At a German Command Post in Russia
- Published: 27 July 2011 27 July 2011
- Last Updated: 07 April 2012 07 April 2012
At the extreme southwest end of a large village surrounded by low, bare bills, some small, unpretentious mud huts lie to one side of the snow-covered highway. Only a few of them have complete straw roofs.
Around one of these pitiable hovels an alert sentry paces methodically, In the course of hours he has beaten a path in the knee-deep snow. Otherwise, no command post flag, no placard, not even a chalked inscription indicates that in this little building is the Command post of a Corps general staff.
The officer who asks the direction is scarcely recognizable as such, because the shoulder straps of his great overcoat are missing and his head-protector is pulled over his cap. He enters a small empty room. In the semi-darkness it can be seen that the floor is covered with manure, and some straw is scattered in the corner. It is that half of the dwelling which, as customary in the region, serves as a stall.
‘At the rear, another door, half falling from the hinges, leads to the outside. A third door, lower than the others, opens into a small room. Along the wall between two little windows-just large enough for one to stick one’s head out in an emergency-stands a miserable table, and spread out on it the usual map with its many symbols: lines, circles, arrows, tactical symbols, and numbers. At the table sits the commanding general. The consciousness of confronting an almost insoluble problem weighs heavily upon him.
The life or death of thousands of men is entrusted to him in these days. After a summer in which his troops stormed on from victory to victory, after an autumn in which strong resistance brought success after success, the god of war has now given him the most difficult test. This time, too, his corps is involved in an encirclement battle, but not, as formerly, as the tightening lever of an encircling brazen pincer. This time it is itself fighting for space, for freedom of movement, because this time the corps has been encircled and must now fight its own way out to freedom.
Alongside the commander, on one end of a bench serving two or three others as a seat, sits the chief of staff. He also is not disturbed by the new arrival. A hasty glance and a brief greeting, then he continues silently measuring the map, studies the combat-strength figures of regiments and battalions and the number of guns and antitank units, compares them with the hostile forces, makes sundry calculations on the margin of the map, and finally speaks a few words to his general. They are not considerations of the probable course of simple march movements or combat activities of the usual sort, but concern the fate of many thousands of fine German soldiers. The men outside have no knowledge of the seriousness of the situation. They know nothing of the encirclement, nothing of the iron ring of hostile tanks, guns, antitank weapons, and machine guns. For the most part, the noncommissioned officers likewise lack insight into the situation, and it is good that it is so.
The troops tight as they are ordered, they attack and defend in the manner and place their leaders demand, and they should go about their hard, bloody work with minds as untroubled as possible.
From an old bedstead standing in the corner and serving as a bench, map table, and document and clothes repository all in one, an administrative officer rises, lays aside his maps and documents, approaches tbe newcomer circumspectly and answers in a low voice the questions directed to him.
The coming and going in the little room continues. Division commanders and general staff officers pressent the tactical situation of their commands; officers, runners, and various others inquire about their commands, about routes, about the enemy—and each receives answers and information.
Of the many visitors, a wounded sergeant remains in one’s memory. The front of his overcoat is covered with a thick crust of frozen blood. But this worthy soldier presents his important report on the enemy clearly and with complete self-control. Only then does he inquire about the doctor or first-aid station. Other visitors have adhesive tape with some bandage material beneath it across their frozen noses or excoriated cheeks chapped by the icy wind. A regimental commander has been carrying his arm in a sling for weeks, yet takes part in the battle day by day, firm and reliable. Such also is the spirit of the troops! These are the formations and leaders who give power and hope to the command, who make it strong.
The reports and statistics concerning a succesful attack with hollow projectiles (new type German projectiles ) on hostile tanks, bold assault-squad enterprises, and the courageous activities of small groups, however succinctly and soberly they are given, are like warming sunshine which touches the heart of the commanding general in these cold days and gives him the power to bear the burden of responsibility.
To be sure, there occasionally comes an officer who himself gets some strength from this little hut and who draws confidence from the brief, clear words of the commanding general. This, too is a part of the art of war and an integral part of the command of troops. It is the art of inspiring human hearts.
No typewriter rattles in the hovel. Bundles of doruments, maps, and surveys are absent. Everything that could be useful to the enemy has been burned. The clerks have been sent on ahead. The main part of the subsidiary staff is somewhere with alerted units and other combat formations.
Outside, where a sea of vehicles,. Principally sledges, stands along the road and far beyond it, where thousands of men have for hours been awaiting orders, a plane has just landed despite the gusty wind. A sergeant, his automatic pistol hanging about his neck, gets out of the plane with a companion and reports the valuable nature of his cargo. It consists mainly of ammunition for antitank weapons, mortars, and automatic pistols. The gunners and tank hunters fall to and forget the cold, their stiff fingers, and their tired eyes. Many of these men have been in combat uninterruptedly for, five days and nights, or on the road in snowstorm and winds as cold as in Siberia. Some hundred meters to one side a group of utterly exhausted soldiers wait indifferently and is pathetically beside their equally fatigued horses, leaning half asleep against sleds and wagons, waiting, ever waiting for the word of release: “Up, forward !“
It does not come.——
Meanwhile an important conversation by radio has taken place in the hut. It completes the picture of the situation which is becoming more and more critical. For many hours reports from one division have been completely missing. It must be remembered that this unit also is in a hard defensive battle today, and is hard-pressed by the enemy. The first general staff officer of the corps [I-a, Chief of Staff and Operations Officer combined.—Ed. ] is sent to this division statf. It is indeed almost dark, but the trip through a region endangered by the enemy must be ventured.
The command needs an understanding of the situation, while the division, needs an understanding of the intentions of the corps. Quickly a motor car drives up. Picks up the I-a and two companions and slowly seeks a path through the confusion of men, horses, and vehicles.
Only some hundred meters farther up front, advanced beyond the last huts of the village, stand the security units of the grenadier regiment engaged here, , and when the enemy starts a new attack the reports of some field howitzers, whose fire position is near the hut of the corps commander’s CP, cause the whole miserable shanty to shake. If the noise of combat comes nearer, everyone looks for his gun to see that it is near at hand—then back to the map or message book.
All the houses of the village are full to the bursting point, and everywhere soldiers are seeking protection against the wind. Because of danger from air attack, the windows are covered with overcoats as improvised curtains; only the bleak light of two candles illuminates the general’s hut. The hard day’s work has lasted very long. Late in the evening an orderly brings some rice soup in two kettles from the field kitchen. There is meat in it, but bread and potatoes are lacking, here as everywhere else. And thoughts are now with the fighting troops who often have to do without even this simple meal, with the problems of the corps, with the expected reports and the decisions which must be made. Looking ahead and weighing all possibilities, the few men in the room think and act.
The two orderlies spread out some straw in one corner on the earth floor, the quarters for the night of the commanding general and his officers. But there is no thought of sleep. The door opens again and again. Officers, doctors, officials, soldiers of all kinds keep coming to ask for advice and information, runners bring in radio messages, administrative officers report on formations and units discovered with difficulty in the tangle of men, animals, and vehicles. [It is`most unlikely that all this would take place in the very room where the German corps commander was working. Actually, the various visitors would not be admitted to the commander’s room, but would be interviewed by subordinate members of the corps staff .—Ed. ] Thus the general staff can get an idea of the arriving combat troops and trains. Two officers have not yet returned. They are awaited with impatience. They are the first general staff officer and his companion.
Finally—it is long past midnight—the first general staff officer returns and reports the completion of his mission and the situation of the division which had been unable to report its position because of communication difficulties.
Through the windows, which are thickly coated with frost, the light of breaking day penetrates. A mug of field-kitchen coffee takes the place of washing, breakfast, and morning toilet; one scarcely smoothes one’s hair with one’s hand. Everybody starts again on the day’s work.
Outside, the waiting soldiers stand at their vehicles, wrapped in their overcoats and with blankets over their heads. Shivering from cold and stamping their feet in order to keep warm, they have been awaiting the new day. The men look toward the end of tbe village in the southwest. There the last scout squads are returning from their night patrol.
The basic rules of the art of war are ancient, but their application always remains young, vital, and manifold. The observance of their fundamentals alone does not by any means guarantee victory; the fortune of war also must not be lacking. But in the long run, fortune favors the brave. The troops led by this corps general staff remained strong and undismayed even in this battle. Nothing came to them as a gift; what the command planned they had to earn by fighting-in a hard, bloody struggle. In the end they achieved the breakthrough and victory.