'Mortar Gunner on the Eastern Front'
A second excerpt from Volume I: From the Moscow Winter Offensive to Operation Zitadelle
The first English translation - Mortar Gunner on the Eastern Front Volume I: From the Moscow Winter Offensive to Operation Zitadelle - was published in 2019.
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.
Once again a look at life on life on the Eastern Front exactly 80 years ago. Last week Rehfeldt described his experiences with the Russian climate and now he had to deal with the consequences. Hundreds of thousands of German soldiers suffered from frostbite and here he gives a graphic account of what that actually meant:
14 January-8 February 1942
I went to the doctor at Voronezh again, because the pain in my frostbitten legs was now intolerable, the affected patches being open wounds, suppurating and bleeding. This made them stick to my trouser legs and the itching from the lice drove me crazy.
My leather boots were frozen solid and I cannot describe my suffering as they were removed. When the doctor saw my legs he said at once,‘Go back to the Trass [rearward services].’ Then he cleaned the encrusted wounds with a pair of tweezers. I could have cried out with pain every time he touched them.
I went back to Bolchov on the back of the field kitchen wagon clasping my few things and reported to the Spiess Stabsfeldwebel Maritzen, who directed me to the ‘sickbay’. As I hobbled in I was greeted loudly by Gottfried Fritsch and other front-line comrades, all with more or less serious frostbite. It was a large room without beds and had a typical Russian stove at its centre: the patients lay on the straw-covered floor. Each man kept his ‘personal belongings’, mess tin and field flask at the head of his ‘place’.
Because the house floor was at ground level and not raised, every time the front door was opened a cloud of ice-cold air wafted in to embrace the patients. The doorway was hung with woollen blankets which made little difference. I had to report to the doctor every third day. It was a pitiful sight to see the wounded and frostbitten hobbling slowly and laboriously across the street to the doctor’s little house, teeth clenched against the pain.
These inflammations to cellular tissue, caused by frost and the subsequent effects of lice infestation, were treated with about ten different kinds of salves and baths, but those which had gone deep into the flesh would simply not heal. My legs were bandaged from toe to thigh, but unfortunately there was no delousing unit in the small town and so at night the lice raged.
Sleep was hardly possible what with the pain and itching, every man groaning and not knowing the best position in which to lie. Often I would lie with my feet up on a stool to reduce the throbbing of the blood in the wounds. We had laced shoes, but even these I could only wear with the greatest discomfort.
The doctors were initially powerless, trying all kinds of salve and ointment without success. In the first couple of days I slept as much as I could and warmed up through and through. Mail was delivered every third day, and we could receive parcels with a weight limit of 5Og but the joy mail and parcels gave us was great.
Lying around inactive led us to eat from pure despair - baked potatoes, toast, often three portions. Mostly we ate our rations in the evening.
In that sickbay ‘our Matka’ lived with her three sons aged seven, five and one still in the cradle. She was a dutiful mother to us. When we called, there she would be in the kitchen doorway: she cleaned the sickbay, fetched wood for the stove, got the stove going, washed our mess tins. Because we were lying on the floor, the sickbay was never really warm, and so we wanted the fire going all day.
In winter the Russians would live upstairs above the stove, and also store corn, sunflower seeds, other comestible items and their clothing there. Mostly we had a very good relationship with our Matka, and when she got annoyed we knew it would pass quickly. We learned that our Regiment, a regiment only in name, was being relieved at the Oka position as a result of the many casualties on the retreat and caused by the cold.
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. The above images are not from this book - it does have a good selection of contemporary images and maps but they do not reproduce well here.