256th I.D/456th I.R
3rd Rifle Co.
22nd June 1941, Dusk...
Gefreiter Otto Altenburg...
"Dusk was falling when the feld responsible for our section waved us over to him. We were soon listening intently, as he told us what we would
be expectedto do. He had a large map of the district, on wich he showed us the points we should attain, taking every precaution. When the order
was given, we should be prepared to advance. We were given a list of rallying points and other details wich I only partly understood, and advised to rest,
as we would not be called before the middle of the night.
We stood and starred at each other for a long time. Now we knew. We were going to be part of a full scale attack. A heavy sense of foreboding settled over us,
and the knowledge that soon some of us would be dead was stamped on every face. Even a victorious army suffers dead and wounded: The Fuhrer himself had sait it.
In fact, none of us could imagine his own death. Some would be killed, we all knew that, but each one imagined himself doing the burying. No one, despite the obvious danger, coul think of himself lying mortally wounded. That
was something wich happened to other people, thousands of them, but never to oneself. Everyone clung to this idea, despite fear and doubt. Even the Hitlerjugend, later in the war, who spent years cultivating the idea of sacrficice, couldnt consciously envisage their own ends
occuring withing a few hours. One might be exalted by a grand idea based on a structure of logic, and even be prepared to run large risks, but to believe in the worst is impossible.
Finally, night came : A soft summer night, wich brought with it a breath of freshness after the horrid day. Everywhere free of the war, people must have been stretched out on the grass beside their houses, enoying the season with their friends.
Sometimes when I was small, I used to take a walk with my parents before going to bed. My father believed one should enjoy these summer evenings to the maximum, and kept me out until my eyelids
drooped with sleep. My buddy Ernst pulled me back from my thoughts.
"My dear Otto, be sure to look out for yourself when we get going. It would be too stupid to get killed at opening days of the operation."
"Yes," I said. " That would be stupid."
All of us were haunted by so many thoughts that c onversation was impossible. And each of us was obsessed by the particular question : "How shall I come trough this time?"
In the depths of the covered shelter, one of the young soldier was playing quietly on his harmonica, and the voices of his companions joined softly in the melody. Then the sound of gunfire made us jump.
"Here we go" We thought.
But everything quieted down again.
Heinrich came up to us.
"The first Soviet line is less than four hundred yards from here," he said. " The feld just told me. Thats not very far."
"But its not too bad, either," said a Veteran. "At least we can sleep in peace. In France, one night we slept so close to the French, their holes were less than a grenade's throw from ours."
No one answered him.
"Im commanding group 6" Said Heinrich, " and I have to get right under Ivan's nose, to keep him from moving when the assault troops begin their attack. You can imagine..."
"Well have it about the same," said the sergeant who would lead us. "According to what Ivh eard, well be right in line with one of their positions".
We listened attenetively, hoping that our part of the enterprise was not going to be too dangerous.
"But the Sovietscouts are sure to see us!" cried Lindberg, horrified. "Thats Crazy!"
"That will be the hardest part of it, but lets hope the night is dark. Also, wev been advised not to fire before the attack, to get into position without any noise."
"Dont forget mines," said the veteran, who in fact had not gone to sleep.
"The ground was checked for mines by details from the disciplinary battalion, insofar as possible," the noncom retorted.
"Insofar as possible," sneered the veteran. "I like that!" All the same, youd better be careful if you see any wires. Dont go tugging them!"
"If you keep on like this," Heinrich shouted in a threatening voice, "Il put you to sleep until the attack."
He shook his stubby-fingered fist under the older man's nose. The Veteran only smiled, but didnt say anything.
"What if we run right into Ivan?" Asked Kraus. "Then well have to use our guns, wont we ?"
"Only as a last resort," the noncom answered. "In principle, were supposed to take them by surprise, and knock them out without any noise."
Without any noise! What did he mean?
"With the butts of our guns, or spades?" asked Ernst anxiously.
"Spades, bayonets, anything. Wev got to get rid of them, thats all. And without raising any alarm."
"Well take them prisoner," murmured young Herbert.
"Are you off your rocker?" said the noncom. "An assault group cant take prisoners during a mission. What would we do with them?"
"Hell," said Ernst. "You mean well have to skewer them?"
"Lost your guts?" Asked Heinrich.
"Hell, no." said Ernst, to show that he was a man. But his face was white.
I glanced at the spade-pick hooked on to my big friend's waist. Then we had to stand up so a Hauptmann and his group could get trough.
"Where are we exactly?" young Herbert ask naively.
"In Russia" said the veteran.
No one smiled at this feeble joke, and the noncom tried to give us a rough idea of our position. North-west of Varena.
"Im going to try and sleep" stammered Ernst, who was clearly shaken by all these preparations.
We lay down side by side, without bothering to under our bedrolls. The steel of the spandau wich Ernst had set up pointing down the lenght of the trench gleamed with a dull luster. Sleep was impossible, not because of the discomfort
of a night out of doors, strapped into all our gear, wed done that often before, but because of our anxiety about what lay ahead.
"Hell, Il have plenty of time to sleep when Im dead," said Kraus in a loud voice. He stood up and pissed against the wall of the trench.
I lay awake for a long time, thinking and thinking... Finally, I did sleep, for about three hours, until I was wakened by the distant sound of a motor. My movement woke Ernst and Grumpers, who was lying beside me with his head on my shoulder.
"Whats the matter?" He groaned sleepily.
"I dont know. I thought maybe theyd called us."
"What time is it?" asked Ernst.
I looked at my watch. "Two-Twenty."
"What time is dawn?" asked young Herbert, who hadnt been able to sleep at all.
"Probably very early this time of year" someone said.
The sound of engines continued.
"If those ****ing drivers keep it up, theyll wake every one of the goddamm Russkis."
We tried to go back to sleep, but couldnt. About half an hour later we heard a muted noise of bustle and commotion just beyond the walls of the covered shelter. In the darkness, we guessed that we were listening to some fellows collecting their
gear. We all turned towards the sound, trying to grasp what was happening, when a feld appeared, wearing camouflage.
"Group 8 and 9?" He asked in a low voice.
"Present!" answered the two group leaders.
"Youll be leaving in five minutes, by way of access C, and will proceed to your respective positions. Good Luck!"
He pointed to a small sign, scarcely visible in the darkness, marked with a letter C. All our reflections came to a dead stop, and our brains emptied, as if we had been anesthetized. Everyone grabbed his gun, and checked the critical points of his harness
and straps, as Hauptmann Fink had taught us, especially the chin straps of our helmets. Ernst lifted the big F.M onto his shoulders and Herbert, who was his number-two man, slipped his slender silhouette in beside the man he was supposed to serve.
Only the Veteran, our second machiner gunner, behaved as if hed forgotten the object of all these preparations. His movements were not marked by the febrile haste wich characterized the actions of all the rest of us. He knew all this from before. He propped
the heavy F.M against his leg, and waited for the order to move out.
"I hope your in good shape," he said to the gun, grinning sardonically.
"Group 8!" Called the sergeant, sounding as if hed been struck by a sudden electric shock. "After me, and silence!"
We took exit C and, sticking close together, followed the trench to the forward positions. Our noncom was at the head of the column. Behind him came Grumpers, Karl, who was about twenty-two years old. Then Ernst, just past eighteen, and Herbert, not quite
seventeen, then our three gunners : A Czech of indefinable age with an unpronounceable name, a Sudeten of nineteen, whose name ended with an "a", and me. Right behind me was the veteran with his number two man, another terrified boy, and finally, Kraus,
who must have been well into his twenties. We moved out in good order, exactly as wed been taught at Camp F., where wed sweated so hard.
Indefinable noises reached us, coming from either the Soviet or the German lines. We crossed severak trenches jammed with troops who were still half asleep in the warm summer air, before climbing out of our own trench in the middle of the woods. Young Herbert,
who was loaded down like a donkey, slipped on the earth embankment, and the magazines of the spandau he was carrying clashed together. The noncom grabbed him by the straps and helped him climb up. Then he glared at him furiously, and kicked him in the shin.
We walked to the edge of the wood in a single file. The noncom stopped short very suddenly, and we all more or less piled into each other.
Part two coming later, maybe tomorrow, maybe next week.
(Slightly modified transcript from "The Forgotten Soldier")
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