Returning to duty on the Eastern Front

German infantry advancing on a Panzer IV during fighting for the Kerch Peninsula, May 1942.

The Russians had launched an offensive near Kharkov in mid May 1942. Unfortunately their new confidence in their military power, after winning back territory during the winter, was misplaced. Their intelligence had also failed to identify that the Germans were preparing to attack in the very same region. The Germans succumbed to the initial shock of being attacked but quickly consolidated themselves and began to counter-attack. Very soon the Soviet forces fell victim to yet another defeat with many thousands of their troops encircled and taken prisoner.

Benno Zieser had been wounded fighting with the German Army during the winter. He was still recovering at a field hospital in the rear area when he found himself ordered back to the front, one of the 50 fittest men in the hospital whose convalescence was prematurely curtailed. In late May all of them were ordered to urgently return to their units.

We were told our division was somewhere near Kharkov. That did not buck us up particularly, seeing that Kharkov’s name always seemed to be in the news as in the thick of the fighting.

Behind our truck hung a long cloud of dust in great whorls, and in no time there was a thin grey coating on uniform, hair and face. The dust clogged your nostrils, got into your mouth, parched your throat. Rushing through the air made our eyes water and the tears which trickled cut furrows into that dust down our cheeks. Everything was shimmering with the heat.

There was a dead man beside the road. A Russian, in his earth-brown uniform. Since we were still a long way from the front, this made us wonder how he had got there. Then a few minutes later the Sheikh [ the nickname of one of his colleagues] pointed to the other side of the road – ‘But there’s another one ’.

After that the corpses were more frequent. For many miles the dead bodies lay at most regular intervals, often enough a little bunch of them, all together, like piles of so much rubbish swept aside. With stark staring eyes they gaped at us and their petrifed hands stretched out to clutch at us.

And over all that half-naked blood-encrusted human flesh the sun poured down and filled the air with the sweetish stench of putrefaction. Without a word we looked left and right at those figures by the roadside which never budged and never would again.

Later we met one of our chaps, who explained it all. ‘Why,’ he said, ‘there was a long column of prisoners came this way the other day.’

See Benno Zieser: In their shallow graves

A group of Soviet infantry men surrender to a German armoured unit, May 1942.

Soviet prisoners of war are marched through Kharkov in May 1942.

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