I Was There2 March 2015

Helmut Ritgen, 19 December 1942

This account comes from the memoirs of Helmut Ritgen, who was the Regimental Adjutant of Panzer Regiment 11, part of the 6th Panzer Division. It describes the actions fought by his unit on 19 December 1942, the opening day of Operation Winter Storm - the attempt to break through to the encircled 6th Army in Stalingrad. From his viewpoint in the command tank of Generaloberst Erhard Raus he describes the initial clashes with the Soviet troops manning the frontline and the breakthrough into the open country beyond.

19 December 1942

Since the late hours of the morning the regiment has been on the attack against the enemy, who, after a grim day-long battle, is finally yielding. Through the gullies, over terrain that has a thin, icy layer of snow cover, our vehicles painfully edge their way forward. As they advance they stir up the Bolsheviks in their individual foxholes and destroy the remains of any organized resistance. Overhead, Luftwaffe Stukas are circling like vultures, spying out targets that are opposing our lead units. On the left, in the village we have just taken, black pillars of smoke billow from the tanks that have just been destroyed.

The regimental commander is with the foremost battalion on a hill. Then a message arrives via radio: “Urgent from division. New mission. Turn west via Height D to Vasiljevka, there form a bridgehead.” There is a brief study of the map, following by a radio message to all: “Break off fight, assemble on Height E with me, all battalion commanders to me.”

As if pulled by invisible wires, the tanks turns about and assemble. The battalion commanders arrive in their command tanks. There follows a short briefing on the situation by the commander: “All we know about the enemy is that at Height D there is supposed to be a field position with anti-tank guns that has to be destroyed first.”

It is now 13:30 hours; in just over an hour the sun will go down. All speed is necessary if we are to succeed in our mission today. But we are short of fuel, and the tanker trucks have not turned up yet. Damn! Nevertheless, we have to do it today, now that the enemy perhaps is still weak. Tomorrow he will be reinforced, then the breakthrough will cost more German blood. Therefore, forward march!

We drive east, the winter sun at our backs. Like a herd of scattered buffalo the tanks road off according to their orders, and at top speed drive towards the enemy. The snow that the tracks throw up into the air glitters brightly in the evening sun and covers the tanks in a shower of white dust. Now we’re crossing a road and behind it is a rise. This must be Height D, where the enemy awaits.

In the distance multiple muzzle flashes light up. Damn! Close impacts spurt up in front and between us. There is the next impact already, and yet another. The Bolsheviks are not shooting badly today. The difficult terrain slows down our attack. Our own guns start to answer but the range is great and the small targets can hardly be made out. Russian fire, from many anti-tank guns and anti-tank riles, is intense. Several of our own tanks are hit. Several soviet anti-tank guns have been silenced, but to continue our attack would be to incur unnecessary losses. The order, therefore, is given to fall back to the reverse slope. The sun is going down on the horizon. Will we fail to take the objective before nightfall? Then there is a radio call to all: “Around the right, break through the anti-tank position two kilometers to the south.” The commander takes up his position at the head of the forward battalion and transmits the details of the attack.

Again the tanks race forward, but south of Height D they run into enemy artillery The first wave of tanks hangs back. The attack must not be allowed to stall. We have to get through and cannot wait for any support. First Lieutenant Michaelis assumes command at the front on the orders of the regimental commander By his example he leads the other tanks and drives forward at top speed, ignoring the barrage of shells that is being directed at his tank. Only a few minutes pass, but it seems like an eternity. Then, suddenly, we are in the middle of an expertly camouflaged enemy position, amongst the Bolsheviks who are fighting desperately and have to be killed one by one. Halfway to our right, in front of us, and halfway to the left, everywhere there are anti-tank guns. But they are being overrun. Praise be! No Bolshevik can stand up to our attack. In a wild panic they flee to the left and right. The Panzergrenadiers following in our footsteps will have to mop up the survivors. We can’t afford to wait – we roar onwards, to our comrades in the Stalingrad Cauldron. Soon we’re through, and there are no more enemy positions in front of us.

A palpable relief grips us all – commanders, gun layers, radiomen, and drivers – as we peer into the darkness. Despite the icy cold in the tank, sweat is running from every brow. As we push on across the countryside at top speed, we hear our commander’s report: “Enemy position penetrated south of Height D. At this time no enemy contact. Am advancing further forward. ”