For many men in the Wehrmacht the Eastern Front represented travelling over vast distances as they marched into the Russian interior, and later retreated. For the greater part of the war, however, much of the front line remained static and here conditions varied little from the trench warfare of the First World War. This was especially the case around Leningrad in the north.
Here the German invasion had rolled to halt outside the city and Hitler had decided not to attack but merely to lay siege. At the time it had been thought that the rest of Russia would soon collapse. Ever since then the Leningrad population had suffered starvation and intermittent bombardment and bombing.
Outside Leningrad many of the same German troops that had arrived in 1941 still remained. For almost two years Walter Lubbeck had been on the same front, in his role as a forward artillery observer. Now conditions were gradually beginning to change, with the strengthening of Soviet air power in the summer of 1943:
Over the course of the war, most of the casualties in our regiment resulted from Russian artillery and mortars, to a lesser extent from small-arms fire. About this time, however, we also began to endure our first bombing and strafing raids by Soviet aircraft.
During the daytime, we occasionally faced a threat from Soviet ground-attack planes like the Illyushin-2 Sturmovik. At night, we confronted the menace of the Polyarkov-2, nicknamed the Nahmaschine (Sewing Machine) for the loud rhythmic clattering of its engine.
The noisy approach of the Nahmaschine was audible at a great distance, but it was virtually impossible to target them in the darkness. Flying a couple of hundred feet overhead, the pilot and copilot would search for any flicker of light that would reveal the location of our lines or rear camps.
Despite efforts to black-out everything on the ground, there was bound to be someone who would light a cigarette or use a flashlight that the enemy could spot. Once locating a potential target, the Soviet pilots often cut their engines in order to glide silently over the spot before dropping their bombs on the unsuspecting targets below.
The day after one of these nocturnal raids by a Nahmaschine, not long after the tank battle, I was again up front operating as forward observer. Immediately after directing one of our 150-millimeter howitzers to fire a round against an enemy target, I instead heard an enormous boom from the direction of our heavy guns in the rear.
The mystery was soon revealed. A misfiring shell inside the barrel of the howitzer had caused an explosion that detonated the shells stacked next to it, killing the five-man gun crew and obliterating everything in the vicinity. Though unable to get back and observe the scene myself, I was told that only a large crater remained.
This malfunction could have resulted from faulty workmanship or sabotage in the manufacture of the shell, but I was convinced it resulted from the phosphorous dropped on our position during the previous night’s air raid. A corrosive particle of the phosphorous could have burned a small hole in a shell that went undetected during its loading.
Unfortunately, a sudden change in the battlefield situation within hours of this accident forced my company to pull back from the position without conducting an adequate investigation.
Contemporary German footage celebrating a range of heavy artillery weapons: