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In early 1943 our division, the 3rd SS Panzer Div. "Totenkopf," was situated around Belgorod to the north of Kharkov.
In the middle of March, I was summoned to the battalion command post. Our commander, SS-Sturmbannführer Max Seela, told me: "You are to report to the divisional HQ at 10:00 tomorrow; there you will receive your papers and will travel together with another four men to Berlin!" I stared at him in surprise like a squirrel and the CO and his adjutant, Obersturmführer Wolf, laughed.
The next day began with a ride in a motorcycle sidecar to the divisional HQ. There I, as a representative of the SS Engineer Bn. 3, joined Hstuf. Masairie, the CO of the recce detachment, an Oberscharführer from SS-Pz.Gr.Rgt. 5 and a Hauptscharführer from the artillery regiment, for a conclave of Demyansk veterans in Berlin. Somewhat later a fifth man joined up with us. He was large and slender, with Knight's Cross and combat boots, and full of drive and energy. It was our Unterschar- führer Hans Hirning from SS-Pz.Gr.Rgt. 6, who had been awarded the Knight's Cross as a Rottenführer during his time in the Demyansk pocket.
We attempted to find an airplane that was going to Germany so that we could get there faster. At the Kharkov airfield we had some luck. A Lieutenant who had flown "Junkers" into Demyansk packed us into his machine and took us first to Dnepropetrovsk. I was happy, as were the others, to get out of that plane. The Lieutenant flew like the devil heading down: we often just missed brushing the treetops. We flew on to Lemberg and Breslau in our old "Ju." In Berlin we reported in to the garrison commander. There we got our leave passes in hand and we were allowed to go home. After 14 days we all got back together and reported into the hotel "Russian Manor" in Berlin.
Here the gathering of "Demyansk fighters" was held. Each division that had served there had sent 5 or 6 men for a total of 50 to 60 men. A Major Benzin led this delegation. We were guests of honour of the city of Berlin. Arrangements for the course of our stay were handled by the city and the propaganda ministry.
Hans Hirning and 1 shared a room. The elevator was much used and appreciated. During breakfast we each charted a "plan of action" for visits and excursions during our allotted time here. In these 14 days in Berlin we visited all the sightseeing spots, many theatres and review shows, the Berlin Zoo and other places. Each time we went into a theatre or a show the director, before the performance began, would come out on the stage and greet us in this way: "Today we are especially honoured to have in our midst, guests of honour of the city of Berlin and the Reich Propaganda Ministry; permit me to introduce the "fighters' from the cauldron at Demyansk . . . etc., etc." The crowd would applaud and we would stand up to acknowledge their recognition.
We also visited the Reich National Memorial and the factory in which the new "Panther" tanks were being made. We toured the avenues towards Potsdam in two busses, visiting, among other things, the Sanssouci Palace, the Garrison Church, the City Palace,- and the grave of Friedrich the Great. In a boathouse on the Havel we stopped for coffee and the well-known bandmaster Herms Niels of the RAD (Labour Service) led a concert for us.
Hans Hirning was noticed everywhere we went since it was a curiosity to see an Unterscharführer with the Knight's Cross. He kept getting asked: "How did you get that decoration?" And he always answered: "I had good luck." Unfortunately his luck would run out shortly before the end of the war.
We were then guests of the Mayor of Berlin in the city hall. The Mayor wore a "Pour le mérite" ("Blue Max"), and gave us a speech. The Waffen-SS general Kurt Knoblauch, formerly the chief-of-staff of our division, was also in attendance. He was happy to speak with us and learn about what had been happening with the division. Then lunch began.
We were surprised at the enormous table. It was built in a U-shape and had on it the best porcelain and heavy silverware as well as a sea of flowers, liquor, wine and wine glasses. Many guests besides us were served. The General sat next to a private, and highly ranked guests were found next to NCOs. The waiters passed before and behind us, continually bringing and serving food. After the meal some artist-entertainers who sang and danced appeared. It was beautifully simple; everything was very sincere and open and there was no forced merriment.
Then came the day in which we went to the Reich Propaganda Ministry. On the first floor we entered a huge lobby. There were massive curtains on the windows as well as tapestries and parquet flooring. In our combat and riding boots we felt as though we were walking on ice. After a while the door opened and in came our large and energetic former divisional commander (my former regimental CO), Max Simon. He had heard that the Demyansk "fighters" were here including a few from the "T"- Division. At the time he had been staying in a Berlin hospital. It made us very happy to see him.
Representatives of each different division presented a war report of their combat activities in the Demyansk pocket and a proposal was made for a "Demyansk Shield" decoration. This was the hour when the "Demyansk Shield" originated Later on every soldier who fought in the Demyansk cauldron would wear this decoration on the upper left sleeve.
Next we received yet another leave pass for 14 days, which each man was to spend in his hometown. Then the longest and most beautiful leave we were ever going to get came to an end. Trains and airplanes took us back to our old bunch near Kharkov.