Operation Ssytschewka, January 1942

Combat Experiences of Fritz Langanke
2nd SS Panzer Division "Das Reich"
Recon Bn and Panzer Regiment

In his own words

Transcribed by Mark Bando

After a stay in a repair shop we had driven our 8 wheeled armored reconnaissance car from Warschau through Minsk, Smolensk, and Wjasma out to the Rollbahn (main traffic road) toward Moskau up to the exit to Gshatsk. It was a tremendous job to keep a vehicle moving on Russian roads and lanes in the coldest winter of this century. Here, at this point, one close behind the other and parked side by side the whole width of the road, all kinds of vehicles of the German Army were standing during the long night of 19 January, 1942. Quite a bunch of MP's were striving desperately to organize the swerving out to Gshatsk and to get into the lanes the traffic from the town to the Rollbahn. Yelling, roars and wild swearing accompanied uninterruptedly this hectic activity. Various passenger cars and truck stuck in the snow, or their motors wouldn't start after a longer stop were ruthlessly overturned and pushed off the road. Crossroads and Rollbahn had to be kept free for the supply of all units in the Moshalsk area and east of it.

It was terribly cold and together with the gunner I had gotten off the car, trying to warm up a bit by moving. Because inside the vehicle it was like sitting on an ice block when the motor didn't run for some time. To stand, to drive a couple of meters and stand again, that went on for hours until we finally reached the exit and wanted to take off for Gshatsk. I indicated for the driver to pull the car to the right but he continued nearly straight on until the anti-tank gun shield hit the snow wall heaped up at the road sides. Immediately a group of MP's were there to throw our car off the road but they realized quickly that it wouldn't work because the car was too heavy. Supported by their worst cursing we pushed the car to and fro several times before we finally were able to round the bend. Thereafter the terrain allowed us to get off the road and in a wide circle we reached the rim of the town. With a strong eastern wind blowing the temperature that night was around -40 degrees Celsius. The grease of the needle bearings of our rec. car had become too stiff. You could turn the steering wheel only with very great difficulty. Next day, we tried to get it going freely but didn't really know what to do.

Therefore I left the rest of the crew back with our vehicle and set out alone to reach our company (1st Kp, Recon Bn., SS Reich). On January 21, I understood the command post was at Moshaisk at that time. On the Rollbahn I had just managed to jump on a vehicle going east, when shortly thereafter the whole traffic came to a standstill. As far as you could see in both directions all columns had stopped and most drivers or crews were standing on the road, looking northwest to gaze in wonder at a stunning natural occurrence. In this cold winter splendor where glittering snow and radiant sunshine nearly blinded your eyes, two big rainbows stood, mirror inverted on top of each other. There must have been thousands of Landser who at that time admired this appearance and forgot for a while the whole war.

At Moshaisk there was only a small detachment left to pack up the last stuff. The Rec. Bn had already moved to Ssytschewka, where on the 21st at temperatures between -45 to -48 Celsius, the counterattack on the Russian Divisions who had smashed the German defense at Rshew had started. It lasted until February. It was the beginning of the winter battle of Rshew, one of the most decisive struggles in Russia. Next to the company command post was an evacuation hospital in a big dark brick building. Here was manifested the whole mercilessness of the winter war. At the back side of the house under the windows, up to the sills, amputated hands, feet, arms and legs were heaped up. They were thrown outside after the operations (In this extreme winter the losses by Frostbite were in many units much higher than by enemy actions).

The next day I reached via Ssytschewka the engagement area of my battalion, the place Swineroika, had been taken the day before after very hard fighting. It was a somewhat larger village with 3 or 4 streets lined with houses. For our "sister unit" the motorcycle battalion, that day was particularly bitter. In their fight for Pisino they had 250 losses (out of 450). Of these, four officers and 170 non-coms and men were killed. After the fight, 450 dead Russian soldiers were counted on the battlefield.

We, with two or three other comrades who had come from Moshaisk were welcomed real nice at that place where early in the morning, the temperature dropped to -51 degrees. The entrance to the village was a somewhat elevated crossroads with a destroyed German gun. The strong wind, piling up snow in hollows and dips more than 1 meter high, kept this piece clear all the time. Therefore, it was a good aiming point for our Russian friends. Whenever anything moved up here the Russians fired immediately with tanks and anti-tank guns from some distance. Quite puffed did we reach the company C.P. close to the end of the sloping street, received by the grinning faces of our chums, who had followed our "Russian Roulette" with high interest. They told us the chances to get through that area in daylight were 50-50 and they felt I hadn't deserved to have made it since I had spent some nice time in the repair shop while they had to chatter with cold out here.

I reported back to my C.O. Hauptsturmfuhrer Potschke, who had settled down in a corner of the cottage that served as C.P., which in the next days with some rows of ceiling and lateral beams was improved to quite a solid bunker. Beside him, Ustuf. Prix from first company was also present in this cottage. My run of luck on this day persisted. Ustuf. Prix was standing with me at a window explaining to me what was going on generally, when a round from a flat trajectory gun pierced the window between the two of us and penetrated the back wall without exploding. Hit by some minor wood and glass splinters, Prix had a bleeding face, but nothing you could call a wound. It wasn't much more as if you had been too hasty with your razor. That was the only trouble caused.

Shortly thereafter, I was standing outside with Sepp Rinesch from Steiermark (forward driver) and Rudi Tonner from Salzburg (radio operator and backward driver), who together with Hermann Buhler (gunner) and Ustuf. Prix made up the crew of the last 8 wheeled armored rec. car still with the company (there were no more 4 wheel armored cars left). They were just explaining what had happened the last weeks when quite a distance away, a shell hit the ground. It was so far away that none of us tried to take cover. But some minor fragments reached our group and those two comrades were hit in the belly. The wounds weren't so bad and Sepp Rinesch cried joyfully "Hurrah a homer!" But nonetheless they had to be taken to a dressing station and that meant Ssytschewka.

Thereupon I had to take over their car as driver with Hermann Buhler from Bahlingen (Schwaben) as gunner. He was one of those many guys who you could blindly rely on in all situations-after our sister car had been knocked out at Puchowice in the Pripet swamps (the whole crew died in the burning vehicle) we were all the time highly satisfied and glad when, starting for a reconnaissance party, we had the crew, Buhler, Wimmer Krais with us. Although he had lost the big toe of one foot by frostbite during the retreat from the Rusa-line and although he could walk only with great pains, he didn't take off to the hospital, but stayed with the company. Whenever in some quarters he took off his boot to change the rag with which he had covered the open place where formerly his big toe was, the stench was so bad that we were close to throwing him out of the house and into the snow outside.

Our rec. car was only limited operational. Two wheels were flat beyond repair and the turret couldn't be traversed; it was blocked. So for shooting, the vehicle had to be handled similar to an assault gun. But in those critical days it was of course indispensable and a strong support for the riflemen in their snow holes. At that period there was a week when at night the temperatures dropped several times below -50. The slightest pollution of the gasoline (traces of water) immediately plugged the carburetor. And then to have to disassemble the carburetor or the fuel pump at those beastly temperatures was terrible. You could only stay on it for a couple of minutes. Then you had to rush into your quarters to warm up again. Cold and violent anger let tears run down your face. Those were among the hardest days I experienced during the war. Every two or three hours you had to run the motor and move the car somewhat to keep it operable.

The very first night I had an experience that for quite some time haunted me as a nightmare. Since I wasn't yet acquainted with the details of that place, I let the gunner Hermann Buhler wake up together with me. We climbed into the vehicle and we drove a short distance operating the steering system all the time. All of a sudden the steering wouldn't work any more. I jumped out to check what was wrong. Looking under the car I got the shock of my life. A Russian was lying there, wedged into the carriage unit and appeared to be holding one wheel. It took many seconds before I regained my composure. A lot of dead Russians were lying in the streets of Swinoroika, covered by snow. I had rolled over one such dead soldier and his stiffly frozen limbs were now completely wedged into the lower parts of our vehicle. We tried very hard to pull him out but it didn't work.

Seeing no other possibility, I grabbed our saw, crawled close to the Russian and sawed off his arms. It was extremely ghastly. The Russian was an elderly man, a typical Mushik with a long beard. Our faces were quite close together. The sawing of course moved his whole body a little bit and it appeared as if he would shake his head disapprovingly. I nearly turned crazy but there was no choice. Only very few occasions during the war have shaken me in such a way.

The winter war had actually gained a completely new aspect. Firm and clearly defined front lines didn't exist any more. Buildings, shelter against the coldness were the aims everybody was fighting for (and of course in the framework of the tactical planning.) Whoever was not in a position to warm up in a house after some hours in the cold had only a slim chance to survive at these low temperatures.

Without the skill of improvisation of every individual of all ranks (skis, sleighs, self construction adaptation of weapons and equipment to these low temperatures and the tremendous mostly unknown problems caused by the cold; and that with supply lines mostly interrupted) and the unshakable determination to endure and finally beat the enemy´┐Żeven outstanding leadership wouldn't have been enough to win this winter battle of Rshew. Fortunately this type of leadership was available in the exceptional person of the commanding general of the 9th Army, Generaloberst Model. Mostly at night or when during the day strong winds whirled up the snow, thus blurring the sight, scouting patrols or larger units penetrated the small towns and villages or disrupted the connections between them. Although generally speaking the enemy front was west and north of us, the Russians could even with larger outfits, pop up from the east or south. To be a messenger, to get back wounded soldiers (mostly volunteering comrades), to come up with supplies; all these were suicide missions, very often fatal. When at night we heard the alarm "Russians are there", sometimes 2-3 times whereby one cottage after the other went up in flames, Hermann Buhler and myself jumped out of the house and dived under our car, feet to feet, so we could cover both sides of the vehicle. Like many comrades, he didn't rely on automatic weapons; too many had failed at these temperatures. He always used a Russian carbine. I always had my submachine gun under my anorak and pulled it out only for shooting; it never let me down. We could make out the Russians very well against the white snow because in this area they had no winter camouflage suits only their brown uniforms. So we identified them quickly although their usual "Hurrah" came now only sporadically. The following morning most dead were already covered with snow. Now and then we had to jump up for hand to hand fighting when the attackers came too close. At such occasion, Hermann Buhler most probably had plunged his bayonet straight into the heart of a Russian who must have gotten abruptly a cramp and over the night he was frozen stiff. Early in the morning we found him in this position; facing our car, bent on one knee, the body upright, the arms and hands in the way he had held his rifle when he died. Only the rifle had fallen down.

When a bullet hit the face you sometimes could see on the frozen dead soldier, starting radially from the point of entry very fine droplets or traces of blood. That's what -50 degrees can do, what normally doesn't happen at all. Dead in all kinds of grotesque postures, like in a lunatic dance macabre. It was war in its most horrible and dreadful way.

On January 23, our battalion in Swinoroika was attacked quite heavily with armor support from three sides. The struggle see-sawed for hours. Only after the last available man had been thrown in the fight (again and again hand to hand), were we able to throw the enemy out of the village with very heavy losses. All headquarters and supply units present were fully involved. The signal platoon, led by Ustuf. Brummer was particularly successful. Obersturmfuhrer Krag who had joined the recon bn. Some days ago and taken over one company was with his riflemen at one of the focal points of these desperate fights against a far superior enemy. (from the Summer of 1944 thru the end of the war he was commanding officer of the Recon. Bn.) Despite a penetration wound in the right elbow, he was able to carry along his men in a nearly hopeless situation to turn the fate, to annihilate the enemy and to hold that part of the village. At this chaotic jumble it could and did happen to be caught by friendly fire.

The next three days there were no big attacks but continuous fights with reconnaissance or assault parties from all directions. Whenever possible our "Panzer" took part busily. After every couple burst of fire from our weapons we had to change position, not to be picked up by Russian tanks or anti-tank guns, against which our poor armor plating offered no protection.

Our cottage was also shelter for Hauptsturmfuhrer Hans Weiss (after Weidinger and before Potschke he had been our company C.O.). His 4th company had dwindled away to a very small remnant. Therefore, he was nearly out of a job. His nickname was "The Brown Bomber" and he had some harsh sides. (Mid February he took over the motorcycle battalion after Tychsen had been wounded.) But in these days in our shelter, he showed a completely different facet of his personality. Our riflemen in their snow foxholes were relieved every hour and came into the cottage to warm up again. Weiss would tend them with great care. He pulled them out of their anoraks, got them to a prepared bed of straw, put warm stones on their stomach (he always had several of them on the stove) and threw a couple of blankets on them. All this in a quite natural, unobtrusive way. He was simply an unselfish person, caring for the men. He had adapted to this unusual situation in the most remarkable way.

Very often we had no vehicles to move our wounded. Then sleighs or travois had to be used. Russian horses were still in plenty. Sepp Rinesch and Rudi Tonner had likewise been brought to Ssytschewka. Terrified we learned after a few days that on the 22nd both had died although only light wounded. The long strenuous drive at this strong frost and the biting wind had been too much for them; the fate of many wounded soldiers at that time.

The last days in January a bigger number of replacements were brought up to us. Young recruits, after rather short training, were thrown into this maelstrom. After two to three days, most of them were already gone, not so much by wounding but by frostbite. They just had no chance to slowly acclimatize.

On January 28 we get the order to take the village of Lentjewo. The attack was executed with two spearheads. We were to the right side of the road Swinoroika-Lentjewo and the other one left of it. We had a visual contact. The left spearhead was led by the last assault gun of the division. We, with our lame recon car were the spearhead of our group. In not too heavy fire, we worked our way toward our target. For our vehicle it was similarly difficult as for the riflemen who occasionally sank into the snow breast-deep. Particularly restarting after a longer stop for shooting was very troublesome. The vibrations had always worked us rather deep into the loose snow. Then we stopped for awhile to await the result of a dive bomber attack. Some of the bombs we could see hopping along the ground; they wouldn't detonate.

When the Stukas had left we moved again. Shortly thereafter we saw how the assault gun practically exploded. That didn't raise our spirits at all. With even more dread than before, we now expected to be knocked out by some gun in front of us as we though had happened to the assault gun. (Later we learned it had hit mines.) After all, we were no tank, but merely a poorly armored rec. car not meant for such engagements. But the desperate need of the situation made it imperative to risk everything. After a short combat, a fierce hand to hand fight which was usual at that time, Lentjewo was taken and we did hold it after warding off several counterattacks.

Under the circumstances Jan. 29 and 30 were quiet days for us. On the 31st Bortschweko was taken by our recon. Battalion after a strong fire barrage. This action was part of a combined operation of Group Ssytschewka (1st Armored Division and SS-Division Reich). It became increasingly inconceivable that our quite visible recon car hadn't yet been knocked out long ago on these exposed wide snow fields.

The general aim of the tactical objective: annihilation of the 29th and 30th divisions of the Soviet Army which had broken through the German defense line at Rshew with the wiping out of their defense block at Karabanova-Rshawinje-Nikitje-Maxjimovo had been reached with severe casualties. Now the Army Corps to which we belonged moved up north, toward Rshew. Our division without Regiment "DF" which had already closed the gap where the Russians had crossed the frozen Volga and thereafter kept this front-line self sacrificingly had to undertake the flank protection of our corps to the west. The next 3-4 days there was no fighting for us.

The 9th and 10th of February I was ordered to drive to Ssytschewka where we were to be entrained to Germany for reactivation, while the units of our division were transferred to the Rshew area. Hermann Buhler (who was later killed in Russia) and myself took leave from the few comrades who had survived, most of whom we would never see again, led by Haupsturmfuhrer Potschke (he had taken over the Rec. Bn. After the C.O. Hauptsturmfuhrer Kment hit a mine while on skis and lost both legs). They fought at Rshew and in the Volga bend until the end of May with Task Force Ostendorf.

At Ssytschewka we looked up the graves of Rinesch and Tonner - the burying of the dead here in town showed once more the brutality and absolute disregard of the human being of this winter war. At any convenient place, flat hollows were blasted into the frozen ground using anti-tank mines. Loads of dead comrades were brought to these burial grounds by trucks. They were unloaded and the top sergeants of the various companies tried to identify their men. Very many remained unknown. They were covered with some clods of ice and snow and the ones whose names were known got a wooden cross. Only in springtime was it possible to fix up real graves.

Here in the town there were other 8-wheeled recon cars of 1st company. Two of them were not in running order. The third was my own car, which had been brought up in the meantime from Wjasma. The driver, Walter Schulte had washed out all of the grease of the needle bearings of the steering gear and filled them with diesel. At the existing temperature, the viscosity of that fluid was good enough for sufficient lubrication.

I had to report to Obersturmbannfuhrer Ostendorf, got travel orders and was instructed to take the four cars and the last twelve men of the combat crews of 1st company back to Germany, to the plant where the 8-wheeled rec. cars were produced.

Full of life and skinny, in poor winter clothing (we left our anoraks behind) each towing half a wreck we started with our two cars in running order to Smolensk via Wjasma. Both towns were threatened by Russian paratroopers who had been dropped in the area between them.

Here with great difficulty, I procured for us the necessary documents for boarding the train from Roslawl. I got them from "Transportkommandantur Mitte" (that was in my memory the name of that department responsible for all rail transportation in the middle sector of the Russian Front). But first we had to drive on the road to Roslawl. From there on the rail via Orscha, Minsk, Brest-Litovsk, Warschau, to Leipzig. The Transport Kommandantur was accommodated in a special train (4 passenger cars and a locomotive). They were hidden nicely camouflaged in a wood, I think not far away from later to become the ill-fated "Katyn".

To find out where their hideout was took me some days. Those having business here were of course higher ranks and one was mainly dealing with divisions and corps. But who could stop a "Panzer Aufklarer" at that time?

From the time we left Ssytschewka till we reached our "home port", Leipzig weeks had passed.

I want to finish off with what Otto Weidinger said about the Winterschlacht of Rshew in our divisional history:

"The Winterschlacht of Rshew is without precedence or parallel in the history of war, because this is a unique event. An Army Group, drained of its life's blood, beaten and retreating in a terrible mid-winter, was facing annihilation by a major offensive of the enemy with fresh troops and material. After the Russians had succeeded with an operational breakthrough of two Armies, nearly achieving their first big "Kesselschlacht" (battle of encirclement). And this dying Army Group pulls itself together and changes its own encirclement into a deadly pocket for the enemy. This was a unique joint feat of leadership and troops presenting a splendid combination of seal-off front and battle of encirclement; and that starting out of its own retreat with reverse front lines.

The outcome of this battle not only meant the surviving of Army Group Mitte, but had consequences reaching far beyond. Ultimately it decided the whole continuation of the campaign in Russia.

But this "miracle at the Volga" did not come without some good reason. It wouldn't have been possible without the brilliant German leadership, with their unmatched skill to improvise and find ever new stopgaps, represented by the fascinating personality of Gerneraloberst Model perfectly. But the "miracle" wouldn't have happened without the gallantry, the readiness to make sacrifices, the stamina and insuperable will to survive of the German soldier."

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