October 1941, Ost Front'
War fiction written by Gefrieter Scharnhorst. This article also appeared in Skirmish magazine No.57.
Grossdeutschland, Company 2
Army Group Centre
Advancing East from Roslavl to Karachev
We moved out early this morning as usual, the sunrise made hazy by the low mist on the ground. It was cold again but at least it wasn’t raining, definitely greatcoat weather. If the rain continues as it has done since October began it’s going to make the ground more difficult to move across. We certainly won’t be able to keep up the pace we set since crossing the border in the baking hot summer.
We should be in Moscow by Christmas.
We’re on a railway line about 10km west of Bryansk preparing to enter an isolated complex of industrial buildings. This country is vast, open and very barren, nothing like the lush vineyard covered valleys back home on the Rhine. The surrounding plain is being cleared of any enemy positions, but our task is to clear the buildings and to set up the radio in the tallest one.
The artillery have two Battery’s of Stug III Assault Guns on our flanks which are pounding the place, trying to drive any Russian forces out into the open, while we wait for the wheels to be changed on one of the armoured cars so it can follow us along the track. It’s almost time.
With the mist gone the move down to the complex went well. It was tense as we moved forward, the sound of sporadic contacts out on the plain doing little to help ease any of our nerves. As we slowly moved in among the buildings the fear of a contact at almost point blank range made every step an effort.
The Stugs had caused considerable damage with their short howitzers, creating a devastating scene of broken brickwork and fallen masonry, making it difficult underfoot in places.
The main building itself had taken a few direct hits from the artillery, blown floors creating difficulty reaching the upper levels with the kit. After helping Reinhard, the Wachtmeister, set the radio up on the first floor we were joined by Dieter, using his captured Soviet Mosin-Nagant sniper rifle to look out to the south. The remainder of the men set to sorting themselves out on the shattered ground level. The Stug’s and the armoured car moved further along the rail track, out onto the open ground to the East, leaving us to joke off the tension.
It was then
that the first mortar round landed.
Suddenly all hell broke loose, with mortar rounds landing in rapid succession. Shell fragments and flying rubble rained to the front of our position, smoke from each blast blocking Dieter’s view, preventing him from spotting the enemy. Men burst into action, grabbing rifles and helmets, running to the sentry’s shouts. Leaping down to the ground floor in the panic, we joined the others taking cover in the side of the building and listened in to Reinhards orders.
Across the rail track an enemy mortar team had moved into a position in a shell crater behind a mound of shattered concrete and brickwork. We had to close the distance between us if we were to take them ourselves. This was to be our first action of the day.
With my greatcoat flapping we made a lightning dash through the damaged out buildings and rubble, braving the screaming mortar rounds and lethal shrapnel, adrenaline driving us to the low railway embankment. As we ran we came under rifle fire from infantry defending the mortar. Johan went down, doubled over to lay motionless in a puddle, the incoming rounds preventing us from going back to help him.
Our machine gun team reached the track first, Julius the gunner opening up in seconds, pouring fire onto the Russian mortar crew. As the rest of us dived into position we added our rifles to the weight of fire. Having to leave Johan out in the open, not knowing if it was too late to help him was awful but we had no choice. Keeping Ivan’s nose in the dirt we prepared to assault, readying grenades and refilling rifle clips while the MG34 continued to spit a stream of lead around the concrete pile. The gun paused for barely a second as Steiner and Julius worked quickly to keep the weapon fed with ammunition. Johan still hadn’t moved. Dieter’s Mosin-Nagant claimed a clean kill on one of the mortar crew and took another in the shoulder, leaving the mortar impotent. Poised to throw, three of us waited for the command and the grenades were up and over, the three sticks falling around the cowering targets. Our heads went down for the triple blast and then the assaulting team raced over the track toward the Russian screams, the ’34 up in an instant to cover their run. Within seconds the assault had overrun the position, the cue for us to sprint after them in support.
It was carnage in the crater, six bodies strewn in bloody slaughter thrown by the grenade blasts, only for the injured to be finished off by the assaulting rifles. The sickening stench of spilt blood and scorched flesh mixed with the smell of the explosions. No sooner had the first position been cleared, all of us out of breath, we were peppered with bursts of automatic fire from a second position. Diving for cover Kurt managed to locate the new enemy, a few hundred metres away in a brick hut next to the railway sidings. Muzzle flashes from sub-machine guns indicated a handful of Red Army soldiers at the most. Four of us were tasked to take the gunner and clear the second position.
With the rest of the squad covering us, we headed back across the track, picking up Julius and the MG34 still on the embankment and moved quickly among the wagons in the sidings, anticipation of battle coursing through our veins. Dropping Julius and Jürgen halfway as a second fire base, the rest of us carried on, emerging cautiously to the rear of the hut. Klaus unscrewed the cap from his last grenade as we fixed bayonets with rapid hands, eager to move. We waited for the cover fire to stop before going in, the last thing we needed now was another casualty. As soon as it stopped we dashed to the side of the hut, to the enemy’s blind spot. A quick last check that weapons were ready and I gave the nod, Klaus reaching round the corner to post the grenade through a shattered window pane.
There were shouts of alarm from inside before the explosion ripped through the small structure, blowing the door and glass out into the yard. Racing round to the front we fired a few shots into the smoke filled hut. A Russian called out in surrender. Babbling nonsense the stunned and bleeding figure emerged stumbling into the yard, hands held high. We gestured for him to get on the ground, Heinrich covering him while I cleared his weapon and searched him, finding a map and other papers. A quick search of the hut found three more dead.
Once all of the Russian dead had been checked for any useful information, the squad centralised again at the tall building. The prisoner was made to carry Johans body, who had been killed instantly by two bullets to the chest and stomach. He’s the first man that our squad has lost since crossing the border in July, creating a heated argument whether or not to keep the Russian alive. Would executing him have been harder than dealing with the loss of a friend? Would revenge have taken away our anger? Given the circumstances, would it have been any different from the others that we’ve killed since the war began? The Russian looked on scared, not knowing what we said, but he clearly understood. After tempers had eased a little and with the prisoner still breathing, we took the chance to redistribute the ammunition, while Reinhard radioed for assistance in clearing the rest of the area.
The rain clouds are gathering again in the midday sky, so it’s likely to be a wet evening. Now that the whole site has been given the all clear and we’ve been replenished, we’re ready to continue the advance without Johan. I’m sure we’ll all miss his twisted humour.
Moscow is 300km away.
It promises to be wet and cold between here and there.