Feldpost

feldpost

Feldpost is a fascinating read for two reasons.

Firstly Reiner Niemann was an intelligent, well educated young man who was capable of writing lucid descriptions of his experiences, despite the difficult and often desperate circumstances he found himself in. There is clearly a great deal more that he might have written later. In a long letter describing his miraculous escape from the destruction of Army Group Centre in the summer of 1944 he mentions that he might write a ‘whole book’ about just part of these experiences. What he did write of this episode is a very rare personal account of how a very small minority of men just managed to escape the widespread annihilation that was Operation Bagration.

The other great merit of this volume is the quality of the work done to support the letters themselves. Denis Havel’s excellent translation and editing is accompanied by very useful contextual material, placing the events into a meaningful framework. Since the “Eastern Front” encompassed an extraordinary series of military operations within a vast geography this is very necessary, and very helpful to all readers, even those with some familiarity with this part of the war.

For three years Reiner Niemann was a lucky man, surviving more than once when many alongside him perished. His luck finally ran out in early 1945. We are fortunate that he managed to keep a record of what he did survive. Its an invaluable picture of the German experience on the Ostfront.

You can listen to an account of how the letters were discovered :
http://wwno.org/post/reading-life-whitney-stewart-and-raymond-boudreau

I have chosen an excerpt from an early episode, when Niemann’s Division was rushed into battle to shore up the line at Rzhev. It was here that the Russians sought to finish the German salient on the Volga that continued to threaten Moscow in 1942. I have included some of Havel’s text, illustrating the useful background to Niemann’s letters:

As the sun rose on 4 August, it promised another day of bloody combat for Reiner and the men of the 58th Regiment. Heavy movement along the Russian lines throughout the morning indicated a renewal of their attacks against the positions of the 58th. At 1.45 p.m., Russian bombers attacked the village of Polunino. Ten minutes later, a heavy and accurate artillery bombardment rained down along the entire sector of the III Bataillon and Reiner’s 1st Kompanie. The Russians launched their first attack at 2 p.m., with two battalions of infantry supported by thirty T-34 and KV-1 tanks.

At around 2.30 p.m., three of these tanks broke into the German positions while the remainder stayed back and blasted away at the German infantry. The Russian infantry was thrown back in hand-to-hand combat. The Germans destroyed nine Russian tanks. Three Russian tanks were damaged but drove off under their own power.

At 3.00 p.m., Russian tanks with accompanying infantry renewed the attack. Only one platoon of infantry moved to within hand-grenade range before they were repulsed. Undeterred, the Russians launched yet another attack at 4.00 p.m. with three battalions of infantry supported by ten tanks. German artillery and infantry fire stopped the Russian infantry, but Russian tanks broke into the German positions and spent the remainder of the afternoon driving back and forth through the German lines, firing at anything that moved, until they were finally driven off.

The Russians launched their last assault at 7.50 p.m., and three of their heavy-duty K-1 tanks tore a hole in the German lines, inflicting heavy casualties.

Later, in the dark of the night, German engineers hunted down these monsters, destroying one and disabling another. The third tank escaped. The fighting on 4 August finally died down after midnight. The war diary of the 58th Regiment includes the laconic entry ‘Das Regiment verlor heute 30 T0te’—‘Today the Regiment lost thirty dead’. But not Reiner.

From Reiner: Warsaw, 13 August 1942

Dear Parents,

I hope you all have received my postcards and aren’t too worried about me in regard to the fighting around Rzhev — which must have started near the end of July. What happened with me is as follows: On 21 July, we were relieved by another unit and pulled out of the front. Then in two days, we marched 90 km to the south and moved into rest quarters in a deserted village that was more lice- and vermin-ridden than ever before. Because of the rain and the swampy terrain, we couldn’t even pitch our tents.

The higher command would not leave us in peace. They hounded us and drilled us in water that was almost over the tops of our boots——all under the name of ‘Tactical Maneuvers’. This finally reached a high point and end point on 20 July when we were sent out in the pouring rain to engage in live-fire maneuvers from 5 a.m. until 11 a.m. We didn’t have a stitch of dry clothing, either on our backs or in our huts. And so we sat until 2 p.m., soaking wet in our filthy huts and watched the stream slowly rise and cut us off from the rest of the company. Then came the order for us to be ready in forty-five minutes. How we all cursed about that.

While we were packing our kits, the Russians [prisoners] had to go out in the rain and build a causeway over the stream. But it wasn’t done quickly. We couldn’t march off until evening, and only for two kilometers because we could see that neither the baggage train nor the foot soldiers would be able to cross the river.

So, we marched off, without our baggage, in another direction. Still in the pouring rain, we marched two kilometers through swamps with water up to our belt buckles. Then, fifteen kilometers on a road to the next supply depot. This turned out to be only eleven kilometers from our original starting point in the village.

At eight the next morning, we rolled out and reached our initial position at three in the afternoon. That evening we went into action, without having been fed or resupplied. For us, everything went well. Our company remained in reserve that night while in the morning the other two companies went into attack and began suffering casualties. That was, I have to think about it, the 30th of ]uly. The evening of the 31st, we advanced and on the first of August had our first combat. The evening of that same day, we relieved the other two companies in their forward positions, and after more than two days received our first cold rations. It would be another two days before we got any hot food and that was just Army stew.

For two days it was quiet on both sides, but on the 4th of August, the fighting broke out, and it doesn’t seemed to have stopped yet. The morning around 10.00 a.m., I left our position to go back to the village,’ which lay some eight hundred meters off, in order to fetch some water. There was no great hurry, so I spent some four hours rummaging through houses looking for anything useful.

Then shortly before 2.00 p.m., as I was getting ready to head back, accurate artillery fire suddenly began hitting the village. I took cover in an anti-tank bunker. After ten minutes and as many explosions in the immediate area, the houses to the left and the right were burning and the bunker was in shambles. Even the stairway had collapsed. Despite the artillery fire, we scrambled out because the house next to us was threatening to collapse on us. There was more to come.

I crawled about in wide circles through the burning village and then when it finally quieted down, I sprinted the eight hundred meters over the open ground and back to our position. Then Ivan showed up with his 52-ton tanks with their 173 mm guns and began driving back and forth across our trenches. I took over the mortar whose crew had all become casualties and began firing on the five tanks that were in my company’s sector. Because I had no cover, after two hours I got hit with shell fragments. I was then ordered to take a message to the rear and was told to remain there.

At midnight, I arrived at the collection post for the wounded in Rzhev. We were loaded onto a train August 6th and left around 2 p.m. On the way, We were attacked by fighter aircraft, which killed eight of the wounded, and destroyed one of the locomotives. And then began the seven fat years. On the morning of the 10th of August, we arrived here and were deloused, bathed, and put into beds, and did that ever feel good.

Now I’m waiting for a train to take me to Germany. Every day they call out, ‘Who’s going to Frankfurt am Oder, Dresden, Halle, and so on.’ Since no trains are going to the west (Cologne or Rhineland), I will probably choose to go to Breslau, Berlin, or even Kassel. Should I have no luck with this, I will choose South Germany.

If you have any suggestions, please write as soon as possible. But then maybe I’ll already be gone. I can’t complain about things here except that when I first arrived I ate far too much. I’ll have to be careful now.

Unfortunately, I’ve lost all my equipment and personal items, above all my diary and letters. They were all left behind in our forward position, so I’ve probably seen the last of them because the company pulled out on the 4th of August.

Actually, I’ve been quite lucky to have this insignificant wound because the fighting around Rzhev was just getting started, and I fear that few of the company will survive. Perhaps I will even get leave and see you all soon.

Auf Wiedersehen,

Reiner

The Summer Battle of Rzhev Aftermath

For now, Reiner was well out of the bloodbath of Rzhev. After eighty-three days at the front, he went back to Germany. He spent the next two and a half months in the hospital until he was assigned to the convalescent company of his regiment in Munster. There he remained until classified KVF9 and sent back to Rzhev. When Reiner wrote ‘not many of the company will survive’, he was not far wrong. When the I Bataillon was briefly pulled off the front line on 18 August, Reiner’s company was down to only one officer, four Unteroffiziere and eighteen men – and the summer Battle of Rzhev still had two more months to run.

By the time the 4th Battle of Rzhev ended in mid-October, the Russians had gained little ground. True, they had reached the Volga on either side of the city, but the Germans still held Rzhev. It had cost the Russians 380,000 dead and wounded, with another 13,770 taken prisoner. This 4th Battle of Rzhev was quickly followed by a 5th, the ‘Winter Battle of Rzhev’, which began on 25 November and ended on 15 December. Over this period, the Russians lost another 200,000 men. Again, the Russians had gained little, and the Germans still held Rzhev.

In these last two battles of Rzhev, German divisions like Reiner’s had been reduced to nothing by casualties, then rebuilt only to be reduced to nothing once more.

The Russians had lost over 500,000 men – but who today has ever heard of Rzhev?

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