Taking over the Front Line Positions at Rshew

Wolga near Subzow and Rshew. Photographer: Kastey
. Quelle: www.de.wikipedia.org/ wiki/Subzow

12 October 1942
“The enemy is trying to press forward”, the predecessor Clemens had come to relieve had explained to him in the night.
“What points to that?” Clemens wondered.
He was sitting in the trench stooped on a block of wood in the early morning light. The ditch was actually not dug very deep. One could move bending low only. The groundwater and autumn rain slowly formed puddles.
“We’ll clear the water during night and cover the ground with branches”, he planned. “First I’ll check the lay of the land.”
Like a meercat he suddenly stood straight up and threw a quick glance towards the enemy. Just as quickly he ducked down and hastened to switch position in the trench.
Again a speedy ocular inspection of the enemy from a different angle.
A large clearing spread out in front of the ditch. After around 50 metres the birch forest set in again. There Clemens spotted signs of a Russian bunker. The natural surface of the ground was a bit uneven. He assumed a Russian trench to be located on the other side of the clearing with the bunker as strongpoint.
How many men were sitting there opposite his own section?
Not the faintest idea.

His section was composed of only six men. When he arrived at the front in April each section still counted the regulation ten men. Clemens tiptoed in stooped position along the trench and turned into an arm leading to the rear. About 20 metres further back the arm ended in an earth dugout. Its roof was level with the landscape. Here camouflage was everything.
In the hole, which was perhaps 1.30 metres deep, the crew slept on tree branches covered with tarpaulins. Their rifles and machine guns were placed close at hand fully loaded.
“Albrecht, wake up.”, Clemens tapped his back. “It’s your turn.” Meanwhile everybody had developed a body clock and knew while asleep when his sentry duty was to start. Without any comment Albrecht slithered forward. Clemens curled up on his tarpaulin near the entrance. His machine gun was lying on an old newspaper to be prevented from absorbing humidity which would freeze all moving parts in sub-zero temperatures.

Despite fatigue he could not sleep for he kept his mental antennas instinctively tuned. Any tiny sound made the soldiers jump. The fear of getting slaughtered at night is ingrained through evolution in our DNA.

The days were passing only slowly.
It was boring in the trench, tiring. One lacked proper body exercise. You got stiff and became hypothermic. Meanwhile the humidity had worked through the clothing reaching the bone. Unfortunately you could not heat the bunker with a little burner as the smoke would give away the position. Even smoking a cigarette was far too risky. The nicotine withdrawal was nibbling away at their nerves but fear of Russian mortar bombs was stronger.
What could one do but try to keep still never giving the enemy a target to attack?
Always neatly camouflaged.
And above all shutting up. Only whispering was allowed.
It was so quiet in the forest that a single loud word would reveal their position. Remember that the Russians were just 50 metres away.
When a shot was fired or a grenade detonated the sound waves tore the natural silence into shreds. One had the impression that each explosion was incredibly loud because the forest seemed so innocent without any animals or bird song.


Collecting food
Lunch time was the absolute highlight of the dreary existence.
“I’ll go and collect our rations.”
Ensemann, by far the oldest member of the section, enjoyed the privilege to regularly pick up the food in the rear for all his comrades. Together with a colleague he collected the aluminium containers of all six men and stole out of the trench. The trench arm to the rear was designed so that one could move out under decent cover. Off they went through the bushes, out of the line of enemy fire.

 At last one could straighten up!
The joints were cracking.
And finally you could talk in a normal voice.
The men fumbled a cigarette out of the jacket pocket. They stopped walking and gave each other a light. The first pull was fantastic. Let go steam. In a relaxed mood they were trotting along the forest path to the chef de cuisine. The pioneers had actually cleared the trail just for that reason.

Sergeant König was already waiting with his canisters filled with soup and malt ersatz coffee. The bags with bread were hanging from the backs of patient horses.
Pleasant small talk.
Contentedly the food couriers were shovelling their own rations down while all the canteens were filled up. The warm fodder brought back some spirit to life. Once more a lovely cigarette and then back with the treasure to the trench. 

Ration collectors return with lunchboxes and a box of ammunition to their group. The picture is from the Rshew area and shows the typical forest. Source: http://rshew-42.narod.ru/foto/f017.html


Close quarter attacks by Russians and Germans
Four weeks were ever so slowly elapsing under wet and cold conditions. The massive assaults did not materialise because the sodden ground made it impossible to move the heavy artillery. The rainy season effectively forced a ceasefire. The professionals however knew that heaving and stabbing would re-commence as soon as the frost firmed the muddy soil.

Winter began on 15 November 1942.
“While up till now we had been enjoying clear weather with severe frost, a snow storm had been blowing since last night. One got  the feeling that it had to be like that because this was Russia. The wind is howling around the chimney and the last mice, who had managed outdoors for so long, were squeezing into our bunkers as if this would be their most natural privilege in holy Russia.”*
Thus far the diary entry of Meier-Welcker from the 251st Infantry Division in the bulge of Rshew.

Now the first localised attacks started. The German as well as the Russian officers gave orders to raiding parties to “visit” the enemy during night and exterminate him, if possible.
A German group had cut observation slits through the upper edge of the trench to better focus on the enemy. This was a very common tactic on both sides. But these men did not disguise their spy holes well enough and the Russians fired with bazookas at the loopholes causing heavy German casualties

During day nobody dared to attack. But at night and early dawn the situation was very different. The Russian shock troops sneaked over to the German trenches and often tore the inmates to pieces. One night they burned out an earth bunker with a flame thrower. Several casualties. That event spread like wild fire through all the trenches. Panic was everywhere. So watch out, or you are toast.

Or the following story taken from the divisional diary:

“The Russians penetrate a forward position  located about 30 metres in front of the main trench. It was a section under responsibility of  9th Company of Grenadier-Regiment 280. The Russians kill two of the three sentries and take the third with them as prisoner.”

“Using total surprise a Russian unit of about 50 men wearing snow camouflage, infiltrates a trench on the right flank of 5th Company, Grenadier-Regiment 279. The enemy rolls up the ditch completely in both directions for about 100 metres. The Russians are repulsed in a counter-attack.
At 3.15 a.m. a renewed probe by ca. 20 men at the left wing of the same Company follows. Also here the assault is initially successful but the enemy is quickly thrown back and leaves 9 dead in the trench and 10-15 in front of the position. Own casualties are 1 dead, whom the Russians stripped  completely naked, 8 wounded and 1 missing. Additionally, the enemy carried off a machine gun.
Thus we may conclude that the Russians carry out reconnaissance using all means. Even if they sustain high casualties, they  regrettably achieve their goal which is to take prisoners.  Due to the lack of continuous barbed wire entanglements in front of our “HKL” (main defensive line) he gets his way with his tactic. Wire entanglements must in any event be improved.”

There was not one day without a German or Russian small-scale assault. It should be remembered that the soldiers in the trenches never took the initiative for any assault. These men were neither motivated nor authorised to initiate such games. The front soldiers would never attack on their own volition. They were all justifiably terrified by the thought of not returning alive.  The order always and exclusively came from higher command levels. The officers issued instructions to attack.

* 15.11.42. Meier-Welcker is “First Officer” (Ia) in the general staff of the 251st Infantry Division West of Rshew. Source: Meier-Welcker, Hans: Aufzeichnungen eines Generalstabsoffizier 1939 - 1942. Hrsg. Militärgeschichtliches Forschungsamt. Freiburg: Verlag Rombach. S. 179.


Patrol Raid „Vienna“
What were the determining criteria by German officers in the nomination of a detachmen
t for a certain task?
Company was composed of 12 sections. One picked primarily those section leaders who were enrolled as officer cadets.
In this connection Clemens’  name came up for discussion.  A runner from Company HQ came to him in the trench to tell him that Captain Regner, the Austrian company commander wished to speak to him.
So out of the trench and off to the Company Command Post

“Your section is to raid the Russians!” he was told.
Clemens looked at the CO enquiringly.
“The battalion CO wants to see some action at the main front line; he wants to report some success.”
“What a talking head”, Clemens thought. “His tent is well beyond the reach of Russian fire. There it’s nice to drink wine while planning the war.”
“You’re are listed as officer cadet”, Regner continued. “You will form a group of suitable composition  and plan the assault. I have already named the project: Patrol Raid “Vienna”!”
Now the Austrian had already erected a memorial in his own honour. Events would show whether it would be in memory of success or failure.

As Clemens was leaving the shelter, Regner held him back with the following words:
“You will not attack before the frost has made the swamp safe to walk on and when the groundwater in the ditch is frozen. That means you have some time to thoroughly plan the assault.”
This made sense because the no-man’s-land in front of the trench was sodden by rain. Although the field was covered by grass the men would sink in up to their ankles. The soggy ground would make them slow and clumsy. Far too dangerous for a close combat operation which normally only has a chance of success if executed at high speed without unexpected impediment.
The frost however would harden the spongy surface and guarantee a better race track.

Deep in thought Clemens legged it back to his comrades.
“An isolated small-scale raid will never have any impact on the main front line” he thought. But for the men of the raiding force such an operation would be very dangerous possibly costing many lives. Clemens was not in a position to refuse an order. So the question was really only how best to execute the raid?!