Freezing on the Russian steppe hoping for a ‘Heimatschuss’

Soviet soldiers fire 45-mm anti-tank gun model 1937 53-K at the German positions on the Volga at Stalingrad.

Soviet soldiers fire 45-mm anti-tank gun model 1937 53-K at the German positions on the Volga at Stalingrad.

Günter K. Koschorrek had spent just over a month on the Eastern Front, having first found himself in action on 24th November. Having narrowly escaped that engagement his hastily thrown together unit had been coming under successive attacks and their position was looking increasingly vulnerable.

The 15th December found Koschorrek yet again facing another Russian attack. His thoughts, like many others, were turning to whether it would be possible to survive for much longer.

Why don’t the assault guns come? We wait and wait, and then – too late! We hear the mortar shells rushing in. In spite of the fact that they hit the ground some distance away, splinters do zip through the air and pass close to our heads.

It doesn`t particularly upset us: we’re used to much worse. I even decide to stand up, so that I can keep my feet moving. Then a shell explodes on the slope across from us. We can see the splinters fizzing in the snow.

A soldier calls out, and I feel a slight pain underneath my left knee cap.They are calling for the medic, who is in our group. He is taking care of the wounded man, whose thigh has been torn open by a splinter and who as a result is bleeding heavily. He is an Obergefreiter wearing the blue uniform of a Luftwaffe field division. He came to this group with three others when his own unit was decimated.

After the medic has taken care of the man, I show him the place where I felt a hit. Directly under my kneecap there is a small hole, about the size of a pea. It doesn’t hurt, and I can move my leg okay, but a thin trickle of blood, almost black in colour, is running down my shin.

The medic attaches a plaster. ‘Too bad,’ he says almost apologetically and shrugs his shoulders.

I know what he means. He is trying to tell me that unfortunately it does not qualify me for a Heimatschuss [literally a ‘Home Shot’ – a wound bad enough to get you sent home] I feel the disappointment – a hope has been dashed. And then I think how quickly human feelings and attitudes can change. It is only a matter of weeks since I was dreaming of glory and heroism and was so full of élan that I was almost bursting.

Now I long for a Heimatschuss – because it appears to me to be the only way that I can, with any sort of honour, say goodbye to this soul- destroying environment and, for at least a few weeks, get away from this awful country and its gruesome winter.

Is it cowardice to think like this, to start comparing our war here with trying to stop a full-blown avalanche merely by using human bodies? With human beings who, full of despair and freezing to death, shiver in icy holes in the snow and each morning thank God that their bones have not frozen solid because they are still needed to help you get away to safety from the attacking enemy?

I don’t think that this rabble of soldiers, thrown together, and without proper heavy weapons, will be able to hold back the Russians here on the Don and Tschir this winter. Anyone who can escape from this situation with just an injury really can talk about his luck. But thinking that you might fall into this category isn’t being realistic: it’s a dream.

And when does a dream ever come true? The path of a splinter or bullet does not conform to the wishes of the ordinary soldier. Splinters and bullets are hard, hot and nasty.They search out life hiding in dirty rags and try to extinguish it with one blow.

For Koschorrek dreams did come true. Christmas came early for him when his minor wound developed an infection, his whole leg swelled up and became immobile. Within days he was evacuated. Without such luck he probably wouldn’t have survived to write his subsequent account, based on the scraps of a diary he wrote at the time.

See Günter K. Koschorrek: Blood Red Snow.

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