German troops suffer in the cold
31st December 1941: The New Year starts to look a lot less promising
Just a month before Hitler had believed that they just needed one last resolute push to reach Moscow. In the space of a few weeks the reverses in German fortunes had been dramatic. Hitler had ordered no further withdrawals - but there was little that could be done to save his troops from the Russian winter.
Tens of thousands of German soldiers were falling victim to frostbite, mainly due to inadequate winter clothing, adding to battle casualties that were now steadily mounting.
Warm clothing was being gathered in Germany and was also being confiscated from civilians in the occupied territories. But - with the supply lines all the way back to Poland also frozen up - getting what was needed to the troops on the front line was another matter.
In German occupied eastern Poland Dr Klukowski1 was quietly monitoring the Germans situation, he believed he had grounds for optimism:
31st December 1941
Tomorrow we will start a New Year. We all believe that this will be the last year of the war. From all fronts we receive news of German retreats. The winter this year is very fierce. There is much snow and freezing conditions are making motorized units practically immobile.
We watch as military ambulances and trains go west, loaded with wounded and frostbitten soldiers. Most frostbite occurs on hands, feet, ears, noses, and genitals. You can judge the desperation of the German military situation by the fact that Hitler has taken direct responsibility for all military action in Russia.
We have noticed disorganization in the German administration. For example, in the county offices you cannot solve any problem at all because the employees think only about their own future and make decisions based on the future.
Here in Szczebrzeszyn there is new action against the Jews. On December 26 it was announced that under penalty of death all Jews must surrender all fur coats, fur hats, fur collars, fur gloves, fur muffs, and any other clothing made of fur. Now most jews are trying to hide all fur articles, but some are giving them away. Dr. Bolotny took about 12,000 zloty worth of his own and also his wife’s furs to the judenrat.
At anytime we expect the same for the Polish population. Some people are boiling mad, but some are happy because this fur business shows that the Germans are suffering. The temperature is very low. We lack fuel and people are freezing, but everyone hopes for an even colder winter, because it will help defeat the Germans.
For many German troops there was also the realisation that their great Eastern adventure had entirely changed in character.
Having fought in Norway, the Balkans and Crete the paratrooper Martin Poppel2 was already a veteran. Now, in late December, he found himself on a slow train to the front where the great majority of the Germans would fight. It was a dreary journey across eastern Germany, Poland and Russia - and the more he saw of the situation on the Eastern front the more disheartening it was:
We stop for some time near Bialystock and change engines…
A transport train carrying wounded men stops nearby. It’s a wretched sight which makes it clear to us how bitterly this war is being fought. It consists of ordinary goods wagons with straw in them for the wounded to lie on. Filthy and louse-ridden, with inadequate dressings and hardly any medical orderlies, no heating - that’s how the boys are brought home.
As soldiers, we understand the situation better when a railway official explains that there are around 3000 wounded men passing through here every day. Our excellent ambulance trains simply can’t cope any more. In the ensuing silence, each of us thinks that a decent soldier’s death in action would be better than to be brought home in a train like that, like animals to the slaughter
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Russian images courtesy: https://russiainphoto.ru/
Bundesarchiv Images: Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Germany