In Deadly Combat: A German Soldier's Memoir of the Eastern Frontby Gottlob Herbert Bidermann
In the hell that was World War II, the Eastern Front was its heart of fire and ice. Gottlob Herbert Bidermann served in that lethal theater from 1941 to 1945, and his memoir of those years recaptures the sights, sounds, and smells of the war as it vividly portrays an army marching on the road to ruin.
A riveting and reflective account by one of the millions of
In the hell that was World War II, the Eastern Front was its heart of fire and ice. Gottlob Herbert Bidermann served in that lethal theater from 1941 to 1945, and his memoir of those years recaptures the sights, sounds, and smells of the war as it vividly portrays an army marching on the road to ruin.
A riveting and reflective account by one of the millions of anonymous soldiers who fought and died in that cruel terrain, In Deadly Combat conveys the brutality and horrors of the Eastern Front in detail never before available in English. It offers a ground soldier's perspective on life and death on the front lines, providing revealing new information concerning day-to-day operations and German army life.
Wounded five times and awarded numerous decorations for valor, Bidermann saw action in the Crimea and siege of Sebastopol, participated in the vicious battles in the forests south of Leningrad, and ended the war in the Courland Pocket. He shares his impressions of countless Russian POWs seen at the outset of his service, of peasants struggling to survive the hostilities while caught between two ruthless antagonists, and of corpses littering the landscape. He recalls a Christmas gift of gingerbread from home that overcame the stench of battle, an Easter celebrated with a basket of Russian hand grenades for eggs, and his miraculous survival of machine gun fire at close range. In closing he relives the humiliation of surrender to an enemy whom the Germans had once derided and offers a sobering glimpse into life in the Soviet gulags.
Bidermann's account debunks the myth of a highly mechanized German army that rolled over weaker opponents with impunity. Despite the vast expanses of territory captured by the Germans during the early months of Operation Barbarossa, the war with Russia remained tenuous and unforgiving. His story commits that living hell to the annals of World War II and broadens our understanding of its most deadly combat zone.
Translator Derek Zumbro has rendered Bidermann's memoir into a compelling narrative that retains the author's powerful style. This English-language edition of Bidermann's dynamic story is based upon a privately published memoir entitled Krim-Kurland Mit Der 132 Infanterie Division. The translator has added important events derived from numerous interviews with Bidermann to provide additional context for American readers.
Read an Excerpt
The March Toward the East
If there exists anything
mightier than destiny,
then it is the courage
to face destiny unflinchingly.
Thirty June 1941. A summer sultriness blanketed the endless plains of eastern Poland, and only the movement of the train swaying slightly beneath us brought us relief from the heat. The heavily laden transport rolled slowly through ragged pine forests and stretches of sandy, uncultivated land, and we passed tiny farms and villages and crossed meandering rivers on our way toward the east.
Except for children who occasionally waved to us from the dusty streets and roadsides, we were ignored by the local inhabitants. The men and women in drab clothing whom we observed from a distance became lost in the shimmering heat as the wheels of the Reichsbahn put them farther behind us. We passed the hours sitting or lying under a cloudless sky as we rested on the open flatbed cars between tightly secured weapons and vehicles.
In contrast to following the peacetime regulations that had previously dominated our lives, we were permitted to loosen the first button of our gray-green uniforms and roll back the sleeves for what little comfort we could enjoy in the sweltering heat. The initial news of the war with Russia was several days old, and we spoke little about the prospects of becoming involved in the fighting. Everyone was confident that this war against the Soviet Union, like the conflict with France and Poland, would pass quickly.
At dawnthe walls and towers of Krakow, the holy city of Poland where the heart of Pilsudski lies within the cathedral, appeared. The transport slowly screeched to a halt beside a dusty rail-switching station, and within seconds we were ringed by a band of disheveled children who were ignored by the stone-faced military police sentries standing nearby. "Bidde um bror, Herr," they cried plaintively, with dirty hands grasping eagerly for the morsels we passed to them from our bread bags. We were permitted to detrain, and the children descended on us.
"Poor Poland," I thought to myself. I passed a slice of bread to an enterprising young girl in return for a tattered newspaper. It had been printed the previous day in German and Polish, and it was possible to read the first news about the operation in the east: advance on Lemberg. Gridnov, Brest-Litovsk, Wilnau, Kovno, and Dunaburg had quickly fallen into German hands. Ecstatic headlines announced that more than 2,582 Soviet aircraft and 1,297 Soviet tanks had been destroyed. Soviet-occupied Poland was being freed from the Bolshevik yoke.
The military police soon sprang to action with whistles and shouts, gesturing for us to reboard our transport, and we piled back onto the train. The rail cars groaned in protest and strained against the weight, and we began to move slowly forward as I read the contents of the newspaper aloud to our gun crew, all of whom lay listlessly and disinterested on the flat rail car. I glanced up from my reading and gazed back on the rail platform, now occupied only by the ragged band of children, and our journey to an unknown destiny continued.
On 1 July we came to a stop ten kilometers west of Pelkinie near Yaroslav, where we dismounted and proceeded eastward, the infantry forming a long column on foot, the unenviable fate of every infantryman. Our antitank gun moved ahead of us in the distance, pulled by a Chenilette tracked vehicle captured during the French campaign.
Our senses were immediately struck by the lingering smell of smoke and ashes, and soon we could observe the large craters and scorched vehicles that depicted the handiwork of the German Stuka dive-bombers. We eventually filed to a halt at a temporary roadside canteen where, under the watchful eyes of the ever-present military police, Swabian Red Cross nurses drew cold coffee from a horse-drawn field kitchen and ladled it into our outstretched canteen cups. In vain they asked questions about recent news from home.
We proceeded in a long gray column, leaving the Red Cross nurses behind, and marched farther toward the east. As dusk settled on us we located the vehicles and guns beneath the shelter of a small file of trees that sparsely lined the narrow road. Camouflage protection from aircraft was ordered, and we attempted to cover our position with thin branches.
At dawn we were overtaken by supply columns rolling along an arterial road running toward the distant sunrise. We spent another day following in the tracks of the supply unit, and late in the afternoon we encountered the enemy for the first time.
The dusty road was lined with endless columns of Russian prisoners in ragged khaki-brown uniforms heading in the opposite direction. Many of those without caps wore wisps of straw or rags tied to their close-cropped heads as protection against the burning sun, and some were barefooted and half-dressed, giving us an indication of how quickly our attacking forces had overrun their positions.
By their strange mixture of clothing they appeared to us to be barely soldiers, representing a mixture of White Russians, dark-skinned Caucasians, Kirgises, Usbeks, nomads with Mongolian features, an influx of people from the two continents covered by Soviet Russia. They filed past us silently and with downcast eyes; occasionally several of them could be seen supporting another who appeared to be suffering from wounds, sickness, or exhaustion. In school we had been taught that the Urals separated Europe from Asia; however, here we saw Asia in what we believed to be the heart of Europe. The long column of misery disappeared behind us, and as darkness descended we came to a halt. Beneath a star-covered sky we wrapped ourselves in camouflage-printed shelter-quarters, not to awaken until dawn.
The Fourteenth Panzerjaeger Company was assigned as the forward advance unit, and at precisely 0500 we marched. The crumbling ruins of burned-out houses stood as mute witnesses to the fighting that the city of Yaroslav experienced during the Poland campaign, which although only two years hence seemed a lifetime ago. With the crossing of the San River at Radymo we had Russian soil beneath our feet.
We passed a large German cemetery from World War I with a faded wooden sign above the entrance: "To the memory of those comrades who fell at Dubroviza." Our column was not permitted to stop long enough to examine the graves, and little did we realize how many cemeteries of our own would line the roadsides deep into Russia. We soon encountered fresh mounds of earth marked by rough birch crosses, topped with the unmistakable steel helmets of the German Wehrmacht. These first silent, bloody witnesses on the highway to the east were arranged in regulation rows and columns, and we attempted to divert our gaze but were always drawn back to the graves. We marched on without speaking, and the silent red-brown mounds of earth seemed to beckon to us as if to say, "Do not leave us here, ... do not abandon us in this strange place."
Faint artillery fire could be heard from the direction of Lemberg. The condition of the roads became steadily worse, and dust settled thickly on the landsers, horses, and vehicles. Only the dim silhouette of the vehicle ahead of our platoon was visible as the sun stood like an orange globe in its zenith, barely penetrating the choking clouds of dust. Sweat and dirt combined to create bizarre shapes on the faces peering from beneath the heavy green helmets. Near Krakovize we again combined shelter-quarters to tent and spend the night.
Our odyssey into the void continued as we advanced toward an unknown destination. We encountered primitive villages lining the road, and Russian women and children peered at us intently from the shadows of doorways and gazed at us through the protection of rough-hewn windowpanes. The only men to be seen were ancient veterans of other wars.
When asked, the people of the villages would tell us of the Bolsheviki. The menace and terror of the Siberian penal camps could be seen in the eyes of these people as they spoke, and they told us that pictures of Christ and Stalin hung in the schools. When the village teachers asked, "Whom do you thank for your daily bread?" the children would be compelled to answer "Stalin." We were relieved that we were experiencing firsthand the effects of Communism and that what we were hearing could not simply be attributed to our own propaganda. Niedermeier remarked, "After having seen Russia, we now know how fortunate we are to be German."
On 5 July we moved through Lemberg. The city had been heavily hit twice during the initial course of the war, and the early morning haze revealed burned-out factories, ruined homes, and destroyed tanks with greasy, black smoke billowing from the still-hot carcasses. In one of the few partially intact sectors of the city a long line of people waited in front of a bread depot. They stared at us with listless eyes as we passed.
The Russian air base at Lemberg had been rendered unusable by the Stukas. Blackened aircraft and smashed equipment were scattered throughout the area, and during a pause on our march soldiers wandered among the wreckage, photographing one another alongside destroyed Soviet planes and curiously picking through the ruins, ever mindful of strict regulations against looting or the nonauthorized requisition of captured enemy equipment. The war with the Soviet Union being only a few days under way, we still observed anything associated with the Soviet army with curiosity.
Our march continued through the first half of July. For days great numbers of destroyed Russian tanks lined our path, and capsized prime movers with limbered field guns were scattered along the roadsides. In the fields one could see numerous abandoned Russian artillery positions that appeared to be intact, indicating how quickly our offensive had overtaken the Soviet defenders.
We were astonished at how well motorized the Soviet army was, as our own artillery was represented primarily by horse-drawn equipment reminiscent of World War I. The graves of German and Russian soldiers were now found to be close together, the German graves marked with rough-hewn wooden crosses to the right of the road, the Russians to the left. The Russian graves remained nameless, marked only with rifles and bayonets stuck into the fresh earth. The German graves were topped with the customary steel helmet, and from some of the crosses hung identification disks from linen string, waiting to be collected and filed.
On 8 July as we neared Brody on the wide, rutted road we passed supply units and cable-layers of the Seventy-first Division of the Sixth Army. The cable-layers advised us that the division had taken Lemberg with six hundred casualties and confidently reported that the war was to end within several weeks.
Our advance halted on the old Russian-Galician border. We expected to encounter strong enemy opposition when the Sixth and Seventeenth Armies reached the Stalin Line, a series of bunkers and heavily defended strong points. We were disappointed to learn that the 132d Infantry Division had received the assignment to remain in reserve, as most of us were eager to see action before the inevitable surrender of the Soviet Union.
Fourteen July passed without notice. Our existence remained marked by boredom; our environment consisted of one hundred-meter-wide transport roads, dust, mud, burning heat, thunderstorms, and an endless open space with only occasional clusters of sparse trees stretching to the horizon. Thatched-roofed huts of the collective farms could be seen in the distance, and we concentrated on them, like palms in the desert, to guide us to primitive wells. We had received word that the wells were often poisoned by the Red Army in retreat. Skeletal remains of horses left a lingering stench along our path, the smell that would remind us forever of the Soviet paradise into which we found ourselves marching ever deeper.
The advance slowed as we crossed through Jampol. Occasionally we were lucky enough to obtain a few onions and carrots from the villages that lined our path; more rarely a chicken or a couple of eggs served to augment the monotonous field rations. We reflected with longing on our time spent in Karnten and Zagreb before the onslaught against the Russians began, as there we had enjoyed cold beer and slibowitz.
The infantry continued to march from sunrise to sunset. Dusty, sweaty, and clammy without relief from the brutal climate, we penetrated deeper into Soviet Russia. Although it was against regulations, small panye carts, pulled by stout Russian ponies, were requisitioned to lighten the load of our field packs. As we left civilization as we knew it farther behind us, this habit became more commonplace. The sparse human habitation was primitive and probably lice-ridden, so nights were spent in tents, haystacks, or more often on the bare earth, sleeping rolled in the ever-useful shelter-quarter that each landser was issued. Members of horse-drawn units would be awakened at dawn by the nuzzling of hungry and thirsty horses.
We passed wood-framed schoolhouses, which were little more than rough halls decorated with the characteristic red stars and red-painted podiums for political gatherings of the Communist Party. Tattered, dusty pictures of Stalin and Lenin hung on the walls, and Stalin had introduced compulsory schooling where previously, during the era of the czar, the alphabet was hardly known. We were surprised that many of the schoolchildren could speak some broken German, and from captured propaganda material we learned that political education was a priority for the children.
On 17 July we received mail from home for the first time since our advance had begun, and ten days later the division entered the Ukraine and marched over Kasatin in a southeast direction toward Rushin. The Ukraine steamed in the summer heat. Over wide, sandy roads and on pavement of rough stones we came into a land of unending horizons. Endless wide steppes and grain and sunflower fields bordered our way toward the east. Primitive wooden windmills dotted the horizon, and we used them as our drink and rest stations during the lonely march through a land that left us with unforgettable impressions of freedom contrasting with an overwhelming sense of emptiness.
We came to a halt in an unkempt acacia grove that offered sparse shade in an ocean of grass. The company had marched sixty kilometers in less than twenty-four hours on painfully torn and bruised feet. Dusty and channeled with streaks of sweat, faces browned by wind and sun peered from under heavy helmets to observe our domain. Hands slippery with sweat gripped the entrenching tools to tear holes in the earth. The command was given: "Dig in."
Stripped to the waist we hacked at the earth without speaking, and nearby the singing of bees reminded me of their own endless toil. Clemens and Gehr, the two tractor drivers, decided to locate the source of the bees in search of honey. Equipped with mess tins and armed with shelter-quarters and gas masks as protection from bee stings, they disappeared behind the gun position into a collective farm.
After an hour of labor I had constructed to the left of the Pak position a regulation earthwork, the high side facing our front, on which we would lay our rifles and grenades. The antitank gun stood well-concealed with branches and grass near the edge of the grove. A sandy road cut through the open field before us in an east-west direction, and in the shimmering heat of the afternoon sun the silhouettes of huts in a distant village were visible on the horizon.
To the left of the road Gefreiter Poell had placed his half-track to the rear of the position to be hidden behind the acacia grove, and he set to work camouflaging his Pak. Forward observers from the artillery and the mortar units moved ahead to their observation points with rolls of communication cable strapped to their backs. Only the occasional clatter of an entrenching tool, canteen cup, or mess tin broke the stillness of a seemingly peaceful world.
Folding my dusty tunic under my head for a pillow, I had just begun to doze in the afternoon sun when a rifle shot broke the afternoon silence. In one motion I rolled into the freshly dug foxhole, clapped on the heavy steel helmet, and brought my carbine to my shoulder. Staring forward, I could detect only emptiness and softly swaying grasses. During infantry defense drills it had been hammered into us to shoot at every disturbance, every moving leaf and blade of grass, in order to kill the enemy. Now with my heart pounding, thoughts raced through my mind: Would today be the day that I must kill another human being? Who shoots first, who hits first, him or me? Must I kill today in order to save my own life and the lives of my comrades? I pictured the rows of graves we had passed during our march with carefully placed crosses, identification markers hanging from them, and tried to shake them from my mind.
About six hundred meters to the left of our position the racing sound of rifle fire broke the stillness. Sounding at first like the familiar popping of carbine fire at the training range, soon wild shots snapped through the air and ricocheted above us. With burning eyes we continued staring forward, but we noticed nothing unusual before our position. Through the rifle fire the distinctive crack of an antitank gun sounded far in the distance.
Within a few minutes the incident was over. Dust and the acrid smell of burnt cordite drifted faintly in the air, and to our left an ugly black cloud billowed into the blue afternoon sky. We remained crouched in our positions; in hushed tones and with hearts pounding with excitement we tried to assess what had occurred. A short time later we learned through a courier that Poell's antitank gun had knocked out a Soviet armored reconnaissance vehicle and that an attack by a Russian rifle company had been repulsed.
Little did we realize that in the months and years that lay before us this short encounter would come to be considered as nothing more than a casual and insignificant brush with the enemy, and this first action of the regiment was little indication of the nightmarish years of fighting marked by deprivation, sorrow, and countless victims that lay before us. From this vast expanse many of us would never return, but at the time one didn't dwell on such thoughts.
I turned to my diary, the small pocket-sized book bound in black oilcloth, the corners already ragged and the pages stained with sweat and rain, to recount the incident.
The two drivers returned with mess tins dripping with honey, a satisfying addition to our evening rations. We ate the honey with the Komiss bread, welcoming the change from the usual ration of tinned liver and blood sausage, and we washed the bread and honey down with cold tea before preparing for another march at dawn.
Thirty July found us in bivouac at Michaelovka. During the course of the previous days some of the units had experienced attacks from Soviet bomber and fighter-bomber squadrons, which had proven to be ineffective in slowing our advance. The rifle companies and horse-drawn units marched throughout the night and covered about sixty-five kilometers to reach Kargarlyk on 31 July. The nightly password was issued, and rumors circulated of a pending attack to take place the following morning at 0700 along a wide front. We passed the summer night wrapped in shelter-quarters as we crouched in our grass-lined foxholes.
The rumors held true, as exactly at 0700, 1 August, we began our push forward toward the Soviet defenses near Mirovka. An immense open field lay before us, and our view extended over the steppe, which offered little protection save a gently rolling terrain with shallow depressions invisible to the untrained eye. This presented a great advantage for the Soviets, for as defenders they were able to dig into the safety of the earth with a clear field of fire before their defenses. We made final preparations to abandon our positions and to move across the open steppe.
With little effort we brought the Pak into position on the edge of a wheat field, which offered a wide field of fire facing eastward over the waving green sea, interrupted only by sparse potato gardens. The first rays of the morning sun danced across the wheat stalks of the Ukraine, and through the morning haze we could recognize the distant silhouettes of two villages on the horizon. We sat on the gun carriage drinking warm coffee in an attempt to dissipate the cold feeling within us. Everyone desired to appear nonchalant and spoke of things not associated with the war, attempting through conversation to conceal the anxiety clearly etched in sun-burned faces. Company officers gathered in tight circles several dozen meters away, speaking in low tones and glancing toward the enemy positions, occasionally raising field glasses to their eyes.
At 0650 our artillery had opened fire. The heavy projectiles screamed over us en route to predetermined targets within the enemy positions, and the infantry, burdened with weapons, ammunition, communications equipment, and explosives began to advance along a broad front. The movements seemed to follow as planned in exacting detail, giving an initial impression that nothing had taken place other than another training exercise at Pfarrkirchen or Dugo-Selo.
The captured French tractor clattered noisily up to our position. Limbering our gun, we climbed aboard and advanced, leaving a rising cloud of dust in our wake. We passed the armored reconnaissance vehicle knocked out by Poell on the previous day, and our eyes were drawn to the macabre and still unfamiliar scene of a half-burned corpse hanging with naked torso from one of the hatches.
The two antitank guns of the platoon lurched forward over the undulating ground, accompanying the advance along the sandy road toward Kargarlyk. The machine guns of the foremost infantry units were already engaged; the audible bursts of the MG-34s floated back to us over the wheat stalks. Behind us mortar tubes and artillery pieces pounded with dull thumping in contrast to the high-pitched bursts of small-arms fire.
Suddenly ricochets were whistling and bouncing among us, and we found ourselves scrambling for cover in the ruts and furrows of the road.
"Take cover!" screamed gun captain Hartmann. Through the ever-increasing roar from weapons of every caliber we could see his outstretched arms motioning and his lips moving. His commands remained drowned in the pounding thunder of weaponry. Finally the moment had come. It was now our time to face the enemy. Despite the gnawing fear within us, we met the inevitable with profound relief, which served to demonstrate how our priorities had shifted since our march had begun.
The gun crews automatically and mechanically set to work as they had done in drills countless times before. Gunners one and two loosened the limbers, locked the wheels. Gunners three and four spread the limbers wide apart while the aimer simultaneously adjusted for range by depressing the barrel to a horizontal position. The loader opened the bolt to the breech, and the handlers tossed cases of ammunition from the carriage. With one motion the first round was snapped into the open breech of the barrel to be smoothly loaded and locked, and the weapon was ready to fire. Hartmann knelt next to the gun with binoculars held to his eyes as he directed the aimer in textbook fashion: "Right end of the hedgerow ... range four hundred ... machine-gun nest. Fire!" Within seconds one round after another was leaving the barrel in response to his practiced commands.
We were able to observe an infantry platoon from the Fifth Company as it became pinned in a shallow depression under heavy fire from enemy machine guns. Under cover fire of the Pakour rounds now struck directly within the enemy positionsthe platoon worked its way forward. Clearly visible were the heavily laden infantrymen, advancing slowly through the wheat fields. Thin wisps of smoke revealed where the dry stalks had been ignited by tracer fire.
The collective farm at Klein-Kargarlyk, which was reportedly occupied by Soviet artillery observers, was taken under fire by the second Pak at a range of some six hundred meters. The straw-thatched huts of the collective began to burn brightly, with thick, black smoke rising into the clear sky.
We received the command to shift positions, and we advanced forward to the crossroads on the same bearing as the burning farm huts. Through the bursts of impacting mortar rounds and the pounding of machine-gun fire we were conscious of the cheers erupting from our parched throats as we observed the Russians abandoning their positions. As they attempted to flee from the farm along the dusty road toward the east, our machine gunners increased their fire, and again the rapid-firing MG-34 Spandaus sent streams of copper-jacketed rounds into the fleeing clusters of khaki-brown figures. To our right the first prisoners appeared with upraised hands and eyes wide with fright. They were quickly stripped of helmets and combat equipment, and they instinctively hurried toward our rear at a trot with hands clasped behind their heads.
While changing positions our tracked vehicle parted a tread. The Chenilette spun in an untimely half-circle and stopped, helplessly stuck in an open field within sight of the enemy. The drivers bailed out of the vehicle and desperately began to attempt repairs as we unhitched the gun and slipped into towing harnesses to pull it forward. The Pak designated as number one within our company left us behind as it advanced, bouncing along the rough road toward the sound of firing.
Sweat soaked through the gray-green uniforms and left trails on faces covered with dust and grime as the Ukrainian summer sun beat upon the dull green helmets. Exhausted, we hung gasping and panting in the towing harness as rifle shots cracked in a now familiar tone and plucked at the crusted, dry, road surface. Occasionally tiny mushrooms of dust erupted in erratic lines along the road near us as bullets fired from a heavy machine gun situated on the east edge of Klein-Kargarlyk impacted near us. With the protective armor shield facing forward, we again lunged against the harness to pull the gun farther, our faces strained with exertion and fear. An occasional ping rang sharply against the armor as a bullet struck it like a hammer, a deadly reminder that we were still under fire from isolated snipers.
Hartmann ran forward to reconnoiter a suitable gun position, his submachine gun swinging from his neck and a hand grenade clenched in his right fist. He directed us toward the right and into the edge of a wheat field. As we left the road we noticed a vague checkerboard pattern of fresh earth in the ruts where the Russians had blocked our advance route with their box-shaped mines. Hartmann's reconnaissance had prevented us from straying into them.
We paused to catch our breath in the sparse shadow of the steel gun shield. No tree, bush, or building was present to offer even faint relief from the burning midday sun. With heaving lungs I fell on my hands and knees for a moment. Others collapsed into the furrows on the edge of the road in a vain attempt to find shade; some merely stretched themselves on the Ukrainian earth.
I remained vaguely aware of the bullets from the Maxim machine gun again cracking nearby, and the pounding of my heartbeat gradually slowed while I lay in the dirt. The deadly projectiles continued to snap and whine over us.
The Russians attempted to zero in on our disabled vehicle now a hundred meters distant from where our efforts had brought the gun. Fountains of earth were thrown skyward, and a thick cloud of gray smoke engulfed the Chenilette as it was surrounded by impacting rounds. Despite the hail of small-arms fire snapping through the air about them, the drivers escaped unscathed and were able to repair the track. Leaping into the driver's seat, Clemmons slammed the transmission into gear, and with a racing engine the vehicle lurched forward and bounced over the open ground toward us.
The other gun, one hundred meters to our left, opened fire in an attempt to knock out the Maxim. It then moved forward, the tractor crawling down the left side of the road until it turned sharply into an immense wheat field that stretched to the horizon. The machine gun continued to keep the tractor under fire, the small-caliber ammunition having little effect on the steel-plated skin of the vehicle.
We greeted the arrival of our driver and the tractor with mixed emotions. We were desperate to shift positions, and the prime mover could now pull the heavy gun; however, we were fully aware that the vehicle would draw additional fire from the enemy positions. The thought of abandoning the gun in order to find shelter from the enemy fire flashed through my mind, but I just as quickly eliminated the unthinkable option and strained harder against the harness. Within a few seconds that seemed to last an eternity, the gun was hitched and under tow by the tractor, the motor screaming in protest as the gun bounced behind us over the uneven ground.
The Russians had pulled their artillery fire closer to their own lines, and the heavy projectiles of high explosives crept ever nearer to us, impacting among the most forward units. The incoming rounds shook the earth beneath us, and only with great effort could we hear the shouted commands above the explosions.
The Seventh Company, to the left of us, had become engaged in heavy fighting. As we advanced the Russians began to scramble from their positions to flee through the wheat fields toward Kargarlyk, some five hundred meters distant. Our forward machine-gun crews fired their MG-34s while standing in the waist-high wheat, each barrel resting across the shoulder of a crewman in order to maintain a clear field of fire. A number of the Russians were struck by the bursts of machine-gun fire and tumbled to the earth, disappearing among the wheat stalks.
As we moved forward we came under sporadic rifle fire from a group of Soviets who later surrendered, moving toward us with upraised arms, fear and exhaustion clearly etched in their faces.
The day's objective, a railway embankment in front of the village, had been reached. Twelve kilometers of territory were won in six hours of difficult fighting, and my thoughts dwelled on the insignificance of twelve kilometers: twelve kilometersin an endless land, where unbroken fields stretched to the horizon before us from sunrise to sunset. I wondered how many more twelve-kilometer battles lay ahead of us during our march away from the setting sun.
We came upon one of our casualties lying motionless in the dirt on the road, his helmet still secured tightly to his head, sightless eyes staring into the sky. Russian prisoners were quickly employed to carry the wounded to a field dressing station. Escorted by our lightly wounded who marched along the edge of the road, the pitiful column wound toward the Second Battalion collection point to our rear.
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