“Has this been confirmed by reliable witnesses?
“More than a half-dozen, Sir, both military and civilian.” Colonel Gruber answered.
General Rosselsprung nearly crumpled the report up in his hand--what stopped him was the knowledge that, of all people, Gruber would be the last to falsify such a report.
“Then show our guest in, please.”
Colonel Valery Sonovovich strode into the central room of the German command bunker, dressed in his finest uniform, bearing every medal he owned and his lips tightened into the sort of empty smile one wears when meeting a deadly enemy on his home ground.
“I have to congratulate you, Sir, if only for this moment, for the incredible bravery of yourself and your soldiers in the defense of this place.” The Russian Colonel said quickly, extending his hand.
While they had not exchanged the customary salutes, General Rosselsprung found this offering much more pleasing than the formality of a salute and grasped the extended hand of the Soviet Colonel.
“And I must say that the Guards Tank Corps has been an opponent worthy of the greatest respect, “Rosselsprung replied, shaking his hand and returning the compliment.
Gruber gestured for both of them to sit, and orderlies suddenly appeared, offering fine crystal goblets of Cognac--a far cry indeed from the mugs of good German beer he had served his Fortress Commanders.
Colonel Sonovovich drank cautiously, and put the glass down half-empty. “Of course you know that, with the failure of your Northern offensive, that we are now in the position of taking this town at will.”
General Rosselsprung reacted as if this were simply a bad joke. “But then of course, you were always able to do so, since we were…shall we say...slightly outnumbered?”
Valery laughed in good spirits. “Yes, slightly outnumbered… But we have to bring this to an end that satisfies both the honor of the German Army and the Heroism of the Red Army—yet spills the blood of neither. You’ve waged a good fight—an excellent fight, an honorable fight. But now those days are done and we offer you some small comfort for your great sacrifice.” Valery had an ear for languages and his words in German were as subtle as the situation demanded, as taught to him by the Commissar.
General Rosselsprung’s own ears pricked up at this, since he possessed more than his share of irony. “And what are your terms to a now somewhat harmless enemy?” He said, smiling falsely but with effect.
“We will offer you the terms of an Honorable Surrender—that is to say, the lives of your men will be spared, your officers may keep your side arms, your civilians will be unmolested and your wounded will receive adequate medical care.”
At this declaration, General Rosselsprung smiled falsely again, before saying harshly, “At this very moment, your soldiers are executing our wounded, having over-run our hospital. I have the report here. And I have witnesses!”
His eyes hardening, he thrust the report at Colonel Sonovovich, who took it with some evident surprise, only to lay it quickly down without reading it, upon the table. “Whoever says this slanders both the Heroic Red Army and, in particular, the Guards Tank Corps!”
“I have fought the Guards Tank Corps since January of 1944.” Rosselsprung responded, “Its’ courage is not a questionable matter to me, but these reports show you to be false in your proposed promises to the members of my command—if you deny them, or are ignorant of them, then simply take your American staff car to the hospital, under my personal guarantee of your safety and investigate them for yourself.’
Valery realized the trap implicit in this offer. In all truth, he had no idea whatsoever of what was occurring at that moment at the German hospital.
“I repeat that such accusations are a lie, a slanderous lie and have no bearing on this conference!” He replied, knowing that his declaration alone would never be enough to satisfy the Germans.
At this, General Rosselsprung simply shook his head, a deep frown etched into his face. “Then simply tell your masters that there will never be any surrender here--not today, not tomorrow, and not in the future. We will fight you to the last soldier and to his last bullet, as it is our privilege in the service of the Reich. Colonel Gruber, you may show this Gentleman out. I do not expect to see him again.”
At this, Colonel Gruber simply looked at Colonel Sonovovich, who stood, pulled his uniform tunic down into its proper position, saluted and left. The Russian Colonel was then taken to his jeep, blindfolded and returned unharmed to his waiting troops.
But the real fireworks were in the bunker between General Rosselsprung and his supremely loyal IA, Colonel Gruber, after Valery left.
“You more than anyone wanted this meeting, so why, I ask myself, did you sabotage it?”
“It was a good thing to me that you even (he sought the right word)...flirted with the idea of surrender under the circumstances, as it seemed that your own reputation meant less to you than the fate of our troops. But still, a General must receive all of the relevant information—that’s the job of his staff officers, and always has been in the German Army, so what was I to do when this report arrived?”
Rosselsprung forgave him, instantly. “When I inspected the men, if they had hated me for being in this fix, if they had resented me for being in this mess, I would never have considered that it was possible to save even the slightest portion of them by surrender. But these reports proved that even that ultimate desperate measure was a totally false hope.
I suggest that you contact Berlin and tell them we admitted a Russian negotiator to express our...dismay and abhorrence, that their troops were summarily executing wounded prisoners even during his visit. Also, contact each of our company commanders and tell them what the Reds are up to—that might put a bit of bone into their spines.”
Gruber hung there, like a kite caught in contradictory winds. “It may yet prove to be better to surrender than doom our men to the slaughter.”
“No, not better—there are no promises the Russians will keep, not in this war, at any rate.”
“And in your years on the Ostfront, you never shot a badly injured prisoner of war, Sir?” Those words simply slipped out of Gruber’s mouth, whether he meant to ask the question or not, whether it was a rhetorical question or not, they came out without him being able to stop them.
Rosselsprung stiffened. “Not really the point now, is it?”
Feeling the bite of his General’s remark, Gruber hastened off to carry out his wishes.
Safely on the road back to the anxious Commissar, Colonel Sonovovich focused on only one issue--what exactly had happened at the German hospital and who was responsible? It was very scant comfort for him to recognize that the Guards Tank Corps might have been spared their next enterprise but for the actions of a unit he wasn’t even aware of. And he secretly wondered what the Commissar might make of his report.
As it turned out, the Commissar received his report in silence, only drawing quick little lines on his map and not admitting his devoted Colonel into his private thoughts.
Accepting his behavior as a unnaturally solemn, Colonel Sonovovich returned to the practical matter of command of the Guards Tank Corps, receiving within minutes after his report, the Commissar’s orders for the final assault. As he expected, the assault was launched from the North and the South simultaneously, as those were the strongest forces in easy reach of the German headquarters.
A howl of katyushas, artillery and mortars filed the air around and before the Colonel. As if finally given free range, every indirect fire weapon of the Tank Corps opened up on the narrow ledge the Germans sat upon. For two hours the artillery roared, so fiercely that even the veteran Corps' infantry drew back to give it room to strike.
Underneath this terrible bombardment, even the most dedicate S.S. trooper shrank back n his hole, but, being veterans of the now-familiar Soviet fire tactics, their hesitation was only until the Soviets used up their shells and sent in their tanks and infantry.
Sidirov’s unlucky assault was first to suffer.
While his T-34’s simply bulled aside any roadblock, they quickly found themselves enveloped by minefields. This was Gruber’s doing, although none of them knew it until decades after the fight. What types of mines the defenders of Bad Frostberg had left were largely deployed on the Northern road, where the Germans had the fewest troops to deploy.
But this was no mere minefield. Using the covering snow, the Germans had placed teller anti-tank mines along with a mix of S-mines and other anti-personnel mines.
After the first T-34s were stopped in their tracks by the teller mines that the S-mines started to take their toll. These were solely anti-personnel mines of the worse sort. A soldier would step on one, its miniature charge would propel the mine to waist high-level and the mine itself would explode. An S-mines’ sole purpose was to either gut, or worse, to castrate an infantryman. It wasn’t designed to kill outright, only to maim--on the well-conceived theory that a wounded man costs the enemy more personnel to care for than a dead enemy soldier.
Sidirov’s men were reluctant, most understandably, in a battle they already considered won, to tangle with this minefield and made only minor gains.
But the Southern Russian force, having been in close combat for weeks with the Germans, didn’t expect, nor extend any mercy and weren’t about to be denied their triumph after so many hard days of battle.
Von Kessel’s men found, on every street, an overwhelming number of Soviet tanks and infantry. They retreated into the ruined houses, only to find themselves rooted out by flamethrowers and suicidal infantry attacks. In the South, from experience, neither side expected quarter and neither side gave any—it was only a matter of who had the most firepower and who was willing to shed the most blood.
As it turned out, Von Kessel’s men were more than willing to match the Soviets sacrifice for sacrifice, wound for wound and death for death. But, in the end, there were so many less S.S. than there were Soviet infantry that despite all of the gallantry of their struggle, for Von Kessel’s Command, it was all a forgone conclusion.
Only the individual landser refused to see the inevitable and all around the Southern edge of Rosselsprung’s headquarters, these hopeless firefights flared-up and burned themselves out as men died in wholesale lots defending their last inch of freedom.
As the Soviets ground up from the South, Von Kessel kept up a steady commentary over the radio, recording the destruction of each of his fire points. General Rosselsprung grew suddenly and quite weary of this depressing monologue of destruction and ordered the radios switched off, but in the very next minutes, he himself shouldered an MP-40 and went up the stairs and alone into the open.
He never returned.
Indeed, the Soviets, who ultimately captured Bad Frostberg’s War Diary, never claimed to have found any trace of his body or personal effects.
Von Kessel’s’ end was, however, well-documented, by both the Soviets and German survivors.
Having holed up in the last surviving MG-42 position, once his men had shot off all of their ammunition, he released them to their own resources, in other words, to surrender or not on their own choice. But he himself, although severely wounded by mortar fragments, stayed behind. When Soviet infantry finally closed on his position, he shot himself through the mouth, dying instantly from a self-inflicted German bullet.
With Von Kessel’s death, the German lines finally caved in. A Soviet tank rumbled into the town square and after a few rounds, shot down the steeple flying the Nazi flag and the banner of Bad Frostberg itself. As General Rosselsprung had predicted, by the time this happened, neither he nor Von Kessel were still alive and the hands that brought down the flag were strictly Russian hands.
Whatever anyone might have thought of Colonel Gruber—Von Bellow, Von Kessel-- or any of he other fighting commanders, including General Rosselsprung, his true mettle wasn’t tested until long after all hope for the city was lost.
The Soviet assault troops stormed down into the General’s command bunker. Colonel Gruber didn’t fight, didn’t resist, nor did he commit suicide as Von Kessel had when the situation was hopeless. Rather, he placed his hands up in the air and accepted his fate.
But that was not the fate the Soviets intended, as above all, they needed a surrender of the city for propaganda purposes.
This, he never gave them. For many days the NKVD sought to persuade him, but despite having both his legs broken, he never signed the documents surrendering Bad Frostberg.
For this failure on his part, he remained listed as “Missing in Action” in everyone’s official records until well after the fall of the Soviet Union, when it was finally proven that he had been tortured to death by the NKVD after the fall of Bad Frostberg for his refusal to write his signature on the documents of surrender.
Men resist their enemies and keep true to their beliefs in odd ways at times.
Death is lighter than a Feather, Duty is heavier than a Mountain....