A grim journey to the Russian front

German troops unloading frozen supplies on the Eastern front during the winter of 1941-2

Having fought in Norway, the Balkans and Crete the paratrooper Martin Poppel was already a veteran. Now, in late December, he found himself on a slow train to the front where the great majority of the Germans army would fight. It was a dreary journey across eastern Germany, Poland and Russia and the more they saw what was happening to their fellow soldiers the less there was to encourage then. Tens of thousands of German soldiers were falling victim to frostbite, mainly due to inadequate winter clothing, adding to battle casualties that were now steadily mounting:

You can’t distinguish fields at all, just a monotonous, bleak landscape. No real villages, only little settlements. Houses? No, only shabby huts made of wood, each one like all the rest. The whole thing makes a dreary and wretched impression on us.

We stop for some time near Bialystock and change engines. …

A transport train carrying wounded men stops nearby. It’s a wretched sight which makes it clear to us how bitterly this war is being fought. It consists of ordinary goods wagons with straw in them for the wounded to lie on. Filthy and louse-ridden, with inadequate dressings and hardly any medical orderlies, no heating – that’s how the boys are brought home.

As soldiers, we understand the situation better when a railway official explains that there are around 3000 wounded men passing through here every day. Our excellent ambulance trains simply can’t cope any more. In the ensuing silence, each of us thinks that a decent soldier’s death in action would be better than to be brought home in a train like that, like animals to the slaughter.

See Martin Poppel: Heaven & Hell: The War Diary of a German Paratrooper

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