A suicidal German counter-attack

A Panzer III on the Eastern Front, early Autumn 1943

A Panzer III on the Eastern Front, early Autumn 1943

On the Eastern Front pitched battles on the Dnieper line continued. The Germans were desperate to hold their line and were sustaining heavy losses as they sought to do so. As the line was broken it was standard German practice to counter-attack as soon as possible. The shock of such tactics was often successful if the enemy had not consolidated his position.

On the other hand a hastily prepared counter-attack could be a costly business. As a young officer, Armin Scheiderbauer knew what was expected of him – he was expected to propel the assault on, whatever the casualties. As they launched a night time attack across a cemetery, it immediately became clear that the objective was well defended and they came under heavy fire:

Our attack was still under way and the men were on the move. I did not know how many men there still were. My orders were to clean out the area of breakthrough.

Only one last decisive leap separated me from my goal. Should I, this close to the goal, give the order to withdraw? That order would cost just as many sacrifices as the attack. I decided to carry on. It only needed one more dash forwards. I jumped up and cried ‘Hurrah’! Still shouting ‘Hurrah!’ I sprang forwards without knowing how many of my comrades would follow my lead.

A stabbing pain in my body caused me to fall in the crater. 20 metres in front of me I had seen an enemy aiming at me with a machine-pistol. If his shot had not stopped me, I would certainly have run on like a madman. Then the Russian threw a hand-grenade after me. It exploded on the edge of the crater in which I was crouching. Earth crumbled down upon me. I had to go back, twisting and rolling.

Then I raced and limped, bent and ducking, from crater to crater. I heard a piece of shrapnel whizz up. It tore my cheek open. It was already flying too slowly to be able to hurt me seriously. My right eye could have copped it, but the splinter penetrated the flesh a little bit below.

The attack had been repulsed and the enemy were firing no more flares. In the pale moonlight while I jumped from crater to crater I kept my eyes open for the remnants of my company.

As well as dead men I saw wounded men curled up in craters or crawling back. In twos and threes some of them crouched under cover and joined together.

‘Herr Leutnant’, one of them called to me. I pressed my hand on my burning stomach and decided that I must only be slightly wounded. ‘Herr Leutnant, over here!’ I was called again. While I was listening for the voice and moving in its direction, I was brought down by another bullet.

I slid into the nearest crater. Wailing voices were calling for the medics. The enemy was still maintaining barrage fire. I had no time to check on my third wound. I only felt relieved that it too could not be serious.

As I pressed myself against the edge of the crater, a mortar shell burst very close to my cover. A man dived into the crater howling with pain. His voice I recognised as that of the man who was crying out earlier, an old Obergefreiter.

‘I’ve lost my hand’, he groaned. I saw it dangling in his glove. Groaning, he asked me to open his belt buckle. My hand felt over his body. As I was groping for the buckle, I was seized with horror. I felt the warm soft flesh of his intestines. My hand went into his belly. It was torn open across the width of his body. ‘I’ll go and fetch the medic’, I said to him, knowing he was beyond help. But I could not just go and leave him to die alone. After all, he had followed my orders.

Minutes passed. It seemed like an eternity, although it was not long after mid-night. The seriously wounded Obergefreiter had become still and his breath was coming in gasps. I saw the white of his eyes glistening and felt his sound hand feeling for mine. Then a sigh was wrung out of the dying man. ‘Ah, Herr Leutnant’, he said. His head fell to one side. Again, I was shaken by a feeling of horror. Finally, I made off from crater to crater.

At the unit dressing station I found half of my company. Only 15 men out of 70 had remained unwounded. 20 must have been killed. I myself had been incredibly lucky. The first shot had clipped the surface of my stomach in two places. The second had neatly gone between two ribs over the spleen. I just about managed to walk unaided, with my upper-body bent forward. The wounded were driven back in on the assault guns.

I can still remember the feeling of indescribable relief as I lay in the moving hospital train.

See Armin Scheiderbauer: Adventures in my Youth

A Panzer V ' Panther' on the Eastern Front, early Autumn 1943

A Panzer V ‘ Panther’ on the Eastern Front, early Autumn 1943

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