Manstein had bitterly complained that the Germans had called off their ‘Citadel’ offensive too early, before he had chance to smash the Soviet Army reserves, which he believed were within his reach. Yet everything indicated that the Russians had plenty more in reserve beside these forces. No sooner had the German offensive at Kursk run out of steam, than the Red Army launched its own offensive. Although they had sustained considerable losses at Kursk, far greater than the Germans, they counted for little against the enormous forces they still had available to throw into battle.
Hans Schaufler was a Wehrmacht signals officer, responsible for running cables between positions close to the front line and the artillery further to the rear. Having established the system, he was now positioned in a bunker close to the front line with a team of ‘troubleshooters’ whose job was to go out and repair the lines every time they were cut. He watched as Grenadiers went out to assault the line in front of him:
22 July 1943
[I]t started to rumble mightily over in the Russian sector: Blub—blub——blub blub blub blub blub. A terrific wave of fire descended into the creek bed in front of us and along the slope, right in the middle of the attacking grenadiers.
A grayish yellow cloud arose in front of us, as if created by a hurricane. Heavy rounds whistled overhead and crashed into the artillery positions behind us. It sounded like a frog concert, except with a lot of horrible tones. Shrapnel, tree limbs and clumps of earth hissed through our fruit orchard. Wounded cried out in a way that went to the marrow of your bones: “Meddicccc!” During all of this, we were only on the outskirts, better said, we were between two storms of iron and gunpowder.
The remnants of our lines were hanging up above in the crowns of the trees. We involuntarily tucked in our heads in the corner of the bunker. Dirt trickled in through the cracks in the bunker ceiling and clumps of dirt sprang out of the bunker walls. We were primarily receiving mortar fire in the fruit orchard.
The Russian mortar fire raged for more than thirty minutes along the valley floor. It was like … well, there was no comparison. We had never experienced anything like it. There certainly couldn’t be anything left alive.
Then … just a sporadic crackle-crackle-crackle and the entire spookiness was over in an instant. The troubleshooters wanted to crawl out on their backs with a roll of wire. I saw it in their eyes: They would gladly do it, just to get away from there … to have something to do … just not to have to sit there idly. “Listen up … stay here … something’s going to happen, otherwise the Russians would not have put on the fireworks!”
I had only had the lines going to the rear be fixed, since there was at least a foxhole every couple of hundred meters. After ten minutes, they reported: “Fifteen patches . . . We’re continuing to look!”
At that point, there was a familiar rattle and clatter over the woods and, high in the air, a metallic singing. Our hearts literally sank, since our nerves were not exactly steady at that moment. Russian fighter-bombers, Il—2’s, jumped over the treetops.
That would not have been so bad, but there were condensation trails high in the sky – bombers, some thirty, sixty, ninety of them before we stopped counting, since the monsters were headed directly for us. They silently opened their bomb bays, and the bombs came tumbling out. Thousands of them.
Directly down towards us. It was no wonder, given the collection of vehicles along the road and next to the huts! Ice-cold chills ran down our backs. There was a howling and a hissing in the air—it hissed for a damned long time. Were the bombs passing by us?
Then there was a crash, as if the entire world was collapsing. The bunker shook as if in the middle of an earthquake. Some bombs must have fallen extremely close by. But where were the remaining thousand? We risked a look through the entryway. Outside, a mighty cloud of smoke and dust rose to the heavens above the road. It was swiftly borne away by a wind from the east. That can’t be true!
There was another wave coming. Once again, there was another couple of thousand bombs hanging in the air above us.They landed in the monster cloud of smoke and dust, and they landed in the open field, where there was not a single soul. Five, maybe six waves dropped their loads. All of them tossed their destructive cargo into the gigantic cloud, which was growing higher and larger and which was being driven away from us by the wind. Only a few “strays” fell in the vicinity of the built-up area.
You need luck in a war – or an enemy who aims poorly. In our relief, we almost forgot that there were still Russian fighter-bombers and fighters. We were quickly reminded of them, when the tree limbs started flying around our ears and the strafing churned up the earth around us.The Il-2’s came back to take a look at their colleague’s efforts.
Cannons bellowed and rockets hissed from the wings.The rockets life a trail of fire in the churned-up air and detonated all around us. Here and there, there was the hoarse cry:“Medddiccc!”