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'Mortar Gunner on the Eastern Front'
Front line positions with sub zero temperatures and severe snow storms
The memoirs of Dr Hans Heinz Rehfeldt are based on fairly detailed diary notes that he kept during his time on the Eastern Front. He only returned to them fifty years after the war and his memoir was first published in Germany in 2008. The first English translation - Mortar Gunner on the Eastern Front Volume I: From the Moscow Winter Offensive to Operation Zitadelle - was published in 2019.
It is a remarkable account of the daily life of a soldier who was thrown into combat almost as soon as he arrived on the front in November 1941. By January 1942 he was already a lucky survivor of the Reserve Battalion of the Grossdeutschland Infantry Regiment and rapidly gaining combat experience.
The following excerpt (the first of two) deals with life on the front line where their forward bunkers were some way forward from the Russian village where they lived:
6th January 1942
Today something weird happened. Karl Viole was sitting with the others cleaning mortar bombs with an oily rag. To keep his fingers warm, he laid the bombs on the stove. Colleagues in the corner raised horrified objections at the danger of doing this, but Karl merely smiled and ignored them.
Suddenly there was a tremendous crash, mud and bricks flew everywhere, we heard a short, loud hissing sound and Karl found himself on the floor near the wreckage of his stool. Everybody else had thrown themselves to the floor and lay flat!
Upon investigation we discovered a hole the size of a man’s head in the wall nearest the enemy, and in the opposite corner near the stove a smaller hole. Neither had been there seconds before.
Mortar bombs are not armour-piercing, so Ivan must have accidentally fired an AP shell which went through our house wall. On its way through, it took off the leg of Karl’s stool and came to rest in the corner near the stove. It must have been an AP, for an explosive shell would have left us with many dead and wounded. That was Soldatengluck!
7-14 January 1942
Along our sector of the Front it had fallen quiet at last. We stood the usual six hours on, six hours off, roster at the bunker. I was outside on sentry duty when the single Russian aircraft appeared which flew reconnaissance in clear weather. We took cover to avoid our positions being spotted. After a broad sweep he flew off.
From behind the timber forest into which the Russians had withdrawn on New Year’s Day, suddenly I saw a thick blue-grey strip of cloud approaching rapidly, soon obscuring the sun. The sky grew dark as the cloud arrived overhead. I was thinking that this might bring us another heap of snow when everything turned greyish-black, I heard a kind of‘singing’ and ‘whistling’ unknown in my previous experience and then I saw a wall of snow falling behind Voronezh before the village was lost to sight.
I raised up the collar of my greatcoat, muffled my face with the cap comforter and was then assailed by a whirlwind of huge snowflakes accompanied by a blast of wind howling and whistling with the most tremendous force. I got down into the mortar pit for cover: the snow on the wind got down inside my collar. It had grown so dark that a hand could hardly be seen before my face even when I forced my eyes open.
Snow began to build up quickly in the mortar pit: the ammunition cases beneath a groundsheet were soon covered over. My attempts to shovel the pit clear were defeated by the storm. Soon the mortar was 50cm deep, I was up to my knees in snow, my carbine had acquired a thick covering of frozen snow which soon spread over my whole body. I gritted my teeth and stamped up and down, watching the level of snow rise to the muzzle of the mortar barrel.
This first exposure to the might of a Russian snowstorm lasted an hour and ended as swiftly as it had begun. The dark clouds were driven for some time in rhe direction of Ivan and then the first rays of the sun broke through. Both mortars had disappeared under the snow and our bunker was so snowed under that only the projecting stovepipe betrayed its location. I had to shovel the bunker door free to allow the occupants to emerge.
They looked at the scene in astonishment and then set to work to clear it. Of Ivan there was no sign. I warmed myself at the stove, my hands and feet hurting at so much sudden heat.
By the time our relief came wading through the snow we had the mortars ready to fire and the bunker entrance totally free. In the village we found a tureen of wonderful hot pea soup awaiting us.
This excerpt from Mortar Gunner on the Eastern Front Volume I: From the Moscow Winter Offensive to Operation Zitadelle appears by kind permission of Pen & Sword Books Ltd. Copyright remains with the author.