Wounded – a lucky escape from the Eastern front

A German picture of the aftermath of battle on the Eastern front in February 1945, with Soviet dead and destroyed T-34 tanks.

A German picture of the aftermath of battle on the Eastern front in February 1945, with Soviet dead and destroyed T-34 tanks.

The Volkssturm - the 'peoples army' of old men and boys was now bolstering German numbers on the eastern front.

The Volkssturm – the ‘peoples army’ of old men and boys was now bolstering German numbers on the Eastern front.

As the Eastern front descended into barbarity the German soldier was fighting for his life, without any alternative. Anyone found deserting, or even any straggler suspected of doing so, would not enjoy a carefully conducted legal process while his case was considered. Field ‘court martials’ , if they could be described as such, were swift affairs and usually ended with a firing squad.

Henry Metelmann was to enjoy practically the only route out available to the infantryman in a front line unit – he was wounded. More importantly he was wounded while the evacuation of casualties to the west was still functioning:

We were driven before the advancing Russians across the old Polish border, from which three years ago we had set out full of hope to conquer the USSR. During the campaign I had been wounded several times but, luckily, only slightly.

And then, it happened again. Not far from the River San and the large town of Przemysl I was hit by a shell fragment, which finally secured me a place on a Red Cross transport back home to Germany.

What a homecoming it was! We had heard, of course, about the Allied air attacks on the German cities. But what we saw from our windows was far beyond what we had expected. It shocked us to the core of our very being.

Was this what we had been fighting for in the East for several years? And yet, there was still a hard core amongst us, when we were discussing the horrible spectacle, who could not see the connection between these ashes and what we had done in Russia. Breslau was very bad when we saw it, but no worse than Stalingrad had been.

As the wounded were now also being rushed into the Fatherland from the Western and Southem Fronts, all the hospital services were heavily overloaded. We came through Dresden, Leipzig, Halle, Magdeburg etc. Sometimes we went through air attacks, but our coaches had large Red Crosses on their roofs, and fortunately nothing happened to us. Finally we were unloaded at an emergency Lazarett at Gutersloh in Westphalia.

The faces of the civilians were grey and tired, and in some of them we could even see resentment, as if it was our fault that their homes had been destroyed and so many of their dear ones burnt to cinders. Smiling wryly, we reminded each other that Hitler himself had promised his soldiers that the gratitude of the Fatherland to them would be ensured forever. But we realized that these had merely been words, and the cold reality was quite different.

Even so many of us expected some sort of reception committee, with flowers and speeches at the railway station. But when we arrived, there were only the porters, who had got used to these trains, and over-worked and harassed stretcher-bearers from the Hitler Youth, who dumped us as quickly as they could in the long corridors.

… the final collapse of our Reich was now only a question of time, and this dominated all the thinking of my waking hours. Though not daring to say to anyone, secretly I would have liked to have stayed medically unfit for war until the last shot was fired.

By this time, with powerful enemy armies fighting on all sides of our Reich, even the most fanatical amongst us began to realize that our practical use as soldiers could now be no more than as cheap cannon fodder, to be carelessly sacrificed on an idiotic altar of glory. With everything so openly and obviously falling to pieces all around us, it was – and still is — a mystery to me why no revolt broke out anywhere amongst the suffering German population.

It was a short respite for Metelmann because he was soon judged fit and returned to a front line unit in April. The real piece of luck that he enjoyed was that, having spent most of the war on the Eastern front, he now found himself on the Western front. When the time for surrender came he was in an incomparably better position than if he had not been wounded at the beginning of the year.

See Henry Metelmann: Through Hell for Hitler: A Dramatic First-Hand Account of Fighting on the Eastern Front With the Wehrmacht

Berlin was declared a 'defence zone' on 1st February - and civilian 'volunteers' were soon drafted in to build tank ditches.

Berlin was declared a ‘defence zone’ on 1st February – and civilian ‘volunteers’ were soon drafted in to build tank ditches.

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Sid May 11, 2015 at 7:14 pm

I would really like to see this narrative go on in some form (maybe “this week?”) for at least a further year or three. You really do seem to have a knack for it.
So much happened getting the troop home; my father spent months in getting back from the Pacific. Also, the liberation of POW camps, the occupation and eventual rebuilding of both Germany and Japan were momentous times. This period is almost always overshadowed by the war itself that I can find relatively little about it – until things start to heat up in Korea, at least.

Michael Escobar February 4, 2015 at 1:14 am

you could start over next year – at the Spanish Civil War.

ccg February 2, 2015 at 8:38 pm

I haven’t found a WW! sight that remotely compares to this one. Any suggestions are welcome!

Jim Duggan February 2, 2015 at 6:36 pm

What a great work this blog is. Thank you for your tremendous effort. I make this blog a daily requirement.
I kept an eye to the calendar in ’89 – ’95 again in ’99 – ’05. I did my best to remember as often as possible the sacrifices that the war generation performed from ’39 to ’45. Your blog makes this a much more rewarding and fulfilling task.
Thank you again.

Jim Duggan February 2, 2015 at 6:35 pm

What a great work this blog is. Thank you for your tremendous effort. I make this blog a daily requirement.
I kept an eye to the calendar in ’89 – ’95 again in ’99 – ’05. I did my best to remember as often as possible the sacrifices that the war generation performed from ’39 to ’45. Your blog makes this a much more rewarding and fulfilling task.
Thank you again.

William Quinn February 2, 2015 at 9:26 am

Count me among the many. And thanks for keeping it going! (My father was in Raydon 43-45, US Army Chemical Corps attached to the 8th Air Force, 353rd Fighter Group.)

Stuart Levine February 2, 2015 at 3:36 am

Let me offer a small dissent. Before that however, I want to thank you for this blog and your incredible efforts.

The dissent is this: The war didn’t end on the day that the Germans or the Japanese surrendered. Rather, especially in Europe, dead-enders kept going for a while. I think that this story and the story of the immediate aftermath are worth telling if, for no other reason, than they are not well-known.

Editor February 1, 2015 at 8:38 pm

William, thanks for the support. Well, this summer sees the end of the war 70 years ago and the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain and the beginning of the Blitz in the UK. So at some point this year I shall start reintroducing posts from 1940. I have uncovered many more photographs from this period that I didn’t find in 2010, as well as quite a few new stories that deserve to be included. So hopefully many readers will wish to continue following the war …

William Quinn February 1, 2015 at 8:24 am

I wonder if at this point I could interject a couple of questions-
What will the end point of WW2 Today be? V-J Day? Something else (good grief, you could keep going, do Operation Magic Carpet, Operation Paperclip, Nuremberg Trials, before long it would be Cold War Today or even Korean War Today OTOH after long years of work on this blog we should only extend our thanks and let go)
Second Question:
Now that we are in the 100 year anniversary of WW1 I have been looking for a comparable WW1 blog, so far I like GreatWarProject but they don’t have new material daily, does anyone reading this have any ideas? Thanks.

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