Monday, March 7, 2016

German Soldiers Marching in the East in 1941

Troops of the German infantry thought that the campaigns in the west had been arduous, and that they had seen all they needed to see of the long roads to the front. However, in Russia the roads were even longer, and went on seemingly for ever. The infantry's complaints were exaggerated by the fact that the armoured and mobile units (of which there were surprisingly few for a so-called modern army) sped ahead from the start of the operation, and the infantry following behind were almost constantly engaged in marching to catch up with them.

Sleep, when it came, was often no more than a short break. One soldier complained: "The hour and a half's sleep had done more harm than good. It had not been easy to awaken the dog-tired men. Our bones were cold, muscles stiff and painful and our feet were swollen. We pulled on our field boots only with great difficulty." Another soldier noted: "Sleep was a precious and often elusive commodity. Personal equipment was pulled on and all straps and accoutrements secured. Unnecessary clothing would be placed in packs and handed across to be ferried by the light infantry supply column (the Tross). Some companies marched as many as 50km in one day." One veteran calculated a single step covered 60cm (men took shorter or longer paces, but this was the average), so 50km meant an estimated 84,000 paces!

Infantry everywhere have to carry their day-today requirements of food, ammunition and water with them, and another Landser commented: "I don't know exactly how heavy our equipment is, but in addition to all of it there was a thick woollen blanket, an ammunition box that could drive one crazy, and that lamentable packet with the hooks in it I should have sent back.' (The last reference is to a parcel from home containing boot hooks)."

Even when there was a chance of a full night's sleep, other matters could take away that inviting prospect: "We only had a little sleep. Once, when we finally managed to secure accommodation in a barn, our section was assigned to sentry duty, and we spent yet another night in a soaking meadow."

The infantry were constantly being rushed, trying to catch up at three miles per hour units that could travel at five times that speed or more. Meals were consequently short. Breakfast was a hasty affair, perhaps a cup of tea or ersatz coffee with bread, butter and some jam or a can of liver sausage. After the order 'prepare to move', there was still time to crack and drink a raw egg. Companies would then begin to form up on the road in the half-light of dawn. At first, soldiers strode energetically along the route, with rifles properly slung as the sun slowly rose. Within an hour or two rifles and weapons were festooned haphazardly about the body. Fingers began to worry absentmindedly at swinging helmet rims fastened to belts or dangling from rifles.

Once on the march, conditions were bad as Artillery Oberleutnant Siegfried Knappe observed: "Our feet sank into the sand and dirt puffing dust into the air so that it rose and clung to us. The horses coughing in the dust produced a pungent odour. The loose sand was nearly as tiring for the horses as deep mud would have been. The men marched in silence, coated with dust, with dry throats and lips."

Perhaps the worst factor of this constant movement was the boredom: "The repetitious rhythm of the march had produced a mask of monotony on every face; a cigarette would dangle in the corner of the mouth. Smoke would not be inhaled, the aroma would simply waft around the marching soldier." Another soldier remarked: "As we marched, low hills would emerge from the horizon ahead of us and then slowly sink back into the horizon behind us. It almost seemed that the same hill kept appearing in front of us. Kilometre after kilometre. Everything seemed to blur into uniform grey because of the vastness and sameness of everything. Fields of sunflowers stretched for kilometre after kilometre after weary kilometre..."

Indeed, the boredom became such that: "We wished that the Russians would make a stand - anything, a battle even, to relieve the painful monotony of this ceaseless, timeless tramping. It was 11p.m. before a halt was called at a big farmhouse. We had covered close on 65km that day! The sheer physical toil of the trudge to the east was exacerbated by the damage to men's feet: Nobody can convince me that any non-infantryman can imagine what is taking place here. Think of the most brutal exhaustion you have ever experienced: direct burning sunlight, weeping sores on your feet - and you have my condition not at the end but at the beginning of a 45km march! It takes hours before your feet become insensitive to the painful wounds at each step on these roads which are either grave or sand at the edges."

The seeming endless vista that spread in front of these weary men led to many comments: "This land is endless, beneath an endless sky with roads trailing endlessly into an incalculable distance. Each village and town seems just like the one that preceded it. They all have the same women and children standing dumbly by the roadside, the same wells, the same farms. ... If the column comes off the road and moves on a compass bearing across fields, we look like lost world circumnavigators seeking new coasts beyond these oceans."

Another remarked that: "The immense space was so vast that we had many soldiers who became melancholy. Flat valleys, flat hills - flat valleys, flat hills, endless, endless. There was no limit. We could not see an end and it was so disconsolate." Another letter home said: "There is no identifiable objective in terms of space across countryside stretching ever further away. Even more depressing, the enemy is becoming even more numerous, even though we have offered up huge sacrifices."

The conditions were worsened even more during the first months of the advance by the fine dust produced as the men marched: "we were all covered in a light yellow coating." Even the motorised troops commented that on a "further drive at speed into the darkness, the dust was often so thick that one could hardly see the vehicle in front any more."

The Russian summer was cursed: "Heat, filth, and clouds of dust were the characteristic snapshot of those days. We hardly saw any enemy apart from the occasional drive-by of enemy prisoners. But the country had totally altered after we crossed the Reich border. Lithuania gave us a little taste of what we were to find in Russia: unmaintained sandy roads, intermittent settlements and ugly houses which were more like huts."

Even when there were a few moments of rest, problems still arose: "For the time being I am in a safe spot. If only I had some water to wash myself! The dirt and the dust cause my skin to itch and my beard is growing longer and longer. Wouldn't you like to kiss me now! I am sure you can see the dirt on the paper on which I write."

Further weather complications came with the autumn and spring mud: the rasputitsa. The mud prevented movement: no man, horse or vehicle (even tanks) could cope with the two feet of mud that was produced by the first vehicles over any stretch of track. The Germans installed corduroy roads - log roads - but these soon sank under the mud, and constant efforts had to be made to re-lay more and more logs. Then came the winter, bringing temperatures lower than those experienced by even mountain troops. To add to the misery, the German Army in 1941 stood in the snow and ice in the remnants of the same uniforms they had worn when they started the move to the east in July!

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