Background: The Nazi published a large number of 32-page booklets in a series titled “War Library of the German Youth.” They were intended to persuade the youth of the glories of war, and often included a pitch to enlist in the military. This one is titled “Onward, Ever Onward. Our Infantryís Victorious March in the East.” This was published in the summer of 1942.
The source: Walter Menningen,Vorwärts, immer vorwärts! Vom Siegeszug unserer Infanterie im Osten (Berlin: Steiniger-Verlage, no date, but 1942). This is #135 in the series “Kriegsbücherei der deutschen Jugend.”
Onward, Ever Onward!
The sun beats down mercilessly from the cloudless sky. For weeks its scorching rays have struck the parched earth. The air shimmers above the waves of grain. The dull green leaves on the trees hang limply. The sap oozes from the pines and firs. The reflected light from the streams and small lakes is so bright that it hurts the eyes. The roads are bright yellow ribbons. Dust clouds rise above them. The fields and meadows to either side are almost covered with a thick layer of dirty gray dust. The landscape is almost lifeless under the heat. The only cooling comes during the brief nights. There is even frost at times. As the large fireball of the sun sets in the evening, a light mist rises from the marshy forests and the lakes. In the morning, the dew covers the grass and branches, almost as if it had rained during the night. An hour after sunrise, all again is dry, and the long pitiless heat covers the forests and fields. This is summer in the Soviet Union, through which the long columns of German infantry are marching.
At dawn on 22 June they broke through the Bolshevist lines along a front that stretches thousands of kilometers. By mid-day, as they were resting by the side of the road, their comrades in the armored divisions were chasing the retreating enemy. They marched, and kept marching. The heat dried out their bodies. Their canteens were usually empty before noon. There was not enough for long, thirsty gulps, only enough to wet dried out lips. Dust covered their uniforms. Their faces are dripping with sweat. Their sun burned their skin. Their feet are burning. The roads and paths are torture. For kilometers they march through sand. They sink to their knees. Their boots slip. They may follow a stretch almost like cobblestones that shakes the bones. Each stone can be felt. A forest seems to promise shade to the weary columns, but brings new problems. Most forests are marshy and breed multitudes of bloodthirsty insects. Swarms descent on the troops. Smoking does not help, nor do slaps with broken off branches, nor a handkerchief over the face and neck. The only rescue is to march out of the forest into open, unshaded fields.
The day begins early. The first light is scarcely visible when the men are wakened from a short, exhausted sleep. The column reforms, and soon the columns are on the move again, another day of burning heat, dust, sweat, burning thirst, and millions of bloodthirsty insects. Each dayís goals are murderously far apart. The panzer units are ahead. The infantry must follow. Late at night they seek a place to sleep. The men sink down exhausted. Many are so weary that they do not even want to eat. Yet they are not finished. The weapons must be cleaned, the equipment cared for, watches posted. “Water” is their first cry. Not water to drink, for the water in the streams is not potable. The men take turns pouring pails of dirty gray water over each other to wash away the dust and sweat. That raises their spirits. When the sun has set, the men sleep on the bare ground. The summer nights are short. It really never gets dark. The last glimmering of the sunset blends in to the first rays of dawn. Who can comprehend what the German infantry has accomplished in these burning summer days of 1941? No one who has not marched with them, hour after hour, day after day, week after week. And as the forward detachments needed help, they were there. The difficult march is followed by hard battle against a pitiless, determined enemy. Weeks of marches and battles follow. Powerful storms occur often. Then the roads and pathways turn into rivers of mud.
The tough loam almost sucks boots off the menís feet. The shoulder aches under the burden of the weapon, the arms grow limp from carrying heavy cases of munitions. When the sum breaks through again, the columns steam as the soaked and sweaty uniforms dry. They move every forward toward the rolling thunder of battle. The enemy must be thrown back, surrounded, destroyed. They enemy must have no rest, even if they almost collapse from the effort. They know the enemy, a threatening monster beyond human understanding. The decayed and brutish air of Bolshevism surrounds them, full of hatred and malice. The mass of the enemy are dull and vicious, armed with primitive weaponry. But their weaponry, their tanks, their guns, their airplanes, their landmines, are inexhaustible. Thrown back a thousand times, they were always back for more. The enemy, an offspring of hell, wants to transform the world into hell. As a result, all of our troops are filled with the drive to destroy this threat to humanity, regardless of difficulty and death, despite endless effort and plagues. In destroying the enemyís masses and equipment, they want also to destroy the spirit behind this devilish tool, to frustrate its destructive plans.
Lieutenant Volkerís company has been marching since early morning. The roads are bad throughout the country. The company commander gave the order to loosen the uniforms early in the morning. The men opened their collars and rolled up their selves. Their faces drip with sweat. The dust almost covers their eyes. It hangs over them like a dull cloud and descends again on them. They march forward, hour after hour. The company has been sent on a mission to P. Bolshevist stragglers attacked German supply troops there the previous night. The partisan base is known. The mission is to destroy the enemy. The mission gives spring to their step. Finally, something other than eternally following after the faster units.
Corporals Lenz, Gellert and Petermann march at the head of the first unit. Their firm, steady tread determines the companyís pace. They are experienced men. They know how important it is to keep up a steady, machine-like march. No tripping! That unsettles those behind. Nothing is more exhausting than moving unsteadily. The march is almost easy if the leaders are relaxed and steady. The three corporals can do that. They have years of experience. Their legs do the work automatically. That leaves the mind free to dream and think.
Corporal Lenz, on the right, is a tall, smiling Westphalian farmer. He is thinking of the letter he got last evening. His mother had written about the goings on at home.
The grain is being harvested. The crop is good. Unfortunately, there are too few hands. Perhaps he could help, as he did last year after the campaign in France? Will they soon be done in this distant enemy land too? What a good mother, thinks Corporal Lenz. She is dreaming! A leave for him to help with the harvest? Not likely. They were done by now in France a year ago. Then too he marched at the front of the company. Day after day. The achievements were astonishing. But the country was entirely different. There were roads there! They were good roads, even if they seemed to run on forever. Whenever one came to the top of a rise, the road stretched into the distance. These roads seemed almost endless. One could only keep marching.
The land was rich and beautiful. There were lovely villages and beautiful cities. It was almost too elegant for the farmerís son, who was used to hard work from morning to evening to earn his daily bread. But everything in the Soviet Union is different. The roads are awful, the cities and villages decaying. The land should be rich, yet there is only wretched poverty and hopelessness. Is that the result of Bolshevism, Corporal Lenz wonders. He has read and heard so much about it. What a dreadful doctrine it must be, to allow the land, the peopleís source of food, to decay, to make people so dull and indifferent. God save us from such a danger, Lenz thinks, as he shakes his head.
“Hey, are you dreaming again?” It is his friend Corporal Gellert. He marches in the center. He is short, but strong as a bear. He is a soldier with body and soul. His comrades are too, but Gellert came to his profession with true passion. He has had no rest since the campaign against Bolshevism began. He envies his comrades in the panzer units, who face the enemy every day. As they got their orders this morning, he stretched out and said to his friends: “Finally!” He is thinking about how he will deal with these treacherous partisans. They have had no direct contact with the enemy since the morning of 22 June, when they broke through the enemy lines. They are always marching, always behind the panzer units. Corporal Gellert knows that the infantryís day will come. He says it all the time. No one can stop him. When his comrades tire of the endless marching, he consoles them with his standard line: “We’re not done yet.” Today will probably be Corporal Gellertís chance to face the enemy. He is eager, and would prefer to be marching double quick.
“So what are you thinking about?”, Gellert asks his friend.
Lenz answers: “Nothing important, Gellert.”
“Well, OK,” Gellert laughs. He is not concerned. He knows that no one can get Lenz to talk when he does not want to. He turns to his friend on the left, Corporal Petermann. The prospect of combat has put Gellert in a good mood. The hard marching has gone on long enough. The “long hours of contemplation” of his friend Lenz is not his style. He always says marching is easier when one is talking and when a song “oils the joints.”
Corporal Petermann is as tall as Lenz, and even quieter. That makes him a wonderful conversational partner. Gellert is happy to be the only one talking. Petermann, who always has a pipe in his mouth, grunts “Hm!” or “Yup!”, which convinces Gellert that he has an attentive listener. Petermann always has his pipe. He smokes it “cold” and “hot,” in sunshine and rain. He comrades claim he never takes it out of his mouth even when he is sleeping. One cannot talk with a pipe in oneís mouth, which explains Petermannís silence. But his comrades are deceived. Petermann is quite capable of talking, and his silence is no evidence of an inability to think. He is always alert. If he says something, it hits the nail on the head. The companyís knowledge of Bolshevist Russia comes from Petermann, though no one has realized it. And the men know a lot about the meaning and goal of the battle in the east. They have been able to compare the order and industry at home with the disorder and indifference in this country.
They have seen how dreadful and dangerous a system is that has ruined all areas of human life and unleashed the basest human drives. Every last man in the company is filled with the will to destroy the Bolshevist enemy. That is Petermannís work, though his comrades think him a quiet man who is always smoking.
“What do you think, Petermann?” Gellert asks, “Do you think We’ll encounter Bolshevists today?”
Petermann shrugs his shoulders and says nothing. Gellert was not expecting an answer. He talks, his comrade Petermann listens, as his opinions of the cowardly partisans who attacked his comrades from the rear develop. “Itís fine with me if the Bolshevists fight at the front. They are soldiers and are fighting as best they know how. But to fight behind the lines, robbing, murdering and plundering, they are not soldiers. They are wild animals. Or do you disagree, Petermann?”
Petermann shakes his head, and Gellert keeps talking. “If we meet such a band, they had better write their wills. I wish we were there already!”
Gellert gazes ahead. The land looks the same. The sun burns down. The march continues, the ranks loosen up. Gellert looks back and notices.
“The company is slowing down,” he says to Lenz and Petermann. “But we have to keep moving!”
“Start singing,” Petermann mumbles through his pipe. Those are his first words of the day.
Gellert begins immediately. “Letís sing a song,” he shouts back. He sings the first lines by himself, then the men start joining in, and soon the whole company is singing. The march picks up, the ranks close. The men sing of home, of their loved ones, of fighting and dying, as they march firmly onward.
The long hot days of summer are over. Heavy rains began at the end of August. They brought with them cool days and cold nights. A foretaste of fall is in the air. The sun still shines at times between high white clouds, but its strength is gone. Dust and heat are gone. But the roads are softened by heavy rains. Mud and mire are unpleasant marching companions. The knee-deep muck makes marching a torture. No road service is of any help. After a column of heavy vehicles has passed by, any improved road is left in ruins. The roads are insatiable, a think surface over a swamp.
Volkerís company has been in battle for a long while now. Corporal Gellert was right. The infantry was needed. The company had some sharp skirmishes with scattered Bolshevist troops in late summer. The panzers could not pursue the enemy through the marshy forests. They had to be destroyed by infantry. They fought through the forests, chasing down thousands and thousands of Bolshevist soldiers. Bloody action had to be taken when some of these scattered forces carried on partisan warfare in civilian clothing behind our lines. The war was hard and pitiless. There was no alternative. The company was often roused in the middle of the night when such bands attacked villages, burned houses and bridges, drove off the animals. They also attacked German supply columns, messengers, railway lines, trains. The German infantry put a hard and unforgiving end to this banditry.
One day, the order came to march south. There was a large lake down there where an encirclement battle was in progress. The march demanded everything they had. Those who believed they knew everything about marching learned differently. The company broke all previous records. Their work was rewarded. Numerous Bolshevist divisions and huge amounts of weapons and equipment were captured or destroyed. The company suffered its first painful losses during the bitter battle. Captain Volker, only recently promoted to that rank, fell. His successor was seriously wounded the next day. A lieutenant now commanded the company. They still called themselves the “Volker Company.” Captain Volker had formed the company two years earlier. They owed the best of their training and spirit to him. They would remain the “Volker Company,” even if someone else commanded them. They buried their commander on the banks of the lake, along with their other fallen comrades. They planted birch trees around the graves and decorated them with flowers. They built a simple, tall cross. The company had changed. Reinforcements from home had arrived. Corporal Petermann had been promoted to sergeant, and led the first platoon. Corporal Lehmler had taken over his unit. Lehmler was a gain for the first platoon. Everyone agreed. He knew his way around. He was a practiced soldier, expert in using every weapon. No one was his equal in gathering provisions. No matter how picked over the area, Lehmler always came back with a cap full of eggs, a chicken or two, or something else edible. “If there is a chicken, there are eggs, and if there are eggs, there will be chickens,” as he always said. No one objected. The first platoon soon got the job of finding something to eat if supplies failed. The two other platoons took on preparing camp, the watch, and maintaining weapons and equipment. It was a good division of labor.
Lehmler managed to provide variety in the nourishing, but rather monotonous rations. It was amazing what he could do with a few eggs! A hot plump chicken breast after a dreary rainy day is wonderful! The fields provided vegetables, the forest mushrooms and berries. Lehmlerís ability to satisfy the stomach was as important for the platoonís morale as Petermannís pointed remarks on the depravity of the Bolshevist foe and the necessity of his annihilation.
After the encirclement battle in the south, the company moved around. First to the east, then north, then west. Here and there there was a battle. Usually the company was with the battalion. Sometimes the whole regiment was at the front, or in a defensive position. Many men could not understand why all this everlasting marching was necessary. “What is going on?”, they complained. “We’re always marching around the countryside without getting anywhere.” Sergeant Petermann always said: “Shut up, you chatterboxes. Let me tell you a story. It happened at the Battle of Tannenburg in 1914. A regiment had been marching around for days. The troops were beginning to think something was wrong, and complained about the leadership. The regiment stopped on the fourth day. The commander rode past and shouted to the company: “Men, thank you for your work these past few days. You had a decisive role in a big victory. A whole Russian army has been surrounded and destroyed. Nearly a hundred thousand men were captured, along with huge masses of material.”
The men began to understand. One of the brighter lads figured out what had happened, and said: “Comrades, the leadership has the head, we’ve got the legs. Both won the battle.” And he was right. “And today?” Petermann drew the conclusion. “Has the leadership made a mistake so far? Can we march?”
“Good guy,” said Corporal Gellert, and punched his neighbor in the ribs.
A laugh rolled through the ranks. Yes, that is how it was! don’t complain about the leadership, the head. Everything was in order. And their legs would not fail either.
Gradually the company moved north. There was talk of a new battle of encirclement. What that true? The officers did not say anything. There was no point in asking them. Even if they knew anything, they would not say so. That is how it has to be. One does not tell the enemy weeks in advance that one is planning to attack him where he least expects it.
Bad news from the south reached the company one day during its midday rest. The company commander himself brought the news. A band of partisans had crossed the lake and attacked the clean-up troops. The Bolshevists tore down the trees they had planted around their comrades’ graves and leveled the graves. A Bolshevist commissar had mockingly destroyed the large cross the company had built. The news enraged the company. They clenched their fists in anger. Corporal Gellert bellowed like a bull: “The damned crooks!” Sergeant Petermann too had something to say: “The beasts! They don’t even respect the grave or the cross. This is the fruit of 25 years of Bolshevist education. Bolshevism is the embodiment of evil, and the commissars are its bloodhounds. The only thing to do is exterminate them!”
The company was in a new position at the beginning of September. It was clear that something was in the works. The company was on the south side of a 120-meter wide river, which had to be crossed. Even the dumbest could see the preparations. Numerous big guns arrived, and began shelling. Heavy infantry weapons were accumulating on the banks.
Pioneer groups appeared every evening. Their rubber boards were well concealed. The bridge-building equipment had arrived. But nothing happened during the day. The enemy had to be kept in the dark, since surprise is the best guarantee of success. The company stayed in its foxholes and waited with growing excitement. When? When? That was their only question. One evening the answer came unexpectedly: “Tomorrow morning.”
The night was dark and dismal. Only occasionally did a star shine through the clouds. The hours crept by. The men had tried to get to sleep early, but the tension kept them awake. One after another crept to the riverbank. Nothing was to be seen, no shooting, no flares. The war seemed to be slumbering. Just after midnight the attack positions grew lively. The engineers were readying their equipment. The men had something to do. The first shock troops climbed into their boats. The pioneer officers readied the second wave, along with the equipment barges. Orders were given as to when the platoons and companies should cross. If possible, heavy weapons should cross with the first wave, mortars above all. The staffs, reconnaissance and medical personnel took their places. The hours flew past. By 5:00 a.m., all was ready. Quiet prevailed. The attack would begin at 5:30. The heavy weapons would open fire. Every artillery and infantry gun had its target. Luftwaffe bombers would appear at 6:00 a.m. and drop their death-bringing cargo on infantry and artillery positions. By 6:10, the artillery fire would move forward. Two minutes before, the engineers and their equipment would begin crossing the river. The first wave would be unloaded, and the boats would go back for others. The infantry would follow.
It is 6:15. Sergeant Petermannís platoon is next to the pioneer boats. The plans are done. The whole platoon will go over with the first wave. The mission is to destroy enemy bunkers on the far side, then with comrades from other platoons to break through the enemy positions. A bridgehead must be established quickly to enable the battalion to bring the heavy weapons over.
Sergeant Petermann lies on his back next to the boat that will carry him and his platoon over. He smokes his pipe and stares into the darkness. His men understand. Everything that needs to be said has been said. Only Corporal Gellert is still moving around saying this and that. He talks with the boat leader about the plan. It is a matter of honor for him to be the first across. He has practiced the signals with his people.
“Get into the boat fast and stay out of the way while we are crossing,” he had said over and over again. The minutes pass slowly. The men know what they have to do. First the big guns have to speak. Then it is time to get ready. It is still dark. The enemyís bank is almost invisible. The water shines and rustles past softly.
At 5:30 the silence ends. The German side comes alive. Along the whole front, the heavy guns open up. As the sound reaches the bank, the explosions are already visible on the far side. Then the thunder is on the far side. The individual shots can no longer be distinguished. There is a single loud crashing, whirring, banging and whistling. Earth and rock fall into the river. Splinters whiz past. “Nose in the mud!”, Gellert orders. Are the Bolshevists answering? In the midst of the hellish noise it is impossible to tell. Hands grip their weapons and hand grenades. A few more minutes to go. The engineers are ready. It is getting lighter. The shellbursts on the far side are easily visible. They rise from the bank.
Sergeant Petermann has risen from his position. He hides behind a tree. His eye is fixed on his watch. A pioneer lieutenant, the commander of the boats is next to him. A minute before the attack. The engineers have their equipment stowed in the boats. They wait for their lieutenantís signal. He raises his hand with the flare pistol. Petermann and his men are ready. Corporal Gellert is watching the bank. Green flares rise all along the front, the signal for the attack. As soon as they are fired, the attack begins. The troops plunge into the river and climb onto the boats. The motors start with a roar. The boats move faster and faster. The water piles high in front of the boats. The engineers stand upright as if made of iron, the troops crouch down, their eyes shaded by their steel helmets as they gaze toward the far bank. The whole river is alive. The motors sing and other sounds join in. Machine guns are firing from the far side. Pillars of fire rise up in the middle of the river. The Bolshevist artillery is trying to stop the crossing. But the attack is unstoppable. Despite the losses, the engineers keep going. The first boats charge up the banks at full speed. Corporal Gellert has succeeded in being the first. He and his men are the first to climb up the bank. Already German hand grenades are exploding in a Bolshevist machine gun position. Sergeant Petermann has reached the bank 50 meters further to the right. He has been slightly wounded by a splinter in his left hand. A bandaid is enough. This is no time to worry about minor matters. Two men in Lenzís platoon are seriously wounded, Lehmlerís platoon has one dead. The returning boats took the dead and seriously wounded back to the other side. Helping hands are waiting.
Corporal Gellert has destroyed the Bolshevist machine gun with hand grenades. He climbs up the bank with his men. They use every tuft of grass, every depression, as they creep higher. They make it. Soon the first machine gun rounds are reaching their new position. The two other groups are in a tough fight with a Bolshevist bunker. More men are injured. Sergeant Petermann hurries with his men to Gellertís breakthrough. They head over toward the bunker. Meanwhile the boats have returned with the second wave, and a heavy gun. The crew brings the sun forward, protected by the second wave. Petermann creeps toward the bunker and fires toward the slit. Shot after shot hits the bunker. The bunkerís crew is silent. Lenzís and Lehmlerís platoons charge forward. The bunker is captured. A brief pause for breath. Petermann gathers his platoon in the captured bunker. To the right and left, the other platoons also gain the high ground. Individual Bolshevists flee. They scatter under Corporal Gellertís machine gun fire. The company to the battalionís right continues its attack. The shock troops are advancing to the right and left. There is still heavy artillery fire at the riverbank. But the boats continue to bring over their cargo. The engineers are already at work on a bridge. Petermannís platoon is continuing its advance. Corporal Gellertís platoon is still ahead of them. Once the top of the riverbank has been captured, the enemy fire becomes weaker. The platoon gains ground quickly. Ground is being won to the right and left, even if the battle is still hot in some places. There are still Bolshevist bunkers in action.
The first target of the battalion to which the Volker company belongs is Village N. It is 800 meters from the river. The attacking company is in sight of it. It is ablaze. But the troops see something else. There is a second Bolshevist line just outside the village, with bunkers, anti-tank ditches, barbed wire. They are already ion. The other two platoons will cover us and follow as soon as we have broken through. My platoon will drive through the village, the other two will go around both sides.”
Corporal Gellert nods and crawls back to his men to explain. Sergeant Petermann instructs the two other group leaders. There is finally time to care for his injured left hand. While that is being done, he manages to fill his pipe with the right hand. He had kept it between his teeth all the while, but it was cold.
The first rays of the morning sun are breaking over the battlefield. The shells of German artillery thunder past overhead. They are directed to the Bolshevist batteries. Artillery spotters fly past overhead. Three, four, six heavy shells land in the middle of the battlefield, throwing up towers of dust and iron. Splinters whiz past. The infantry is in action again. Here and there a group charges forward for thirty or forty or fifty meters. The machine gun fire increases. The enemy at the village edge intensifies his fire. He can see the approaching soldiers more clearly as they creep through the potato and cornfields. The clattering of his machine guns is no longer noticeable. The artillery thunders over constantly. Gellert is right. It will be a tough nut to crack. It is almost impossible to advance in the face of this wall of iron. The enemy is a master of concealment, and his fortifications are almost invisible. Yet slowly, surely, the attackers near the enemy positions. Many a brave comrade lies wounded or dead, but the others gain the protection of the tiniest shelter of a furrow or hillock. Step by step they advance. Now heavy German artillery is targeting the Bolshevist positions. The battalion is directing its big guns at the new obstacle.
Will the grenade throwers, mortars and infantry guns be enough? What is going on back at the river? Are reinforcements coming?
Between the furrows, in the corn, between the potatoes, the men listen and roll over on their backs to look at the lightly cloudy sky. Help is coming. Group after group of heavy bombers are arriving. Are they going after the enemy positions? Yes! The first are dropping their bombs. They heavy caliber bombs plunge down on the positions. Flames spring up. A deafening noise fills the air. The explosions rise upwards, fall, and rise up again.
One group after another drops its destruction-bringing load. The position collapses under the hail of bombs. Iron, wood, stone and earth fly in all directions, and black and gray clouds of smoke cover the area. The shock troops are ready to move. To take advantage of the enemyís confusion to totally destroy him is the thought that drives them forward now.
Petermannís platoon races toward the smoke. It is like a wall that denies the enemy sight. Corporal Gellert is at the head of his men. He has a hand grenade in one hand as he jumps over ditches, hedges and fences.
He is already vanishing into the cloud of smoke. The sounds of exploding hand grenades show that he is encountering the enemy. Petermannís platoon has broken through.
The men press forward through the ruins. Any remaining resistance is beaten down. Machine guns are firing. Petermann drives a group of startled Bolshevists before him with his machine gun. Lenzís and Lehmlerís platoons capture a whole series of fortifications in which the enemy was beginning to gather after the bombardment. The other platoons are to the right and left of the village. And Gellert?
“Where is Gellert?” Petermann shouts. “Has anyone seen Gellert?”
No one knows anything. In the midst of the fury of battle, and the smoke and explosions of hand grenades, no one could keep an eye on the others.
“Lehmler, gather the prisoners and send them to the rear. Everyone else, follow me.”
Petermann hurries to the edge of the village. Past burned down houses and destroyed buildings, the men head for the village center.
“Do I hear shooting?” Petermann shouts, and speeds up. “That will be Gellert.”
They find Gellert in the village square. He is standing by the fountain, holding twenty Bolshevists captive with his machine gun. Eight of his men are bring new captives from every direction.
“Glad you’re here,” yells Gellert and jumps up. “I’m cleaning up the place. Lots of stuff here. Chickens too. Where is Lehmler?”
The men can’t help laughing. Gellert is quite a guy. There is still shooting going on all around, but he is thinking of hot chicken soup.
The company commander arrives. “The area is secure,”
he says. “The battalion is ready for a new attack. In the
meantime, we will secure the area. The third platoon will bright
the captives to battalion quarters.
By evening of the first day, the new offensive has gained four kilometers along a broad front. The Volker company has dug in on a small, wooded hill. There was hard fighting through the afternoon. The Bolshevists mounted a strong counterattack with tanks. The recognized the danger of the German attack in this area, and attempted to stop the bridgehead, regardless of losses in men and material. The situation as critical at times. But in the end they succeeded in holding the ground and turning back the Bolshevists. The booty in captives and weapons is large. The attack is to continue at dawn the next day. The engineers have been at work since afternoon to build a bridge. They are working from both sides. The bridge is to be finished by midnight. Panzer units are ready to cross. They will lead the morning attack. Motorized guns will follow, and the artillery will begin crossing as well. Material was ferried across all day long, and will continue through the night. Trucks to haul the guns, the staff, and communication equipment have been brought over. The field kitchen will follow. Things are lively all along the river. Numerous flak batteries are setting up to protect the bridge and the river traffic.
Petermannís men watch the enemy from their foxholes. The enemy lobs a shell over occasionally to tear up the ground. It has been a hard day. Some comrades have fallen. And Corporal Lehmler has done his duty. A stove is at work in a safe corner. Since nightfall, a dozen chickens have been cooking in the put. Petermann sits with the platoon leaders in a ditch that serves as headquarters. He smokes, and is as quiet as ever. Lehmler checks the pot from time to time. He is secretive. Does he have a surprise? Heís up to it. Perhaps ? Does he not always say: “Where there are chickens there are eggs?” Lenz is writing in his diary with a candle. Only Gellert is talking. The dayís events are vivid once more as he recalls them. “Listen,” he says. “Tomorrow the Army Supreme Commandís report will once again say: ‘In the East, things are going according to plan.’ And in a week? Well, the home front will be astonished, I think.”
Volkerís company is on the march again. It is the third day of the big new offensive. Yesterday morning, panzer units joined in the attack. Late in the morning the breakthrough happened, and the tanks had open space before them. The battle with Bolshevist artillery was the dayís high point. Bombers joined in once more, and in conjunction with artillery and the tanks destroyed the batteries that were giving the last resistance. The long lines of motorized columns rolled past. The infantry got to rest for the rest of the day. “Good,” Corporal Gellert said. “If we rest today, we will be ready for action again tomorrow.”
He was right. New orders came that evening: “The division will follow the panzer formations on 7 September to D., then turn to the west and take the high ground by T. on the same day.” As they studied the map, they realized that meant a march of about 60 kilometers.
“We’re spoiling our superiors,” Corporal Gellert said. “They always want more. Well, We’ll put new soles on the shoes.”
The company leaders gathered that night to tell the men the plan. A big success was coming. It depended on reaching their goal tomorrow.
The company has been marching since early morning. There was a short rest at mid-day, just long enough to get lunch from the field kitchen and eat it by the roadside.
A fine rain had been falling since 10 a.m. The road turned slowly into mud. The heels sunk in with each step. It was miserable. Lenz, Gellert and Lehmler, the group leaders, marched at the head of the whole company. They marched unswervingly onward. The men followed. Corporal Gellert began singing when the rain started; the men laughed, then joined in. Then Gellert told jokes to keep morale up. Now it was 4:00 p.m. The company had been silent for hours, and the men were grim. Several comrades hung on to the baggage wagons and let themselves be pulled along. Men and animals were at the end of their strength.
The general was waiting at the intersection where the division was to turn west. He had been standing there in the rain over an hour.
With his hand on his cap, he greeted the exhausted men. His bright eyes sparkled. The eyes seemed to say: “Keep it up men, there will be fighting today.”
The message was understood. The shoulders straightened, the step firmed up, the ranks closed. The column stopped. The mean stand by the roadside, scarcely able to raise their heads to see the reason for the break. A motorcycle messenger approaches. The rider is moving fast. Several men become alert. The officers stand in a group and raise their binoculars. An enemy, the men wonder?
Suddenly the order comes.
“The regiment will attack the height in front of us. The first battalion goes right, the second battalion left. The third battalion follows the first.”
The company heads slowly toward the height. The lead men are under fire. The city behind the height seems to be occupied by strong enemy forces. The enemy is completely surprised that German troops are here, and is thrown into confusion. Its uncertain leadership has no idea what to do. As evening falls, the first Bolshevist scouts head up the hill by T., only to meet the devastating fire of German infantry. The height is firmly in German hands. Now everyone realizes which this forced march was necessary. The height near T. is close to the crossing at D. The important Bolshevist retreat route to the east runs through it. They’ve closed off the retreat route by seizing the most favorable position.
Although exhausted by the march, the men cannot think of rest. They spend hours establishing their position. They know that the enemy will try to break through in the morning. That will mean hours of heavy artillery fire, and attack after attack of the Bolshevist masses whom their commissars brutally order to attack German positions a dozen times or more. They also know that no power on earth will drive them from the position. The area is made for defense. There is a long, steep cliff in the direction of T. Any enemy movement is easily visible. If the enemy masses approach from the city, they will be exposed to German fire. The city itself will soon fall under German artillery fire. The approach to the city from the west is visible for kilometers. The Bolshevist divisions will try to escape from that direction. They will not succeed.
The infantry division has been a living barrier on the height by T. for two days and three nights. They have stopped desperate Bolshevist attempts to break through. The long cliff is battered by constant firing from Bolshevist artillery. The enemy attempted attack after attack, and attack after attack was broken by German fire. Their corpses pile up in front of the German lines. They attempted to attack, with and without artillery support, at every hour of the day and during the protecting darkness of the night. The ever watchful German defense drove them back. The iron ring holds. From the west German forces are constantly attacking the surrounded divisions, forcing them together more and more. The enemy pocket is growing smaller. Devastating German artillery fire and bombs fall on it day and night, from every side. The surrounded Bolshevists are growing desperate. The infantry on the height sense that from the continual desperate attempts to break through the ring. They do not spare men or material.
Waves of five, ten or fifteen groups of dull masses are driven against the fire-spewing German wall. They stager forward, climb of the hill of fallen comrades, and fall on top of them.
“This is a terrible waste, these constant attacks by dumb masses against our machine guns,” says Corporal Lenz. “This is the third day of it.”
Sergeant Petermann nods. “It is terrible, but it is typically Bolshevist. The criminal commissars who drive them on care nothing for human life. It means nothing to them. They are trying to save their own skins. This time they won’t succeed. They are trapped. We’re just waiting for the right moment.”
The enemy artillery fire intensifies noon on the third day.
“They are at it again,” Corporal Gellert shouts. “They’ll be coming soon.” The defenders on the height near T. load their machine guns. The heavy infantry weapons are supplied with ample munitions. The artillerymen are ready to fire. The Bolshevist artillery fire lasts longer than usual this time. Shells of every caliber are falling. The height vanishes in a cloud of smoke. The barrage lasts an hour. The infantry hides in their foxholes. The splinters whiz past. The medics have work to do. Someone needs help here, and there a direct hit has seriously wounded four, five men. The divisionís reserves are ready and waiting. Still there is no infantry attack. After two hours of murderous artillery fire the forward troops report heavy losses. The reserves prepare to move in.
Things have gone reasonably well for Petermannís platoon. One is dead, four with slight wounds have been sent to the rear. The platoonís position is a long ditch. They have some protection. Sergeant Petermann and Corporal Gellert are dug in neck deep, keeping an eye on the valley. The men keep their eyes on the officers. Gellert lowers his binoculars suddenly, pokes Petermann and points to the street. He yells over the noise of the battlefield: “Tanks! Prepare anti-tank defenses!”
A squadron of Soviet tanks is leaving the city, heading toward the height. They plunge through houses and gardens, flattening them. Noisily, the tanks begin to climb the height, spreading out as they climb. There is a gap only where the cliff is too steep for the tanks to climb. The enemy avoids that area. Their weapons could not reach the heights from there. They have yet to open fire. The tank crews may think that the long artillery barrage has flattened the German positions and eliminated the defenders. They may be saving their munitions until they are at the top, and can direct it to the enemy territory beyond. They are wrong. Forward observers direct German artillery fire on the targets, to the satisfaction of the infantry. Round after round falls on them. The first victims are already ablaze. But new tanks keep coming from the city. Now the anti-tank weapons spring into action. The other guns join in firing on the steel giants. The Soviets have a battle on their hands; the height will not be taken without a fight. The guns of the heavy tanks are firing. The large shells make life difficult for the gun crews, and force the infantry into their foxholes. The medium tanks keep moving up. At least a dozen are already smoking or motionless. The others keep moving, coming nearer and nearer to the saddle between the two summits. Their goal is clear: the gap through which the road from the east to the crossroads at D. runs. The regimentís second battalion holds the position. Its position is threatened. The enemy fire is causing losses, while the heavy armor repels the defensive fire. The Volker Company is on the left flank of the first battalion. Petermannís platoon is in the middle. Petermann and Gellert have followed the tank attack with growing concern. The first battalionís guns are getting hot. The higher the Bolshevists get, the more their flanks are exposed to the first battalion. That will prove fatal to the Soviets. One tank after another is destroyed; they cannot get past a certain point. But now the 52-ton tanks, previously firing on the height, begin moving. If they reach the high ground, the situation will be critical. The defenderís losses will be heavy. Gellert crawls toward Petermann. “Petermann, we have to do something about those 52-tonners. They must not reach the top. They are easier to deal with on a slope. The company must counterattack.”
Petermann nods. Gellert is right. But the whole company? That might take too long. And it would involve too many men. They would be a good target for the machine guns of the medium tanks.
“Gellert,” he says, “not the whole company. You and I and six or eight others. With hand grenades and machine guns!” Gellert leaps up. He heads for the trench. He rapidly shouts a series of names and gives orders, gathers a bundle of hand grenades and machine guns and ammunition, then dashes back to Petermann. He in the meanwhile has made his plans. The group will follow the heights to approach the 52-tonners. They will have to watch out for their own fire, since that cannot be stopped. They will be between their own and the enemy fire. That can’t be helped, as unpleasant as it may be. The 52-tonners must be put out of action.
The ten men climb over the top of the trench. A messenger leaves to report what is happening to the company commander. The men storm toward the cliff. They run alongside the tank, which doesn’t notice them in the middle of its battle with the big guns above. German shells are bursting below, and there they must go. Corporal Gellert is twenty or thirty meters ahead. He stops near a 52-ton tank that is firing toward the summit. Movement is slow. The group must try to avoid German artillery fire, and also avoid being seen through the tankís observation slit. The crews of the guns above meanwhile have realized what is happening. They direct their fire such that Petermannís and Gellertís path is open, giving them covering fire. Gellert and three of his men have reached a 52-tonner. Petermann and the others reach a second. The comrades above follow the action breathlessly. Gellert suddenly leaps up the side of the tank. He looks like a fly on the side of the monster. He clambers up to the smooth top of the turret and tries to break open the hatch.
That takes a few minutes. One of his men has followed him, and has a hand grenade ready. When the tank fires, both are tossed around. They can hardly keep their grip. But they manage it. From above, the men see Gellert and his comrade leap from the tank and head for cover. Scarcely have they vanished when white smoke pours from the turret. Gellert has succeeded in tossing a grenade inside. The first explosion is followed by a second. The tank is covered by a thick black cloud, and suddenly it is on fire. Gellert has moved on. The men have to dive for cover constantly. The German shells force them to take whatever cover they can find. Petermannís group has also dispatched a tank. As Sergeant Petermann leaps from the destroyed tank, a Bolshevist tankís machine gun finds them. The brave soldiers have been spotted. Petermann falls to the ground near the destroyed tank. He has a serious breast wound, and light wounds on both thighs.
Although two are slightly wounded themselves, the men haul their wounded platoon leader to cover next to the tank, through heavy machine gun fire. First aid is administered. What can they do with the seriously wounded Petermann? They look up. It is impossible to take him up there. Should they get Corporal Gellert? He is nowhere to be seen. The German artillery fire increases in intensity. But that signals the end of the misery of these brave men. If they survive the fire, they will be rescued.
Even before Petermann and Gellert decided on their brave attack, the division had resolved on a general attack on T. The desperate tank attack, which was not accompanied by infantry, showed that the enemy was at the end of his strength. The forces in the valley did not believe their eyes. Suddenly the height was alive with advancing comrades. Corporal Lenz brought together both groups of Petermannís unit and charged down to where he had seen his comrades vanish. He did not think about the battle, or on the danger to himself and his men, but only on the comrades he wanted to rescue. Sweaty and breathless, they find the small group around Petermann. The eyes of the seriously wounded man brighten, and he smiles a little. Six men carefully carry him up, followed by the other wounded, who are supported by their comrades. Lenz meanwhile looks for Gellert. He has destroyed a second tank, but then had to take cover under the German fire. He is twenty meters from his last victim, caring for two comrades who cannot be saved. He has a serious wound in his head that drips blood over his face and uniform. He looks awful. At first, he does not recognize Lenz. Then he shouts: “Where are you coming from?” He topples like a falling tree and loses consciousness.
The battle of encirclement is over. Back at home, the fanfares of a special announcement announce a huge victory.
The German infantry are on the march again. Petermannís company too. Petermann is missing, and Gellert too, along with some others. Petermann may return. Gellert certainly will. But many others rest in the field that saw their victory.
The German infantry marches and fights. The enemy has not yet been destroyed. The feet may burn. It may be hot or cold, dusty or rainy. There may be marching and fighting. Onward, ever onward!
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