War fiction written by Unteroffizier Scharnhorst. Pictures by Nick Halling & GD Recon.
Throughout 1942 a series of battles took place in and around the Russian city of Rhzev, which became associated with the phrase ‘the meat grinder’. The months of July and August saw the Wehrmacht push the frontline closer to the edge of the city itself, during Operation Seydlitz. Then in late September the Reconnaissance Battalion,Großdeutschland moved into the shattered remains of the southern part of Rhzev and set up positions on the southern bank of the Volga River. During the night as they moved into defensive positions, they suffered heavy bombing from Soviet aircraft and in the early hours of the morning the Russian ground forces began to push forward…
The shell exploded directly above us, bringing another storm of dust and broken masonry down. It’s a good thing that we have about two metres of concrete and rubble over our heads. I can’t see a damn thing now and by the time the dust settles they’ll hit us again and it’ll kick more up. They’ve been shelling our position for how many hours now and they’ve achieved nothing. They won’t even attack for God’s sake. It’s pointless and a complete waste of artillery. My father told me stories of the Great War, when he served in the trenches in Belgium against the British and it sounded just like this; the enemy pounding away hour after hour, firing unbelievable quantities of ordnance at us while we sit perfectly safe underground, listening to the endless bombardment above us. At first it got the blood pumping and made us fear that our time may have finally come, but now it’s just become annoying. I don’t know how many guns they have trained on us but they are really going for it. I’ve got more chance of choking to death on dust than I have of being killed by enemy action. Can you imagine that on my Death Card? It would be embarrassing more than anything else: Died 23rd September 1942, choked to death on brick dust.
We’re in a basement facing out across the street so our view is almost level with the road surface. When we first ran in to take cover from the Russian heavy guns the building used to be an apartment block, but I’d hate to think what it look like now. At one point the only exit route from our position was blocked off as the floors above us came crashing down, but those stupid Bolsheviks have been blasting away for so long now that they’ve very kindly created a new exit for us. Whatever structure was connected to the rear of this building has collapsed completely and pulled the entire back wall down, leaving a nice ramp made of rubble for us to dash up and out when the shelling eventually stops.
It’s probably a better route out than the one we originally had and will give us far more cover as we leave.
Another direct hit and more rubble and dust. Why don’t they just stop? They can’t get us, we’re buried too deep, but they’re just shelling for the sake of it. They know we’re down here and they aren’t going to let us go. All it’s doing is spoiling my day. I just hope the ceiling holds out, but I think the rubble piled on top from the upper floors is soaking up each hit, so nothing is actually getting through.
There are eleven of us down here and now we’re just settled in nicely, passing around a few treats among friends. Schmitt and big Henschel are looking out across the road to the front, Erich Wessel and Adelbert Knecht are covering the rubble slope providing our exit to the rear, Jurgen is cursing because of all the dust going into the coffee he’s trying to brew and Hetch is stitching his underpants and trousers back up after nearly getting his testicles blown off as we dashed into the building when our patrol came under fire. A shell landed not far in front of him as he ran to the entry and he was thrown back out into the street. We thought he was dead, but it was so funny when he staggered in with his manhood dangling free and his trousers still smoking!
As for the rest of us we’re passing the time. I’m sitting here writing, Wachtmeister Henke is moaning about me sitting here writing and Kurt is joining in with him. What the hell else am I supposed to do? The last two are the eldest of the group, Steffan and Peter, who are sitting quietly chatting and putting the world to rights, while checking their rifles and ammunition. As for Dieter, the Unteroffizier, no-one knows where he’s got to. He never made it in to the building when the shelling started as he was a little further down the road at the front of our patrol. He’s not out in the street from what we can see, but every now and then we can here a nearby rifle shot coming from this side of the street. We suspect that’s him and he’s found a good spot to snipe from.
My heart feels like it has leapt up in to my mouth! It sounds like that last Russian shell was a little off target, but the noise has just frightened the life out of all of us. It hit the building next to us and what looks the first floor balcony has come crashing down in front of our position, blocking our view. Schmitt and big Henschel have had to pull back from their positions, blinded by the cloud of shattered brickwork that came into the basement. Peter the medic is washing their eyes out, while Kurt and Steffan have taken their place looking out to the front. But it’s not good now, as we can’t see out. If the enemy move forward onto us now we won’t see them coming. The Wachtmeister is getting us ready to move, shelling or no shelling: it’s too dangerous to stay here now.
It’s a hive of activity as we prepare to go. Adelbert has reported
seeing aircraft above us a minute ago from his position at the rear looking
up the slope and now we can hear the familiar scream of wailing sirens
as the aircraft dive. Those my friend, are Stuka’s! We’re
on the move!
From the other side of the street we could see what was left of the apartment block we were trapped in for nearly five hours. I don’t think the residents will be moving back into that when the fighting is over. It was three storeys high, but the highest piece now is the top of the staircase leading to what was the first floor, which is rising up from a pile of bricks and broken beams.
Not long after leaving the basement we were lucky to find Dieter, who had become separated from the rest of the patrol. He managed to find a good sniping spot to take a few shots at the Russian artillery crews in an attempt to hinder them, with some degree of success apparently. We’ve been lucky not to loose anyone so far after the morning we’ve had.
But now we were all united again, we had to move on across the open
ground towards the factory complex. The Stuka’s had done their
work well, bombing with accuracy and precision, taking out the artillery
that was battering us. All that was left was the battered metal of the
Russian guns, a few smoking holes in the road and the severed wires hanging
from partially broken telegraph poles, making it blend in with the rest
of the city which has been destroyed by months of fighting. As for the
gun crews, they probably fled when the Stuka’s dropped out of the
sky. They usually do as they hear the awful screaming noise of the sirens
getting louder and more intense as it falls from above; the fear of helplessness
as if it’s so near that it’s going to smash right into them.
Then the ground
erupts all around them and all that’s left is a blood-smeared helmet, a broken rifle and a deep, dark crater in the earth. That noise would put the fear of god into anyone. I’ve seen them panic like rabbits when the hounds are released, when our Stuka’s come.
This group of industrial buildings didn’t look much better than the apartment blocks further back down the street, but these were still standing. There are two large factory buildings, one behind the other. There is a third to the left and some damaged smaller structures to the right, surrounded by rubble and twisted steel. My guess is that they are parts of the interior and the rubble is all that is left of the outer walls. As for the road that we followed, which led to the factory complex, it was littered with rubble and fallen sections of nearby roofing.
I don’t like fighting in the cities though, as the danger seems
greater, with us feeling more exposed to the enemy lurking in the ruins
close by. Every step is alongside a potential enemy position; every metre
is an ambush waiting to happen. The Soviet soldier is not just in front
of you here; he could be all around, behind you, above your head or literally
under your feet. The silence and desolation of a once busy street is
almost un-natural and makes you realise every second could be your last.
Even our armour can’t protect us here, more the other way around
with us protecting them. And the mines and booby traps don’t even
bare thinking about. As we patrolled towards the first factory building
we were constantly looking for signs of the enemy, whether it was a rifle
muzzle or the
shape of a helmet. We looked for cover to dive into if they were to appear suddenly, then as we moved forward we looked for more. Progress was slow and every sound caught our attention. I lost count of how many times I checked the safety catch on my rifle in case I needed it at a moments notice.
Now we’re inside we’ve stopped for a few minutes and a few
water bottles are being passed around. Wachtmeister Henke has spread
some of the squad around to cover any of the approaches inside, but we
remain within sight of each other. Kurt and Jurgen are on one side looking
out with the MG, while Steffan and big Henschel are covering the way
we came in. At the top end of this section, Schmitt, Erich and Adelbert
are watching the archway leading deeper into the factory. We’re
stretched a bit too thin for my liking, but we have no other option at
the moment. The Russians may have seen us move in here and could be closing
in. They could be watching us even now as I scribble away with this pencil,
ready to open fire and wipe the whole squad out. At least we can put
the ammo crates and tins down in a stash and give our tired arms a rest.
This section of the factory is a huge open area with a high ceiling. It looks as though the building has taken a few direct hits, with fallen girders and several holes in the roof with bomb craters on the floor to match. I assume it was some form of machine shop, as there are sections of pipe work and gantries with drive belts hanging down everywhere. Any of the machinery has long since been removed though, probably further East beyond the Urals and out of range from the Luftwaffe. There are two levels of offices in the corner with a stairway up the side for access to the overhead walkways. More places for the enemy to hide.
The Wachtmeister has warned us again to be careful of friendly patrols which are likely to be in this sector of the city, as the rest of our battalion are somewhere around here, as are the 18th Infantry Regiment. Too often in this urban environment it is possible that we could end up in a firefight with another German patrol, so fire discipline and correct identification of targets is vital. In the meantime the decision has been made by the Wachtmeister that this complex is far too big for our squad alone to clear, so we are going to stay put until at least another squad arrives. They should be right behind us, so we’re going to sit tight and hold. I don’t know what is worse: sitting in here and waiting or moving around this ruined city as a vulnerable target. I suppose in here at least we are sheltered from the rain which has started to fall.
Schmitt has signalling urgently for something. I think he’s heard something from further inside! Stand to…!!
When the firing started, things moved very fast indeed. Schmitt had been covering the route that went deeper into the factory with Adelbert and Erich. Hearing movement he turned to signal us, the cigarette dropping from his mouth.
Before we could even react to his warning, the rounds came flying through. Schmitt and Adelbert immediately returned fire, while Erich fumbled for a stick-grenade. The Russian shots were wild and hap-hazard, the standard of their training just doesn’t match our disciplined accurate fire. These dumb Ivans don’t know how to handle a rifle and probably even need training to pick their own noses.
As soon as he was ready, Erich stepped around Schmitt and tossed the grenade down the passageway. By the time the blast had gone off the Wachtmeister, Dieter and myself had joined them. We quickly advanced down either side of the passage, watching cautiously as we went. The rest of the squad remained in their positions back in the factory machine shop, covering any Russian attempts to strike at us from the other vantage points. They must have been watching as we moved into the building
We reached the end of the passage and it opened out into a boiler room. Looking from the corner of the first boiler, Schmitt risked a look and immediately pulled back as rounds struck the boiler and whipped into the wall on the opposite side of the passage. A handful of Russians were at the top of a large pile of rubble from a collapsed chimney stack, giving them the high ground. The remainder of our squad arrived, saying another squad had joined us and they were now covering our rear. Taking a chance as the Russian fire paused for a moment, Schmitt fired a few shots up at them before the Wachtmeister gave us a covering burst from his machine-pistol. That was our cue to rush from cover and attack up the slope.
The pile of bricks was steep and the top was further than it first seemed. With bullets flying in every direction, some of us clawed at the bricks and clambered up, while the rest spread out at the bottom to cover our ascent. The MG spat short bursts of fire as Kurt fired and climbed alongside us bit by bit, while grenades were readied. With caps off andfuses pulled, the handheld bombs were over the top of the pile and into the Russians on the other side. As soon as they had all exploded, there were screams of agony that chilled the blood, but we had no time to spare.
Steffan and Erich reached the top first, but a single shot hit Steffan high on the chest, and spun him onto his back. Kurt and Wachtmeister Henke were closest to him and went to his aide, managing to stop his slide back down the slope. Within seconds Peter the medic was up the rubble pile and dealing with him. Erich kept his head down from the crest and warned the others to keep back as they reached the summit. Thinking on his feet the Wachtmeister quickly split the squad sending us all back down to the bottom of the fallen chimney stack. He took half of us through a doorway leading from the boiler room and sent the others with the MG back through the factory. If we couldn’t go over the top, then both groups were to attack from either side while we had the Russians pinned down at the end of the building, leaving Dieter to stop the Russians from coming back over chimney stack and also protect Peter as he worked on the injured Steffan.
The group with the MG ran back into the machine shop and out through a side entry. Running through the rain they reached the end of the factory block and set up the machine gun on its mount amongst the piles of rubble and twisted steelwork. There they waited to cut down any retreating Ivans. The rest of us followed Wachtmeister Henke from the boiler house, but the roadway was far too open and exposed. Ducking back into cover for a moment, I pulled a smoke grenade from my tunic pocket and the threw it down the road. The glass bomb shattered as it landed and immediately the chemicals reacted, forming a screen of fog to cover ourrun.
Hearts pumping and boots pounding, we raced through the smoke, with the Wachtmeister leading the way. Reaching an open doorway we were greeted by a hail of rifle shots from the Russians on the other side. They would have seen the smoke and must have guessed we were coming. Like rats they were trapped, but they didn’t know it yet, firing to keep us back from the door.
We formed up either side of the door, with grenades and rifles, poised to enter and clear the place as soon as the blasts ripped through the room. The nod was given and the grenades were in. In a panic the Ru sians shouted in alarm before the double explosion muted their cries. I was first into the room, followed by Erich and Schmitt. We struggled to see anything due to smoke and dust, but we could hear coughing and screaming. As the room cleared we could see a handful of Russians running to a gaping hole in the side of the building, one helping a wounded comrade. The others were in full flight. Dropping to my knee, I pulled the trigger and watched one drop, but the rest were already out.
Sprinting out into the open they headed for the next factory block, but just as we thought they were away, the sound of the MG brought music to our ears. The fire from Kurt, Jurgen and Adelbert cut across their path mowing them down one after the other. One turned to fire but was thrown back by another burst.
Within seconds defensive Russian fire from the next block sent a hail of bullets in our direction. Taking up fire positions we started to shoot back, but all too soon the machine gun crew around the corner began yelling for more ammunition. If the MG had stopped, we’d have been in serious trouble. Wit out waiting Erich and Schmitt ran back through the building, grabbing some ammo and ran up the side of the factory to keep the MG going. When they reached them they called out that a whole platoon of re-enforcements had arrived and within seconds there was a rush of men in field grey uniforms, firing and moving forward. The noise of battle kicked up a level and as soon as it had come, it had pushed further into the factory complex. It looked like the battle was no longer ours to lead.
Moving back into the boiler room, we left the bodies of the Russian
soldiers where they had fallen without even checking them. Peter was
still with Steffan, who was strapped up and ready to be moved back to
the Aid Post. After a quick drink of water, we checked
our ammo status and prepared to move back to our lines. As we reached the front of the factory, a familiar face from the battalion came clambering over a pile of twisted steel with a large canister on his back. The soup was here.
Settling down with the sound of battle raging not far away, we slumped
down heavily for a well earned break and wearily took our helmets off.
The soup was passed around and we found our humour again, including Steffan.
I look around at these guys and think what a great bunch they are. As
soon as I’ve finished scribbling these notes, I’ll get my
camera out for a group photo.
Pity I won’t be in it.