As the Wehrmacht fell back in the east they were trying to improvise defensive positions. The German trench lines were thinly manned and they made increasing use of mines to bolster their defences. Yet the Red Army seemed prepared to sacrifice waves of infantry attack to cross the minefields, sparing their tanks.
The intensity of the Russian winter hindered both sides but did not stop the battle. As the temperature plummeted in mid January they reached extremes that the Germans were not prepared for. Flesh froze when it touched metal. Men could only survive outside for a short time before moving back to their bunkers.
For Guy Sajer, with the Grossdeutschland Division, veterans of the Eastern Front, it was a battle where the cold caused more casualties than the enemy:
On another evening, when the cold had attained a dramatic intensity, the Russians attacked again.
We were manning our positions in a temperature which had dropped to 45° below zero. Some men fainted as the cold struck them, paralysed before they even had a chance to scream. Survival seemed almost impossible. Our hands and faces were coated with engine grease, and when our worn gloves were pulled over this gluey mixture, every gesture became extremely difficult.
Our tanks, whose engines would no longer start, swept the spaces in front of them with their long tubes, like elephants caught in a trap.
The muzhiks preparing to attack us were suffering in the same way, freezing where they stood before there was time for even one ‘Ourrah pobieda.’ The men on both sides, suffering a common martyrdom, were longing to call it quits. Metal broke with astonishing ease.
The Soviet tanks were advancing blindly through the pale light of flares, which intensified the bluish glitter of the scene. These tanks were destroyed by the mines which lay parallel to our trenches some thirty yards from our front lines, or by our Tigers, which fired without moving.
The Russian troops, with frozen hands and feet, faltered and withdrew in confusion in the face of the fire we kept steady, despite our tortured hands. Their officers, who had hoped to find us paralysed by cold and incapable of defence, were unconcerned about the condition of their own troops. They were ready to make any sacrifice, so long as Our lines were attacked.
I managed to keep my hands from freezing by thrusting them, in their gloves, into two empty ammunition boxes, when the cartridges had run into the spandau. Our gunners, and everyone forced to use his hands, sooner or later turned up at the medical service with severe cases of freezing. There were a great many amputations.