Wednesday, October 5, 2022

Into the Lines - Leningrad Front, November 1941

The men of 3rd Platoon were up early, their battalion was moving up into the lines along with the other two battalions of the 344th Infantry Regiment. As it got lighter, visibility was still terrible as a heavy fog was forming.

Major Kurt Hassel, the commander of II. Bataillon¹, was making the rounds of the companies in his battalion, at the moment he was with Oberleutnant Ferdinand Busch, the commander of Hassel's 5. Kompanie, which von Lüttwitz's platoon belonged to. Hassel was in a good mood, as he often was, he was a soldier's soldier, his men adored him, whereas the other officers in the regiment didn't care for him. They thought he was far too familiar with the men under his command.

Hassel had been a very young sergeant at the end of the Great War. He had joined one of the many Freikorps involved in the fighting in the east in 1918 and 1919. An ardent nationalist, he didn't care for the Nazis, they were too "political" as he put it, in it for power, not for the German people. He had gained a commission when Hitler rearmed Germany. By the Anschluß² he was in command of a company, by the end of the fighting in France he had been given a battalion. Even the officers who didn't like him admitted that the man was a fine soldier, a fighter, not a garrison soldier.

He wore an Iron Cross 2nd Class from the Great War, plus the clasp indicating an award of the Iron Class 2nd Class in this war. Pinned to his left tunic pocket was an Iron Cross 1st Class. A colonel who had asked him if he aspired to winning a Knight's Cross had been offended when Hassel had answered, "I don't want the tin tie³, I just want to avoid winning a wooden cross!"

"Hey von Lüttwitz! Your boys ready for action?" he shouted out when he spotted 3rd Platoon's commanding officer.

Leutnant von Lüttwitz looked up and a big grin spread across his careworn face, "Ready, willing, and able Herr Major! Just keep those sluggards in 1st and 3rd Companies out of our way!"

Hassel stared at von Lüttwitz for a moment, "Seriously Jürgen, I know we're moving up to backstop an attack by Corps, but this division has so few experienced personnel now. We picked up a lot of conscripts after France, your company is one of the more experienced ones in the regiment, probably the division. Keep your lads alive, I have the feeling that we're going to be needing more junior leaders before this siege is over, your lads are really good material for just that."

Von Lüttwitz nodded, "Even if they were the sorriest soldiers on the planet, I'd still try to keep them all alive."

"I seem to recall an American general who said that to be a good commander, you must love the Army, but also be willing to order the death of the very thing you love." Oberleutnant Busch interjected.

Hassel turned to look at Busch, "Which general was that?"

"I think it was Lee." Busch said.

"Didn't he lose his war?" Hassel asked with a sardonic smile.

Busch blushed, "Well, he did, but it's still a good quote."

"Yes, I suppose it is. Very well. Jürgen, good hunting." Hassel put his hand out.

Von Lüttwitz shook the major's hand and nodded, "You as well, Herr Major."

The battalion took over positions prepared by a battalion from another division, those men were being pulled back for a well-deserved rest. Von Lüttwitz had the chance for a brief chat with the man whose platoon he was relieving.

"So, any pointers, tips, things to avoid?"

Leutnant Oswald Keller looked around, the man looked tired, almost ready to collapse, von Lüttwitz thought.

"Ja, keep your heads down, Ivan has some very good snipers out there. We're in luck today with the fog, bastards can't see us."

"Any losses?"

"Seven men in the last ten days, mostly the new kids, they can't remember to stay low, emphasize that to your men. Pop your head up, you die. It's that simple."

"Danke Keller, I'll remind the lads to do that. We're mostly old hands by now, but you can't be too careful."

"Stay low, von Lüttwitz, stay low."

Keller than parted with a handshake, it was obvious that he was glad to be leaving the trenches behind.

Von Lüttwitz climbed down into the section of the trench where his platoon would go to work. It looked like the pictures he'd seen from the Great War, the duckboards were already starting to sink into the soft ground beneath. He almost wished the temperature would drop soon, let the ground harden again.

But he knew that hard ground might bring Soviet Panzers, all they had by way of defense against those was to stay low and hope their anti-tank support was awake. Though he doubted the efficacy of the two 3.7 cm guns he'd seen to the rear on a small knoll. He'd already heard from Panzer crewmen that those rounds tended to bounce right off of the Soviet KV-1s and T-34s.

He heard something then which made him pause, then shout "Alarm! Incoming! Take cover!"

The first round landed some distance to the rear, he knew that the Russians probably had a good idea of where their trenches were and once they got the range ...

As artillery rounds impacted close by, von Lüttwitz pressed himself against the wall of the trench, he hated artillery. He noticed another man dive down and take cover next to him.

"I guess we're back in the war, Herr Leutnant!" shouted Hansen, his platoon sergeant.

"Ja, I didn't miss it!"

Scarcely 30 minutes later, the barrage ended.

Apparently ammunition was running low in the city, not that the Germans minded.

Leningrad was completely cut off, but the Reds wouldn't quit, not while they still had breath.

¹ I probably should have mentioned this earlier, but the period following a number (this is a Roman numeral) indicates an ordinal number, in this case this would be read as the Zweite (second) Bataillon - 2nd Battalion
² The amalgamation of Austria with Nazi Germany in 1938.
³ An irreverent nickname for the Knight's Cross to the Iron Cross which was suspended around the neck by a black, white, and red ribbon.


  1. Hassell is the sort of "bootstrap fellow" that the folks on the ground love and command/management can never stand, if for no other reason that they usually bear with them the unnerving habit of speaking their mind with their honest opinion.

    That is a haunting photo.

    1. That photo really struck me when I found it.

      I've worked for guys like Hassel and it was awesome.

    2. My drinking instructor, Major Jesse Locke, was just like the officer depicted. He had been my flight commander in both the Deuce and the Phantom. He had flown the Shooting Star in Korea and won a DFC there. What a guy I considered him a friend and mentor! He wasn’t a happy camper when we had to fly by so many targets of opportunity in the North.

    3. Officers like that are worth their weight in gold!

  2. That's some heavy fog and someone is always looking at the camera when photos are snapped eh? As bad as the soldiers had it the people of Leningrad were in for a rough time.

    1. A very rough time, the siege lasted over two years.

    2. Tow long years I'll bet, I can't imagine it...

    3. I would think that after almost 70 years I'd remember to proof read before I send something, especially when I'm spelling "two".... :-)

    4. We knew what you meant. 😁

  3. The 900 Days by Harrison Salisbury. First read it in "condensed" form by Reader's Digest sometime back in the mid- to late-60s. Horrible. Made all the more so by Stalin's orders NOT to evacuate the civilian population. Well over a million needless deaths just to show "Russian resolve." And AFTER the war Stalin had many of the leaders in Leningrad, who had managed things despite Stalin's interference, tried and executed. That pretty much fixed my attitude towards Communism in general and Stalin in particular. Not long after I started reading Solzhenitsyn. Both The 900 Days and all of Solzhenitsyn should be required reading for all high school students, and damn their delicate psyches.

    1. Wholeheartedly agree. Harsh, but necessary lessons for those who would be "socialists" or any other breed of communist.


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