Erwin Bartmann had been wounded on the Eastern Front serving with the 1st SS Panzer Division. After recovering he was sent to a training school for young recruits. Now he returned with them to the Eastern Front, only this time that front was within Germany.
The Red Army had begun their assault on the Seelow Heights, the defensive line in the hills east of Berlin, on the 16th April. The following day Bartmann and his young recruits were transported to very outskirts of Berlin to face action for the first time. That evening he realised that they were too young to be able to cope with the small quantity of schnapps that he had obtained:
On the night of 17th-18th April 1945 they started to come under Soviet artillery fire:
Throughout that night, a heavy artillery bombardment shook the earth. Every young face bore the furrow-lines of fear. ‘Don’t worry,’ I assured them, ‘the detonations are too far away to do us any mischief. Ivan doesn’t know we’re here yet.’ ‘They’re too close for comfort.’ exclaimed one of the recruits whose shoulders yanked up tight at every whizz or bang. ‘How do you know?’ piped up the recruit who had complained on the overnight march. ‘He’s on old hare, he can tell.’
I felt my lips pull an involuntary smile. It was strange, but nevertheless gratifying, to hear myself referred to as an ‘old hare’ though I was not yet twenty- two years old. Yet it was easy to understand the recruit’s anxiety — I had felt the same tension when crossing the Dniepr under the protection of Unterscharfuhrer Nowotnik.
‘Settle down and get some sleep,’ I said, feeling almost fatherly. …
A depressingly grey dawn crept over the horizon, the signal for the start of a barrage of 15 centimetre Russian mortar shells that fell with frightening accuracy along our front line. No one could hear the screams of the wounded above the thud of continually exploding rounds; the land itself seemed to shake with fear.
I popped my head above the line of the trench to make sure the Russian infantry had not crept up on us under the protection of the barrage. At that instant, a shell detonated close by, sending a gust of tiny slivers of steel blasting against my face.
As I ducked back under cover, the recruits looked at me as if they had seen the devil himself. Only then did I notice the warm rivulets of blood trickling down my cheeks. Once again my guardian angel was at my side; none of the little steel needles had found my eyes and those that were imbedded in my skin were easily plucked out. As the bombardment waned, German steel helmets appeared above the lines of our trenches. Someone close by was shouting, swearing, as he pointed in the direction of the Frankfurt—Mullrose road.
A squadron of Russian T-34 tanks was heading south. I raised my binoculars. The image that loomed into focus sickened me to the pit of my stomach. Women and children were bound to the tanks’ guns. Though they were too distant for me to hear their wails above the sound of the tank engines, the body language of the mothers told its own pitiful tale. Cold, silent, helpless rage filled my heart. ‘What should we do?’ yelled one my machine-gun crew, his boyish face contorted by an expression of confused agony.
One accidental pull on a trigger could have startled every one of our machine guns into unleashing a hail of bullets at the tanks, which were easily within range. ‘Hold fire,’ I said through gritted teeth. ‘Let the officers decide.’ After a short but heated discussion, the officers let the tanks pass without firing a single shot but I dared not speculate the fate that might await the terrified hostages. We all knew of, and believed, the reports of Russian tanks deliberately squashing columns of refuges under their tracks as they fled East Prussia.
Russian fighter planes swooped on our trenches, raking the area with machine-gun fire. I made sure my recruits kept their heads down and we escaped the onslaught without a single casualty. By early afternoon, an enemy infantry battalion was gathering without hindrance just a kilometre away. ‘Don’t worry about the bayonets,’ I told the youngsters of the machine-gun crew whose trench I shared, ‘they won’t get close enough to use them.’
Mutterings of anxiety continued to pass between the recruits as we waited for the inevitable onslaught. At last, the enemy infantry charged. Our machine guns unleashed a storm of bullets into their killing zone, scything through wave after wave of brown uniforms. The two crews directly under my command performed well and we managed to hold back the attack on our sector of the defence line.
My experience on the Ostfront enabled me to keep our losses to just two men. Qne of these we buried in the Friedhof in Lichtenberg, the other, a handsome young chap, I buried with the help of two Kameraden, close to where he fell.
The next Russian attack was more determined. They had found a gap in our lines and Untersturmfuhrer Gessner’s infantry platoon left the cover of the woods to set off down the hill, ahead of our machine-gun positions, with the aim of throwing back the enemy attack. Unfortunately, he took his unit too close to the enemy for us to give effective machine-gun support. With the intention of fending off any assault on Gessner’s squad, I led one of the crews down the hill to get a better firing position.
Having covered about 500 metres, we came under intense small-arms fire and threw ourselves to the ground. When the firing stopped, I was horrified to see a Russian infantry platoon close on Untersturmfuhrer Gessner. He was on his knees with a pistol at his temple. There was a puff of smoke and he slumped to the side. His courage had not failed him.
I pulled my machine—gun crew back to our lines at the edge of the woods only to find the other recruits exactly where I had left them. ‘If you had followed us we could have saved Untersturmfuhrer Gessner,’ I roared angrily only to be confronted with an avalanche of excuses intended to justify their inaction.
The night passed without further event.