Exactly three years before Hitler had launched Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of Soviet Russia. The Germans had been told they only had to ‘kick in the door’ and the whole corrupt communist regime would collapse, victory would be theirs with a matter of a couple of months.
It hadn’t worked out like that. Two years before the German offensive had got sidetracked into the Stalingrad offensive. One year before the last major German offensive, at Kursk, had come to nothing. They had been falling back ever since.
Now it was the turn of the Soviets to mount a major offensive. The Germans had expected an attack but they did not anticipate the massive assault that was now thrown at them. Despite the appalling losses that they had suffered the Red Army now had well over 3 million men to throw into a broad attack on the German Army Group Centre. Under the weight of this attack the main German forces in Russia would be decimated – suffering far heavier losses than at Stalingrad.
Armin Scheiderbauer had just returned to the Eastern Front after completing his officer training course:
To the north of Vitebsk, where we were, the Soviets began their offensive in the early morning of 22 June. On a front extending 64 kilometres, the IX Army Corps with Corps Detachment D and the 252nd Infantry Division were conducting the defence. There, eight divisions of the Soviet 43rd Army attacked. To those were soon added the first division of the 6th Guards Army.
It was intended to achieve a breakthrough some 25 kilometres wide. Along with the offensive divisions of the Red Army there rolled two armoured brigades into the focal-point of the breakthrough area. The two offensive wedges encountered the right-hand and central sectors of the 252nd Infantry Division.
In the course of the night of 21 June and in the early hours of 22 June, the Russians pushed up nearer and nearer to our position. At 4am the enemy’s heavy barrage began and at 4.20am they attacked on a wide front. Breakthroughs were made in the sector of the 1st Battalion Grenadier-regiment 7 and the Division’s Fusilier battalion.
As I recall, the hurricane broke at 3.05am, on the dot, just as it had in 1941. The fire was concentrated mainly on the main line of resistance. Only isolated heavy-calibre shells dropped in the village. We had long since left our quarters in houses, and were waiting in the cover trenches beside them. I had been woken by the crash of bursting shells after just an hour’s sleep. That action began for me with a thundering within my skull, weakened by schnapps and tiredness.
Towards 5am the battalion received orders to move into the second line, that is, the trench that was planned for that purpose. It was good news, because as soon as the enemy attacked up front, we could expect the fire to be moved to the rear. Then it would be mostly the firing positions, villages, and roads, the position of which had been long established by enemy reconnaissance, that would be under fire.
We moved forward, the bombardment ahead of us and the impacts of heavy-calibre shells behind us. In the event, the Division was divided into two halves. Under its command remained Infanterieregiment 7, the divisional Fusilier battalion, and our 2nd Battalion 472. But of these, the 5th Company deployed on the left, the 1st Battalion, the regimental staff and the whole of Regiment 461 were pushed north-westwards. Even on the next day there was no news whatsoever of the 5th Company. In the meantime the second line had become the main line of resistance and the gap that had opened on the left urgently needed to be blocked off.
Visiting our main line of resistance, Hauptmann Muller and I found an 8.8cm Army anti-tank gun, commanding the road to Lowsha from a clearing in the woods, on which the Russians were bringing up tanks. A T-34 passed by; one shot, and it was in flames. The second followed straight behind it. The next shot hit it, it stopped and from the turret an oil-smeared figure twisted itself out. A third tank came up and drove slowly past its comrades. The number one gunner of our anti-tank gun watched with a tense expression and once again pressed the firing button. Once again the shot scored a direct hit and from the tank the whole turret blew into the air. High flames shot up.
Only two days later, after virtually no sleep, Scheiderbauer was to witness the near disintegration of German units near him. With the Russians pressing hard and their positions still under artillery attack German Landser abandoned their posts to try to get on a goods train leaving for the rear. Only when the Engine was hit by shellfire did the panic end.