We arrived in Borisov were assigned to as Division reserves in the rear while they figured out what to do with us. No one seemed interested in us or had made any accommodations available so we found shelter in some empty peasant huts. Here we waited for the word on what was next.
The huts we quickly found out had been previously used to house the division’s casualties before they were transported back to the rear area hospitals. There were used bandages and other medical trash strewn about inside. A grim reminder of what we had to look forward to in the very near future. I was not happy about it. I think I would have run out the door screaming if I had seen a couple of wooden clackity arms laying there mixed in with the used bandages and packaging.
The one thing that was always certain in Russia was that the weather would really suck. The wind had really picked up in the last few days and it cut like a knife through our woolen greatcoats. None of our clothing was up to a Russian winter. You had to find a sheltered place from the wind to take a dump or you ran a real chance of freezing your balls off. Constipation became a good thing.
I was able to stop some of the wind from cutting through my greatcoat by layering my body next to the skin with newspaper, using it to create paper long underwear. This was something I had learned as a child. After making sure I had scrounged up all the available newspaper in the battalion, covered my body, and made sure I had sufficient reserve. I told the rest of the squad about it. None of them had heard of it which somehow did not surprise me. I generously gave up my remaining supply of paper to the squad in the spirit of true National Socialism.
I was showing them how to wrap the paper around the chest and tuck in the undershirt to help hold it in place. Straight faced I pointed out to Hans how I had made sure the photo of the Fuhrer that I had found covered my heart. I told him “With the Fuhrer covering my heart, nothing can hurt me!” He agreed, replying “Perhaps so, to bad you don’t actually have a heart.” After the laughing had died down I sorted through the newspapers until I came across a photo of Himmler. That didn’t take long. “Here, Hans I will wear this on my ass and we can watch you kiss it.” He was offended, but he laughed as did the others. “It’s alright Hans” I told him as we heard the whistle blowing outside summoning us to assemble. “I understand true love.” His only reply was to jab me with the barrel of his rifle hard as we went out the door.
We grabbed our gear and left the hut in answer to the summons of the whistle which was barely audible over the sound of artillery rounds passing over head. What ever had set them off must not have amounted to anything because the rounds quickly stopped. It did not dawn on me then that the reason the barrage was over so quickly was because we were short of rounds for the big guns. Although it wouldn’t have surprised me, as everything else was in short supply here except for Russians.
We meet our guide who was going to take us up to our new positions. We were assigned to the left flank of the 21st Infantry Division. On our left flank was the 234th Infantry Regiment, although they seemed awfully far off once we were settled in. There was a reason for that, they were. Our company was filling a gap between the two infantry units and we had a frontage of nine hundred yards. We were reinforcing an under strength company from the 21st Division who took the forward positions. That’s how I found out that a total of two companies had been assigned an area that normally would require at least a regiment.
We were to dumb to know it but we had been blessed with an 88 gun and its crew who were dug into the center of our assigned area. Our trenches and foxholes had already been dug by the men who had previously occupied these positions and they had left them a mess. We were bitching about it when Sarge came back from his meeting with the top brass.
Our top brass was two Lieutenants, a Captain from the 312th Regiment, and 6 NCOs’. He must have heard us because he said “Hey assholes, the reason there is a mess is because when they left they were dead.”
“Hmmm” I replied, “I guess that means they weren’t in the mood to clean up.”
“No shit dumbass” was Sarges reply.
Han’s was my partner in the foxhole. He glared at me when Sarge headed for us like it was my fault. Sarge squatted down on his heels to bring himself closer to us. “Alright here’s the story. Supposedly this is a quiet sector, which is why we are here.” I immediately thought “if it is so safe why are there so many empty dead man dug holes?” I didn’t bother voicing it. He continued with “Try to stay warm, and one of you needs to be awake at all time. The recognition word is springtime. Chow may be delivered in an hour but don’t count on it. Questions?” He waited a second before bringing his ham of a fist down on the top of Han’s helmet causing his knees to buckle. His parting comment was “Don’t fuck up” and he was gone. We watched him leave, bent double, and moving fast to the next foxhole which I thought was also to far away.
I waited until he had moved out of earshot and looked at Hans. “Hey Hansie”
I waited a beat “I think Sarge wants you.”
“Fuck you.” was his reply. There was a moment of silence as we both looked around at the desolate snow covered landscape that we now owned.
He spoke softly “Do you think the Russians will come?” I swallowed my first reply when I saw how round his eyes were. “No, we’ll be fine Hansie. Shit, if they do come all we need to do is just hunker down here and pick them off. I mean c’mon it’s not like we haven’t shot Russians before.” He nodded, we left unspoken that all the Russians we had shot so far had been unarmed.
Years later I was at a picnic and the host had brought several Styrofoam coolers to keep the food cold. I was sitting by myself at the picnic table watching his kids destroy the top of one of them. The sound the Styrofoam made as it was broken up sent me on a flashback to this very night and place. The snow that night was like Styrofoam. It was firm, and crunched with that same rigid squeaky sound the Styrofoam did when you walked on it.
We spent the next few days shivering, trying to sleep, bitching, and talking about food because they sure weren’t getting any up to us. Every once in awhile Sarge or the Lieutenant would make the rounds, stopping for a five or ten minutes to listen to us bitch and moan. Then they would tell us “No news was good news.” Like that was going to make us feel better. Later on in the war it would be great news but we were still far too green to appreciate the quiet.
During the day I would stand watch, Hans would scurry to the nearest holes, talk to the guys in them, and bring back more news about nothing. We would relieve each other so we could relieve ourselves in hole that was converted from a fighting position some distance away. It doesn’t sound very sanitary but everything froze and I had no intentions of being here when it thawed.
We were beginning to think everyone else was going to see action when the flares burst in the midnight sky. I had the watch, and I was stunned not only by the brightness of the light, but also by the dark shapes they illuminated out on the snow fields in front of us. I must have been dozing because with the flares came the sound of tracked vehicles which I should have heard earlier. Thank god someone was awake. The dark shape of the tanks were becoming clearer every second I stood there gawking. Hansies head popped up next to me “Holy shit!” We both looked at each and then back at the approaching Red army. “Shit. Shit. Shit!” He popped back down into the hole and was groping for his rifle. That reminded me of what I was supposed to be doing.
I shouldered my KAR 98 and did a quick scan. We had a little hollowed out ledge where we stored extra ammo and grenades just for this situation. We had laid it all out a few days after we arrived on the advice of the real infantry soldiers who were up front. After we got it done we looked at it and talked about how ready we were for at least an hour.