As though a gigantic switch had been thrown, a huge flash of lightning rent the night.
Guns of all calibers simultaneously belched fire. The tracks of tracer shells streaked across the sky. As far as the eye could see the front on the Bug was a sea of flames and flashes. A moment later the deep thunder of the guns swept over the tower of Volka Dobrynska like a steamroller. The whine of the mortar batteries mingled eerily with the rumble of the guns. Beyond the Bug a sea of fire and smoke was raging. The narrow sickle of the moon was hidden by a veil of cloud.
Peace was dead. War was drawing its first terrible breath.
Directly opposite the citadel of Brest stood the 45th Infantry Divisionformerly the Austrian 4th Divisionunder Major-General Schlieper. The 130th and 135th Infantry Regiments were to mount the first assault against the bridges and the citadel. Still under cover of darkness the units composing the first wave had carefully worked up to the Bug. Like a black phantom, the railway bridge straddled the river. At 0200 a goods train chugged over the bridge, puffing, lamps brightly lit. It was the last grain train which Stalin sent his ally Hitler.
Above them, by the little wooden hut at the end of the bridge, reigned an atmosphere of peace and unsuspecting normality. The two German customs officials climbed on to the train. The sentry waved his hand to the Russian engine-driver. If any mistrustful eyes were watching from the far side they would see nothing suspicious or unusual. Slowly the engine puffed on towards the station of Terespol on the German side.
Then here too the minute-hand jumped to 0315.
"Fire!" And the hell dance began. The earth trembled.
The 4th Special Purpose Mortar Regiment with its nine heavy batteries lent a particular note to the inferno. Within half an hour 2880 mortar-bombs screamed with terrifying howls across the Bug into the town and the fortress. The heavy 60-cm. mortars and 21-cm. guns of 98th Artillery Regiment lobbed their shells across the river, into the ramparts of the fortress, and against pin-pointed Soviet gun positions. Was it possible for a single stone to be left standing after this?
It was possible.
That was to be the first of many nasty surprises.
Second Lieutenant Zumpe of 3rd Company, 135th Infantry Regiment, had watched the last few seconds tick away before 0315. At the very first crash of gunfire he leapt out of his ditch by the railway embankment.
"Let's go!" he shouted to the men of his assault detachment. "Let's go!" Steel helmets rose up from the tall grass. Like sprinters the men tore across to the bridgethe second lieutenant in front. Past the abandoned German customs hut. The gunfire drowned the clatter of their boots on the heavy planks of the bridge. Ducking along the high parapet on both sides, they ran across. Always at the back of their minds was the fear: will the bridge go up or not?
It did not go up. A single burst of fire from his sub-machine-gun was all the Soviet sentry had time for. Then he heeled over forward.
At that moment a machine-gun opened up from the dugout of the bridge guard. That had been expected. Lance-Corporal Holzer's light machine-gun sprayed the Russian position. Like a handful of fleeting shadows the obstacle-clearing detail of the 1st Company, Engineers Battalion 81, assigned to Zumpe's assault detachment, rushed to the spot. A dull thud; smoke and fumes. Finished.
Zumpe's men raced past the shattered dugout. They flung themselves down to the right and left of the bridge by the railway embankment, their machine-guns in position. The second lieutenant and the sappers ran back on to the bridge. The charge was fixed to the central pier. Out with it. Zumpe ran the beam of his flashlight over the pier, to make sure no other infernal machine was hidden anywhere. Nothing. He slid the green shield over the lens. The green light. Like a station-master he waved it above his head towards the German side: bridge clear! And already the first armored scout-cars were racing across.
But what would happen if the Russians attacked the bridgehead with armor?
How would the Germans oppose them? Tanks and heavy equipment could have been brought across only with the greatest difficulty in barges or over emergency bridges. That was why an interesting new secret weapon was employed here for the first timeunderwater tanks, also known as diving tanks. They were to cross the river under water, just like submarines. Then, on the far bank, they were to go into action as ordinary tanks, smashing enemy positions along the river and intercepting any counter-attacks.
In the sector of 18th Panzer Division fifty batteries of all calibers opened fire at 0315 in order to clear the way to the other bank for the diving tanks.
[General Nehring, the divisional commander, has since described this as "a magnificent spectacle, but rather pointless since the Russians had been clever enough to withdraw their troops from the border area, leaving behind only weak frontier detachments, which subsequently fought very bravely."]
At 0445 hours Sergeant Wierschin advanced into the Bug with diving tank No. 1. The infantrymen watched him in amazement. The water closed over the tank. "Playing at U-boats!" Only the slim steel tube which supplied fresh air to the crews and engine showed above the surface, indicating Wierschin's progress under water. There were also the exhaust bubbles, but these were quickly obliterated by the current.
Tank after tankthe whole of 1st Battalion, 18th Panzer Regiment, under the battalion commander, Manfred Graf Strachwitzdived into the river.
And now the first ones were crawling up the far bank like mysterious amphibians. A soft plop and the rubber caps were blown off the gun muzzles. The gun-loaders let the air out of the bicycle inner tubes round the turrets. Turret hatches were flung open and the skippers wriggled out. An arm thrust into the air three times: the signal "Tanks forward."
Eighty tanks had crossed the frontier river under water. Eighty tanks were moving into action.
Their presence was more than welcome in the bridgehead. Enemy armored scout-cars were approaching. At once came the firing orders for the leading tanks: "Turretone o'clock armor-piercing800 yardsgroup of armored scout-cars fire at will." The monsters fired. Several armored scout-cars were burning. The rest retreated hurriedly. The armored spearheads of Army Group Centre moved on in the direction of Minsk and Smolensk.
South of Brest too, at Koden, following the successful assault on the bridge, the surprise attack of XXIV Panzer Corps, under General Freiherr Geyr von Schweppenburg, had gone according to schedule. The tanks crossed the bridge, which had been captured intact. Advanced units of Lieutenant-General Model's 3rd Panzer Division crossed on rapidly built emergency bridges. The skippers stood in the turrets, scanning the landscape for the rearguards of the retreating Soviet frontier troops, overrunning the first anti-tank-gun positions, waving the first prisoners to the rear, moving nearer and nearer to their objective for the day Kobrin on the Mukhavets.