Rank and File
A Clerk’s War
Monday 25th August to Sunday 31st August 1941
You will have noticed a delay since my last entry to this history. I have had a very busy week, with lots of travel, some excitement and a little danger. A bit like being back in the Heer again but with much better pay and far more comfort. But let me start at the beginning, first thing Monday morning.
It was with some trepidation that I stood outside the door of the Chief of the Army, General von Blomberg. On arriving at my office I had found a polite but taciturn officer who, despite my questioning, volunteered no more information than that “The Minister” wished to see me. A brisk walk to a waiting car and here I was, wondering what this was all about. Had some of my more daring jokes been overheard by one of Goebbel’s men? Had one of my staff casually mentioned the inordinate amount of time I spent keeping up with the military situation? I could have speculated for hours, and perhaps may have, had the officer not knocked on the door and ushered me in.
General von Blomberg gave me a memento of our trip – a framed photo of the leaders of the Wehrmacht meeting the Fuhrer. (von Blomberg, Minister Göring, der Oberfehlshaber des Heeres General der Artillerie Freiherr von Fritsch and Minister Raeder). I would have preferred a crate of Schnapps, but felt it unwise to say so.
Now well into his sixties, General Werner Eduard Fritz von Blomberg was still an imposing figure, even relaxing behind a desk. Before I could start my protesting my innocence, he waved a hand at my escort and we were left alone in the room. Things were looking up – surely a suspected criminal would not be treated this way? A wave of relief washed over me, but I had relaxed a little too soon. My quiet life was about to be drastically disrupted.
Von Blomberg started by congratulating me on the performance of the records division, commenting that standards had improved markedly and he had good reports on my performance. Like all ex-soldiers, this sort of thing got me on edge – why the compliments? I didn’t have long to wait. He went on to inform me that he would be making a surprise trip to the Eastern Front, to personally award a Ritterkreuz des Eisernen Kreuzes to a deserving soldier, Unterscharführer Erich Rossner, who had singlehandedly destroyed 13 Russian tanks in recent fighting. The OKW Sonderzug “Afrika” would leave within a few hours, and I would be on it.
I must have looked bemused, because he laughed and went on to give the real purpose of my trip. While the morale boosting personal award was the ostensible reason, the reality was more serious. After reminding me of penalties for endangering the Reich, he told me a Cabinet meeting over the weekend had discussed the progress of the war and had decided that there was no possibility of the Soviets collapsing before winter. It would be necessary to extend our war planning to cover at least 1942. Accurate figures were needed from the Eastern Front, and the Cabinet had concerns that some of our leading generals “massaged” their reports. (I have no doubt this was the case – no general ever has enough supplies of fuel and ammunition, and the enemy are always present in huge numbers.) My job would be to surreptitiously evaluate the accuracy of reporting from a couple of front line units.
While others may have been pleased to have been chosen for such a task, I was not too happy. To be entrusted with such secrets makes me nervous. If something goes wrong, an inoffensive clerk makes a perfect sacrificial lamb. But von Blomberg was still speaking.
I was to travel light, with no staff, but then the Minister floored me by mentioning that I would need a secretary and arrangements had been made for Gisela to accompany me. Unfortunately, he added, accommodation on the train was limited and Gisela and I would need to share a sleeping carriage. He hoped this would not create a problem? While I was still struggling for words, he added “I may be an old soldier, but I too have my eyes and ears in the administration!” I must remember that the wily old soldier has survived a long time in the Party. Even the late Himmler had failed in his attempts to have von Blomberg removed – a wedding photograph was prominently displayed on the Minister’s desk, a bit like a war trophy.
Within the hour we boarded Sonderzug “Afrika” at Anhalter Bahnhof and were on our way. It was only when Gisela had a moment to spare and asked me where we were going that I realised I had no idea. “Nach Osten” was the best I could come up with. Somehow I felt that asking for details about our trip might not be appreciated by the stern faced guards surrounding the Minister. At least we were going in comfort: the train had a dining car and a Badenwagen, as well as the sleeping cars for the Minister and his staff. Security was provided by the Begleitkommandowagen and the Flak wagons at either end of the train.
Ready to leave for the East: Sonderzug “Afrika”
The confidence with which I had answered Gisela was soon shown to be misplaced. We did not cross the Oder but instead headed south. We passed through Dresden and had a brief stop at Praha. When we arrived at Budapest I was certain: we were heading for the Ukraine.
The trip itself was uneventful. The flak guns were never needed, and the security escort spent most of its time either sleeping or playing cards (though I noticed as we left Hungary and entered occupied Romania that they kept their weapons very close). I spent some of the time with the Minister’s staff, going over the information we need to check and preparing for our inspections of the various unit records, but the rest of the time Gisela and I just looked out the windows at the country side. The Reich was uniformly well tended fields and efficient stations, but as we moved into Hungary the level of agriculture and infrastructure declined. In Romania we saw dozens of work gangs, feverishly upgrading rail lines, bridges, roads. And everywhere troop trains, supply trains, hospital trains. It seemed as though every piece of rolling stock the Reich could scrounge up was in use. Having met Fritz Bayerlein and knowing his drive and single-minded determination, this was probably not far from the truth.
In the evenings we dined with the officers (my father would roll over in his grave!) and then retired for the night. Not a bad life for a clerk!
The last few hours were very different to the previous days. The flak gun crews scoured the sky constantly with their binoculars, and every now and then a Luftwaffe aircraft could be seen patrolling above us. Signs of recent combat could be seen: burnt out farmhouses, gutted towns and villages. Along the roads we could see the detritus of a retreating army, with an occasional wrecked vehicle. More sombrely, hundreds of makeshift crosses could be clearly seen, each with a Stahlhelm resting on top. There had been heavy fighting in the area. This was confirmed by our first view of Odessa. Although the city itself had escaped much of the fighting, the docks and manufacturing areas had been devastated.
The docks at Odessa: it will be some time before they can be repaired: rail and road have priority.
With no need to find accommodation (nothing Odessa could provide was as luxurious as “Afrika”) we could proceed straight to meet Unterscharführer Rossner. It was with a growing sense of foreboding that I realised our staff car was heading to a large building flying a Red Cross. I have never liked hospitals, and military hospitals are even worse. It seems Herr Rossner earned his award.
Our official party was shown into a small private room – not a good sign for our recipient. The lightly wounded get put in the general wards. As we entered, he struggled to sit up, but surprisingly quickly and gently for such a large man, Minster von Blomberg stopped him, telling him that we were there to salute him, and there was no need for him to rise. With obvious relief the soldier collapsed back into the pillows. His emaciated and pain-ridden face bore little resemblance to the handsome young man in the official photographs. I don’t recall a lot about the actual presentation (hospitals have that effect on me), but with the formalities over, the Minister pulled up the only chair and, leaning towards the wounded soldier, asked him to describe the action that had won him the award. “I have read the official reports”, he explained, “But they never tell you what it was really like”.
It was clear that speaking was difficult for Rossner, but a general’s request is, as every soldier knows, an order. He started by giving a bit of his background, how he had volunteered and become a member of 2nd Battery, 2nd SS Panzerjäger Battalion, attached to 2nd leichte Panzer Division. (General Himmler had plans for the SS to have a completely separate military structure, but these died with him after the failure of the Patch 1.3 conspiracy. Only a few large SS units, such as the Gebirgsjäger divisions and some Kavellerie units, remain, though many smaller units exist.)
When General Geyr von Schweppenburg ordered 2nd leichte to advance into Khorol, Rossner and his men thought that there would be little need for their Marders: the enemy was supposed to consist of just a rifle division. It soon was apparent that there were plenty of armoured vehicles present. Whether these were small groups attached to the infantry or survivors of previous battles was of no importance, and 2nd SS Panzerjäger was assigned the task of eliminating all threats to the motorised infantry of the Schutzen Regiment. In Rossner’s words, “It was a straight shoot out. We could not sit in a prepared position and wait for the tanks to come to us – we had to hunt them down. Luckily the Reds had no co-ordination. The lack of radios meant the T-26s and BT-7s to mounted individual attacks and that is where we were able to pick them off. Even with only 27 rounds available we were able to quickly clear our area: the 75mm standard armour penetration shells had no difficulty against the weak armour of the Russian tanks. Even a frontal hit was enough to knock them out, and we were usually able to get a side shot: those Czech engines gave us an edge on manoeuvrability as well as more than double the speed of the T-26.
After the first couple of kills we developed a routine. The infantry or spotter aircraft would find us a tank (Khorol is flat as a pancake and although the Iwans tried to hide, as soon as they moved they were seen). We would race to the area and try to approach from the flank. Unfortunately the flat ground also worked against us: the Marder is lovely vehicle but it has a very high silhouette. So a lot of the time the enemy tank would try to take us out. That is where the Pak 40 showed its power. We could destroy the Russians long before their 45mm guns could damage us. (Though I’m glad we upgraded from the Panzerjäger 1; the extra 35mm of steel in front gives a lot of confidence!) We took a few hits but nothing too dangerous – just slight wounds from metal flakes and a few bruises.
A camera was recovered from the wreck of the Marder and Erich Rossner recalled that after the 13th kill his crew took a photo to celebrate. One does mad things when young.
It took just four hours to get 13 definite kills, and I think that we may have got another but we couldn’t be sure. By then we had just two shells left and decided to return to the forward supply depot for rearming: some fuel would be good too as we were down to about 50 litres. We got about halfway back and that was the last I remember until I awoke here. They tell me that we were unlucky: just a couple of Russian dive bombers evaded our fighters and one of them found us. The damn Archangel missed us but a 1,600kg bomb doesn’t need to hit an open top vehicle like a Marder. A near miss is good enough. I was the only survivor. All my crewmates are dead, men I have known and lived with for 4 years.”
At this point the Unterscharführer could not go on and a nurse chased us out of the room. Not even a Minister as imposing as General von Blomberg can stop a nurse intent on protecting her patient. As we stood in the corridor, the Minister beckoned a nearby doctor and enquired as to Rossner’s condition and why he was in Odessa. “Isn’t Kiev the designated hospital for the Balkans Army?”
“It was, until the Russians recaptured the city. The hospital was destroyed in the fighting and is yet to be properly repaired. In any case, the facilities here are best for internal injuries such as this case. Not that there is much we can do when the damage is so great and infection has set in. “
Von Blomberg is a general, and you can’t get around him with such indirect comments. A curt enquiry got the reply nobody wanted to hear.
“Only a miracle will save him. Outwardly he took minor wounds. Some blood loss, a few broken bones. What will kill him is the internal damage he suffered from being so close to the explosion. An open top vehicle offers little protection to the shock wave from a bomb, and the nature of the injuries has led to infection. There is nothing we can do. Sulphamides have not been able to control the spread of the bacteria. He has days to live.”
We left in a sombre mood. (I later heard on Werhmachtbericht that Rossner died on 12th September, another hero of the Reich. He was just 23. On looking through my notes I see that I mentioned the attack in which his Marder was destroyed, though I had thought the 2nd lePzD was attached to the Österreich Army. I referred to “just” 8 deaths. It is easy to forget that each was an Erich Rossner.)
The officially released photograph of Unterscharführer Rossner - nothing like the dying man I saw
At the time I had no chance to reflect. My real mission was about to start. A group of replacements for von Bock’s 111.Infanterie Division were about to leave for the front, and I was to accompany them.
Before I could leave, however, there was one matter that had to be fixed – my appearance. As the Minister said with a laugh “We don’t want you to be shot as a spy!” Personally I did not consider a particularly humorous remark, but I was too overcome with emotion to complain. I was to wear the “Feldgrau” again! The uniform they gave me was a surprisingly good fit, and soon I was kitted out as an Oberstabfeldwebel attached to VI Armeekorps HQ. Gisela reacted quite positively to the uniform – so positively that I decided that I must acquire one permanently. She was not to accompany me to the front but to return to Germany with the Minister on the train. So much for me “needing a secretary” – it was von Blomberg’s way of inducing me to accept his offer!
Then I was off. No holiday trip on an armoured train now, just a column of slow moving trucks. The boys I was with (I refused to call these 18 and 19 year old raw recruits soldiers yet) were of all types but all radiated a mixture of anticipation, fear and uncertainty. The few veterans escorting them wore bored expressions, but once out of the secure zone around Odessa they never relaxed. With Rossner’s story fresh in my mind I kept my own eyes skyward, but the only planes I saw were a few of our own Hs 129 dive-bombers.
My transport to the front was a little less luxurious than the “Afrika”
After a few hours we left Ochakiv and entered Mikolayivk. Now it was apparent we were in a war zone. The young Hauptmann in charge ordered the column to alert and after many years I heard the reassuring clicks as the maschinengewehrschütze got their weapons ready: “sichern und laden”. Ahead we could hear the dull thud of infantry guns, with every now and then a crash as a regiment of artillery fired a salvo. Pillars of smoke rose into the clear sky, some back, some grey. A few specks drifted lazily above the smoke clouds: “Messerschmitts” the gefreiter next to me advised. How he could tell I have no idea but a look at his weather-beaten face told me he probably had more experience at this than me. He took my nod as encouragement. “That’s the Dneipr. We crossed it a while ago but the Iwans threw us back. Now they are trying to get to our side and there are an awful lot of them.” He lit a cigarette, satisfied he had put the fear of god into all the new recruits. A frontkämpfer has few pleasures so he must enjoy those he does get.
We pulled into a side road and within minutes I was being greeted by staff officers of the 111.ID. The next few days were incredibly busy as I reviewed and analysed thousands of pages of information, but I suppose it will be of little interest to anyone other than another records administrator. Suffice to say I gathered enough to make my trip worthwhile. I must have been engrossed as I realised after a day or two that I no longer heard the guns: it was just a murmur in the background. Finally I completed the job and it was time to go. The next convoy for Odessa was due to leave that afternoon and there was no way I would be allowed to leave alone. Having the Minister’s delegate killed would not boost the stocks of General Bock. And I had thought of a way to fill in time. A few words and the exchange of a bottle of good French brandy (I had borrowed it from the “Afrika’s” dining room supply – a good soldier lives off the land) and I scored a trip to the front with a detachment delivering fodder (111.ID is not motorised and horses need to be fed every day, not like dumb Schütze). “Strictly there and back” the Futtermeister insisted.
So of course as soon as we reached the forward position (a battery of 7.5cm leichte Infanteriegeschutze) I was off. It was only a few minutes before I was close to the river and could make out individual fire and shouted commands. A strong voice bellowing “Feuer auf mein Kommando” seemed a good spot to aim for, and after some energetic burrowing through some species of Russian undergrowth designed for maximum pain and minimum speed I found myself entering a small clearing occupied by several rifles, all pointing at me.
“Blumenkohl! Blumenkohl!” I yelled. (Who comes up with these daily passwords?). Some brief explanations and another bottle of brandy (I should have “borrowed” more – I was down to four now) and I was on first name terms with Volker. He pointed out the area on the far side of the river from where the Russians had launched a few unsuccessful attempts. The bank was littered with bodies and equipment, and downstream I could see more bodies drifting slowly towards the sea. “Probing attacks” he explained. “They shell us for a few minutes and then try to rush a few companies across. Not a chance really, but it lets them identify our strength. They seem to care nothing of casualties. We try to keep some guns in reserve, but these are still heavy attacks and a few did make it across.” A finger pointed at a corpse lying not 20 metres away.
Even in the quiet periods, Volker’s men kept alert. They told me the bicycle was the company transport section, used for vital functions such as making emergency trips for cigarettes and coffee.
After talking for a few minutes we had to stop as from the south came a roar that incredibly grew louder and louder until it seemed my ears would burst. “64 Infanterie Regiment”, Volker shouted in my ear. “They’re getting it now.” Far down the river I could see tiny boats leave the east bank and slowly move west. Splashes grew around them, building until I could see nothing but a wall of foam and spray. “They’ll be observing how much artillery we can deploy, and where the MG positions are. Another day of this and then they will launch the main attack. I hope von Kluge back at Army HQ knows we need another division here. “
The roar slowly died and I could see a couple of boats back on the east bank. The rest had vanished without trace. Scores of men had died, just to get some information. I had forgotten the waste of combat.
Time to head back. I found my way to a furious Futtermeister who now doubt had been having visions of his court-martial for losing me. A very quiet trip to the HQ: nobody was very happy with me.
The convoy was ready, but nobody seemed to have noticed my absence which saved some long explanations. An uneventful trip back to Odessa and then out to the airbase. My first trip on a plane! Not for me the luxury of a Focke-Wulf 200. A humble Tante Ju waited on the tarmac, the daily flight to Berlin. There were few officers and a lot of bags of mail in the spartan interior. The mail was welcome, as I used it to make my bench seat comparatively comfortable.
I would like to describe the flight in detail but as soon as we started climbing I am afraid to say I collapsed into a deep sleep. It seems I am not as young as used to be, so my first flight was an anti-climax. We must have landed somewhere to refuel, as the 1250 km flight Odessa-Berlin is more than a Ju 52’s range, but I have no memory of landing and take-off. I had to be awakened when we landed at Tempelhof. Some kind-hearted person in von Blomberg’s office had arranged for a car to be waiting and soon I was at home.
My trip home: the daily flight to Berlin from the Ukraine
As I drifted off to sleep there was just one thought on my mind: No-one had asked for the uniform back. Gisela would be pleased.