We move into our positions close to a railway embankment (Number 5 on the map). Close to the railway crossing lie dozens of bicycles, I remember thinking about how they might have got there.

We receive heavy artillery fire from the direction of Dembsen and take cover below some railway wagons. The gravel on the ground makes every detonation even more lethal. The ground shakes, a comrade in front of me starts screaming like a stuck pig. He is not wounded, he is afraid.

The night of the 27th is freezing cold. Frank, the comrade who carried the Panzerfausts for me asks if he can act as machine gunner in my group. normally he serves in 4. Gruppe (4th group) and is only with us as a reinforcement. Later he will prove himself to be an excellent gunner and soldier.

Tannenbergstrasse

We still have not received an order to attack. A company turns up and I notice that I know some of the faces. Its our company. He report to the commander, who speaks with Hauptmann Lohse who allows us to leave. We move into the Tannenbergstrasse (Number 6 on the map) and take quarters in some of the houses. I remember looking out of a window seeing fires blazing all around me.

On the 28th of January we march towards Hill 104 “Berlin heights” (number 7 on the map). Soon we are targeted by indirect machine-gun fire. Halfway up the slope there is a well-built position, in front an anti-tank ditch. The only defending unit is a 8.8cm Flak gun.

We pass our own defences and develop into formation to attack a large block of houses lining the road. Suddenly when we close with the buildings, a huge mass of russian infantry oozes out between them. At least one full batallion is charging towards us. Fighting this mass on open field and in close combat would be suicidal. We retreat to our position on the hill. When the russians get closer we open fire. The soldiers manning the Flak gun are opening fire aswell and I notice that most of them are boys not older than 16 or 17 years.

The Russians suffer heavy losses, start to retreat but get forced back by officers with raised pistols. Finally even this starts loosing effect and they retreat behind the buildings to regroup before carrying forward another attack. This time the Flak shreds the attackers before they even have a chance to develop. Again the enemy takes heavy losses. I notice that the boys manning the Flak are wearing their white nightshirts over their uniforms making for an effective snow camouflage.

We are able to hold and the russians start using mortars. In the late evening I notice two enemy tanks on our right flank. Leutnant Schiers, Passerath, Heinrich and myself are fetching some Panzerfausts and make our way towards them.
Our camo uniforms do not help us and as soon as we leave our position we are targeted by mortar fire. We manage to reach a depression in the ground and hope to be able to open fire from it, sadly our Panzerfausts are still out of range.

The next day (29th of January) our position is targeted by mortar fire and enemy snipers. I try to locate the enemy snipers with my binoculars when a mortar shell exploded only a couple of meters to my left. I get wounded by a bit of shrapnel in the upper arm.

The Flak receives a direct hit. Its carnage. Most of the boys are dead, one stumbles in my direction. His white nightshirt is had is stained with red and black. His ears bleed and he is crying.

We retreat. We have to. In bright daylight under constant mortar and sniper fire!
Reaching the Tannenbergstrasse I make my way to the First Aid Station inside Fort Grolman. (Number 8 on the map).

The catacombs below it are crowded with the wounded. The air is terrible and I remember the overpowering stench of Valerian. A medic tries to remove the shrapnel in my arm by using a pair of forceps. He fails. I get a tetanus injection, a dressing and a cup of Valerian Tea. I prepare to leave when the medic asks if he can accompany me. The fresh air above is a treat. The medic looks tired and I remember he had very light blue eyes. He smiles and wishes me luck when I leave.

Back at Tannenbergstrasse I have to take over the Platoon. Kemper had been wounded.
On the following day (30th of January) we are still in Tannenbergstrasse. Inside the city we hear the howl of Stalin’s-Organs.

We are ordered to Fort Grolman. There we get to eat hot pea soup, which tastes wonderful. At the evening we get guided into positions in front of the Forst (facing east – number 10 on the map). In line we move along a slightly curved road. Left of us is open field, some gardens can be seen 200 or 300 meters away. On our right there is there is a ditch, a fenced garden with two houses. We come up to a crossing where there is a dug-in 8.8-Flak.

When come closer the, Flak gets fired upon with mortars and receives a direct hit. The crew seems to be ok and tries to find cover in the ditch. An enemy machine-gun now opens up on us with explosive ammunition and the mortars start to switch their fire on us. Enemy riflemen open fire from the gardens. One comrade is hit by explosive rounds. The wounds look terrible. Mortar shells hit the roof of the house on my right. Feathers rain down on us. Someone must have stored bedding there.

I receive the order to occupy the houses and the garden. I yell to the company commander that we will try to crawl up to the fence below the machine-gun fire. He shakes his head, but allows me to try taking only 1st Group with me. It works and we manage to get into the left house without taken any losses. We enter the basement and set up an MG42 in one of the windows. Our gunner manages to silence the enemy fire.

The Russians bring in a “Ratsch-Bumm”* and at once score two direct hits. The shells hitting the walls on the left and right side of our window. The wooden crates on which we set up our machine gun collapse, our eyes and mouths are full of dust and grout. Our ears are ringing. Its hot and impossible to breathe. Before I can order it Frank grabs the MG42 and runs up the stairs setting the gun up in a window of the first floor. The russian gun has ceased firing its crew is not visible, the russians must think they got us. When comrades in the basement open fire with rifles and machine pistols the soviet gun crew comes running up from behind a concrete pillar standing next to the entrance of garden. This was the moment Frank had been waiting for. His salvo is precisely on target. The Russians don’t even manage to reach their gun.

A runner informs me that Passerath, Heinrich and another large part of the Platoon have been wounded. Kronberg and Schaffrath are now Groupleaders. On the evening of the 30 of January we get relieved by another platoon commanded by Leutnant Phillip.

Inside the Fort (Number 11 on the map) we get briefed by Major Reichardt who tells us that we lost radio contact to the citadel. As the sounds of combat coming from the direction have ceased aswell we expect that the citadel has fallen. He talks about an expected german counter attack coming from the north-west. We will break out into this direction to link up with the attacking german troops, there we are supposed rearm and resupply and then to follow the attack to liberate Poznan. As we are lacking the heavy weapons and ammunition to repel the expected Russian attack, the plan sounds reasonable. Reichardt had been our teacher at officers school and we trust him. The breakout is scheduled for the same night (30th to 31st of January 1945). Our Battlegroup is down to about a third of its original strength. We number no more than 100 men.

Soldiers of the Strotha bastion reinforce us. They bring their wounded with them which they transport on sleds. Reichardt orders the wounded to be brought to Fort Grolman where by now huge flags bearing the Red Cross have been installed. The Major expects us to reach the first german troops within two days and we equip ourselves with food accordingly. Soldiers of the Strotha bastion reinforce us. They bring their wounded with them which they transport on sleds. Reichardt orders the wounded to be brought to Fort Grolman where by now huge flags bearing the Red Cross have been installed. The Major expects us to reach the first german troops within two days and we equip ourselves with food accordingly.

stg44

When we reach the soviet lines we cross a line of enemy tanks. The Russians point their searchlights into our direction and he have to lie flat in the snow to avoid detection. We wait for the tanks to open fire. Will our Panzerfausts be sufficient to survive whats coming? Not a sound can be heard, the Russians do not shoot. Slowly we crawl into safety.

posen2map

The next day we hide in bales of straw. A “sewing machine”* circles above our position, it must have followed our tracks in the snow. After a while it disappears. We leave our hiding places and hurry on through deep snow.

Later on we hide in a polish farmhouse near Szczepy. We throw straw on the ground and fall into sleep within seconds.

“DER IVAN!” – The shout tears us out of our sleep. One of the polish farmers must have alerted the Russians.

Enemy fire rips through the walls of the barn. Using some handgrenades we manage to get us enough time to pull on our soaked boots and to gather our equipment. The door desintigrates under the salvo of a machine pistol. A comrade standing next to me collapses when the shots rip into his body. He is still alive and begs us to take him with us. I take his MP-44 assault rifle. It is hard to leave the comrade behind.

Firefights with attacking Russians in which I use my new assault-rifle. A great weapon. Exiting through the windows we manage to reach a nearby forest.

MP441We cross the frozen Warta near a village (Wronki). When searching the houses we run into a Russian officer who draws his pistol and kills Hauptmann Ulrich. We launch an attack on the office of a forest warden which is used by the Russians as a supply point. Close combat with Russian soldiers. I will spare you the details. Many Russians are drunk. They must have behaved like animals. We find a barn filled with dead women and children. Our patrols inform us that all possible crossing points are well guarded by the enemy. Major Reichert makes the decision to dissolve the Battlegroup and orders us to try to reach the german lines in small groups.  The sound of fighting carries over from the south-west, the Russians are assaulting Landsberg.

I move out with a group of three comrades. Near Gottschimm we spend the day resting in an abandoned house, resting and cleaning our weapons Suddenly the door opens and two Russians or Poles wearing heavy fur coats enter the house. Frank threatens them with a half of his P08 until we manage to assemble our guns. We didn’t place a guard as we had watched the house and the surrounding area for quite a while. A mistake. We allow our visitors to leave without doing them any harm, but hurry off soon after they have left. We are lucky and find a fisherman who takes us across the Netze in a small boat. On the other side we meet two comrades who join up with us. Near Zanzthal we have to wait many hours close to a busy road. We watch the endless russian columns until a large enough space makes it possible to cross undetected.

We are lucky and find a fisherman who takes us across the Netze in a small boat. On the other side we meet two comrades who join up with us. Near Zanzthal we have to wait many hours close to a busy road. We watch the endless russian columns until a large enough space makes it possible to cross undetected.

In a Mill near Tankow we meet a group of women and children hiding from the Russians. We hear the tales of Russian cruelties. One of the women, a young teacher, has her body covered with bruises and bite marks. She has been repeatedly raped. The women have flasks of Potato-Schnapps which they distribute among us.

In Farmhouse some kind people attend to my wound which is festering badly.  They tell us that two Waffen-SS soldiers are hiding in a barn nearby, one of them with a severe shot wound. We visit the two comrades who at once want to join us. Taking turns two of us support and carry the wounded comrade and we manage to make good progress, but some hours later the wounded comrade is in so much pain that we have to carry him back.

This cost valuable time which we need to make good. To be faster we march along a road leading through a beech forest. Suddenly a shot rings out.  There is a group soldiers on horseback behind us. The snow must have muffled the sound of the hooves. Using my assault-rifle I manage to empty a couple of saddles. We retreat, continuing to shoot, into dense forest. There we notice that the two comrades we had picked up after crossing the Netze have fled on their own.

Another rest in a farm. The inhabitants beg us not to open fire whatever will happen. The Russians would kill them and torch their farm. 

We are resting in a hayloft above the stables. There is only a small amount of hay left as the Russians have carried most away. A couple of hours later a group of about 30 loudly shouting Russians comes riding into the farmyard. They must be the ones we fought earlier on. They round-up all the women and start raping a girl of about 12 years. We can’t do anything to help. It is terrible.

Later on they leave, taking the women with them. The remaining farmers tell us that the women are taken to do various labour for the Russians and would be returned in the night.

Schaffrath and myself are now covering Frank who is going to search another house close a crossroads for food. While we are watching a car with some Russians pulls up next to the house. Frank, who comes charging out of the house, grabs the coat of the Russian closest to him, presses his pistol into his body and pulls the trigger. The Russian screams and falls down. We open fire aswell. Frank is in close combat with 4 or 5 Russians and takes down another one. The remaining Russians jump into the car and speed away.

When we finally reach the Plöne Lake we try to cross it by boat, but have to return as its partially frozen. In a Fishermans hut we find some pig lard a bag filled with sugar. Provisions urgently needed.

We reach the canal linking the Lake Plöne with Lake Madü. A Russian patrol crosses nearby forcing us to hide in the water until it has passed. By dawn we have reached another barn; we rest and take turns acting as guards. Later we get woken by Schaffrath, there are Russians digging trenches nearby. Our situation is getting critical. German artillery is starting to fire, Russian patrols walk past our barn!

There is a village nearby, north of the canal. There is a little bridge, but our hopes are shattered when we spot Russian pioneers mining it. North of the canal the ground is swampy and it is there that we are going to cross now. During the night we place some wooden planks across the canal and manage to crawl across.

We continue crawling through swamp and come across a Russian machine-gun position. It is facing west and fires towards a railway embankment . We crawl towards it and are shocked when suddenly signal flares rise into the sky and Russian machine guns open up on us firing from the railway embankment. That does not make sense. Each movement is answered by a long stream of machine gun fire. We retreat and spend the night in a stack of hay close by.

North of us there is a Russian artillery position and some AT-guns. They are facing west aswell, towards the railway embankment! One AT-gun fires upon a chimney between the canal and the railway line. They score a direct hit and send bricks flying. The german lines must run along the railway embankment, we are sure of it. We have no idea how to place the Russian machine-guns that fired on us during the night.

In the following night we try it again. Using a furrow in the ground we rob towards the embankment. Each of us carries a handgrenade in case we encounter opposition. Coming closer we stop and listen into the night hoping to hear voices. It is when we see the familiar shape of a german Stahlhelm that we rise and run towards it – nearly getting shot by the Waffen-SS soldier wearing it.

We reached the german lines. Faces of grinning Waffen-SS soldiers all around us. We get cigarettes and Schnapps…we made it.

* RATSCH-BUMM = “Whizz-Bang” , German slang for Russian 76mm  SiS-3 field gun
* SEWING-MACHINE / NÄHMASCHINE = Polikarpow Po-2

Prayer before Battle – FATHER, I call Thee! – German prayer by Theodor Körner

prayer1

“Father I call on thee” – German Field-Postcard, 1915

FATHER, I call Thee!
Smoke clouds enwrap me and cannons are crashing,
Round me the terrible lightnings are flashing.
Wars great Dispenser, I call Thee!
Father, oh guide me!

Father, oh guide me!
Guide me to victory and to death lead me:
Lord, Thy commandments I know and I heed Thee;
Lord, as Thou willest, so guide me!
My God, I heed Thee!

My God, I heed Thee!
Once amid murmur of leaves I could hear Thee,
Now in the thunder of war I am near Thee.
Fountain of mercy, I heed Thee.
Father, oh bless me!

Father, oh bless me!
Into Thy hand my life I surrender:
Thou hast bestowed it, so take it, Defender!
Living or dying, oh bless me!
Father, I praise Thee!

Father, I praise Thee!
Not for the goods of this earth we are fighting:
To guard the holiest, our swords are smiting.
Falling in triumph, I praise Thee.
My God, I trust Thee!

My God, I trust Thee!
When all the thunders of death are roaring,
When from my veins the blood is pouring:
My life, God, I trust to Thee!
Father, I call Thee!

Vater

This prayer/poem was written by Theodor Körner during the Napoleonic Wars and stayed very popular in Germany for over 200 years, up to the Second World War. It could be found in soldiers prayer books and was taught in school (as were all of Körners poems). Every child in germany would grew up with these lines in etched into the memory. It was only natural that is was used in propaganda, posters and postcards like the one shown above. The translation above is by Margarete Münsterberg, and was published in A Harvest of German Verse.  in 1906. In my personal opinion this version is closest to the original german text. 

Karl Theodor Körner (23 September 1791 – 26 August 1813) was a German poet and soldier. After some time in Vienna, where he wrote some light comedies and other works for the Burgtheater, he became a soldier and joined the Lützow Free Corps in theGerman uprising against Napoleon. During these times, he displayed personal courage in many fights, and encouraged his comrades by fiery patriotic lyrics he composed, one of these being “Schwertlied” (Sword Song), composed during a lull in fighting only a few hours before his death and set to music by Franz Schubert. He was often called the “German Tyrtaeus.” 

Prayer2

Another version of this popular card, 1915

Vater, ich rufe dich!
Brüllend umwölkt mich der Dampf der Geschütze,
sprühend umzucken mich rasselnde Blitze.
Lenker der Schlachten, ich rufe dich!
Vater, du führe mich!

Vater, du führe mich!
Führ mich zum Siege, führ mich zum Tode.
Herr, ich erkenne deine Gebote.
Herr, wie du willst, so führe mich!
Gott, ich erkenne dich!

Gott, ich erkenne dich!
So im herbstlichen Rauschen der Blätter,
als im Schlachten-Donnerwetter,
Urquell der Gnade, erkenn ich dich.
Vater, du segne mich!

Vater, du segne mich!
In deine Hand befehl ich mein Leben,
du kannst es nehmen, du hast es gegeben;
zum Leben, zum Sterben segne mich.
Vater, ich preise dich!

Vater, ich preise dich!
‘s ist ja kein Kampf für die Güter der Erde;
das Heiligste schützen wir mit dem Schwerte,
drum fallend und siegend preis’ ich dich.
Gott, dir ergeb ich mich!

Gott, dir ergeb ich mich!
Wenn mich die Donner des Todes begrüßen,
wenn meine Adern geöffnet fließen:
dir, mein Gott, dir ergeb ich mich!
Vater, ich rufe dich.

Baptism of Fire – Gora Kamienska, Poland 1939 – Experiences of 1. Infanterie-Division

ATTACKING THE GORA-KAMIENSKA: “STALLING THE BLITZ” – THE BATTLE OF MLAWA
2nd and 3rd of September 1939

Joachim von Kortzfleisch, “1a” of 1.Infanterie-Division

On the 1st of September 1939 at 0445h 1. Infanterie-Division crossed the border into Poland. The intelligence reports concerning the strength of Polish forces soon proved to be wrong. The only noticeable resistance was met at the bridges at Janowo (two platoons of Infantry), which was easily brushed aside. As I. AK had failed to break through the Polish defences at Mlawa on the 2nd of the September, the Division got the order to push forward on both sides of the road to Grudusk and then, using all available artillery as support, to take the strong fortified positions on and around Gora Kamienska on the north-eastern flank of Mlawa. As this action is considered to be a part of the “Battle of Mlawa”, let’s have a look at that first.

The Battle of Mława, otherwise known as the “Defence of the Mława position”, took place to the north of the town of Mława in northern Poland between September 1 and September 3, 1939. The whole battlefield, with the exception of the fortified positions around Gora-Kamiensk was (and still is) flat as a table. It was one of the opening battles of the Invasion of Poland and World War II in general and fought between the forces of the Polish Modlin Army under Gen. Krukowicz-Przedrzymirski and the German 3rd Army under Gen. Georg von Küchler. As a result of the Treaty of Versailles, the new German-Polish border was located only some 120 km north of Warsaw, the Polish capital city. In 1939 the Polish Modlin Army, led by Brigadier General Emil Krukowicz-Przedrzymirski, was thought of as the main defensive force guarding Polish borders from the north. It was dislocated along the border with East Prussia and was to stop the enemy forces advancing towards Warsaw, the Modlin Fortress. Shortly before the war, a decision was made to strengthen the Polish defences by construction of a line of field fortifications and concrete bunkers to the north of Mława, in the centre of the army’s positions.

Soldiers of the Waffen-SS during the Battle of Mlawa, 1939

The main line of defence of the army was located along the line of Narew and Vistula rivers. There were a number of 19th century fortifications in the area, but the plains to the north of it were almost defenseless. To ease the delaying actions in case of a war with Germany, the Polish General Staff decided that the Modlin Army should be transported to the border with East Prussia and should defend the line for as long as possible. Afterwards, the units under command of General Przedrzymirski-Krukowicz were to withdraw to the south and defend the line of Narew and Vistula rivers, together with the forces of Narew Independent Operational Group.

Aerial view of part of the Mlawa fortifications

After the Polish secret mobilization had started in March 1939, the 20th Infantry Division was assigned to the Modlin Army and transported to the area of Mława. In addition, the army commander was assigned a number of trainloads of concrete and other construction materials and several combat engineering battalions. It was decided that a line of fortifications should be constructed in the area held by that division. On June 19 of that year, the project was ready and was finally approved by Marshal of Poland Edward Rydz-Śmigły on July 3.

Iron railway tracks used as an effective defence against german armour.

The line of trenches and concrete bunkers, shielded by anti-tank trenches and obstacles, was to be constructed along a low glacial hill overlooking the valley of the Mławka river, to the north of the town. The river itself could be blocked by a dam to enhance the defensive valor of the area. In the center, a swampy terrain of the Niemyje Marshes was located, which was virtually impassable to enemy armored vehicles. This swamp divided the area into two separate flanks. The western section was to be reinforced with 68 concrete bunkers while the eastern, much shorter, with 25.

In peacetime the 20th Division was located in Baranowicze. In case of a war with the USSR, it was planned as the first-line unit to defend a line of German World War I fortifications built there in 1915. Because of that, most of its soldiers had experience in defending fortified positions.

Another shot of Waffen-SS soldiers (Standarte Deutschland?), during the Battle of Mlawa

The construction of bunkers in the western section of the front, near the town of Mława, was started on July 14. It was carried out mostly by the soldiers themselves, under the command of the head of the 20th engineering battalion, Maj. Juliusz Levittoux. The construction of the eastern flank bunkers near the village of Rzęgnowo started on August 12. Soon the soldiers were joined by a number of civilian volunteers, helping to dig the trenches. However, the positions were not finished until the outbreak of World War II and many of the bunkers were not completed.

Polish 37mm AT gun

At noon on September 1, 1939 the Polish line of defence manned by the 20th Infantry Division was attacked by the 1st Army Corps under General Walter Petzel. Although the attacking forces were equipped with tanks and supported by warplanes, the initial assault was repelled by Polish-made 37mm AT guns, the commander of German Third Army, ordered his units to attack the Polish forces several times in a row, but all attacks were broken and in the late evening the Germans were forced to withdraw to their initial positions.

The effect of an anti-tank ditch, near Mlawa, 1939

The following afternoon the German units started a heavy artillery bombardment of the Rzegnów position on the right flank of the Polish forces. After two hours of constant artillery fire, the assault was started and, in the result of close combat, the Polish defenders started to waver. The counterattack of the Polish 79th Infantry Regiment was unsuccessful and the commander of the Polish Modlin Army ordered the 20th Division to extend further eastwards and prepare the defence of its right flank between the villages of Dębsk and Nosarzewo. At the same time the 8th Infantry Division, until then held in reserve near Ciechanów, was ordered to prepare a counterattack.

Mlawa after the battle

The 8th Division arrived in the area in the early hours of September 3. As the Mazovian Cavalry Brigade operating further eastwards was also endangered by German armoured troops, the army commander ordered the division to split its forces and attack in two directions: towards Grudusk east of Mława and towards Przasnysz. However, conflicting orders and German diversants operating in the rear disrupted both attacks and led to chaos in the Polish ranks. In the evening the division was mostly destroyed and only the 21st Infantry Regiment of Colonel (later General) Stanisław Sosabowski managed to withdraw from the fights towards the Modlin Fortress. Despite this, the German attacks towards both flanks of the 20th Infantry Division were unsuccessful.

Panzer III of Division “Kempf” advancing on Mlawa

On September 3 the German engineers finally managed to cut through Polish antitank barriers. According to several Polish sources, German units used the local civilians as human shields, which allowed them to finally capture several bunkers on the left flank of the Polish forces, but were unable to push forwards. On the right flank, in the Rzegnów section of the front to the east of the swamps, the attacks were more successful and in the late evening elements of German Wodrig Corps finally broke through the lines of the 79th Infantry Regiment to the rear of the Poles. This widened the front gap in the area ofGrudusk. General Emil Krukowicz-Przedrzymirski, facing the risk of his forces being outflanked and surrounded, ordered the 20th division and the remnants of the 8th to withdraw towards Warsaw and Modlin, finally abandoning the fortified positions.

Polish prisoners of war after the Battle of Mlawa, 3rd of September 1939

But lets rewind the clock to the 2nd of September 1939, and have a look at the role of 1.ID in the Battle of Mlawa and more precisely at the north-eastern corner of the fortress of Mlawa, to the Gora-Kamienska (Kamienska hill) and the efforts of the Division to take it.

ATTACKING THE “BASTION” OF GORA-KAMIENSKA: “BAPTISM OF FIRE”
2nd of September 1939

It is a miracle that we managed to take the Kamienska position without long preparations and in a relatively short period of time!
(General von Kortzfleisch, commanding officer of 1.ID, 3
rd of September 1939)

The bastion of Gora-Kamienska lay half way between Krzynowloga-Mala and Grudusk towering over the surrounding terrain with a height difference of around 60 meters.
The bastion and the adjoining fortifications in the forest south of Szumsk had been developed to a strong cornerstone of the Mlawa defensive positions. It had been vested with trenches, double-apron entanglements, timber shelters and six concrete bunkers allowing for enfilading fire. Its forefront was further defended by advanced pickets and multiple minefields. The positions were defended by the the 79th Polish infantry regiment (commanded by ppłk. Konstanty Zaborowski) and supported by about seven batteries of artillery.

Remains of the bunker on the northern slope of the Gora Kamiensk.

The commandinig officer of the polish 79th Infantry Regiment, Płk. Konstanty Zaborowski

The Division attacked in a pincer movement. The reinforced Infanterie-Regiment 1 attacked from the north via Dzierzgowo-Szumsk. The remainder on both sides of the road Krzynowologa-Rzegnowo. During the attack IR1 fulfilled the role of tying up enemy forces in forest south of Szumsk.
At 1500h the main force began its advance, having to cross about 2 kilometers of open ground. The advance was covered by concentrated artillery fire on the Kamienska positions.
In order to make the artillery fire more efficient an observation balloon was launched , which was flying in the neighbourhood of Rzegnowo and directing artillery fire of 1 ID. In the church tower in Dzierzgowo 1ID located their second observation post but this was soon detected by Polish forces and destroyed by one troop of 20 pal (20 light artillery battalion).

Dziergowo church. 73 years ago used by 1IDs artillery observers.

III./IR43 attacked north of the road (Krzynowologa-Rzegnowo), followed by I./IR43 as a reserve. III./IR22 moved forward south of it, having II./IR22 as regimental and I./IR22 as divisional reserves. Heavy German artillery fire allowed for a fast advance. Having reached the villages of Ozumieck and R. Kosily the battalions came under frontal and flanking machine gun fire, effectively stalling the advance of III./IR43.

Rare color photo showing soldiers of IR43, Poland 1939

A report on his experiences of serving as a divisional reserve, can be found in a private letter about the Polish campaign, written by Hauptmann de la Chevallerie. He had been commanding 11./IR22 on the first day of the campaign, but when the officer commanding I./IR22 had been wounded, he was ordered to take over I. Batallion on the 2nd of September:

“At half past three in the morning I was woken by Leutnant Götz, once member of my company, now second adjudant to the CO of I. Batallion. “Herr Hauptmann, you are ordered back to the regiment to take over command of I. Batallion”. Even the classic Goethe quote* (see below) would not help me, so I got up and stumbled up to the regimental command post, joining I. Batallion shortly afterwards. We had been ordered to act as divisional reserve! I was swearing my head off, but to no avail. Notwithstanding that I also got hit by a fit of diarrhoea. Our Doctor called it a gastric flu, but I call it the worst kind of diarrhoea I have ever experienced! I also had a temperature. I guzzled down a dose of opium, quinine and tanalbin every 15 minutes, but dragged through the whole thing as well as I could. Not that we had much to do. Changing positions into a different wood every 2 or 3 hours, three kilometers away from the frontline. The boring fate of the reserves.
Now and then we hear the sounds of battle and we could observe steep a ridge, on which trenches and bunkers could be seen. The Kamienka ridge, which was defended by the Poles until the boys of II., but mainly III. Batallion cleared them out with handgrenades. My company had been in battle for the first time and put up a good show, losing four dead and five wounded (including 3 NCOs).”

* “Tell your captain that for His Imperial Majesty, I have, as always, due respect. But he, tell him that, he can lick me in the arse!” – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, “Götz von Berlichingen”.

III./IR22 managed to break into the enemy trenches south of the road and to push forward to Zaboklik. Following that, IR22 (including all its reserves) received the order to swing into the attack on the Gora Kamienska.

II./IR22 (commanded by Major Knobelspieß) advanced in a fast pace, crossed the road between R. Kosily and Zaboklik and broke into the system of trenches north of the road. Forests, trenches and dugouts were cleared and two concrete bunkers on the north side of the hill were taken. Polish resistance was fierce, many of the Polish soldiers refusing to surrender. The Poles kept on firing on the German attackers until the last possible moment, but always retreating as so to escape close combat and being taken prisoner.

A description from the Polish point of view can be found in Ryszard Juszkiewiczs book “Bitwa pod Mławą” (Warsaw, 1987):

“When after violent fighting the pickets of the 79th Polish infantry regiment had been forced to retreat from their protruding positions towards the main defensive position around 12:00 AM, the artillery of Korps “Wodrig” once again began its bombardment – this time preparing for the main assault. This had already been preceded by strong artillery preparation (10 Abteilungen = 120 guns from 1. and 12. Inf.Div.) The artillery preparation against Kamienska Gora was coordinated and commanded by Generaloberst Werner von Fritsch himself (Commander of Art.Rgt.12). This heavy artillery fire on Kamienska Gora lasted for 8 hours (1200h-1800h). Under covering fire of their own artillery, German infantry already started to attack Polish positions around 1500h. Their 1. Inf.Div. was attacking from the direction of Szumsk towards Kitki and Kamienska Gora, while 12. Inf.Div. was attacking from the direction of Krzynowloga Mala towards “redoubt Zaboklik” and Kamienska Gora with “Czubak”.”

The officer commanding the AT gun company of the Polish 79th Inf.Reg. wrote in his diary:

Polish 37mm AT gun

“At 1500h the general German assault started. Units of the 1st and 12th German infantry divisions, supported by tremendous artillery fire and many tanks, launched an attack against the foremost edge of the defensive position of our regiment. Left wing of the regiment – I. battalion – holds its positions. Right wing of the regiment, the reinforced 9th company under Cpt. Hoppe on Kamienska Gora, and the platoon of cyclists from 11 puł. on the “Żaboklik” position are defending against massive enemy attacks. The regiment is fighting for its life. Waves of German infantry are advancing towards our positions, coming closer and closer. Our artillery (12 howitzers from 88 dac and 8 guns cal. 75mm from 59 dal) are defending by laying a curtain of fire in front of our positions. The first wave of Germans met with our minefield. Parts of human bodies, weapons and equipment get thrown up by their explosions. Our wonderful boys fought with all their strength, many of them making the final sacrifice – it was in vain…”

By 1800h II./IR22 had taken the peak of Kamienska hill. When darkness set in the whole hill was in possession of III./IR43 and II., III./IR22. The fall of the Gora Kamienska had sealed the fate of the fortress of Mlawa, which I.AK had failed to take the day before.
The most detailed description of the fighting for the Kamiensa ridge can be found in a report published in Germany by the end of 1939 for III./IR22. This batallion had borne the brunt of the fighting and the report evaluated strengths and weaknesses, tactical dispositions and summarised the lessons learned from it.

First page of the report

It opens with a description of the battlefield itself:
“The Gora Kamienska dominates the surrounding terrain. It commands an excellent view of the marching route Krzynowloga-Mala and on the assembly rooms in the forests north-east of it. To bring in heavy weapons an attacker can only use a single road. The slightly rising ground in front of it offers only minimal cover for an attack which is further limited by the flanking bunkers on the northern slope of the Gora Kamienska. With its well placed obstacles, well camouflaged observing posts and trench systems the Gora Kamienska is the massive cornerstone of the Mlawa defensive lines. Its not surprising that Polish officers that were taken prisoner there, reported that these defences were thought to be impregnable. Indeed it can be said that it would never have been taken if it had been defended by German soldiers.”

The reinforced III./IR22 began its attack on 0800h having its right flank close to the road Krzynowloga-Mala/Grudusk. When it reached the hamlets about 1000 meters southwest of Krzynowloga-Mala it recieved enemy fire from the area of Hill 195. This hill lies about 2000 meters southwest of Krzynowloga-Mala and was occupied by enemy pickets. The batallion kept on advancing in a fast pace and pushed the enemy out of his defensive positions. The Poles had retreated in a hurry, leaving large quantities of ammunition, clothing and equipment.

First stages; fighting the pickets

Gora Modern

Modern Sat view of the Gora Kamienska Battlefield

It was the first time III. Batallion had been in battle and the first time the new machine guns (MG34) and mortars (Granatwerfer 34) had been used in action. “The men were pleased about their own firepower, which was far superior to that of the enemy, even from an acoustic point of view. Any doubts we had on the MG34 were wiped out. The enemy retreated from the weight of our fire and the pressure of our attack. The will to fight and the effectiveness in combat showed that our hard training before the war had finally paid out”.

The batallion now pushed through the forest with the order to take defensive postions on its southwestern corner. This was done without encountering enemy resistance. When the edge of the forest had been reached, the men of III. Batallion could see Polish forces retreating across the the road to Grudusk. The order to follow the retreating enemy was cancelled by a regimental command. For now III. Batallion stayed in position.

“By now the massive Kamienska hill could be observed. To get information about enemy strength and dispositions small reconnaissance elements were detached. Leutnant Neumann with some men of 10th coy and Unteroffizier Sparing with a group from 11th coy went out to obtain that intelligence. In a daring and bold move, both men managed to push forward to the village of Kosily, not only under constant fire of the enemy but also that of our own artillery”

“The Gora-Kamienska had been surrounded by a triple barrier of wire entanglements interspersed with trip wires. Behind that a well developed trench system. The road Kosily-Zaboklik had been blocked with a row of obstacles (chevaux de frise). The northeastern slope, north of the road Krzynowloga-Mala-Grudusk was defended by a heavy machine gun position dominating the road northeast of Kosily. South of it was a well camouflaged bunker which enfiladed the southern side of Kosily and the first 300 meters of the road Kosily-Zaboklik. Also flanking this road, another well camouflaged bunker was observed on hill 173. These observations, coupled with the reconnaissance conducted before the start of the campaign, gave a clear picture of what lay ahead. A well constructed defensive system, defended by a determined enemy.”

Bunker on the Gora Kamienska

Assembling for the attack

The batallion was just digging in, to take cover from sporadic Polish artillery fire when it finally recieved the regimental order to attack the Gora-Kamiensk. The whole Division would take part in the attack, supported by all available artillery which was now concentrating its fire onto the enemy positions.

The first target for III./IR22 was the village of Zaboklik, the second target the road Rzognowo-Borkowo. 11th coy, supported by a parts of the mortar company, was to attack from its positions in the forest north of hill 169, in the direction of Kosily-Zaboklik.
10th coy, supported by two mortar squads and a platoon of heavy machine guns, was to support this attack. An assault platoon of 9th coy was to attack the bunker on hill 173, the remains of 9th coy were to support 10th coy under the command of Hauptmann Todtenhaupt. Another target for 11th coy was the village of Rzegnowo, while 10th coy was to attack the ground northeast of it. Two light infantry gun platoons were to cover the advance of the companies.

For the attack the soldiers of the batallion had to leave all unnecessary equipment behind. Handgrenades were stuck into belts and double the normal amount of ammunition was issued. The report tells us that:

“The Gora is now covered in smoke and flame and the air is filled with the roar and thunder of constant artillery fire. The commander has a look at his watch. Five minutes to go, four, three, two, now its only one minute. Then the shout “1oth company attack!”.

Like one man everyone rises and moves forward into the attack. 10th coy advances in a long skirmish line led by its commander Hauptmann Rogalski, 11th coy is moving forward aswell, followed by the reminder of 12th coy, whose heavy weapon sections had been distributed on the other companies. The assault squad of 9th coy is working its way the bunker on hill 173.”

“The enemy artillery fire is ineffective. There are a few losses inflicted by shrapnell, but so far the advance is going well. In the front of the advance, heavy machine gun platoons move forward, ammunition carriers carry boxes full of cartridges, the signal platoon the heavy cable drums. About 500 meters southeast of Kosily the Batallion wades into enemy machine gun fire. Still casualities are light. The thin lines moving from cover to cover, using every furrow. “



“Our own artillery fire began to grow weaker, with the result that enemy machine gun fire increased considerably. The batallion had to halt, every soldier going down into full cover. Luckily a wire connection to the regimental command post could be established and the artillery could be called in again. It’s only due to the couragous behaviour of Unteroffizier Schicktanz that our communications to the command post were never broken, even on the move ”

Under cover of the attached mortar sections and heavy machine guns,10th and 11th coy managed to push forward into the dead angle of Kosily village, now temporarily secure from flanking and frontal enemy fire. Still when entering the village casualities begin to rise, when some soldiers fall victim to Polish anti infantry mines. For the next step, the companies of III./IR22 had to continue the advance over a plain field, under constant frontal and flanking fire from the Polish bunkers which the artillery was not able to suppress. As the neighbouring divisions were not able to send units to support the attack, the commander of III. Batallion decided to push forward under cover of the weapons available to him. By committing two 37mm AT guns of 14th coy (Oberleutnant Tolsdorff) which targeted the enemy bunkers and positions with direct fire and the reminder of the heavy company (12th coy) under Feldwebel Marquardt and Unterfeldwebel Langer the assault on the Gora Kamienska began to gain momentum.

General Theodor Tolsdorff, shooting star of the Wehrmacht in 1945, 6 years before commander of IR22s AT company

Casualities began to rise. Hauptmann Marquardt (commanding 10th coy) got wounded, squadleader Feldwebel Kanapin, and Gefreiter Mornigkeit got killed. Another 11 men of 10th coy got wounded. 11th coy lost the Füsiliere Braun, Kuklen and Oschkenlat who were killed and another 7 soldiers wounded. Still the attack did not stall. Some motivation came from the fact that by the late evening, signal flares and the sounds of machine gun fire could be observed on the batallions right. Its neighbour, Infanterie-Regiment 43 had joined the attack on the Goras other side.

Remains of trenches on the Gora Kamienska

Modern Satellite view of the area

11th coy managed to clear the roadblocks on the southern slope of the Kamienska and captured a Polish anti-tank gun which they now used against its former owners.
An assault platoon commanded by Feldwebel Kleinschmantat worked its way towards the bunker on the right side of the road (2). 10th coy had crossed a wire entanglement and broke into the enemy trenches behind that. The assault squad of 9th coy had been pinned down by enemy flanking fire. When the commander of 9th coy, Hauptmann Todtenhaupt, noticed that he personally took the lead. Lying down and crawling, he led the squad through enemy fire until it had reached a potato field about 300 meters in front of Bunker 4. From here the soldiers had enough cover to move forward one by one.

Bunker 4 was attacked from the left side. Light mortars and machine guns provided enough suppression for the soldiers of 9th coy to get into range to use handgrenades. When it was finally taken no enemies could be found, the Poles had retreated in the last possible moment, leaving behind ammunition crates and equipment.

Bunker 4 – 73 years later

The “new” machine gun in action – MG34

One of these battlegroups led by Leutnant Neumann managed to push forward to the village of Rzegnowo. On the hills northwest of it the Poles seemed to have held some units in reserve. From this position they now started a strong counter attack supported by light tanks which forced Neumanns battlegroup back to western side of Zaboklik. In the meantime, at about 1830h, 10th and 11th coy, together with parts of 9th coy had also reached Zaboklik. Everywhere in the village machine guns and mortars were brought into position. Supplies were alarmingly low and single soldiers were sent back to collect ammunition from the dead and wounded.
Without artillery support and low on ammo the commander of III./IR22 decided to hold Zaboklik and to organise a defence. Parts of II./IR22 had in the meantime arrived in Zaboklik aswell, and with these, six defensive groups were formed.

View from the outskirts of Zaboklik towards Bunker 4

The counter attack was carried out by the 2nd batallion of the 79th polish infantry regiment, supported by elements of its 3rd batallion and a company of TK Tankettes commanded by Lieutenant Mieczyslaw Kosiewicz.
The situation for the German defenders was critical. In the previous combats the straw on the fields behind the batallion had started to burn. Smoke and fire was everywhere. This made is difficult to bring in ammunition and to bring out the wounded. The soldiers of the Polish 79th Regiment were fighting most couragously, coming extremly close to the German positions. The left flank of Zaboklik was unguarded and IR22 always in the danger of getting outflanked. The fighting lasted through most of the night. On midnight a company of IR43 arrived, finally guarding Zabokliks left flank. In the early morning, the Poles retreated.

Captured TK Tankettes

1. Infanterie-Division (IR43/IR22) had taken the Gora-Kamienska and repulsed a counter attack at Zaboklik. The brunt of the fighting had been taken by III./IR22 which, after the fighting, had 12 soldiers killed in action and 20 severely wounded. Not much, considering that it had assaulted a fortified position and defended against a counter-attack by two Polish batallions and one company of tankettes.
The north eastern flank of the fortess of Mlawa had been crushed. 1. Infanterie-Division had gone through its baptism of fire and was able to try out new weapons and tactics.
According to the combat report of III./IR22 the new MG34s had been a complete success, as had the new ammo type “SmK(H)”. These 7.92mm rounds had a tungsten alloy core instead of an iron one. This gave the round an excellent armor piercing capability (13 mm for 30° impact angle). Every riflemen was issued with 10 rounds of this expensive ammo. The report states that enemy tankettes turned and retreated after being fired at with SmK(H).

It also notes that the ammo consumption of the MG34 was far worse than expected. The machine gun companies running out of ammo after only two hours of battle, having exhausted half of the batallions reserves! It advises to fire in shorter bursts, as many Polish dead had 6 or more bullet wounds. It was noticed that it was impossible to suppress concrete bunkers sufficiently by the use of artillery only and that without the use of 14th coys AT guns (firing directly) the attack would have stalled.

The battle of Mlawa had cost the Wehrmacht 1800 soldiers killed and another 3000 wounded. Polish losses being about 1200 killed and another 1500 wounded. Although the Mlawa position was finally abandoned on the 4th of September, the German forces suffered substantial losses and it was not until September 13, when they finally managed to reach the Modlin Fortress, located less than 100 kilometres to the south.

For the 1. Infanterie-Division Gora-Kamiensk had been a baptism of fire. Six years of total war still lay in front of them.

Sources used to compile this article:

– Major W. Richter, Die 1. (ostpreussische Infanterie-Division), Munich 1975
-Rudolf v. Tycowicz, Das Infanterie-Regiment 1 – Ein Erinnerungsbuch, 1966
-War diaries of 1.Infanterie-Division (US National Archives)
– Combat report of III. Batallion, Infanterie-Regiment 22 “Bericht über den Kampf an der Gora Kamienska“, Bundesarchiv
– Hauptmann von la Chevallerie (commanding officer of 11th company, III. Batallion), Handwritten report on the campaign in Poland, Bundesarchiv
– “Ostpreussische Kameraden”, various magazines of the organisation of former members of 1.ID (1955-64)