EXCLUSIVE: In their own words – German veterans of WWII by Rob Schäfer

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Part 1 – Unteroffizier Gustav Römer, III./Infanterie-Regiment 506, 1941-1945 (+ 6/2008) – Holder of the Infantry Assault Badge in Silver, Iron Cross 2nd Class, Wound Badge in Silver.

Herr Gustav Römer served with the elite 291. Infantry-Division (serving in Infanterie-Regiment 506) from 1941 to 1945. I was introduced to Herr Römer by Heinrich Böger and Herr Georg Gundlach, heads of 291st IDs veterans association in May 2006. I had met Herr Böger while on a quest to find out more about the death of my uncle, who was a Feldwebel in 291IDs pioneer batallion and was killed in 1942. We spent about two hours talking during wich Herr Römer kindly allowed to me to make some voice recordings and notes. Herr Römer passed away in June 2008. I later heard that his family was selling his military belongings on eBay. Sadly I was only able to buy some photographs. Through Herr Böger I had the chance to get into contact with six former soldiers of the “Moose” Division and it is their tales which shall form the first six parts of the series.
Photos are from the veterans personal collections (unless otherwise mentioned) and from the collection of Oberleutnant Georg Gundlach who served as the Divisions photographer during the war and who privately published two excellent photographic histories after the war.


SHORT HISTORY OF 291. INFANTERIE-DIVISION

291. Infantrie Division was formed in Insterburg in the military training area of Arys (South-east of Königsberg, East-Prussia) in February 1940 as part of the 8th Wave.
Created by using cadres from previously existing units, it took part in the attack on France but played no noticable role there. During the expansion of the Heer in the autumn the division lost 3 Btns. of Infantry (I /504th, I /505th and I /506th.) and one of Artillery (III /291st.) to the newly raised 306. Infanterie Division, but these units were replaced before the division was assigned to Heeresgruppe Nord in early 1941 as 18. Armee’s reserve as they prepared for the launching of Barbarossa. The “Elch” (Moose) division managed to advance 44 miles in the first 34 hours of the campaign in the Baltic States, but after being assigned the mission of clearing the Baltic coast, was temporarily stopped in their tracks at the naval base of Libau where Soviet Marines and 67th Rifle Division repelled their first attempt to rush the town on 25th June. Resorting to point blank artillery fire, Herzog’s men finally overran the town after four days of fierce street and house fighting and continued advancing up the Baltic Coast before reaching the Latvian capital of Riga which was already under attack from the East by Philipp Kleffel’s 1. Infanterie Division, the following day.

After helping secure Estonia during July and August, the division was deployed on the right wing of XXXVIII Korps’s ring around the Oranienbaum Bridgehead in early September and broke through the Soviet first line of defences around Leningrad at Popsha before turning north and taking Peterhof, on the Gulf of Finland, sealing in the Coastal Army. After this success, the front settled down into static positions that changed very little for almost two years, but, following his receiving the Knights Cross in mid-October, there was little time for Herzog and his men to catch their breath as they were shifted to 18th Armee’s front along the Volkhov River to reisist continued efforts by the Russians to break through to besieged Leningrad.

Herr Gustav Römer

The division was finally withdrawn from the front in late December, but only had a few days rest before Andrei Vlassov’s 2nd Shock Army launched a massive offensive at the begining of January aimed at the thinly held line at the junction of 61. Infanterie Division and 21. Infanterie Division. 505th Inf. Regt., under Oberst Lohmeyer to seal the breach , but it was only a question of time before they made another probe somewhere else. “A matter of time” was ten days, the breathrough was slightly to the south, and it was the 291st that again stood in their way, but, despite atrocious weather,its men stood firm long enough for the Polizei and 58. Infanterie Division to cut off the Russian penetration, though fighting within the pocket went on until late June. After defeating the Soviet 2nd Shock Army’s penetration of the front over the Volkhov River, and, despite the renewal of the offensive by the Russians in the Mga sector, just to the north of their positions, they were kept on the relatively quiet sector north of Novgorod until January 1943, when they were shifted to LIX Korps sector on the junction of Heeresgruppe Nord and Heeresgruppe Mitte. During that Winter the divisions three Infantry Regiments lost one battalion each, except for one company from each which was, initially, formed into a Ski battalion, but this unit was later converted to bicycles. Remaining in defensive positions around Korotsen over the Winter the division was reinforced by the recreation of 506th Gren. Regt. in February but was nearly annhilated by the Soviet 3rd Guard Tank Army near Shepetovka in early March. By June they were back on 4th Panzerarmee’s front (XLII Korps) as they fell back through south-east Poland (also taking part in the fighting inside the Hube cauldrom) The severley understrength Division rejoined XLII Korps in August and remained with them until over-run and destroyed by 1st Ukrainian Front near Czestochowa (Tschensotchau) after the Soviets resumed their offensive in mid-January 1945. Some remnants were incorporated into the 6. Infanterie Divisions 37th Gren. Regt. whilst the remainder were used to augment 17. Infanterie-Division in March.

“I was drafted into the Wehrmacht in June 1941 and was sent to Preussisch-Eylau to join Infanterie-Ersatz-Batallion 44 to begin my basic training, which lasted until January 1942. I was trained to use the 98k rifle and as I was quite a good shot and had very good eyesight I recieved training of the MG26(t) and MG34 aswell.
Our Spiess was a bastard and tough as nails. He was much older than us and had already served in the Reichswehr. Shortly before the end of my training one of the boys in my squad was being punished for keeping three large bottles of Schnapps inside his locker. Our Spiess made him run around the exercise grund for hours wearing only his fatigue uniform, before that he made him drink a good amount of the Schnapps. It was at least 10 degrees below zero outside. And this was not all, he then took a rifle and started to fire at the poor chap, the shots deliberatly aimed at the ground shortly behind his feet. “This will help you keeping warm” he shouted. I will never forget that. The whole thing was watched by some officers aswell, who obviously thought that to be very funny.
In January 42 I and about 60 comrades were sent east by train to join IR506 of the 291st Division.”

Signpost showing the way to “Moose” Division. Moose head is yellow on white background. Volkhov 1942. ©Georg Gundlach

 

“Well when I first arrived, the Division was part of 18th Army and Heeresgruppe Nord and was fighting at the Volkhov. One of the things I remember is that it was terribly cold, so cold that my right ear froze and stuck to the rim of my steel helmet. When I took it off I pulled half my ear off with it. Did not even notice it then. I joined 3rd Batallion and was shocked when I was told that it was down to half its normal strength. The soldiers I met at the Volkhov looked like bandits to me. They were dirty, ragged and some even had full beards looking more like U-Boat crews than Landsers to me. Soon I was looking the same, but in the first days I was shocked.
We were a close knit group. Comradeship was everything. We trusted each other with our lifes and shared everything we had. The officers were very much different to the ones I encountered in basic training. They were like us. Fought with us in the trenches, shared their meals and drinks. We followed them because we trusted them, they did not need to play the rank card you know. I was proud to have joined the Moose Division. It was an excellent unit and the Soviets knew and feared us. The old soldiers treated us well and like there was no difference between us. I remember the first time when we got sent to the frontline to relieve a squad of IR504 stationed there. There was a kind of a take-over ceremony, where the relieved party told us newcomers where the enemy was and what the supplies were. I was to be the gunner of a MG34 machine gun and when I asked one of the NCOs when to expect spare barrels for the MG34 and more ammunition he looked at me like I was mad.
In June 1943 our Regiment was defending a stretch of hills known as the Patschino-Heights. The hill was obviously a thorn in the soviets sides as it gave us an excellent field of vision deep into soviet occupied territory. By the end of June they started to attack the eastern side of our positions in force. To our right, about 2 kilometers away was a Batallion of Waffen-SS troops, that was supposed to relieve us, that is III./506, in the coming days. Me and Leutnant Pieper had just been sent there to discuss the details, and were able to watch the first attack as a spectators from there. The Waffen-SS commander at once offered his assistance, as his soldiers were well armed and supplied and as his counter-attack was likely to disrupt the soviet assault before it even had the chance to fully develop, but his wish was dully denied by our General Görlitz. His own troops, so he said, were able to to cope with the attack themselves. Sadly this wasn’t to be the case and on the next day we were informed that the Soviets had managed to break into the eastern part of our defences, taking a stretch of land about 600 meters long and 400 meters wide, well defended with concrete bunkers and extensive trench systems.

Watching the enemy. Soldier of 291.ID and sMG34. ©Georg Gundlach

In the coming days Ivan pumped reinforcements into the battle and so did our side. In the first two days of the fighting two batallions of 291.ID were wiped out completely. Me and some comrades were suddenly called to report to Divisional HQ. We could not believe it, what did that mean, what was happening. Were were soon to find out. Divisional HQ was assembling a small group of “volunteers” to form the spearhead of the assault on the Patschino heights. Our Hauptmann Weber had offered 12 experienced men of his batallion and that included me. We 12 men from III/506 and 58 men from other regiments of 291ID, 70 men in total, were to form the spearhead of the attack. Support was to be given by a platoon of flamethrowers detached from Pionier-Batallion 291.
At Divisional HQ we were loaded into trucks which transported us further away from the frontline. When we jumped out of the truck about 30 minutes later we were greeted by some staff officers and NCOs we had not seen before and who told us what lay before us. Someone had found an area very similar to Patschino and we were given three days to train for the assault. We were instructed in trench fighting and on how to support the flamethrower teams, how to fight in hand to hand combat with bayonet and spade, how to fire MPs while on the run. Training was given by some highly decorated NCOs, one a wearer of the Knights Cross whose name I cant recall. We all had seen a lot of combat, but we were able to pick up a few new tricks even if it was the hardest three days of training I have ever had.

Flammenwerfer – from a german postcard printed in 1944

In the night of the third day we were issued with new kit and weapons; Bayonets, some MP40s and captured soviet SMGs, lots of egg-handgrenades and ammunition and were divided into two groups. One group was to lead the assault and consisted of 58 men and the flamethrower squad. The other group, the one I was in, had a strength of 12 men and was issued with two brandnew MG42s. It was to follow the leading group and to support it with machine-gun fire. The main attacking force consisting of Batallion of IR506 and IR504 was to follow closely behind. Before we were loaded into the trucks again some NCOs made sure that no one the equipment was worn in a way that nothing was clinking or jingling. The assault was to be conducted in total silence.
When the trucks had brought us to our assembly area we had to march in silence for about one hour. We marched next to a river, a route that led us directly into a large, swampy area where we met up with the main attacking force which had a stregth of about 500 men. I think it was the 3rd of July 1943. Another our later we had reached the slopes of the foot of the Heights of Patschino. No one made a sound, it was completely silent. We were to attack without any artillery support which I think was a mistake. Its was pitch dark and we could barely see the details of the slope in front of us. The frst group fanned out and started its advance, our group following behind. First our plan seemed to be a great success, we had take the Soviets by suprise. The first and second line of trenches were taken in hand-to-hand combat. From my position in second group I could see the flamethrowers to their work. A gruesome sight, bright jets of flame illuminating thick oily clouds of smoke. My group now entered the trenches the first group had taken and set up our machine guns to be able to repel the expected soviet counter-attack. Our problem was that the trenches that followed were so thickly entwined that it was impossible for our small group to deliver another coordinated attack. Artillery support was still out of the question as that would hit us aswell as the Soviets. Ivan did not have any qualms though and started to fire with mortars which were hitting us aswell as the Soviet infantry. What followed now was a chaotic battle in which it became hard to distinguish friend and foe. It was still pitch dark, rifle and submachine gun fire could be heard everywhere around us. Muzzle flashes, screams, shouts, the muffled explosions of handgrenades. Every now and then we have to defend ourselves in close combat when soviets entered our trench. When the first T-34s were rumbling towards us it was over. A tank shell exploded close beside Gerd Meister, a close friend of mine, he gave a sigh and fell to the ground like a sack of potatoes. I could not help him. The only thing important now was not to fall into soviet hands alive. We all know what they did to german prisoners. We had seen the mutilated corpses of our comrades at the Volkhov.

Initialy we had attacked with over 500 men. Believe me, at this moment there were no more than 100 still alive. I fell back towards the main force. When I arrived I met two soldiers of my company, which was down to only 5 men! All officers and NCOs had been wounded or killed which effectualy gave me command of the company. Together with my two comrades we fled. We ran like hares. Mortar and artillery shells exploding around us, bullets whistling around our ears. I will never forget the sights of that hellish inferno. I was running and jumping over the dead bodies of my fallen comrades which seemed to lying everywhere, when a mortar shell exploded next to me. I dont remember a lot of what followed but some splinters had hit my face and arm. I was nearly deaf from the explosion and must have passed out. I woke at the main dressing station. My two comrades had carried me back, all the way.  I am glad that all this over. War is such a terrible thing.”

Stay tuned for Part 2 – Only on Warhistoryonline.com

Rob Schäfer

Further Reading:

Werner Conze – Die Geschichte der 291. Infanterie Division 1940-1945, H. H. Podzun, Bad Nauheim 1953

Erich Gliesche – Sturmbataillon: Die 291. Infanterie Division im Raum Welikije Luki

Georg Gundlach – Wolchow Kesselschlacht der 291. Infanterie Division, Bingen am Rhein, Selbstverlag 1995

Kandt & Vogelsang – Die 291. Infanterie Division (Elch Division) von 1940 bis 1945 im 2. Weltkrieg

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