January 11th, 1943
UNITED KINGDOM: Escort carrier HMS Hunter commissioned.
Minesweepers HMS Pincher and Pickle laid down.
Minesweeper HMS Ready launched. (Dave Shirlaw)
GERMANY: U-1226 is laid down. (Dave Shirlaw)
U.S.S.R.: In the Caucasus, the Russians take Pyatigorsk, Georgivesk and Mineralnye Vody.
Leningrad: In the darkness before dawn this morning, with the thermometer at -23C, the Red Army opened Operation Iskra [Spark] to break the German siege of Leningrad.
2,000 guns and mortars smashed the frozen silence as the white-clad soldiers of the Second Shock Army advanced round the southern shore of Lake Ladoga towards the lakeside town of Schlusselburg. At the same time units of the 67th Amy of the Leningrad front, supported by warships of the Baltic Fleet, struck at their besiegers across the frozen river Neva. The plan, made by General Zhukov, newly arrived from Stalingrad, calls for the Leningrad army and the relieving force to meet at a workers’ housing development south of Schlusselburg. This would enable a supply route to be opened round the lake to bring food to the long-suffering citizens of Leningrad.
One daring part of Zhukov’s plan has already succeeded. The 12th Infantry Brigade, all expert skiers, has swooped through the freezing mist over Lake Ladoga to take the Germans in the rear. The Russians are only ten miles apart at some points, but they face a well-prepared Germany army which includes the Spanish Blue Division (Azul), “volunteers” sent by General Franco. It will be a bitter struggle.
SOLOMON ISLANDS: The US 3rd Btn 35th Infantry on Guadalcanal capture the Japanese “Sea Horse” position at 1330 hours. This attack began yesterday at 0630.
CANADA: Minesweeper HMCS Fort William damaged collision with SS Lisgar at Halifax. Fort William was under repair for a month following the incident. Fort William was transferred to the Turkish Navy after the war and renamed Bodrum. She was removed from service and scrapped in 1971.
Corvette HMCS Louisburg laid down. (Dave Shirlaw)
U.S.A.: Destroyer USS Stockton commissioned.
Destroyer USS Caperton laid down.
Destroyer escort USS Huse laid down.
China signs a treaty with the United Kingdom and the United States relinquishing extraterritorial rights. (Dave Shirlaw)
ATLANTIC OCEAN: At 2025, the CS Flight was shelled and sunk by U-105.
At 0033, the Ocean Vagabond, a straggler from Convoy SC-115, was torpedoed by U-186 south of Iceland and sank at 0307 following two coups de grâce at 0059 and 0145 hours. One crewmember was lost. The master, 41 crewmembers and four gunners were picked up by HMS Wanderer and landed at Liverpool.
At 0040, U-522 attacked Convoy TM-1 NW of the Canary Islands (grid DH 5110) and reported one tanker sunk and one other damaged. In fact, the British Dominion was struck by three torpedoes and was abandoned. After 0300 the wreck was sunk by U-620 by a coup de grâce and gunfire. 33 crewmembers and four gunners were lost. The master, ten crewmembers and five gunners were picked up by corvette HMS Godetia and landed at Gibraltar. (Dave Shirlaw)
The morning of 15th January was clear and freezing. Captain Gerhard Tebbe's Panzer companies, with his riflemen of the Münster 60th Motorized Infantry Regiment riding on the tanks, were moving against the Soviet strongpoints from the north-east. They took no notice of what was happening on their right or left. They continued driving on. They radioed signals. They fired their guns. They punched their way through. They seized the high ground in the rear of the Russians who had already crossed the river. They about-turned and with three assault parties attacked the enemy-held village.
A T-34 and four 7.62-cm anti-tank guns, positioned to cover the village, were knocked out. Two T-34s came to their aid. One of them was hit at once, the other turned back.
On the left wing of the armored combat group was a troop of Lieutenant Kühne's 3rd Company. The troop commander was a Sergeant Hans Bunzel, a Thuringian with quite the reputation for dealing with bridges and fortified hills. He was one of those resilient and resourceful daredevils who are the backbone of any tank regiment. He demonstrated this once again on 15th January 1943. His tanks pushed as far as the Spornyy dam over the Manych. Bunzel in his Panzer III was driving furiously towards the bridge. His 50-mm tank cannon was pounding the Soviet anti- tank guns covering the bridge. The sergeant was probably thinking back to that July day in 1942, when, with four tanks of his troop, he had tried to take the enormous Manych dam, the unofficial boundary between Europe and Asia, at that very spotonly in the opposite direction. But on that occasion the dam was blown up right in front of his eyes.
Would he succeed this time?
Yesthis time he was luckier.
All went well. On the southern slope the Russian anti- aircraft guns captured a year ago were still in position, although somewhat rusty. As soon as Hans Bunzel had snatched the Spornyy bridge from the Soviets, Lieutenant Klappich with the 3rd Battalion, 60th Motorized Infantry Regiment, drove up along the southern bank of the Manych in a thick blizzard and cautiously approached Samodurovka.
Here too the Russians had already established a strongly protected bridgehead with units of their 2nd Mechanized Rifle Brigadeanother dangerous base for the Soviet thrust against Bataysk. Klappich attacked. In fierce fighting he pushed on to the western edge of the village. The chief of staff of the Soviet brigade was taken prisoner.
His interrogation and the documents found on him revealed the full extent of the danger threatening the Rostov bottle-neck from the enemy forces deployed at Manychskaya. Rotmistrov had strict orders to open the final attack against Bataysk on 23rd January.
His reinforced corps was to launch the assault against the town at 0630 hours. The 55th Tank Regiment and newly brought up motor-sleigh battalions were intended as an advanced detachment for taking the Bataysk bridges by a surprise coup. The commander of the army's armored forces had personally taken command.
Lieutenant Klappich realized that this was no time to ask questions. He made the only correct decisionto hold Samodurovka.
To hold it at any cost. To hang firmly to the village and thereby continue to threaten the flank of the main Soviet bridgehead at Manychskaya.
Klappich's battalion was a thorn in the flesh of the Soviet forces which were already operating in the approaches to Bataysk. Like a lance, German-held Samodurovka was pointing dangerously at Rotmistrov's bridgehead at Manychskaya. Rotmistrov could not risk pushing past the village to help his advanced detachments close the door of Bataysk. General Rotmistrov was forced to engage Klappich.
Klappich did not yield an inch. He tied down Rotmistrov's formations and stopped them from moving into the bottleneck. One first lieutenant stood between victory and defeat. One Grenadier battalion upset Stalin's plan. For this decisive action Klappich was awarded the Oak Leaves to the Knight's Cross. Thanks to his action, Manstein's combined counter-attack with 11th Panzer Division and 16th Motorized Infantry Division against the strong Soviet offensive forces in the Manychskaya area and bridgehead on 22nd January was still in time.
On 22nd January 1943 General Balck's 11th Panzer Division was pulled over the Don at Rostov.
Rotmistrov's advanced detachments under Colonel Yegorov had organized themselves for all-round defense near the Lenin collective farm.
Balck's spearheads attacked. Yegorov lost five of his eight T-34s and two of his three T-70s. He had to fall back. The Soviet spearhead at Bataysk was smashed.
On 23rd January 11th Panzer Division, together with parts of 16th Motorized Infantry Division, broke through the Soviet positions covering Manychskaya in a dashing assault. The village was of particular importance. There the Manych flowed into the Don. There the great highway crossed the wide river. While the village and the bridge remained in Russian hands the Soviets would be in a position to renew their thrust towards Rostov from the south whenever they felt like it.
Count Schwerin moved off from the south-east with his Panzer Battalion 116 and 156th Motorized Infantry Regiment. The 11th Panzer Division made a frontal attack against the village. It was strongly held. Numerous tanks had been buried between the houses, forming steel bunkers. They were barely identifiable and very difficult to silence.
Worse still was a cunning obstacle on the south-eastern edge of the village, an obstacle which had not been spotted by reconnaissance.
"Watch out! Deep anti-tank ditch!" the commanders of Captain Tebbe's Panzer Battalion suddenly heard in their earphones.
But already they were caught in front of the ditch in the furious fire of anti-tank rifles and anti-tank guns. The ditch was almost invisible under the snow. One Panzer IV, whose crew had mistaken the soft snow for firm ground, had already crashed into it. Captain Tebbe and Lieutenant Gittermann, his ADC, drove along the ditch. At one spot it had been leveled out by shell bursts.
And the two tanks moved into the village.
But two Panzer IVs against a dozen dug-in T-34sthat was hardly an equal battle. Tebbe was hit first. Then Gittermann. The crews were able to "abandon ship". They dodged, crawled, and rolled to the snow-covered anti-tank ditch. Bleeding, half-frozen, and totally exhausted they reached the foremost outposts of their battalion. Clearly they could not succeed that way. The fire-power of the T-34s buried in the village had to be eliminated. But how?
Balck resorted to a ruse.
On the morning of 25th January he concentrated the fire of the entire available artillery on the northern part of the village. He ordered smoke shells to be fired. Armored scout cars and armored infantry carriers moved forward cautiously and fired tracer in all directions.
Balck was feigning a full-scale attack on the north-eastern part of Manychskaya.
The Soviet brigade commander fell for the bluff.
The unsuccessful German attack of the day before confirmed him in the belief that the Germans would now try their luck from the north-east. In order to meet this presumed attack with massive defensive forces he ordered the dug-in T-34s to be made mobile again and switched them to the north-eastern edge of the village.
That was precisely what Balck had been waiting for.
With his chief of operations, Lieutenant-Colonel Kinitz, he sat in a good observation post on a hill south of Manychskaya. As soon as he saw the Soviets regroup he immediately got his divisional artillery to switch its fire to the southern part of the village. Only one troop, firing smoke-shells, continued the sham attack in the north.
Then came the order; "Panzers forward!"
The German attack came almost under the bursts of their own shells. The 3rd Battalion, 15th Panzer Regiment, under Captain Schmidt rolled up the village from south to north. Count Schimmelmann meanwhile with his regiment attacked the Russian tanks in the northeastern part of the village from the rear and annihilated them.
The enemy infantry fled and were shot down among the tanks, suffering serious losses.
Captain von Häuser sent out his Motorcycle Battalion 61 to pursue the fleeing Russians. Past the still-raging tank battle in the northeastern part of the village the wild chase continued, completing the Soviet disaster.
It was a strange and a memorable battle.
German losses, thanks to the successful ruse, were astonishingly low: one man killed and fourteen wounded. The Soviets, on the other hand, lost twenty tanks and over six hundred dead in Manychskaya alone.
On the following day, Rotmistrov, the general commanding the defeated corpslater to emerge as the "lion of Prokhorovka" and the master of the great tank battle in the Kursk salientsent the following sober and unmistakable message to General Malinovskiy, C-in-C of the Second Guards Army: "In view of the situation and their heavy losses the troops can no longer engage in any active operations at the moment."
Clearly, twenty tanks, or two-thirds of a tank battalion, were an appreciable loss even for the Russians in January 1943. Not only the Germans had had to cover the great distance from Brest-Litovsk to Stalingrad; the Soviets had also had to cover those 1200 miles, and mostly in flight. They too were at the end of their strength.
General Rotmistrov's report on the situation of the armored and motorized formations of Second Guards Army on 26th January contains clear proof: The V Guards Mechanized Corps was down to 2200 men, seven tanks, and seven anti-tank guns. All brigade commanders had been killed. The 3rd Guards Armored Brigade and the 2nd Motorized Guards Rifle Brigade were down to six tanks and two antitank guns. The 18th Guards Armored Brigade was down to eight tanks, two anti-tank guns, and a combat strength of fifty men; the II Guards Mechanized Corps had only eight tanks left. Thus the entire Second Guards Army was left with a mere twenty-nine tanks and eleven anti-tank guns on 26th January. That was the harsh reality on the Soviet side during those early weeks of 1943.
It is not surprising therefore that in his memoirs Marshal Yeremenko writes: "All further attempts to take Rostov and Bataysk in January 1943 remained unsuccessful."
The Rostov door to the Caucasus remained open. The First Panzer Army succeeded in slipping through. In never- ending columns its formations were pulled out through the narrow bottleneck. Four days later, on 1st February, Lieutenant Renatus Weber from Hamburg, orderly officer on the staff of XL Panzer Corps, was sitting in the icy drawing-room of an old patrician house in Taganrog, pouring out all the excitement of the past twenty-four hours in a letter home.
The young lieutenant described to his mother an exciting adventure from the great retreat from the Caucasus. The staff and the light units of XL Panzer Corps had slipped out of the trap across the ice of the Sea of Azov.
"This crossing of the ice marks the end of our expedition to the Caucasus. We were incredibly lucky to get out of the Rostov bottleneck alive," the lieutenant wrote to Hamburg.
No-one who lived through this march over the sea will ever forget it. It was an adventure which is not only XL Panzer Corps had evacuated its sector far away on the Terek, at the foot of the Higher Caucasus, during New Year's Eve, during the very last hours of 1942. Good-bye, Ishcherskaya, scene of much bloody fighting; good-bye, northern Caucasus and Caspian Sea. But there was no nostalgia in the partingonly hope that one would still be in time to escape from the great trap. Once again Hitler had been unable to take an important decision. He had only permitted First Panzer Army to withdraw partially and at certain points, and from his distant headquarters at Rastenburg he decided what sector had to be held and how long.
The great retreat from the Terek to the Don took thirty days. During the day it meant holding out and fighting, during the night it meant marching. Thus they withdrew from one sector to the next. Marching at night, they pulled out of the promised land of Caucasian oilthe regiments of the Terek divisions who had fought their way to the very gates of Groznyy and had got within an arm's reach of Baku. They were the Berlin 3rd Panzer Division, parts of the 5th (Viking) SS Panzer Grenadier Division, the Brandenburg, Lower Saxon, Saxon, Silesian, Anhalt, and Austrian Regiments of 13th Panzer Division, of lllth, 370th, and 50th Infantry Divisions, and of 5th Luftwaffe Field Division. In addition there were Cossack squadrons, volunteer battalions of Caucasian mountain tribes, and the formations of the Rumanian 2nd Mountain Division.
Corporal Alsleben of the Panzerjäger Company, 117th Infantry Regiment, jotted down a few sentences, a few key words, in his diary each day. The whole long march of 11th Infantry Division thus unrolls before our eyes like a film stripa film typical also of the retreat of all the other regiments involved.
During the day, fighting. Then, towards 2000 hours, departure. Sometimes not until 2200 hours, or even 0400 hours. Alsleben reports: "Panzerjägers are covering our withdrawal road. Endless columns are flowing back along them. Rain. Muddy roads. The Russians are pressing on our heels. The rearguard is suffering heavy losses. Abandoned trucks are blown up. Damaged vehicles are left behind."
His entry of 6th January first mentions the name which is remembered by all who went through this retreat: "Soldato-Aleksandrovskoye. Our division is temporarily holding the Kuma sector."
The Kuma sector! The Kuma was the first natural river barrier once the Terek had been abandoned. The divisions and corps had to cross the river to get back. It was vital to secure the bridges until all straggling formations had crossed it all the supply columns and damaged vehiclesand to blow it up afterwards to slow down the dangerous Russian pursuit and allow the infantry and supply columns to gain a little time.
Soldato-Aleksandrovskoye was particularly important because the railway running along the northern bank of the Kuma had to be kept open as long as possible to allow for the evacuation of the gigantic supply dumps. Those dumps were vitally neededfood supplies, spares, motor fuel, ammunition.
Major Musculus, commanding the Panzerjäger Battalion 111, established a barrier in front of these important bridges with his companies, together with grenadiers and engineers of 50th Infantry Regiment, and for three days resolutely blocked the approaches to all Soviet attacks from the south and east. The Russians were anxious to seal off the Kuma bridges before the German formations crossed them. Between the Kuma and its eastern tributary the Zolka, a deep and ice-cold mountain torrent- the Soviets charged against Soldato-Aleksandrovskoye from Georgiyevsk. Between the villages of Letrovskiy and the Kuma Lieutenant Piedmont with his 2nd Company of the Panzerjäger Battalion and one troop of 117th Artillery Regiment had set up a switchline right in the middle of a treacherous swamp, directly on the only road leading to Soldato-Aleksandrovskoye. This was the road by which the Russians hoped to reach the bridge.
What happened is described by Lieutenant Piedmont in a very revealing account.
His unit was on undulating ground with a view of no more than three hundred yards. Shortly before nightfall a sentry reported enemy cavalry, a few hundred horsemen attacking. Piedmont brought two machine guns into position alongside a solitary house. He alerted the anti-tank guns. He was about to send out his reconnaissance partiesbut the Russians were already on top of them. They came galloping up in a broad front in roughly squadron strengtha hundred and fifty horsemen, their sub-machine- guns at continuous fire.
But now the two German machine-guns suddenly opened up. The two guns, under Hain and Klabus, were firing high- explosive rounds into the cavalcade. Nearly half the attackers collapsed in the first burst of fire from the Panzerjägers; only loose horses raced on. The rest wheeled to the right and left. Piedmont's men were just about to cheer when the second wave appeared. A far bigger wave than the first.
The Russian sub-machine-gun bullets rattled against the protective shields of the anti-tank gun. One of the German MGs had a stoppage. But the Soviet attack was slaughtered by the exploding rounds fifty yards in front of Piedmont's lines.
Now came the third attack.
Only one machine-gun was left in action. The anti-tank guns were out of ammunition. Their sub-machine-guns chattering and with shouts of "Urra" the Soviets charged again. The bulk of them collapsed in the German fire. But thirty or forty horsemen rode down Piedmont's position. They also rode down the artillery emplacements behind it. But they were too few. They were picked off one by one, or disappeared into the impenetrable swamp.
They then wheeled eastwards, back towards the Zolka, and splashed back through the water to the eastern bank.
Fortunately there was no fourth attack. That would have been dangerous. Piedmont had no ammunition left. The road through the swamp was jammed with abandoned vehicles whose drivers had first got under cover themselves. Not until night was it possible to clear the road again.
Lieutenant Piedmont's report states factually and undramatically:
"This cavalry attack left a strange impression on all of us. To begin with, we did not take the attack seriously; it was too much like a joke. But before long we were unpleasantly surprised by the effect it had on our morale. The rapid succession of the attacking waves was unnerving, and the bravery of the Russians was uncanny. Only the protective shields of the guns saved us from the bullets of the sub-machine-guns which the horsemen fired from the saddle at full gallop. Later, when our men moved into new positions, their knees were still shaking. About two hundred Russians were littering the ground, dead or wounded. Our casualties were two men slightly wounded."
Meanwhile, on the far side of the Zolka, Major Musculus with his 1st Company was holding the village of Mikhaylovskiy, hard-pressed by the Soviets who were striking towards the river from the east.
The combat group of 111th Infantry Division was surrounded.
In hand-to-hand fighting it fought its way out. It crossed to the far bank, through the icy water of the deep stream, the non-swimmers being passed on from one soldier to the next.
Step by step the Panzerjägers were falling back to the Kuma bridges at Soldato-Aleksandrovskoye. Machine-gun parties which had already penetrated into the villages were dislodged again with hand-grenades and sub-machine-guns.
Musculus's Panzerjägers thus gained two days' time for the regiments of 111th Infantry Division and 3rd Panzer Division.
Things were pretty hot also at the neighboring 50th Infantry Division. General Friedrich Schmidt found himself exposed to extremely heavy tank attacks. His 122nd Grenadier Regiment lost its entire 3rd Battalion in a mass attack by a Soviet armored brigade.
The front was reeling.
A two-mile gap was yawning between 50th Infantry Division and 111th Infantry Division.
Suppose the Russians struck now? They did strike.
But Schmidt threw his 150th Artillery Regiment into the threatened gap. Together with assault guns from 13th Panzer Division they succeeded in smashing the enemy tank attackers before they reached their line. The enemy infantry suffered heavy losses from the grenadiers' machine-gun fire. The Soviet regiment ebbed back.
In this fighting the 3rd Battalion, 123rd Grenadier Regiment, especially distinguished itself. It launched a massive counter-attack and threw back the enemy who had penetrated into their positions. The attack by a Soviet punitive battalion, which was driven ruthlessly against the German lines and penetrated right to the battalion command post, was wiped out by mortars and in man-to-man fighting.
The commander of 3rd Battalion, 123rd Grenadier Regiment, was a Captain Erich Bärenfänger, holder of the Knight's Cross. No one suspected that twenty-seven months later this young officer would be the youngest general of the German Wehrmacht in its final tragic battle for Germany, the battle of Berlin.
At very first light on 9th January Lieutenant Klümpel of the Panzerjäger Battalion 111 moved off with an anti-tank troop of his 1st Company to secure the bridge over the Kuma north of the town. The river at that time was deep and the banks steep. It was a good tank obstacleproviding the bridge was blown up in time. But it had to remain intact until the last German forces had gained the northern bank. That was always a risk, always a gamble.
The approach to the bridge led over a high dam. Klümpel had a plan: he positioned one 3.7-cm anti-tank gun at the southern end of the bridge and two more by the dam on the northern bank. The rearguard was just crossing the bridge when another truck approached. They waited tensely.
It was not an enemy truck, but Sergeant Reinecke's vehicle. There were two men in the cab. They raced over the bridge. Then the driver pulled up, heaving a sigh of relief. Only then did he notice that his platoon commander Reinecke next to him was dead.
A Russian T-34 came into sight. About three hundred yards south of the bridge it went into positionout of the effective range of the 3.7 guns. Fortunately it contented itself with firing its cannoninstead of charging the bridge and attempting a coup.
The moment of the gamble had arrived. Should they wait any longer? Perhaps some stragglers were still on the far bank? But the risk was too great. It was high time to blow up the bridge.
Lieutenant Buchholz ordered Sergeant Paul Ebel, a section commander in the engineer platoon of 50th Grenadier Regiment: Blow it up now!
Paul Ebel, an agricultural worker in civilian life, nodded. The Panzerjägers and Grenadiers gave him covering fire with everything they hadHE shells, machine-guns, sub-machine-guns, and carbines. All their fire was aimed at the T-34. Ebel sprinted over the dam to the bridge. He succeeded in lighting the fuse. A big flash. A roar like thunder. But when the smoke dispersed everyone's heart missed a beatonly part of the bridge had been blown up. One of the cables had failed. The bridge was still usable.
On the far side the Russians ran up to the half-destroyed ramp.
The T-34 followed them slowly.
They were hoping to get across.
Under cover of the smoke Ebel had made his way back over the dam and was now standing crestfallen at the failure of his mission. "Ebel!" Buchholz called over to him. "Ebel, there's nothing for ityou've got to have another go at it!"
The sergeant cursed under his breath. Again covering fire was opened from all barrels. The Russians again took cover. The machine-gun bullets again rattled against the T-34. Ebel once more reached the bridge unscathed. He was fiddling with the fuses. The minutes seemed to drag eternally. Now he retreated a few steps. He flung himself down against the slope. And now the big detonation shook the ground. With a roar and a rumble the high bridge went up. Under cover of the dense smoke Sergeant Ebel made his way back over the dam to the north bank. For his feat he was awarded the Knight's Cross.
Not until 10th January did the Russians succeed in advancing cautiously over the river. The rearguard had won three days for the bulk of the troops. Three whole days.
This kind of fighting lasted for four weeks altogether. On 31st January Corporal Rolf Alsleben from Hildesheim noted in his diary. "We are almost out of the wood now. We've marched over three hundred miles since Mozdok. A whole month of retreat."
Yes, they were almost out of the wood. They were close to Bataysk, near the last bridges, near the last loophole out of the big trap.
At the same time, Lieutenant Renatus Weber of the staff of XL Panzer Corps wrote in his diary: "We are in the Belyy area, south of Rostov, with parts of 3rd Panzer Division, some corps troops subordinated to it, and some squadrons of Cossacks. New operation orders have come for our corps. We are to be employed in the Donets area. Assembly in the Taganrog area, beyond the Sea of Azov. Some of the way we are to march over the frozen sea!!" The two exclamation marks are a reflection of Renatus Weber's feelings at the prospect.
The operations staff and a Cossack squadron set out from the village of Ilinka in the early morning of 31st January 1943. The light units of the corps and the Cossack squadron were to take the road over the frozen Sea of Azov. The tanks and heavy vehicles were routed over the bridge of Bataysk and through the Rostov bottleneck because the ice would not bear their weight.
The 31st January 1943 was a hazy winter's day. At first the trek made good progress along the road from Tikhoretsk to Rostov, the K1. Then came the fishing village of Azov. Large signposts now diverted the columns: Turn here for the ice route. Over the sea, forward march!
Engineers had built a ramp down to the frozen surface of the sea and accurately marked out the first few hundred yards of the ice road. But the distance across to Taganrog was twenty-six miles. At first the track ran across the Don delta, through frozen marshes and dunes and over an island. Then came the deep sea.
At first the ice was milky white and bumpy. But over the deep water it became smooth and clear as glass. The route was only thinly marked; a few empty petrol cans at long intervals. But one could hardly go wrong because the creaking, brittle road was littered with spectral signposts. Buses, trucks, and heavy staff cars which had broken through the ice, with often only their roofs showing. Signposts and warning signals at the same time.
The ice cover was treacherous. There were holes and there were thin patches. The haze compelled the drivers to move slowly. In long-drawn-out columns, infantry and horse-drawn transport moved forward. The Cossacks were trotting towards Taganrog in extended formation.
For the first time the men of 3rd Panzer Division had a new kind of companiona kind unknown to the advancing troops but henceforward to become a regular feature of their retreat. Civilians were trekking along right and left.
Cossack families following their menfolk who had joined German volunteer units or enlisted as auxiliary police, and who now feared the return of the Soviets.
A motley transport peasant carts piled high, cattle and horses on long ropes, and children. Towards midday the haze lifted a little. And almost at once the Soviet ground-attack aircraft arrived. At barely a hundred and fifty feet the IL-2s swept over the ice. They dropped bombs. They fired their guns. There was no ditch, no shrub, no housenothing to provide cover. As far as the eye could see there was nothing but the frozen sea, as flat as a pancake.
The columns scattered.
The Cossack squadron chased off in all directions, the horsemen galloping over the ice as if the devil were at their heels.
The bombs raised gushing fountains of ice. Splinters tinkled over the frozen sea. One could only pray or fire. Many were praying. But many also flung themselves down on their backs and with their rifles or machine-guns let fly furiously at the Soviet aircraft. Fortunately the sky soon clouded over again. It even began to snow. Under the white veil the trek continued across the sea, winding along slowly like some giant snake.
General Siegfried Henrici, commanding the XL Panzer Corps, and Colonel Carl Wagener, his chief of staff, did not leave their command post until late in the morning. A thick blizzard reduced visibility to virtually nil. As the small column stopped at a point where the tracks on the ice divided, a peasant cart overtook them at a fair speed and without any hesitation took the left fork. Colonel Wagener signaled the muffled driver to stop. He assumed him to be a local auxiliary and in his best Russian asked him the shortest way to Taganrog.
Horrified the man stared at the Russian-speaking colonel.
Wagener understood: he was being taken for a Russian.
He therefore repeated his question in German. The terrified soldier burst out laughing with relief. In broadest Saxon he replied: "Very sorry, Herr Oberst, but I'm a stranger here myself." And with a sly smile he added: "But my instinct tells me: Arthur, keep to the left!"
The instinct of Arthur, the Saxon, was quite correct. At least where the Sea of Azov was concerned. About three miles east of Taganrog the ice road terminated in another ramp built by the engineers and rejoined the coast road from Rostov to Taganrog. The columns of XL Panzer Corps were again on firm ground. But now all the transport difficulties associated with Russia's roads were with them againjammed-up trucks, guns stuck in the mud, impassable swampy stretches. Only now did the infantrymen realize what a fast and smooth journey they had had over the sea.
The heavy formations of First and Fourth Panzer Armies were moving westwards with difficulty along the congested road. Mixed up with them were the ground formations of the Luftwaffe and various rearward services. And among them also were the treks of the Caucasian mountain tribes. Vehicle after vehicletrucks, staff cars, armored scout cars, guns, light tanks. An interminable queue.
Harassed field police were desperately trying to unravel the bunched-up traffic at bridges and crossroads. The spearheads of XL Panzer Corps reached Taganrog on the evening of 31st January. As he was warming himself by a hurriedly lit fire, Major Kandutsch, the Corps Intelligence Officer, thoughtfully' asked his Baltic interpreter: "What do you suppose we shall remember most about our march across the Sea of Azov?"
The answer came promptly: "The fear, Herr Major, the fear!"
Indeed, fear had marched with them all the way over the ice. But they had escaped the trap. And the day's other news reminded them of the fate which, thanks to Manstein's skill, they had been spared. It was the 31st January 1943, the day when the German Sixth Army died at Stalingrad.
Lieutenant Renatus Weber also thought of Stalingrad at this hour of salvation. In his letter to his mother, written from Taganrog, he said: "In the last analysis we owe our escape to the resistance of Sixth Army at Stalingrad, who cut the railway and tied down strong Russian contingents."
What the young lieutenant wrote then remains true to this day. It has, moreover, been since confirmed by historical fact. The salvation of First Panzer Army, and indeed of the whole of Army Group A and of parts of Army Group Don, was due not only to Manstein's generalship and the gallantry of the troops, but very largely also to Sixth Army which had been holding out in Stalingrad throughout January.
In its death struggle, Sixth Army had not only tied down half a dozen Soviet armies and kept them on the Volga, thereby preventing them from intervening in the decisive battle of Rostov, butand this was possibly of even greater importancethe fighting on the Volga meant the blocking of the three principal railway lines from Stalingrad to the west and hence vastly increased supply difficulties for the Soviet armies operating against Rostov.
Indeed, these supply problems were the real reason why Stalins gigantic pincers could not snap shut around the German armies in the Caucasus and on the Don and thus trap the entire southern wing of the German forces.
Soviet records support this statement. In the History of the Great Fatherland War, volume three, page 98, we read:
"The Soviet southern front, in particular the Second Guards Army, which was due to take Rostov at the beginning of January, was low in all kinds of supplies, notably fuel and ammunition, because the battle of Stalingrad was paralyzing supplies and in particular rail traffic."
Thus, on 31st January, just as the resistance of Sixth Army in Stalingrad was collapsing, the rearguards of Fourth Panzer Army crossed the bridges of Rostov. The Soviets were unable to slam the door shut.
On 5th February, the Panzerjägers of General Recknagel's 111th Infantry Division had arrived on the spot and, with the support of some 8.8-cm guns, kept the Russian tank packs at a healthy distance from the escape hole.
On 6th February at 2200 hours the last units of Recknagel's Lower Saxon regiments crossed the bridges of Bataysk and moved through Rostovby then a dead city. Behind them rumbled the thunder of demolitionsthe Bataysk bridges were being dynamited. And not before time, for already Soviet reconnaissance parties were crawling over the ice of the Don to the bridge piers in order to disconnect the demolition charges. Did they succeed? Or was the desperate haste of the retreating Germans to blame for the fact that demolition was only partially successful?
Two days later, during the night of 7th-8th February, in the fitful light of tracer ammunition, Panzer No. 300 crossed the Don bridge at Aksayskaya. Lieutenant Klaus Kühne of the 16th Motorized Infantry Division was the last man to cross this miracle of German army engineering skill. In ten days of ceaseless day and night work Lieutenant Kirchenbauer's bridge-building unit 21 had built that bridge over the ice-covered Don. It was strong enough to withstand storm and drifting ice, and to carry loads in excess of sixty tonsin other words, suitable for all armored vehicles and the heaviest artillery.
A few minutes later, Sergeant Wagner of the demolition squad of Engineer Battalion 675 blew up the massive pontoon bridge. It took one and a half tons of high explosives.
The job was done. The long journey of First Panzer Army from the Terek to the Don was successfully concludeda distance of 375 miles. The Fourth Panzer Army had been successfully wheeled from the approaches of Stalingrad over the Manych to the northern shores of the Sea of Azov.
But meanwhile, what had happened to the divisions of Seventeenth Army which had penetrated far into the forests and mountain ranges of the Caucasus? To the snow-covered passes of Mount Elbrus, Klukhor, and Sanchar? And down to the coastal road on the Black Sea? And to the oilfields of Maikop?
The disaster of Stalingrad and the Russian push to the Don meant that their positions on the eastern edge of the Black Sea, up on the mountain passes and down by the drilling rigs of the oilfields, had become untenable.
They had to be pulled back. The army was already on the move. By the time the demolition of the pontoon bridge of Aksayskaya rang out over the snow-covered Don Cossack steppe like a salute in honor of the salvation of half a million men of First and Fourth Panzer Armies, the corps of Seventeenth Army in the western Caucasus had also, in a manner of speaking, turned the corner. The worst part of the retreat had been successfully completed. Colonel-General Ruoffs formations had been obliged to hold on to their positions even after the departure of First Panzer Army from the Terek at the beginning of January, in order that the flank of Kleist's Army Group A should not be pushed in by the Russians. On 10th January, at long last, XLIX Mountain Corps evacuated its old positions in the high part of the Caucasus and began to move back to the Maikop area.
The plan of the withdrawal envisaged Seventeenth Army disengaging itself sector by sector towards the north-west, via the "Cable-car Line" and the "Gothic Line", into a bridgehead in the lower reaches of the Kuban. It was Hitler's idea to establish there a kind of springboard into Asia, where 400,000 men would be held ready to be moved forward again in the summer of 1943 against the Caucasus and its oilfields. The base for this bridgehead was to be the Crimea.
This plan was typical of Hitler's strategy of illusions. It was unbelievable. Was this the man who in 1940 and 1941 had stunned the world by well-thought-out operations and bold improvisation? At that time he tended to be over-cautious in critical situations. Since Stalingrad, however, he had been conducting the war with an almost pathological obduracy, simply refusing to accept clear and unmistakable facts.
Yet these facts were only too obvious even to the most junior staff officer. At Stalingrad 250,000 men were encircled. Between Chir and Don the situation was disastrous. Yet 200 miles from Rostov, on the Kuban, 400,000 men with more than 2000 guns were to be immobilized just as though they were encircled. Hitler had originally even intended to move First Panzer Army into the Kuban bridgehead as well. Only the most determined representations by the commanders in the field persuaded him to give up this absurd idea and to transfer the bulk of First Panzer Army to Manstein, switching only its LII corps and 13th Panzer Division into the Kuban bridgehead. And that was quite foolish enough.
What the bridges over the Don at Rostov meant to First and Fourth Panzer Armies, the Kuban bridges at Krasnodar and Ust-Labinskaya meant to the infantry, rifle, and mountain corps of Seventeenth Army. They were vital pivoting points and equally vital supply centers for the retreating corps. Here too, therefore, a nerve-racking race began against time. And against the enemy.
These were no longer mobile troops, indeed hardly motorized units, but only greatly weakened small armored formations of 13th Panzer Divisionmostly infantry, rifle units, mountain troops, and horse-drawn artillery who covered this distance of 250 miles in four weeks, without motor vehicles, with only pack animals, and with horses pulling the guns and supply carts. Much of the way they were engaged in fighting. From the icy slopes of Mount Elbrus, Klukhor, and Sanchar, and from the marshes of the Gunayka valley, they moved down into the Kuban plain, and then northwest into the "Gothic Line", the last bastion before the Kuban bridgehead.
This retreat too was an achievement almost without parallel in military history. A chapter in the war, marked by gallantry, dedication, and readiness for sacrifice on the part of officers and men, and not with weapons only but equally so with spades, alongside horses and mules.
Here more than anywhere else did the German Wehrmacht reap the benefits of its progressive, modern structure, its lack of social barriers and class prejudice. The German Army was the only army in the world in which officers and men shared the same food. The officer was not only the leader in battle but also the "foreman", a "trooper with epaulettes", whose unhesitating participation in carrying loads or freeing stuck vehicles set an example which conquered fatigue. In no other way could the adventure of this great retreat have succeeded.
Retreat is invariably a depressing chapter for the troops. Since November 1942 General de Angelis's XLIV Jäger Corps and General Konrad's XLIX Mountain Corps had been defending their positions in the western Caucasus, on the road to Tuapse and along the famous Military Highways of the Central Caucasus, with an incredible amount of enthusiasm and readiness for sacrifice. And all the time they were in sight, within a few miles, of their ultimate objectivethe Black Sea and the Turkish frontier. They could not make it.
In mid-November 1942 the great rains came. The Caucasian mountains, valleys, and forests were swept by cloud-bursts and gales. The rivers broke their banks. Brooks turned into raging torrents. Bridges were carried away, telephone wires were ripped from their poles. The mud was knee-deep. Movement was impossible even with peasant carts and beasts of burden. Horses and mules broke into the morass up to their bellies. Vehicles and guns were immobilized. Horse-drawn held kitchens were caught on the fords by the torrential streams and men and horses were swept away like toys and drowned. Foxholes and command posts were flooded. Grenadiers and riflemen died in their trenches of cold and exhaustion. Horses and mules disappeared in the quagmires or developed mange and died. The gunners dragged their ammunition into dry caves in the rock.
But what was the use of it all?
It was easy enough to fire a shell but if was impossible to score a hit: because of the strong cross-wind the deviations were incalculable and targets were invariably missed.
The work done by the medical orderlies in collecting the wounded and transporting them back was beyond description. Each day of this atrocious war was filled with heroic deeds of humanity. And in the end the war itself died in this mountain world of howling storms and eerie lightning and dark, brooding forests. It was drowned in the raging torrents. It froze to death among the glaciers. It was suffocated in the mud and the rubble of inundated valleys. There was no time left for killing. No aircraft took off any more, neither bombers nor reconnaissance planes.
Artillery, flak, and assault guns were withdrawn. The positions high up in the mountains were evacuated. The blood- drenched Zemasho, 3400 feet high, south of Krasnodar was abandonedthe last mountain before the coast, the mountain from which they had seen the sea and the road to Tuapse, their longed-for objective.
Here Major von Hirschfeld and Major Dr Lawall had fought and bled with the riflemen of 98th Regiment. Now, so near their objective, they had to abandon their positions. Just like the men of First Panzer Army had done on the blood- soaked battlefield on the Terek. On 10th January the withdrawal operation known as "Cable Car", the retreat towards the Goryachiy Klyuch to Maikop line, began for all formations of Seventeenth Army. The group of Colonel von Le Suire, which had held the high mountain passes with units of 1st Mountain Division, had disengaged itself from the enemy on 4th January and made its way back, to the Maikop area, in twenty-three days of fighting.
The Württemberg 125th Infantry Division fell back to the area south of Krasnodar. This was a vital line, as Krasnodar was to be the turntable for the withdrawal of the whole of Seventeenth Army. For Colonel Alfred Reinhardt, at that time commanding the 125th Infantry Division, that meant that the town with its river crossings had to be held at all costs. Krasnodar must not be surrendered. Not only because of its importance as a traffic junction but also because it was a mammoth supply centre. It contained enormous stores of all kinds of goods. And since the heavy ice in the Strait of Kerch ruled out, for the time being, all other approaches to the Kuban area, the 400,000 men of the Seventeenth Army were utterly dependent on the stores in Krasnodarat least until the Strait of Kerch was clear of ice. And that would not be for another seven weeks at least.
Reinhardt's task therefore was not unlike that performed by Hoth's divisions at Rostov. The 125th Infantry Division had to prevent the Russians from emerging from the northern slopes of the Caucasus. It must stop them at all costs from getting near the only two usable roads of retreat from Goryachiy Klyuch to Krasnodar and to Krimskaya and Novorossiysk. Reinhardt's division had to defend Krasnodar. It had to secure the roads. And it had to keep in check the partisans in the forests. That was quite a job.
Under cover from 125th Infantry Division the XLIV Rifle Corps was successfully pulled out of the swamp via Krasnodar with all its heavy weapons. A magnificent achievement.
Meanwhile, XLIX Mountain Corps under General Konrad had to disengage from the enemy in the snow-covered passes of the Higher Caucasus. Here the companies of the Franconian-Sudeten 46th Infantry Division under General Haccius acted as the rearguard covering the difficult withdrawal. It worked out all right. The worst part of it was the recovery of the heavy weapons from the by then quite impassable valley of the Gunayka and the Pshish.
One has to read the account of Colonel Winkler, the artillery commander, to get an insight into the difficulties involved in the withdrawal of the heavy guns. During the dry season they had been moved into the roadless valleys, and now they were standing axle-deep in mud on the valley floor. In this chaotic situation Colonel Winkler worked wonders with a mere dozen tractors. It really was a case of doing the impossible. Three tractors hitched to a gun. Heave! And again! Yard by yard the guns were pulled out of the sticky mud. Then they were taken apart. Piece by piece the troops manhandled them down the steep slopes. Then they loaded them on sledges. And then on pack animals. And finally on vehicles.
Not even the Russians, who were masters of improvisation, achieved anything like it. They were defeated by the difficult terrain and only managed to follow the retreating Germans at a considerable distance. Only hard work, sweat, ingenuity, and unshakeable courage saved the corps of Seventeenth Army.
When the Soviets had reformed, their main attacks were aimed at the German withdrawal road from Saratovskaya to Krasnodar. This, the only highway to the north, was known as the "Stalin Highway", and was negotiable in all weathers even by heavy vehicles. The Russians tried desperately to get at this road. The large forests offered them favorable jumping-off positions. For months combat squads and partisan formations had seeped into the area south of Krasnodar. The German line was so thin that this was unavoidable. Thus a dangerous partisan area had gradually developed. Now and then a group or a leader of these formations was caught behind the German lines.
The engagement reports of 97th Rifle Division record an episode typical of the savagery of this type of partisan warfare. A unit of Turkmen volunteers who had fought bravely at Tuapse alongside 97th Rifle Division used a small abandoned village near Severskaya for their sleeping quarters during the winter nights. Occasionally the unit commanders would forget to post sentries.
One morning the Turkmens did not turn up for duty. A German patrol cautiously approached the village, which seemed suspiciously quiet. The patrol leader was the first to enter a house, pistol in hand. His men heard him yell an angry oath. And then they were able to see for themselves. The same picture in every hut: the Turkmens were lying in their beds with their heads cut off. Chalked on the walls was the slogan "Traitors will not escape revenge!"
This gruesome scene was part of the psychological warfare conducted by the Soviets against the much-feared cooperation of various non-Russian, anti-Bolshevik nationalities with the German Wehrmacht.
A good part of the Soviet intelligence effort behind the German lines was concerned with watching and foiling these collaborators. It worked extremely well. Officers and commissars of this secret front recruited suitable inhabitants behind the German lines by means of regular call-up orders. Moscow's emissaries in this dangerous struggle were real dare-devils.
Lieutenant Alex Buchner of 13th Mountain Jäger Regiment describes how one day his Karachai militia, while out on patrol in the spurs of the Caucasus, captured a tall Soviet officer. Under interrogation he refused to disclose how he had got behind the lines. He merely rolled his eyes and remained silent.
When the Karachai had stripped him of his uniform for a closer examination, the prisoner began to betray clear signs of nervousness as Büchner picked up his fine peaked cap to cut off the big enameled Soviet star from it as a souvenir. A few knife cuts into the top of the cap revealed everything: out of the lining came maps printed on tissue paper, orders and authorities from Moscow, and identity documents. The patrol had caught the man who was to have built up a secret front in the Kuban area.
But partisan units also engaged in merciless open combat in the wooded region of Severskaya. The 8th Troop, 125th Artillery Regiment, was overrun there by strong forces. The 7th Troop escaped the same fate only thanks to the vigilance of an infantry platoon providing cover for it.
Interrogation of a captured sergeant confirmed 125th Infantry Division in the view that the Russians were extremely anxious to block the German route of retreat. "Our commanders," the sergeant said, "have read out to all units an order from headquarters. It said that the German retreat route must be cut, at no matter what sacrifice." This was not surprising. The prize, if the attempt succeeded, was the bagging of the whole of XLIV Jäger Corps.
The most savage fighting on the right wing was for the crucial hill 249.6. This was held by 3rd Battalion, 421st Grenadier Regiment, under Captain Winzen. Unshaven and haggard with sleeplessness, the captain sat in his stone hut. Outside the machine-guns were barking.
A runner came galloping up to the command post: "They're coming again, Herr Hauptmann!"
They were coming. Just as yesterday and the day before. Only one in every four had a uniform, and one in every three, at best, carried a rifle. They had no heavy weapons at all. They yelled "Urra!" and charged. Right in front were young officers, some still cadets from officer training centers. Behind them came boys of thirteen or fourteen, as well as old men and invalids.
It was the scraping of the barrel. The German machine-guns mowed down the first wave. Those behind it picked up the rifles of the wounded and killed, and charged on. To judge by their features, all Caucasian tribes were represented.
Soon mountains of dead and wounded piled up a mere fifty yards in front of the positions of 3rd Battalion. It was impossible to identify the units of the killed as the men did not carry any documents.
We know now that they were hurriedly levied special formations of the Soviet Fifty-Sixth Army and came under the newly raised Soviet 9th Mountain Division. This inferno continued for four days. They came again and again. They used the mountains of their own dead for cover. Behind these gruesome parapets they reformed and with a spine-chilling yell of "Urra!" they would charge again, over their own dead. "Hand-grenade throwers forward!" the German platoon commanders called whenever a pause intervened in the fighting. Only with hand-grenades could the Soviet assembly positions behind the mountains of corpses be reached. But what was the use of it? Like shifting dunes the mountains of dead crept closer and closer. Fifty yards became twenty-five. Then ten. "Urra!" And then already they were in the command post.
Captain Winzen rounded up every man he had. Immediate counterattack. Quick! Every man knew why they had to be quick. They had had some grim experience of these fanatical militias. Like lightning the German assault party was back in their old battalion command post. But the scene before them was frightful. The boys had avenged their dead. The men of 3rd Battalion had another grim reminder that they were fighting in Asia.
The only man found still alive and not massacred in the recaptured battalion command post was a seriously wounded Russian lieutenant. When Captain Winzen interrogated him amidst that scene of carnage and demanded an explanation for the atrocities, the Russian merely shrugged his shoulders and said, "You Germans know how to fight; we are still learning."
They learnt all right.
But for the moment they were still making bad mistakes and costly ones. Thus the commanders of these Red "Home Guard'' and partisan units at Krasnodar led their men in a strange manner. They put out their tactical orders to their subordinate officers over the radio en clair, together with frightful threats: "Unless you attain the objective I'll have you shot!" or, "If you retreat I'll order fire to be opened on your units!"
The forward monitoring service of 125th Infantry Division listened in to all this, and Reinhardt and his staff therefore always knew in advance where to expect an enemy attack. His tactical reserves were always on the spot before the Soviet attacker.
"At times I conducted operations entirely on the strength of the Russian commands by radio," General Reinhardt recalled. Wherever the "Urra!" of the charging regiments shattered the grey dawn, the combat squads of the Baden-Württemberg battalions were already behind their machine-guns, their carbines ready on the parapets of their dugouts, and hand- grenades within easy reach. Then the attack came.
A hundred times death swept over the plain, into the undergrowth and against the flat flanks of the river valleys.
The "Regimentsgruppe Ortlieb", a combat group of roughly regiment strength, was holding the village of Penzenskaya. It was situated at the important road fork where the old highway to Krasnodar crossed the east-west road from Maikop to Novorossiysk.
The Russians were stubbornly trying to take the village. Major Ortlieb had to organize his men for all-round defense. Supplies for his force had to come through by heavily armed convoy. Every such convoy was an adventure. The Russians were lying in wait like Red Indians, their snipers picking off the German drivers, Their engineers mined the roads and buried in it remote-controlled high-explosive charges. It was a small-scale war, but exhausting. Ortlieb was holding the western approaches to Krasnodar.
The other important strongpoint covering the approach to the vital centre of Krasnodar was Saratovskaya, immediately on the "Stalin Highway" which ran from the Maikop oilfields through the mountains to Krasnodar. This road was negotiable by heavy trucks and in all weathers. But it had a few dangerously vulnerable pointsthe bridges over the deep cut valley north of the town.
The commander of 125th Infantry Division needed every single man at the focal points of his defensive front; thus the bridges had to be covered by Ukrainian volunteer units. They were commanded by reliable German NCO'sbut it was not the same thing.
During the night of 27th-28th January, at 0200, Reinhardt was woken by his orderly officer, Lieutenant Roser. "Herr Oberst, the Russians have got to the bridges!"
"All three of them?" Reinhardt asked, flabbergasted.
"All three of them, Herr Oberst."
For a moment Reinhardt was heard muttering Swabian curses. Then he ordered: "Get Lieutenant Sauter!"
The commander of the 14th Panzerjäger Company, 421st Grenadier Regiment, was sent off to the bridges with a machine-gun platoon and a 7.5-cm anti-tank gun.
A company of 420th Grenadier Regiment was loaded on trucks. Reinhardt himself went along with this company.
They came to the first bridge.
"Bridge not held by friend or enemy!" the report came back. Reinhardt's eyes flashed angrily.
Off to the next bridge.
All by himself, a German NCO was crouching behind his machine-gun by the ramp. He gestured over to the third bridge, not lit up by fires.
"As soon as the first few bangs came from over there, together with a handful of fleeing Ukrainians, my Ukrainian lot also took to their heels. An enemy assault party made an attack but were stopped by my fire and have evidently withdrawn now."
Sauter cautiously approached the third bridge with his assault party. A Slovak fighting vehicle was burning on its ramp. In the light of the fire a few Russian infantrymen could be seen digging in. A Russian sentry by the approach to the bridge was scrounging through a supply vehicle for booty.
"Just what I want," muttered Sergeant Maier of 14th Company. He crept up to the truck. Softly he hissed: "Psst!" The Russian straightened up. Maier struck with his rifle butt. The Russian keeled over noiselessly.
That was what Sauter was waiting for. With his combat squad he moved up to the most convenient range. Then he raked the surprised Russians with HE shells and machine-gun fire.The company of 420th Grenadier Regiment, which followed Sauter, crushed the last resistance. The bridge was clear again.
That was most fortunate. For on the following day the last battalions of 198th Infantry Division, the Slovak Fast Division, as well as the Special Service Battalion 500 and the Cyclist Battalion of 101st Jäger Division, passed through Saratovskaya and continued in the direction of Krasnodar. They would have been lost if Reinhardt's Swabians had not kept the road open. One more instance of a major turn in the situation depending on the resolution of a single commander or indeed the gallantry of one man behind a machine-gun guarding a bridge.
At last Reinhardt was able to order his combat groups still holding covering positions to the east and south of Krasnodar to fight their way back.
The Russians immediately followed up. They tried desperately to overtake the German rearguards and break through to Krasnodar. These were very different formations from the wild hordes of the last few weeks. These were all young people, well trained, in new khaki uniforms and short greatcoats. None of their equipment was of Russian origin uniform, underwear, socks, and boots all bore the American stamp GI. Not till you came to their skins were they Russian.
Their light weapons too came from the U.S.A., and in their pockets the Soviet soldiers had Camel cigarettes. Roosevelt's inexhaustible war production was now also being employed against the German armies on the borders of Europe and Asia.
But even these crack troops with their American equipment did not succeed in breaking through to Krasnodar. On 30th January the 125th Infantry Division had taken up new defensive positions to both sides of Pritsepilovka. On the same day, on the left wing of the army, the last units of XLIX Mountain Corps crossed the Kuban by the army bridges of Ust-Labinskaya which had been kept open by formations of 13th Panzer Division and 46th Infantry Division. Twelve hours later these bridges were blown up by the rearguards of the Franconian-Sudeten 46th Infantry Division. But the Seventeenth Army was not out of the wood yet.
Scorched Earth by Paul Carell
I have never heard of the Spanish Blue Division!
Although Spanish leader Field Marshal (Generalísimo) Francisco Franco did not enter the war on the side of Nazi Germany, he permitted volunteers to join the German Army (Wehrmacht Heer) on the clear and guaranteed condition they would fight exclusively against Bolshevism (Soviet Communism) on the Eastern Front, and not against the Western Allies or any Western European occupied populations. In this manner, he could keep Spain at peace with the Western Allies whilst simultaneously repaying Hitler for his support during the Spanish Civil War (see Condor Legion). Spanish foreign minister Ramón Serrano Súñer made the suggestion to raise a volunteer corps, and at the commencement of Operation Barbarossa, Franco sent an official offer of help to Berlin.
Hitler approved the use of Spanish volunteers on June 24, 1941. Volunteers flocked to recruiting offices in all the metropolitan areas of Spain. Cadets from the officer training school in Zaragoza volunteered in particularly large numbers. Initially, the Spanish government was prepared to send about 4,000 men, but soon realized that there were more than enough volunteers to fill an entire division: 18,104 men in all, with 2,612 officers and 15,492 soldiers.
Aviator volunteers formed a Blue Squadron (Escuadrillas Azules) which, using Bf 109s and FW 190s, was credited with 156 Soviet aircraft kills.
The Blue Division faced a major Soviet attempt to break the siege of Leningrad in February 1943, when the Soviet Army 55, reinvigorated after the epic victory at Stalingrad, attacked the Spanish positions at the Battle of Krasny Bor, near the main Moscow-Leningrad road. Despite heavy casualties, the Spaniards were able to hold their ground against a Russian force 7 times larger and supported by tanks. The assault was contained and the siege of Leningrad was maintained for a further year. This victory established the reputation of the Blue Division with the German general staff. It remained on the Leningrad front where they suffered heavy casualties both due to cold and to enemy action. Franco dispatched more reinforcements, which in time included conscripts in addition to volunteers.
Through rotation, as many as 45,000 Spanish soldiers served on the Eastern Front.
The casualties of the Blue Division and its successors included 4,954 men killed and 8,700 wounded. Another 372 members of the Blue Division, the Blue Legion, or volunteers of the Spanische-Freiwilligen Kompanie der SS 101 were taken prisoner by the victorious Red Army; 286 of these men were kept in captivity until April 2, 1954, when they returned to Spain aboard the ship Semiramis, supplied by the International Red Cross.