Following their failure to break through during Operation Citadel at Kursk, the German forces on the Eastern Front found themselves facing new, unexpectedly strong, Soviet attacks. For the most senior commanders this meant carefully marshalling their remaining capabilities so that they could maintain a fighting withdrawal, often responding quickly to events on the battlefield.
For the men on the ground there were new realities to the type of warfare they faced. The long periods of confident advance and success were at an end. Now, not only were they falling back, but they regularly faced the prospect of being encircled.
As fighting units the casualty rate was now beginning to be seriously felt. The experienced men had to adjust to working with replacements and men brought forward from the rear areas. Obergefreiter Walter Berger, was to remember this period in late summer 1943:
At that point, however, when we started withdrawing, being encircled meant something else: Remaining where you were, hopelessly lost, in front of your own lines, which were growing ever more distant.
The Russians made a decisive psychological mistake in those instances, which no doubt cost them a lot of time and blood. Without restraint, they took out their pent-up rage on the German, who fell into their hands.
The chances of surviving if taken prisoner were, therefore, slim. Even if you weren`t finished off right away with a bullet to the back of the skull – because you were unable to march due to a wound, or the Russians had just received an order to that effect from above, or they just wanted to have a little fun – you at least faced years of existence as a slave and the hardest form of drudgery with the underlying thought that could not be suppressed: Who knew whether you would be able to hold out?
For that reason, even the thought of being taken prisoner was something that could not be entertained for any of us. Even in the most hopeless situation, you would rather face any risk than to surrender yourself to death and perdition at the hands of the Russians.
But being “encircled” was not quite the same as being taken “captive”. Some troop elements gained considerable practice over the course of time in being encircled and then breaking out or exfiltrating. But you never knew with certainty from one mousetrap to the next, whether there was once again going to be a hole large enough to escape through.
There were too many Stalingrads, where there was no way to slide out any more, where all the experience in the world was to no avail. That knowledge had also started to make the rounds.
At the end of August 1943, we found ourselves in that situation again.The large-scale German offensive at Kursk and Orel had been turned around. At that point, the Russians were attacking with all of their vast superiority in numbers, and our forces had to pull back, step-by-step.
When we had been attacking, we had reached a line on a ridgeline. We had bogged down there and had clawed our way into the earth. We had established provisional positions, set up communications trenches and dugouts, which we improved over the course of time and aspired to reinforce. We were there for three or four weeks under very uneasy conditions.
After the heavy losses of the past few weeks, our company consisted primarily of wet-behind-the-ears youths – kids from Thuringia and the Rhineland, from Austria and Upper Silesia, a motley crew – who had only been sent to us recently from the replacement depot.
They were inadequately trained and without combat experience. Most of them didn’t know what to do and lost their heads at every opportunity.
In that situation, the Russians were of less concern to us than our own men, who, trembling with excitement, fired at everything that crawled around in front, even after they had been informed a good ten times that it was a friendly patrol.
My ‘colleague’ from the 2nd Platoon, who had been sent out the same night I had been, was killed in such a manner when he returned – shot through the heart – while we, 300 meters farther to the left, had our noses in the muck and had to practice taking full cover while taking fire from our own trenches.
But it was not only in the dark of night that we experienced those happy events. They also occurred in broad daylight.
One time, it occurred to the Russians to attack our positions with tanks and no infantry support. Their fires were landing somewhere in the area, but not in our positions, in any event. No need to get excited. Despite that, a right proper panic broke out among our green troops. They wanted nothing more than to climb out of their trenches and run away across the open, coverless terrain – and into certain death.