The following is the translation of an excerpt of my buddy's diary by Philip Schatz:
"We are all getting to know each other, seeing as the men in our platoon are housed
together in a barracks room. This is particularly important because when you belong to
such a unit, whether or not it is in action, you need to know what you can expect from the
others and if there are any reservations or precautions you must take. The latter is
particularly important when making comments of a political nature; even minor criticisms
can have dangerous consequences.
We are also learning a great deal about the Führerhauptquartier (Führer’s Headquarters)
and the Führerbegleitbataillon (Führer Escort Battalion - FEB), which, despite having been
assigned to it 2 months ago, we still really don’t know much more than the name itself.
"Adolf" as the veterans disrespectfully refer to the "Führer", was concerned that by being
guarded by the Leibstandarte "Adolf Hitler" he would come under the influence of the SS
and therefore Himmler more and more, eventually becoming their prisoner. That’s why the
only elite unit in the German Army, the "Großdeutschland", which also provides the Guard
Regiment in Berlin, has been tasked with guarding the Führer’s Headquarters. And there is
more than one headquarters; the 3 we know of are "W-Null" near Münstereifel for the
West (called "Rocky Refuge"), Vinnitsa in the Ukraine (called "Werewolf") and the main
headquarters, the "Wolf’s Lair" in Rastenburg. A few of the vets were already around at
"W-Null" and most have been to Vinnitsa and all of them have been at the "Wolf’s Lair",
which is the most intriguing to us. What must it be like there? Despite the stories, we really
don’t have a clue.
During the winter of 1941/42 the battalion was in action in the northern sector of Russia in
the Pripyet swamps. It took heavy casualties most of which were caused by the adverse
weather conditions and not through enemy action. For example the company was crossing
a very rough, large, flat snowy plain on its way to the assembly area when a tank suddenly
disappeared. Shortly thereafter, two more tanks were gone, all without any enemy action.
Only then did they realise that they were driving over a frozen lake and the ice was too
weak in places to support the weight of the 26-ton tanks. Fever affected a lot of men and
of course the extreme cold was very tough on everyone. Many suffered from severe
frostbite, which often resulted in the amputation of toes or feet.
Despite these conditions the armoured troops made good progress and were sure they
would take Leningrad shortly, its silhouette could already been seen on the horizon.
Despite these advantageous circumstances and the importance the fall of Leningrad would
have had, all armoured units were withdrawn from the sector and - probably for reasons of
prestige - redeployed to the Moscow sector. Moscow had always been Hitler’s goal.
Perhaps the "greatest commander of all time" saw Moscow as an opportunity to outdo
Napoleon. But the tanks sank into mud up to a meter deep and then froze, with the far too
early arrival of winter, so firmly that they could not be freed and were lost. The result was
that neither Leningrad nor Moscow was taken. We were amazed by the verbal insults the
participants hurled at the author of this disaster, namely Hitler. They didn’t sugar coat their
opinions. It seems apparent that a member of the FEB is allowed to express himself far
more than the average citizen.
After that costly engagement the battalion was reassigned to guard the Führer’s HQ in
Rastenburg and Vinnitsa. The Führer was in Vinnitsa from the beginning of the summer
offensive of 1942 until November 23, when he returned to Rastenburg. With him, the FEB
also returned. Then when the situation around Stalingrad was reaching its peak, we were
put on alert. We immediately thought this another of those countless alarm drills and so
many cheated, as was so often the case with drills, by not packing everything in their
lockers, leaving a lot behind. But this time it was for real. The marching and entrainment
orders were issued. Quick action and a few tricks made the retrieval of things left behind,
as well drumming up the NCOs that had slept the night in town, possible.
At the Rastenburg train station Goebbels gave the battalion a fiery and heroic speech,
something he could do very well and believably. Then we headed off towards the Ukraine.
Through Goebbels speech everyone knew was lay ahead. He spoke of a 400km gap in the
front lines that was to be closed by our battalion. The 5th Company was still equipped with
5cm main guns and the heavy platoon with the 7.5cm "stub", a short cannon.
Approximately 250km from Kharkov the Company, along with an anti-aircraft platoon of the
4th Company was unloaded in Certkovo. T-34 tanks already took us under fire while still on
the rail ramp. The battle began with the first minute of our arrival. We quickly discovered
that we were in a very unequal fight. Neither our 5cm guns nor the 7.5cm short barrel
guns, with their low muzzle velocity as well as their arched flight path, have any effect on
the T-34, while they are equipped with 7.62cm main guns. A few of the crewmembers told
of T-34 commanders waving back at them after taking hits from the 5cm guns. We all think
they’re just spinning a yarn. At any rate the only way to weather the storm was to make
for the cover of the edge of town and let the enemy get a bit closer. And so what
happened on December 23rd, 1942 was inevitable from the first moment on, the
encirclement of Certkovo. The other elements of the Combat Group, including the
Führer-Anti-aircraft Detachment, met the same fate. The Anti-aircraft Detachment was
encircled in Millerovo where they fought heroically. The various elements of the Combat
Group were never able to unite throughout the entire mission. The goal of the mission, to
slow down the Russian advance was accomplished by the tenacious resistance of these
elements behind enemy lines. But being encircled, something every soldier fears, demands
the utmost effort and many casualties, especially seeing as the cauldron was so small and
soon very far behind the front lines. Other units in Certkovo, that had been in combat
longer and had already been involved in the withdrawal, were completely unnerved by the
encirclement seeing as it didn’t look as though we would escape. So our people saw
groups of Waffen-SS men get drunk and then charge the Russian lines upright. When
asked, they said that nothing made much of a difference now seeing as none of us were
going to come out of this alive. Better to choose a quick death. The SS obviously treated
their men worse than the Army. For example our men were trying to help an SS man who
was suffering from a stomach wound that left his intestines hanging out. When the SS
medic saw us he said, "Leave him be. He is going to die soon anyway!" It also really wears
you down when you can’t move around without immediately being shot at. If you have to
go to the latrine the Stalin Organs start hauling and the only well available to our company
is constantly under fire from anti-tank guns (7.62cm calibre). If you want water you have to
be quicker than the anti-tank gun crews. They still laugh about Artur Hipp from Mannheim,
he had to drop the full bucket back down the well over a dozen times because of those
gunners. The situation became more disconcerting as the ammo started to run out. We
stretched our ammunition by occupying and using the ammunition in 3 T-34s that had been
knocked out at the edge of town but still had movable turrets.
That’s when it was noticed that 2 of the tanks main guns had an "Rh" mark on them just
like the guns in our tanks. That made everyone really mad. Hitler had signed a
German-Russian agreement in 1939 to deliver 7.62cm tank guns to Russia, while he only
equipped our tanks with 5cm or at best the 7.5cm short guns. Even today they still get
furious just thinking about it. To alleviate our ammunition shortage aircraft flew over and
dropped ammunition crates on little parachutes. Unfortunately when they dropped them a
number drifted into the enemy's positions. Most of those crates could only be recovered by
immediately launching an attack with our tanks. That resulted in a number of casualties,
which we never forgave the pilots. We were furious when we
discovered our effort was for nought, the shells that were dropped were impact ignition
rounds and not the electric ignition rounds we used in our tanks. It was lucky for the guy
who authorised the delivery that we couldn’t get our hands on him! The ordnance officer
and his men were able to convert the shells for our use; as a result he is in the highest
esteem. A first unsuccessful breakout attempt on January 1, 1943 ends up costing the lives
of Company Commander 1st Lt. Kegel and Lt. Wilkens. Not for another 3 weeks, January
15th, did the Combat Group along with elements of the 298th Infantry Division decide to
attempt another breakout. In the mean time the front lines have moved back about 100km
to the west. To aid our attempt, the 19th Tank Division, which is
also operating behind enemy lines, is ordered to make an attack towards Certkovo. Due to
the massed Russian units in the sector the attack becomes bogged down and the Combat
Group is on its own. During the withdrawal from Certkovo there must have been some
horrific scenes. Besides the remnants of a number of other units there was also a field
hospital. Of course none of the wounded wanted to be left behind. Nobody wanted to fall
into Russian hands, especially seeing as the wounded are often horribly butchered. The
Ukrainian civilians don’t want to be left behind either, they know what they can expect if
they are. The Russians know or will find out just how hated they are by the Ukrainian
population as oppressors. That’s why they did everything they could to support the
Germans, whom they viewed as liberating them of the Pan-Russian yoke. While loading the
German machine gun belts they worked under the motto, "We will prepare that which will
be used to shoot the Russians". The Russians will no doubt take revenge for that at their
first opportunity. All of the available vehicles except the tanks, which will spearhead the
action, are loaded up with as many wounded and civilians as they will hold. Some even ride
on the fenders of the trucks and half-tracks. Despite that it is not possible to evacuate the
entire town. But because no one wants to fall into the hands of the Russians, a number of
wounded men and civilians throw themselves in front of the tanks and the tanks have no
choice but to drive onwards. Dying in this manner seems preferable to the treatment and
execution they will receive at the hands of Ivan.
Contrary to our expectations and that of military logic our break-out attempt is successful,
in spite of the fact that the Russians surely committed everything they had to at least
destroy a portion of the FEB, whose presence was well known to them. Even Stalin’s
"Guards" units were employed. The losses at Chertkovo were pretty high but those
suffered during the breakout itself were fortunately tolerable. The Combat Group then
linked up with the Sturmgeschütz-Lehr-Abteilung "Jüterbog" (Assault Gun Teaching
Detachment) and fought alongside it to reach the other parts of the Combat Group in
Starobyelsk. The Führer-Anti-Aircraft Detachment of the Combat Group broke out of
Millerowo arriving there at the same time we did. The breakout wasn’t as simple as it may
sound; not to mention the physical challenges it presented. What it meant to cover 100km
(4 days) hanging on to the fender of a vehicle in summer uniforms in subzero
temperatures, can only be imagined. When the Combat Group reached the German lines
that had been re-established further west, it was immediately ordered to keep marching to
Poltava. After we arrived there everyone was overtired, emotionally strained and some
were pretty bitter about things. When the men in our company, still shivering in their
summer uniforms and in an ugly mood, saw the fly-boys sauntering about with their
fur-lined boots and overcoats, they exchanged a few words with them and during the
ensuing brawl, proceeded to take them down a notch, although they were certainly not to
blame for the unequal distribution of materials. At the same time they were able to extract
some justice for air-dropping the wrong ammunition to us in Chertkovo.
And something else happened that would have long-lasting consequences for the 5th
Company. In Chertkovo the CO of the 2nd Company, Captain Maletzki, had entrusted one
of the crews with a sled that was loaded with boxes of captured American condensed milk.
They were supposed to hook the sled to the tank and bring it back with them.
Unfortunately he chose Sergeant Urbatschek’s crew for this task, a crew that included
characters like Wolfgang Krause from Leipzig, who somewhat jokingly said, "I was a
communist before Hitler and now I am a Nazi and when the war is over I’ll be a communist
again." Then there was Heini Brüning, a veterinary student, from whom we will hear about
again later. Of course they kept the milk for themselves and tried to convince Maletzki that
they lost the sled along the way. He didn’t believe their story for a second.
From Poltava we are sent to Charkov and the Tank Company is bivouacked next to a
supply depot. What a dream come true! A few of the tanks immediately drive over to the
depot and start loading up anything that appeals to them. The Chief Paymaster’s protests,
seeing as he can’t make out which unit these men belong to, cloaked in their winter
camouflage suits, are dismissed by advising him of the close proximity of the Russians. A
few days later with the Russians steadily closing in, the staff finally abandon the supply
depot, our men take anything they please and live it up like kings. For breakfast they eat
bacon, eggs and asparagus fried in butter and drink champagne and cherry liqueur. To
prevent leaving anything to the Russians they even bathe in champagne. The entire
company ate so much chocolate they were badly constipated. In the morning Kurt Weiß
would wake up and the first thing he would say is, "A cognac please!" The pigs hanging in
the freezer are chopped up as the need arises and the needs are great. With a supply like
this, our regular rations have little
meaning. Be that as it may, they were still prepared daily and someone would be assigned
to peel potatoes. When it was Wolfgang Krause’s turn, he was furious and determined not
to touch a single potato. So, he stood at the door to the potato cellar and sent every girl
that came his way down the stairs. They went in without protest. The trouble started when
they realised they were supposed to peel potatoes. They were quite prepared for
something else, but peeling potatoes? Not on your life!
There is one more episode that we often laughed about, or as Wolfgang put it in his
Saxony dialect, giggled over, when he recounted the story in his own, original way.
Wolfgang is driving a tank down a very narrow lane in Charkov. He is met by a Volkswagen
coming the other way. There is no room to manoeuvre. Both vehicles stop. So the
passenger in the Volkswagen yells: "Backup immediately! I am Lt. Col. Heinze of the
Leibstandarte." Wolfgang answers with, "And I am Corporal Krause, of the Führer’s
Headquarters. If you don’t back up immediately, I will flatten you." With that he put the
vehicle in gear and started driving. The SS was left with no choice but to retreat.
From Poltava the Combat Group is, as mentioned earlier, flown in good old "Aunt Ju 52"
aircraft back to East Prussia. We are met on arrival by Hitler, who gave a speech along
‘My grenadiers! You have returned from your mission in the east. You have completely met
all of my expectations and fought very bravely. Your mission was tough. As you were being
unloaded the enemy was already pressuring you and then you were encircled. With each
day your situation became more hopeless. Despite my trust in your courage and strength, I
gave up hope in your recovery and had your positions crossed off my maps after 2 weeks.
But due to your most heroic efforts you managed to escape the enemy. It was your
objective to stop the red flood that had broken through the German positions. An Italian
army was crushed. A Romanian and Hungarian army shattered leaving a gaping 350km
hole in the lines. Through which the Bolsheviks raced into the German flanks.
A most dangerous situation. That is why I decided to commit you, my grenadiers, to battle.
You achieved your goal. You stopped the break-through. That is why you have returned
here, to continue your original duty. I expect from you, that you will continue to serve in the
same you proved yourselves in the east.’
At the conclusion of his speech Hitler awarded the Knight’s Cross to Captain Pohlmann. All
of the members of the task force receive the Iron Cross 2nd Class, the infantrymen receive
the Infantry Assault Badge and the tank crews the Tank Assault Badge in Silver and
immediately commencing furlough. >From which most of the men are just returning now.
Hitler’s speech was supposed to praise the men and spur them on in their service to him.
But it achieved the exact opposite. The men were furious that Hitler would write off his
personal bodyguard with a simple stroke of the pen rather than do everything in his power
to save them. Besides that, they think him an idiot for uttering these words out loud to us.
Following the speech our relationship to him is no longer as absolutely positive as it was.
And by referring to a positive relationship it is not meant in a political sense, but rather in
his position as the Supreme Commander and "owner" of our battalion. Everyone has their
own political opinions but they are not expressed openly. After 10 years of Nazi rule, we
have all learned to keep our yaps’ shut when it comes to politics. However, the Führer’s
bodyguard tends to express itself much more than anyone, anywhere else. This is probably
only possible because there are no dedicated and fanatical Nazis amongst us, at least in
our platoon. Too much has already been said about Hitler and the party that a real Nazi
wouldn’t have already reported us. Despite that, every negative comment made is
dangerous and one runs the risk of "shooting himself in the foot".
With the arrival of our Combat Group in Mielau things slowly begin to change as far as the
duty roster is concerned, although attempts are made to avoid this with strict drilling. It is
not immediately visible or part of our duty roster. No, it’s just there, quietly deep inside but
definitely noticeable. As mentioned, infantry and formal training is the motto of the day to
tighten the slackened discipline. But the men aren’t quick to pick up the yoke again and the
NCOs, who are now primarily drawn from the Combat Group and whose part in the
execution of the regimen is not insignificant, are reluctant to make an example of any of the
men, men with whom they have just been through so much. There is also a
co-dependency, partly of gratitude and in some cases of secrecy. Not everyone was a hero.
Besides the NCOs know that they may once again be sent into combat and will then be
dependent on the good will of their men. Such thoughts are reinforced by rumours that one
of the drill sergeants who was a real slave driver was not killed by the enemy but "taken
out" from behind. So our daily regimen proceeds and appears, as overseen by officers, to
be by the book but we are also granted some respite. A deaf ear is even turned to the odd
disparaging comment, which would have been unthinkable before. Away from the officer’s
purview we even manage the odd 15-minute break. This relaxed regimen is a substantial
relief to our strained nerves, especially for us newcomers because we no longer see those
giving the orders as our unforgiving adversaries under whose eyes we had to conduct
ourselves accordingly. Now we have men as our superiors and it’s a more comfortable
relationship right up to the higher ranks.
Copyright Rudi S.