At certain points on the eastern front there is fighting not mentioned in the armed forces report. The bridgehead P. is one of the countless, nameless places where German soldiers stand iron firm against the vast superiority of the enemy.
For the few thousand SS panzer grenadiers who, as an insurmountable defensive wall, have for days opposed the furious assault of Soviet tanks and red army soldiers, who have experienced how the companies got smaller day by day, for this small band of Waffen-SS men who, hard and pitiless, strafed the ranks of the attacking Soviets with their machine-gun bursts, bridgehead P. is an unforgettable battleground and has become the symbol of defense against a vastly superior force. One infantry and one panzer regiment faced four Bolshevik rifle guard divisions, three tank brigades and a motorized Soviet rifle brigade.
Five days of combat were already behind us when we first heard the name P. Five days long the troop had beaten down one position after the other, smashed it, and pushed through heavily fortified Soviet defensive works. Then we stood in front of P. The night we took positions it was pitch black. A rain storm had suddenly set in and it took effort to move forward. Stubborn as glue, the clay stuck to our vehicles’ wheels. The path through the gorge was so narrow that only one vehicle could fit. So if a vehicle got stuck in the slippery mud, it turned on its own axis and slid from the path down into the swampy meadow or the whole column behind it came to a standstill. Food could not be brought up, munitions trucks remained stuck along the way and gas supply columns got lost in the dark. Even the tractors could not always reliably overcome every obstacle. Only hours after the messengers had been sent out into the dark night could the battalion commander assemble with his officers in a hut and under the sparse light of a candle present the attack plan. The new morning did not bring an improvement in the weather. It rained. Mist clouds floated over the gorge and the sun did not want to break through. There was nothing else to do but attack in the rain; for P. had to be taken, the bridgehead had to be established there, if all the further operations were not to be jeopardized.
The attack took place. The SS-grenadiers of the Death‘s Head division, who had not really slept in six days, swung their machine-guns across their backs, stuck hand-grenades in their belts, as many as they could, and dragged ammunition crates. They waded through mud and swamp and had to again and again push aside the branches of bushes. They were wet and their energy had already noticeably diminished after the past difficult days.
But they were not tired because of that. At the edge of the village they received the order to halt. The fire from Soviet artillery became ever more fierce, and finally a thick curtain of fire was in front of them, which could only be penetrated with heavy losses. The men took cover in a ravine. The rain still splashed down on them. They ripped grain stalks from the fields and grass from the swamp in order to cover themselves, but that didn’t help much and they were soon soaked to the skin.
What would happen now? When would they attack again? They looked at the first village huts, almost close enough to grasp, the bushes and hedges along the river. They saw a few tall trees and knew the bridge had to be there, between the two villages. They saw the church’s onion dome that jutted up strangely huge from the straw roofs. On the steep slope across the river muzzle bursts flashed, shells howled over them, and they pressed themselves even closer to the earth and breathed a sigh of relief when after the detonations none of their comrades had to shout for the medic.
The sole thought moving them in these hours was this: we must get across the river, establish the bridgehead and then throw the Bolsheviks out of their positions.
Meanwhile, behind them the exact war machinery had been set into motion. The radios hummed and the telegraphs clicked. Assault guns advanced through the gorge, reconnaissance and fighter planes flew in, circled the river and spotted new targets. Light and heavy guns from the ready area moved forward into firing positions. All the weapons that could be brought up were used in order to enable the leap across the river.
That was the signal for a new effort, a new attack. The use of artillery and air power could only last a limited time. The decisive thrust must always be made by the grenadier, by the individual fighter. Technology can make his fight easier, it can open the way for him, but he and he alone must pass through that opening.
It was as if the whole fury of our grenadiers suddenly exploded, their fury at the Bolsheviks who had believed they could stop our advance by firing from the barrels of their guns everything they could fire. Our companies soon stood in the middle of the village. Flares shot up between the curve of the high birch trees. Our men fought their way through the bushes on the bank and waded through cloudy rain water. Soaking wet to the waist they worked their way along the other swamp bank and attacked the slopes. Close-range fighting of the most bitter intensity unfolded as they entered the Soviet positions on the steep slopes. The Soviets had to be driven from their foxholes man by man. Our armored battle vehicles already climbed up through the little forest and gorge onto the steep slopes. Our grenadiers followed them and drove the Bolsheviks back more and more, far past the peak, through cornfields, until the planned bridgehead border was reached.
The river crossing had succeeded; our bridgehead had been established.
Hardly had we advanced over the little river when our guns followed across makeshift bridges; hardly had the first foxholes been dug when the Soviet counterattacks started already.
They came in battalion and regiment strength. They even came with whole brigades and divisions. They brought up whole batteries of guns and hurled salvo after salvo at the river bank and the heights held by us. Tanks raced against our lines in a number we had never before experienced in such a small area on the eastern front. They were shot up by our panzer canons and anti-tank guns at distances of 1500 meters and more. But sometimes they also advanced against our lines and came within 40 or 50 meters and had to be repulsed and destroyed in intense fire duels at that range. Here and there they broke through our lines, but the men of the SS-men fortunately survived the tank terror of those days. They knew exactly that even a tank is vulnerable, and not just at one place. They calmly let the tanks roll past, snatched mines, waited for the right moment with determination and ran across com fields in order to be set for the final dash, which usually brought the mortal blow to the tank.
But it was not just the tanks against which the defenders of the bridgehead had to defend. The enemy had in all haste brought up infantry forces and these rested troops pushed against our lines. It often came to bitter close combat, where our SS-grenadiers, only due to their exemplary calm and bravery, could win against the numerical superiority of the Bolsheviks.
A panzer rolled back. The hatch opened and the driver and loader carefully raised their dead commander from the panzer, then the radioman, who had lost both legs from a hit. Soon afterward they again raced back through the gorge to report to a new commander, because their panzer must not fall out. The lightly wounded incessantly asked the doctors not to send them to the rear; they wanted to remain with their comrades. When rain had again made the ground muddy and the tracked vehicles could no longer climb the slopes, there was not a single SS- man who would not have ran to the munition vehicles in order to carry shells and munition forward to the positions. In the bridgehead the foxholes got deeper each day. But with every centimeter our grenadiers dug in deeper, with each comrade they lost, grew their fighting spirit and will to resistance. Measured against the strength of enemy men and weapons that had been employed on all sides on Stalin’s personal order in order to force the division to give up the bridgehead, the SS-men accomplished the inconceivable here, above all their commander, who was always in the foremost lines in his panzer and intervened wherever the situation appeared most dangerous. The calm and superiority that emanated from him embraced the whole troop, and with it the fighting spirit that was born from the mission of the political soldier. Leader and men merged there into a block of resistance.
Military history would hardly note the name of the bridgehead P.. It had been held against the enemy’s overwhelming effort. The realization that only a hardness and ruthlessness toward one’s own person shaken by nothing solves a military task, this realization is the principle of this war. We must become ever harder!