From Germany to Russia

Travelling to the Front

Cologne in 1942 before it was destroyed. The flat building behind the Dome is the main railway station.

Cologne Main Station
Cologne is like a multi layered cake with several thousand years of settlement history. Multiple remains in the different layers reach out to the surface: six thousand year old tools, four thousand year old graves, two thousand year old walls left behind by the Romans. Then all these houses and churches built in the Middle Ages, having a good thousand years of history to carry. In the heart of the city and close to the river there is the “modern” iconic creation: The Dome of Cologne. Construction of the cathedral began in 1248 on the foundations of an older church and it took 600 more years to finish the Dome as we see it today.
The Cologne people were always very aware of its significant historical past simply through the mere fact that one could never lose sight of it. The Burghers shaped their identity through an ancient city culture with powerful rulers and strong traders living on the banks of that vivid artery named the Rhine flowing past their front doors.

Two months after the event I shall describe below the thus established collection of churches, patrician houses, shops, cafés and department stores would cease to exist any more. In the space of a few hours the buildings would be obliterated by aerial bombardment. 
But the start of the story is still prior to that great shock.

The townsfolk felt depressed but were naïve in what awaited them.
The long and extremely cold winter had got them down. Barely two months ago the big river flowing through town had congealed into arctic scenery. Along the banks the sharp-edged ice floes had shuffled above each other as if they intended to send a signal from distant Russia.
In heavy clothing people had been sliding over the silent frozen river paralyzed by the thought that their soldiers camped in arctic conditions in Russia wearing thin garments only.

The gentle spring sun had long ago consumed the icy surface and the Rhine was streaming along in ignorance. Traffic in the streets was throbbing. Seen from a bird’s eye perspective the source was obvious. It was the main railway station of Cologne. From above it looked like a huge flounder; the bundled rails disappeared into its mouth and came out compressed at the other end to head over the bridge crossing the Rhine.
Next to the glossy skin of the flounder the more complicated sculpture of the Dome squeezed in. Both lace-like perforated towers reaching out up to the sky like soaring rockets, pitch-black in colour.

It was the 20th of March, 1942.
Punctually at the start of spring the garrison had completed recruit basic training. They assembled like migrating birds on the platforms of the Cologne main railway station. The “bird plumage” was represented in the various arms of service by their respective uniform piping colours, back packs were shouldered, hair neatly trimmed, eager young faces, good mood and hallos all round.
Waiting for the troop train. The soldiers were standing together in little groups. Some knew each other already from training. Nobody however knew at which front line he would fight. All top secret.
The surprise trip was organised like a paperchase. It all began at a specified reporting point at the train station. This was an office run by an admin officer of the Wehrmacht with his box of personnel index cards.
Clemens presented his Wehrmacht ID and the officer flipped through the card index box.
"Ah, yes; here we are." He looked up at the young man: “From now on you belong to the 95th Infantry Division.”
Actually, Clemens was originally assigned to the 26th Infantry Division and its 78th Infantry Regiment. This was the home division of recruits from the Rhineland and Munster areas. At that moment the 78th was fighting at Rshew, the most dangerous front section close to Moscow. Was it luck or intention that the new boy was not sent to the worst trouble spot?!
The officer gave the young man the necessary instructions:
”You take the train with number x waiting at track y, take the goods wagon with number z, the train will leave at …”
”Where will the train head for”, Clemens asked inquisitively.
”No idea”, the officer replied.” All I know is that the train will be going to the East.”
Now the cat was out of the bag! The train will leave for Russia. The young man felt his heart drop. His big brother had fallen last June and lay rotting somewhere in front of Minsk.
Instinctively he suppressed these thoughts focussing his attention on his notepad. Where is the platform?
“Jean?“ Clemens spotted a friend from basic training. They were the only ones from the original intake who had made it up to officer cadet level.
They compared notes. Indeed they belonged to the same division but to different units. Each unit was allocated to a specific wagon. It was said that a veteran soldier would accompany them to the front .Tension, nervousness and unease. Everyone felt quite alone although the platform was choked with masses of departing men.
Waiting. Observing. Trawling for information. 

Locomotives puffed into the roofed railway station pulling vast numbers of goods wagons.
Attentively the soldiers eyed the numbers on the freight cars.
The train slowed down. It stopped. The heavy wagon doors were pushed aside and soldiers climbed into the empty containers.
On the platform a chaotic crowd of searching soldiers.
At last the whistle for departure.
The engine pushed the long chain of wagons out of the station.
Farewell Cologne.

The sliding doors were kept slightly open to allow the last intensive images of home to sink in; the riveted steel structure of the Cologne railway station, all the many tracks, the mighty Dome next to the station, the strong Rhine bridge and the river.
The voyage into uncertainty began. A voyage of endless surprise.


In the Train
Möller was well into his twenties; brisk, funny and likeable. He came from Dorsten, a small town
in the Ruhr area. He was to look after the new boys, on their way to the front. He also didn’t know the final destination, but he enjoyed a huge advantage compared to the novices; Möller had already been in the war. He was an insider. Therefore he automatically commanded respect when he introduced himself to the boys as being in charge of their group.
“Do you know where we shall be fighting?” was the first question he got.

“No, we’ll know this first when we are actually there.”
“How long do we travel to get to Russia?”

“It will take several days.”
“What, several days?!”

The boys were lying on the planks of the freight cars joking about that comment. They had spread their tarpaulins and greatcoats and used their backpacks as pillows.

Staring out of the train the scenery still looked familiar. Düsseldorf, Essen, Bochum, Dortmund. It was their homeland, the densely populated Ruhr, from where the Wehrmacht drafted so many divisions. The train stopped in various towns to pick up more new soldiers. The stop and go ceased only when the train entered the State of Westphalia. In comparison to the Ruhr this area was poorly populated and there was no constant need for stops to pick up soldiers.
(Unteroffizier Möller. Photo CP. 1943)

The native Westphalians among the youngsters were a completely different tribe compared to their Rhineland colleagues. The Rhinelanders often had the mentality of party animals in slim and agile bodies while the Westphalians by comparison generally were more heavy-set and taciturn but even so well able to floor any verbal opponent with a single well-chosen comment. On the face of it, they did not go well together. The only criterion that fused them in the same division was the bureaucratic fact that both states belonged to the same “Defence Area VI” with Munster as centre. This North western German territory was made up of the most divergent mentalities one could ever imagine.  

The train was trundling along at modest speed. The doors were slightly open and the boys were staring out at the countryside; empty farm land, leafless trees, here and there some snow. The first hunger pangs. They unpacked their sandwiches and immersed themselves in the last scents from home. Nerves calmed down. One man fished out a deck of playing cards and the connoisseurs of  Schafskopf, Doppelkopf and Skat were busy over hours accompanied by loud noise. Now the ice was broken.

Suddenly the train stopped. In the middle of nowhere. Möller got up and pushed the sliding door aside. He jumped out and curiously the boys followed him. Nothing special out there. No building, nothing. But then they got it; there was a long chain of hole-in-the-ground latrines just planted there in the wilderness. The famous thunder boxes. Forget about toilet paper. Already here the stationery for letters home got used for the first big business. Also suitable was to pick some dry winter grass and bunker it in the trouser pockets for the next occasion. Some stretching of legs and off the train went again. Later it stopped at a small station where the men could fill up their water bottles. A quick body wash and off again.

Hannover. Magdeburg. Berlin.

Meanwhile one had travelled 600 kilometres to the East and could tell the continental climate. The air was decidedly colder than in Cologne and the boys warmed their lungs with cigarettes. It got damned boring and the first complaints about the far too hard floor were heard.
One by one the men fell asleep curled up in their coats and tarpaulins.
Slowly the long cargo train slid through the night.

The soldiers had been travelling for many, many hours. 1200 kilometres were behind them. In the early morning light they arrived in Warsaw, the capital of Poland. For the first time in their lives the new boys were confronted with the war; the houses were shot up and the bridges destroyed. The broad river Weichsel wound its icy way through the lifeless town. Amputated long arms of fantastic bridges stretched out over the waters. Silently the young men stared at a frostbitten town, which seemed completely broken, gutted and washed-up. Yes, it had surely been hit by the Sword of War. The Sword had however moved on and the young soldiers followed in its wake. When would they arrive at its front line, the epicentre of destruction? And what had happened here in Warsaw?

Two and a half years ago the Wehrmacht had attacked Poland and taken its capital city using all means at its disposal; strategic air raids, artillery and infantry assault. The Poles had capitulated. Hundreds of thousands of their soldiers went into German captivity. Many civilians were dead. Then the complete and utter submission of the city began; eradication of the Jews and emergence of Polish resistance.
All the pock-marked or ruined walls which the inexperienced soldiers could see through the open doors were even so nothing in comparison to the destruction of the human souls behind. Whatever the stunned young men did see this did not even come anywhere close to reflecting the actual brutality which had been visited upon this most unfortunate city.

Warsaw: Blown up bridge over the frozen Weichsel. March 42. Photo CP.


White Russia
It started with the strange lettering at the provincial train stations which the travellers assumed to indicate a different state. It was White Russia, a landlocked expanse between Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Russia proper and another Russian territory at the time; the Ukraine.

The landscape was similar to Eastern Poland; a huge vast plain with long stretches of hills, the terminal gravel mounds of the ice age. The many rivers looped their wild ways through nature often turning the plains into broad swamps and wetlands. Man had never attempted to tame the ancient streams. There was never a need for that because there was enough safe ground for the small population of the countryside.

Now the snow was hiding the details of nature. The play of colours resembled a black and white film with a slight fade into grey and brown. Totally bored the boys were peering through the gap, which the door revealed. Suddenly the train reduced speed. It came to a standstill. Quickly the soldiers pushed the door aside and jumped out on the rail embankment. They were by now familiar with the ritual; the train just stopped without any plausible reason in the middle of wilderness. Occasionally there was a house or a modest train station. They used the break to stretch their legs.
Clemens discovered a water tap which despite the frost delivered fresh water. Quickly he filled his water bottle and started washing his face. The water was biting cold and forced his skin pores to freeze.
“Cle!”  A loud choir of young voices were yelling his name.
Alarmed Clemens turned around and watched the train slowly moving. His friends were leaning far out of the open doors and waving their arms in utter excitement. While taking off he grasped his belongings and chased after the train. He saw all the many heads glancing out of the cars and heard them cheering him on as if it were some sort of race.
He was quite sporty and caught up with the last wagon. He jumped up and climbed in.  A group of young soldiers gave him a hand. It was great fun for them all.  What a hoot! Just imagine if he had missed the train and been left alone in the prairie! All the new boys babbled in excitement. It was the event of the day.

When the train stopped again Clemens sprinted in direction of the engine to rejoin his „home wagon“. His comrades welcomed him joyfully. Again the laughter started fuelled by all kinds of fantasies. They all were still so easygoing. What did war mean to them? Nothing at all. They just had no inkling. Nobody thought of the travel to Russia as a trip to potential death, simply because they lacked any experience enabling them to make such a prediction. Above all, the will to survive inhibited any thought concerning death. In any case, one would always be the last man standing.

Lacking any philosophical bent, the boys protested about very banal problems; they griped over the hard planks or were annoyed at having finished their food reserves far too early. Over hours and hours they were playing cards.
Then general exhaustion set in. And then boredom generated by the daylong bucking of the train. Tension began to show..
In the end there was only self discipline left to carry one’s immutable fate.


The soldiers had been sitting
or lying for 1750 kilometres on the planks of the cargo train. Through the mostly wide open wagon door they watched the outside film reel composed of flat farm land, a few solitary trees, the occasional village, all covered with snow, tinted in dull greyish winter colours. Interesting though it may have been it was not enough to form a proper picture of Russia except that it was very, very big.
“We’ll make a stop in Minsk to obtain new order
s”, Möller explained. That sounded quite thrilling for it would be the first time the soldiers would interrupt their journey to get to know a foreign city.

Minsk. The name sounded quite familiar to the ears of the soldiers. They knew that last summer the Wehrmacht had taken the Eastern Polish town of Bialystok and the White Russian capital Minsk. In the Wochenschau – the official war news reel shown in cinemas - one had watched German troops entering Minsk. The men remembered the damaged buildings and the flames devouring the wooden houses.
What had happened since?
The Wehrmacht had established its administrative machinery in the town to command Army Group Centre. All its divisions had long ago advanced further to the East.
Shortly after the conquest of the town the killer units had arrived. They did not belong to the Wehrmacht but to the overall police organisation as commanded by Himmler. The Einsatzgruppen gathered all Jews from Minsk in a fenced-off area and deported them piecemeal to concentration camps in the West. The killers wanted to murder in an out-of-the-way corner.  
All the Wehrmacht-soldiers who were channelled through Minsk to the Eastern front did not have a clue about the horrors. However, those soldiers, stationed in town in the admin could not have avoided noticing the Ghetto. If the war already was a brutal scaffold for soldiers and civilians the persecution of the Jews was sheer slaughter for which no adequate words can be found.

Minsk was an old trading town, which was ruled by local dukes, then by Lithuanian and Polish kings and later by the Russian Tsar. The Swedes vandalized Minsk as did Napoleon with his Grande Armée. In World War I the Germans had also made it to Minsk. The peace treaty of Brest-Litovsk between the Central Powers and Russia enabled the Germans to leave. Russia dropped out of the war and the communists used their energy to turn the country into the state we know as the Soviet Union, founded in 1922.
White Russia had become a Soviet state and Minsk had developed into an industrialized centre during the last 18 years. Its factories were specialized on the construction of tractors, vehicles and machinery.

The main railway station of Minsk was a respectable building designed in the International style of the West. Now it served as turntable for transiting soldiers. Möller got further travel orders at the Kommandantur and brought the news to his little detachment. “We’ll stay here for two days and sleep in the station. There are special dormitories and wash rooms for soldiers passing through. The day after tomorrow we’ll get to know our next stage.” Patiently the group trooped off to their quarters.
“I have to go the military administration”, Clemens excused himself. “Family affair.”
“It’s all right.”
Clemens crossed through the station and entered the office of the “Militärverwaltung”. The conscript behind the desk had the task to assist soldiers with general information.
“What can I do for you?” he asked politely.
Clemens recounted his story which had burdened him greatly during the whole journey: “Last June my brother was killed in action close to Minsk. Is there a military cemetery where I might visit his grave? I would much like to lay down flowers.”
The smile died on the face of the desk conscript. Here was a very young man on his way to the front line asking for the grave of his brother.
“I’m sorry, there is no military cemetery,” he regretted. “There are only a few little memorials in outside town. But you won’t find your brother there. I am so sorry.” His regret was heartfelt. What could he tell the young man? The truth? That all the dead were lying somewhere where they had fallen? Without cross or name?
While the admin soldier started fidgeting behind an ever stiffening mimicry Clemens felt stranded.

Highly frustrated he left the office and walked back to his friends.
„Could you work something out?“ Möller asked compassionately.
“You know, let’s make an excursion through the town. That will take your mind off things.“
The group left the station. They really felt the wet and cold weather. With hands in their pockets they ambled along the row of houses. High drifts of snow lined the roadsides and the first snowmelt formed puddles on the lightly paved street. A horse passed by with its cart at a slow trot through the water, a truck ploughed through the mud and vans were parking along the side of the street. 

The East European town which had looked so cosy and pleasant in the past had suffered severe damage through the war; roofs were fallen in,  windows had been smashed and the houses gutted through fire. The charm had gone. The icy chill of winter with mounds of snow on the streets and in front of houses gave the formerly beautiful city a final air of “tristesse”.
Everywhere on the streets countless screws and spare parts were scattered; in Germany Clemens had never seen such a mess. Could it be that all the parts were from German vehicles and lost through vibration, wear and tear? Indeed, many German vehicles including tanks died a wretched death due to long distances and extreme temperatures.

Next day Clemens explored the town on his own. All the houses seemed abandoned. Everywhere war damage. Only a few civilians and German soldiers gave life to the streets. Big wooden signposts were erected at intersections labelled from top to bottom with signs like „Ortskommandantur“, „Lazarett“, etc.
Despite the rape of the town it still showed beauty. Everywhere wonderful churches. Clemens entered a House of God. Inside was a square white room plastered with painted and gilded wood panels. In the centre of each tableau was the peaceful portrait of a saint, meticulously painted with fine brush strokes, exuding warmth and harmony.  What peace and intimate true faith. Deeply impressed Clemens stepped from one icon to the next. All the saints seemed somehow connected to a godly cosmos.  He was touched.
„Didn’t they tell us, that the communists had destroyed all the churches? “ Clemens thought. He remembered the Wochenschau newsreel in the form of a documentary about Russia. It was depicted as an underdeveloped, rural and antireligious country.

Confused he left the quiet little paradise and stepped out again into the winter cold reality of war. On his way back to the train station he spotted an industrial building that seemed to be a factory. “Let’s have a look how the Russians are technically”, Clemens decided and entered the building. The soles of his boots were hobnailed which caused the only noise; clack, clack, clack. A huge silent hall was before him devoid of any worker. Only the iron machines were waiting in rank and file for their masters. Clemens approached closer. Could it be true? He hardly trusted his eyes; these were hyper modern engine lathes and machines. On some of them the logos of German producers stood out. He stroked the machines with his hand. He loved technology. Close inspection revealed that the Russians had destroyed all ball bearings. Thereby the entire precious machinery park had become worthless.

“Russia is backward”, was the tone of the Wochenschau. “It is an agricultural society, which is suppressed by the communists.” Already when he had watched that film he had reacted with scepticism because he had met with Russians at home who had spoken fluent German while buying modern machinery displaying expert technical know-how. These buyers had been highly sophisticated and matched the picture he formed from this factory he now stood in. Russia was industrially advanced and attuned to Western standards.
„What are they actually telling us in Germany?” Clemens grumbled silently.
One was young and had never been outside one’s own country. The political propaganda dominated public opinion. How could one possibly know what was happening on another planet?

Walk through Minsk, March 1942. Photo CP.


All Clemens had inherited from his fallen brother he carried in his uniform breast pocket. This was a pocket dictionary to learn Russian. The columns of German words started with A and ended with Z. How do you best communicate using such a text book? He picked some words which had genera everyday value: : „gollod“ - hunger, „chljäb“ – „bread“, „wintowka“ – rifle. To Clemens wintowka sounded like Winnetou – the famous red Indian warrior in Karl May’s boys’ stories – and the mnemonic rhyme was fixed. Gradually he was immersed in a new world of sounds. Occasionally he stared out of the rolling wagon at the scenery. Silence, snow, bare trees, the odd building. Then after many, many hours the next big town: Smolensk.

“Let us ask what our next destination is”, Möller told his group.
Together they crowded into the Kommandantur at the train station of Smolensk.
Check of their identity cards and then the magician behind the counter pulled the white rabbit out of the hat:
„Where is that then?!“
Why were there no maps?
The group switched to another freight car. The journey continued in direction East, or more precisely, towards Moscow. Suddenly the train turned sharply to the South. Change of direction. Are we going to the Caucasus?
Sometimes the train stopped at minor stations to unload soldiers and pick up others. Curiously one looked for site names written in German. Some seemed vaguely familiar due to the Wochenschau. The boys pooled their rudimentary knowledge to craft a mental map illustrated with impressions out of the train or later from the front line. This inner map would never ever die, even when several decades later dementia nibbles on the brain.

“Möller, why does the engine push several empty wagons in front of it?”
One smart young soldier had observed that there were several freight cars hooked-up in front of the locomotive which never were laden although all other cars were crammed with men and material.
“Good point”, Möller was surprised. “That’s a precaution against mines planted under the tracks by partisans.”
The novices listened, ears pricked.
“If the train rolls over a mine, only the first empty wagons get blown up while the precious engine remains undamaged.”
The youngsters were horror stricken at the mere thought.
„Most of the time the wagons are derailed and you can imagine the damage.”
“What can you do against partisans?” a soldier asked.
“One can’t really do much at all against them because the country is too big“, Möller explained. ”Our trains go at irregular hours so that the partisans never know when a train will come. Or in a forest we cut down all trees along the railroad to have unobstructed view. Often we also put sentries in sensitive places to keep partisans away.”
Suddenly one sensed the immediate odour of war and definite unease filled the room.
There is a map in the present-day German military archives of the Russian rail network made by the Reichsbahn showing the attacks of partisans and Russian aircraft in summer 1943. Some spots the enemy had attacked up to nine times. It is not difficult to imagine the damage to men and material. Train travel was truly dangerous.

Russian attacks on German trains in Russia executed by partisans or Russian aircraft in July 1943.

German freight cars after bomb attack. http://www.260id.de

The first Russians
The men were gazing out at the white landscape. They were somewhere behind Orel. One man peed standing up and out of the wagon. Finally some light entertainment.
As so often in the past the train suddenly decelerated and came to a stop.  Meanwhile one knew the ritual well. Wagon doors were slid aside and the men jumped out in the snow. Some chatting, one felt damned cold without headgear, cigarettes were lit, shoulders shrugged.

Suddenly two small, hooded creatures showed up out of nowhere. They were two boys in the age of let’s say eight to ten years. They wore an array of padded jackets and trousers, primitively held together with ropes and leather straps. On the heads fur lined caps with earflaps hanging down like dog ears. They approached the German soldiers in a friendly manner, and the men clung like curious sparrows at the railings of the open wagons, happy at some little diversion.
„Do you want a cigarette?“ a soldier passed a lit one over to one boy. Happily he grasped the cigarette and puffed away.

Talking about age, both sides were not that far apart. The memories of childhood were still very fresh and dominated the short time of adulthood thus far. Both sides acted uncomplicated and easygoing. Of course they could not communicate but it still seemed fun.
What did these young fellows really want?
Were they perhaps little scouts, who collected information for the partisans? Or just curious boys wanting some cigarettes from the foreigners?
Whatever. This was the first encounter with real Russians!
(The Russian boys described in the text above. CP. 1942)

The locomotive started pulling with a groaning noise and the soldiers jumped back in their containers. One just had no idea where one was. Now in the middle of Russian nowhere they began to have severe anxiety for what might come up. There was only one clear sign that one was approaching uncomfortably close to the front section; the long chain of wagons had become very short. There would come the moment when also their car would be uncoupled at some small train station.
Finally the railway itself came to an end at a lonely minor station.
Buffer stop.
End of journey

Soldiers of the 95th Infantry-Division pick up the freshmen from the station in Kolpna to guide them to their training camp behind the front. This is a footwalk of around 20 kilometres. The horses pull sledges with the back packs of the soldiers. End of March 1942. Photo CP.