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31st October 1943: Soviet infantry destroyed by flamethrower

Günter K. Koschorrek: Blood Red Snow:

During the next few hours a hard and bitter firefight develops, but we are able to hold the enemy back. Our ATG destroys five T-34s. Later, another seven are captured, having run out of fuel and been abandoned by their crews.

The enemy infantry, pushed back, have dug in only a few hundred metres from our positions, but most of them can avoid our fire by staying hidden in a hollow just 100 metres away. We selected this hillock at the edge of the village for our HMGs because of the excellent view it commands, but there is this shallow depression, with tall grass growing in it, offering concealment.

It is also impossible for us to control the banks of the stream to the right of us, where our light platoons are stationed, because of the bushes there. As a result, the enemy attack from the bank of the stream comes as a surprise.

We get our first sight of the attackers when their earth-coloured helmets appear out of the shallow depression.The first waves are mown down by the murderous fire from our two heavy machine guns and those behind now fall back down into the hollow. And then something happens that makes our hair stand on end: we witness, first-hand and close-up, the inhuman treatment meted out to Soviet soldiers by their leaders, and we have real sympathy for the poor devils.

Because of the fire power from our two MG42s, at a range of about 50 metres, the attackers have little chance of getting out of the hollow and certainly none at all of storming up the hillock to our positions. We have heard how the commissar forces his men forward with a shrill whistle, as if he were controlling a pack of mad dogs.

We fire as soon as we can see their torsos; anyone who manages to come up over the edge of the hollow can’t get further than one or at best two paces forward before he is hit. Those who fall back still alive are cursed and sworn at as if they were animals.

Is this Russian commissar or officer crazy? Or is he only worried about his own life and is therefore sacrificing his men? It can’t have escaped his notice that he is caught in a trap, and that when daylight comes that he’ll have no chance to get away. Does he intend to sacrifice his troops until evening comes, to tie us down so that he can secretly make a getaway under the cover of darkness? But the death that awaits him, and unfortunately also the other poor devils, is worse than death from a bullet.

The tanks move up, two of them on the right flank peeling off from the others and moving towards the hollow. I note their fat barrels, which, unlike the other tank guns, are pointed down towards the ground.

Fritz Koschinski knows his equipment. ‘Flame-throwers!’ he says in a voice so loud that we can all hear him.

I’ve heard about their effect, and my spine starts to shiver. I wouldn’t like to be one of those chaps in the hollow, and the crazy bastard will probably lose the whistle he keeps blowing. There is now no chance of anyone getting out of the hollow alive. I ask myself if the slavish obedience of the Russian soldiers goes so far, even in this situation, as to prevent them from liquidating an inhuman superior officer.

Even before the flame-thrower has disappeared into the hollow, we can see the long jet of flame as it spews out of the barrel and burns everything in its path to a crisp. Panic erupts in the hollow — we can hear all the yelling. And with the thickblack smoke comes an unbelievable stench of burnt flesh and clothing.

Some of the men are running up and out of the hollow, crying and ablaze. Panic-stricken, they run past us and throw themselves on the ground, rolling over and over. Many have jumped into the stream in order to save themselves. The heat is so intense that we can feel it from here. It is a truly terrible sight.

We climb out of our foxholes and follow the advancing tanks. We have to go on: the destruction of the enemy has not been accomplished yet.