Although battles raged in the Ukraine and in Budapest much of the Eastern front was relatively quiet. The rapid Soviet offensive that had pushed into Poland in the Autumn had paused over the winter. Stalin was building up an even more enormous force before his final push into Germany itself.
German intelligence was well aware of the impending threat, although much of the information was discounted by Hitler and the High Command. In fact there was little they could do about it anyway. What little spare resources that could be found had been diverted for the last desperate push in the Ardennes. Now that last hope appeared to be faltering.
The Red Army was nearly ready to strike. Nicolai Litvin was currently the staff driver for the 352nd Rifle Division:
About 5 January 1945, the commander of the 65th Army, Colonel General P. I. Batov, paid a visit to our division. Together with Dzhandzhgava [commander of the 352nd], they went to examine the place that had been designated for the breakthrough of the enemy’s defenses in the coming offensive.
The generals were dressed in sheepskin coats and wearing simple officer’s caps on their heads. There were no shoulder straps on their coats. The adjutants remained at the divisional command post while I drove the officers to the front lines. As I drove, the generals talked about the forthcoming offensive, about the preparations for it, and about possible start dates.
I overheard Batov telling Dzhandzhgava: “You know, some Americans in the Ardennes have turned chicken and buggered of nearly 300 kilometers to the rear. Churchill has asked Stalin, ‘For God’s sake, start your offensive sooner.’ We’ll have to start our offensive a week earlier. We must have everything ready.” In this way, I learned that the Stavka had moved up the start date for our offensive.
I returned to the jeep and waited, while the generals made their observations, then walked around the trenches, bunkers, and gun pits, checking out the soldiers’ readiness and morale. While I waited, I sat down with some fellows and told them, “You know, there’s a commotion back at divisional headquarters. Someone is firing at the Germans, but neither our scouts nor the Germans can figure out where the firing is coming from.”
I looked at them. The guys in the group exchanged glances, grinned, and then took me to show who was firing. When the Germans had retreated, following their early October attack, we took over some of their positions and combined them into our new defensive line.
Some soldiers found a place where a few German “Vaniushi” had been positioned, six-barreled rocket launchers that brayed like donkeys when they hurled their rounds toward us. As soon as we heard the distinct sound of a “Vaniusha” firing, we immediately shouted, “Brothers, a donkey! Take cover!” This meant that rockets were now headed our way, and that soon there would be explosions.
When the Germans had retreated, they had left behind piles of these rockets — it seemed, as many as had been delivered to the position. Our soldiers had found them and thought to give them a try. They would take a rocket, lay it on the breastwork of the trench, and then fire at this percussion cap at the base of the rocket with their avtomat [automatic rifle]. The rocket would explode, and the shell would fly off in the general direction of the German lines. Therefore the Germans could not figure out from where the fire was coming.
When the generals had returned from their visit to the front line, I told them about the “disturbers of the peace.” General Batov said, “Well, show us.” The guys and their sergeant showed them on the spot how they “fired” the rockets. Batov said, “I don’t have anything in my pocket. I only have this Order of the Red Star. I award it to the sergeant for coming up with this ‘technique’ of harassing the enemy. Award the remaining troops yourself, Vladimir Nikolaevich [Dzhandzhgava], under your own authority”
I returned to the Willys [Jeep], and the generals came back later, at sunset, and we headed back to the 354th’s command post.
See Nikolai Litvin: 800 Days on the Eastern Front: A Russian Soldier Remembers World War II. For a review of this memoir see Kansas Press.
The German Nebelwerfer (“Smoke Mortar”) had been developed before the war while German armament developments were restricted by the Versailles Treaty. Although it did fire smoke mortars for use on the battlefield, right from the start it was also capable of firing high explosive and poison gas missiles – matters that were concealed from international observers. The psychological effect of the sound of a battery of Nebelwerfers being fired during the Blitzkrieg was regarded as a particular asset of the weapon.
Contemporary German film of the Nebelwerfer in action: