18. Juli 1943
Wounded and Homeland Stay
18 July 43. For my mortar positions I have chosen a hedge row that runs diagonally backwards from the trench. There are already some earth bunkers in the hedge. We only need to dig the holes for the firing positions. My groups set to work with fervour, because they have to be finished by dawn. The hedge is three metres wide and just as high. Twenty metres in front of me, the battalion commander and his staff move into a dugout.
As dawn begins to break, we are ready for action. Since the Russians had brought tanks across the river in the meantime, heavy weapons have also been assigned to us to support our attack. Now we are waiting for them to arrive so that we can begin the attack. It is 4 o’clock in the morning and already quite light. Finally we hear a tracked vehicle rattling up from behind. It is a self-propelled quadruple Flak with a platoon of SS escort infantry. Now they are within fifty metres. I had climbed up the bunker stairs with a soldier, look towards the approaching soldiers and want to signal to them so that they realise that they have reached our deployment line. The course of the front was as unclear to them as it had been to us. There I hear the command: “Fire!” And already the anti-aircraft machine-gun is pelting off so that the fur flies. The shreds blow up in our faces. I want to wave at them - splat! I feel a blow against my forearm, as if a hard pebble had flown against it. My fingers curl up in a spasm like the claws of a bird of prey. But I feel no pain. At first I thought my hand was shot through, but now the warm blood runs down my arm. Wounded!
The soldier who had been standing next to me on the stairs had slipped down the stairs with a shot in his stomach. There had also been wounded in the battalion command post.
The comrades in the bunker have laid us on the cots. A soldier kneels next to me and bandages my arm with his first-aid kit. Only the bullet hole is visible, so the splinter is still stuck in my arm. Diagnosis: forearm wound from shell splinter. While the Landser is still wrapping the bandage around my arm, I lose consciousness, but I’m right back. I thank the man and send him to the battalion to report the two casualties. After a few minutes he returns with the news that the battalion command post has five wounded, including the adjutant with a serious head injury.
The anti-aircraft machine gun had only fired two short bursts, and seven men were wounded! If they do the same with the Ivan, then I’m not worried about success.
A vehicle is to take the wounded back with it. I look at my watch. 4.45 a.m. So I was wounded at 4.30. Now the wound begins to hurt. The wound shock is over. My arm lies heavy as lead on my body. The blood has seeped through the thin gauze bandage and is staining the uniform tunic red. There is a hole in the sleeve. I put a pair of drill trousers under the arm, which soon get bloodstains too. So I lie for quite some time in a twilight state between sleep and pain.
The comrade with the shot in the stomach is calm. He doesn’t seem to be in any pain. Now and then we exchange a few words. I admonish him to lie still.
Outside, another tracked vehicle rattles up and stops near us. I get up from my cot and climb out. It is a Raupenschlepper Ost. He has brought fuel. I want him to take the abdominal casualty back with him, but he doesn’t have a suitable berth. However, there is another seat next to the driver’s where he wants to take me. I therefore don’t wait for the ambulance to arrive but climb onto the passenger seat, and then off we go back. The driver is in a hurry to get away from down here, and rightly so. He rattles zealously (these tractors can’t go faster than 20 km/h, but therefore they can get through any dirt) up the front slope and disappears behind the heights, where we are safe from direct fire.
At the top we rumble past our Pak emplacements. These fearless men are in the open, and their only protection is the hollow where the gun is. One of the gunners is standing next to his position. I know the sergeant from before. I wave to him and raise my bandaged arm. He recognises me and greets me back with a regretful gesture.
The Raupenschlepper-Ost drops me off at the field dressing station. It’s a bunker about a kilometre behind the front line. I climb down. The air in the bunker is so stuffy it makes you sick. The room is overcrowded and has no ventilation. The doctor looks at my bandage and then sends me straight to his Volkswagen, which is parked outside ready to drive. In the back there are already two seriously wounded men crouching, who urgently need surgery and should therefore be rushed to the division’s main dressing station. The medic sticks the red-bordered wounded slip in my buttonhole, and then I sit down in front next to the driver, who immediately speeds off. The car whirs along the yellow road that leads through the wide, bare plain. We are just a dot in this endless expanse, but the thick, yellow cloud of dust that the racing car whirls up behind it makes our presence unmistakable.
That was also the opinion of the three Soviet warplanes that suddenly appeared in the sky in front of us. I wonder what they are going to do? Because you can’t miss the speeding dot with the big plume of dust behind it. They’re flying back to the Russian front, so they must have already fulfilled their mission. Now they are already to the side of us. Maybe we are not a worthwhile target for them. Now they’re already behind us. But then the first one curves in, lowers its nose and shoots down at us from behind like an arrow. Our driver wanted to speed on at first, but on my repeated energetic command he stops the car. And while we are still tumbling out of the vehicle, the first burst is already pattering and puffing around our car, splashing up the sand of the path. I duck behind the car. The driver and the two wounded run sideways into the open field. A new shower of bullets from the second plane hails down without hitting. Damn it, don’t they see our white-glowing bandages? They are barely eighty metres high! Finally they let us go. We get back in the car and drive on. But there the close supporters come back again. We stop again. The one comrade climbs out groaning. He has an artery wound and is wearing several staples on his throat. Again the big planes pounce on the small car. Again they miss. Three low-level attacks, and three times nothing hit. And this with all three planes. Now they have finally had enough and turn away. We climb back into the VW and finally reach the division’s main dressing station in Barwenkowo. It is housed in a school on the outskirts of the village.
A medical first lieutenant is standing in the entrance hall, probably taking a break to catch his breath between operations. We greet each other, he asks about my wound and immediately takes me with him. I follow him through the hallway, which serves as an admission room. There are stretchers next to each other on the floor. There lie the front-line comrades in their dusty, blood-stained uniforms, waiting patiently for their turn to be laid on the slaughter block. The lightly wounded tired or asleep, the severely wounded apathetic in a half-awake stupor. Some moan softly. There lies a young soldier. His gaze is dull, his face pale yellow. Apparently he no longer feels any pain. He has already passed the threshold of sentience. He already bears the stamp of death. Poor young blood!
Nurses run back and forth between the stretchers to help where possible. “Drink, drink” is the most common request here. The loss of blood makes one thirsty. Add to that the summer heat. What a picture when the nurse kneels beside the wounded man, carefully raises his head and then gently puts the cup to his lips! No one screams or shrieks here. What I see here are only images of brave forbearance and helping love.
The medical first lieutenant leads me into a room and lets me sit down on a chair. A medical lance corporal takes off my bandage and the doctor looks at the wound. The splinter has penetrated the front of the right forearm, has gone right through the forearm and is stuck just under the skin at the back. When the medical officer runs his finger over the spot, he can feel it clearly. And I feel it too. “We’ll have that in a moment,” he says. In the meantime, the surgical nurse has already prepared a syringe, which the medical first lieutenant pricks into the vicinity of the splinter for local anaesthesia. The spot swells visibly and forms a flat bump. “We’ll take the splinter out in a minute,” the doctor says. “Can you sit while we do it?” I am not quite sure and reply that I might fall over. Then the surgical nurse stands behind my chair, wraps her arms tightly around me and holds me. Of course, it works wonderfully like that.
The doctor reaches for the scalpel and grabs my arm. I avert my eyes, but still feel the cut. It does not hurt at all. After a few manipulations, the doctor pushes his glasses onto his forehead. He can’t find the splinter in the badly swollen tissue. Once more he applies the knife. I feel the deeper cut and the scalpel is already scratching the splinter. I feel a bit queasy, but the nurse holds me upright with her arms and breast. My spirits quickly returned. The splinter is out. The medical first lieutenant holds a jagged shrapnel the size of a cherry stone in front of my nose and then lays it on the window sill. The nurse applies a new bandage. Since the jagged shrapnel has probably also torn pieces of uniform into the wound, a small piece of tubing is inserted into the wound so that the pus can flush out the pieces of fabric. Now I have a fresh, spotless white bandage and the procedure is over. It didn’t take half an hour, and I didn’t fall over either. I say goodbye with heartfelt thanks. In the next room I get a tetanus shot in the buttocks, and then everything is over.
As soon as a sufficient number of wounded have been treated, they are taken by bus to the field hospital in Barwenkowo. Until then, however, there is still time. So I first go to the kitchen and get something to drink. A picture-perfect Russian girl hands me a mug of tea with winning cordiality, and when I hand it back after drinking it with a grateful “bolshoi sspassiba”, she is still beaming at me with her pretty eyes. She is a damn appealing girl after all!
I walk out into the courtyard and look over to the front. From back here only do you get a sense of the enormity of this offensive. The whole front is in turmoil. Artillery duels rumble and grumble ceaselessly, mixing the thunder of the firings with the dull crash of the impacts. Above the fronts are clouds of black smoke, here as a thin veil of dust, there concentrated into thick smoke.
Now a German Stuka unit is rushing in. There are twenty planes. They circle around above the front for a short time, and then one after the other shoots vertically down into the depths, only to pull up steeply again after the bomb drop. And after each dive, a huge mushroom cloud of yellow smoke leaps up into the air until the whole section of the front is smothered in a sea of smoke. No sooner has the unit departed than a new drone shakes the air. A German bomber group of 250 planes flies in, throws death and destruction into the red front so that the ground trembles and even back here my uniform still flutters. One bomber was hit by red flak. On the return flight it begins to smoke, veers away from the formation and loses altitude. It comes down in a glide and bursts into flames on touchdown with a huge cloud of black smoke.
Then a group of Soviet fighters appears. About 150 planes circle around like a flock of crows, slowly turning in circles as a whole and gradually flying over the front. They secure the airspace above the offensive front and are to repel further German air attacks.
It is not only the earth that trembles and drones. The air is also filled with howling and blustering noise. Bombs and shells shred the ground and hurl the dark earth into the air, and the air is also torn apart by the pressure of the explosions. The elements are whirled around and mix in a vortex of annihilation. And man also perishes in this vortex of annihilation, his body is shredded and his soul torn from his body.
The front is a wall of yellow smoke. Full-scale battle! Æsir War! Here two mighty armies clash in dogged combat. From time to time the roaring subsides, as if the combatants need to catch their breath. Then the veil of smoke and haze lifts over the racked battlefield, revealing smouldering and glowing piles of rubble that once were welcoming villages.
What might have become of our attack? We were not even out of our holes yet. Poor comrades out there! Yes, that’s the way it is with front-line soldiers: On the one hand, you’re glad to have escaped the inferno. On the other hand, you have a guilty conscience because you’re now leaving your comrades in front alone. When I come back to the troops later, the survivors will proudly tell about their fight, and I will sit silently next to them, because I was “in the rear”. And there will be survivors, for it is amazing how many comrades come climbing out of their holes again even after a wild barrage on the trench.
Just now I meet our divisional chaplain, whom I haven’t seen for a long time. His place is now here with the wounded and dying. While we are still talking, the crew of the downed bomber arrives. They are all unharmed. The priest approaches one of them, but he reacts dismissively. Is he still in shock, or is he a Nazi?
The bus to Barwenkowo leaves. It is not far to the field hospital and we soon reach our destination. Here I learn that a train is about to leave for Dnipropetrowsk, which can still take a number of wounded. I lay down on a cot to rest a little until the train leaves. Then the train rolls in. I climb onto an open flat wagon with some other soldiers and soon the train starts moving.
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- Barwenkowo was an important rear location; it is possible that both the main dressing station and the field hospital were located there.
- большое спасибо, thank you