Starving Wehrmacht flees west across the steppe

Abandoned vehicles of the german 9th army at a road near Titowka/Bobruisk (Belarus).
Abandoned vehicles of the German 9th Army at a road near Titowka/Bobruisk (Belarus).

On the Eastern Front Operation Bagration continued to roll on, pushing back the German forces along a front hundreds of miles long. The German Army Group Centre, where nearly half a million men had been in the frontline, had been smashed apart with casualties even greater than the disaster at Stalingrad.

The huge salient pushing into the centre of the German front was now forcing those on the edges to pull back. The retreat fell into a rout in places. Disorganised groups of men without transport and without supplies, were forced to march away across the endless open Russian steppe. Desperate to avoid being taken by the Soviets, they were soon desperate from hunger. Guy Sajer, who fought with the Grossdeutschland Division, was now amongst this horde:

We seemed to tramping along a huge carpet on rollers, which unwound beneath our feet, leaving us always in the same place. How many hours, and days, and nights went by? I can no longer remember. Our groups spread out, and separated. Some stayed where they were, and slept. No order or threat was strong enough to move them. Others – small groups of men – who were particularly strong, or who still had enough food to keep going — went on ahead.

There were also many suicides. I remember two villages stripped of every scrap of food, and more than one massacre. Men were ready to commit murder for a quart of goat’s milk, a few potatoes, a pound of millet. Starving wolves on the run don’t have time to stop and talk. There were still a few human beings left in the wolf pack: soldiers who died to save a can of sour milk — the last reserve of a pair of infants.

Others died at the hands of their fellows for protesting against the savagery produced by famine, or were beaten to death because they were suspected of hiding food. Usually, these men were found to have nothing. There were a few exceptions: an Austrian had his head kicked in, and a few handfuls of crumbled vitamin biscuit were found at the bottom of his sack. He had probably collected them by shaking out the provision sacks of some commissariat which had ceased to exist several weeks before.

Men died for very little — for the possibility of a day’s food. When everything had been eaten, down to the last sprout in the meagre gardens, twelve thousand soldiers stared at the village, which had been abandoned by its terrified inhabitants. Living corpses wandered here and there, staring at the tragic shreds of existence which remained to them.

They stared at the scene of pillage, looking for some understanding of the past which might shed some light on the future. They stayed where they were until dusk.

Then three or four armoured cars from the advancing Russian troops arrived, peppered with machine-gun fire the crowd of men, who didn’t even try to escape, made a half-tum, and left. The desperate, ravening men scattered across the steppe.

Everyone fled, running for the west because the west drew them irresistibly, as the north attracts the needle of a compass. The steppe absorbed and obliterated them, leaving only small, scattered groups tramping toward the Rumanian frontier, which was very close, but still out of sight.

Then we experienced Rumania and its population, which seemed stunned by the sequence of events, by the route of their army, and by the painful disintegration of the Wehrmacht.

Civilian life was in a state of panic, with Rumanian and foreign partisans, daily overflights of foreign planes, raids for food and supplies, and Rumanian prostitutes who flocked around the troops in such numbers that it seemed as if most of the women in Rumania must be prostitutes.

We marched twenty, twenty-five, even thirty miles a day, pouring with sweat and stunned by disillusion. Our tortured feet were alternately bare in the dust of narrow, twisting roads, then back in our boots, and then naked and bleeding once more. Our hollow stomachs rumbled with hunger.

There were raiding parties, re-formation of units, and a lunatic rabble, whose fringes and surface were skimmed by military police intent on discipline, and as always alert for the possibility of exemplary executions.

The landscape was profoundly romantic, but we had been transformed into ravening wolves, and thought of nothing but food.

See Guy Sajer: The Forgotten Soldier

Contemporary British newsreel of the opening phases of the Soviet attack:

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