Life's journey of an uninteresting man - By Milan Lorman

English version.    Slovak version.

Family background
Early Childhood
Boyhood in Lazy
Student years
Leaving the nest
Eastern front
Six Days Behind Enemy Lines
A Little Light Relief at the Front
A Close Brush With Disaster
The Story of the Lifesaving Grapes
Prisoner of War
My French and American experience / One year in Austria
Four years in England
To the end of the Earth

Eastern front

Life's journey of an uninteresting man
By Milan Lorman

I don't remember anything about the trip from Greece to Siebenburgen. The command to re-deploy came as I was sick in hospital bed racked with fever and shakes. Other members of my troop have made me comfortable on the floor of a troop transporter designed for twelve. They have also packed and loaded my belongings and all gear. Except for the fact that I needed the occasional drink and a little food, I was just another piece of baggage. They must have looked after me pretty well, because, had I suffered any discomfort, I would surely remember it. The journey north lasted two or three days and after arrival at our destination the first thing that I remember is a brief conversation with my close friend Laco. He came to me, when no-one could overhear and told me that during the coming night he plans to leave and return home. He was already wearing civilian clothes under his uniform and in his pocket was a rolled up civilian cap. He said to me that if I want to join him he can still organise the necessary gear for me, but I am sure that he only came to say goodbye. Just then, so soon after my bout with malaria I was too weak for such an undertaking and, even under normal conditions, I was much too disciplined to consider desertion.

Now, that I have mentioned Laco, I shall tell you about our "Troika". Right from the time when we have arrived in Dresden, later during the three months in Davle and then the early months in Greece, Jano (John) Ličko (pron.: Litchko), Laco – whose surname I have forgotten, and I have become very close, almost like brothers. Laco was an interesting case. He was a Moravian and at the time of his enlistment he was only hiding out in Slovakia. What happened was that during some festive occasion back in Moravia, while drinking and carousing with his friends, they ended up singing some forbidden song. There were at the time several tunes considered offensive to German ears. The Gestapo have quickly arrested some of the boys but Laco and a few others have managed to evade capture. The Gestapo was not giving up and Laco eventually crossed the border into Slovakia. Soon, when even there arrest seemed imminent, he has decided "They are not going to look for me in the Waffen-SS". And that's how Laco became a "volunteer". Personally, I think that the Gestapo men knew exactly where he has taken refuge, but happily closed the file with the words "Serves him right!'

Jano Ličko was one of the fifteen or so of our fellow countrymen from Slovakia who were even after six months having difficulties with the German language. About two or three years older than myself he was tall, athletic and strong. We'll say more about his strength in a minute. One day the two of them were standing sentry duty at the railway station, pacing up and down, guarding a supply train, when some Greek black-marketeers persuaded them (and I suppose even paid them) to "look the other way" while they "liberated" some car tyres. They were found out and both of them ended up in a Penal unit somewhere deep in partisan-controlled territory. I don't know how long they were supposed to stay there, but in the end neither has served his full sentence.

Jano has one day committed some minor misdemeanour, perhaps said something disrespectful to one of the guards and because of that, together with other similar minor offenders at night after lights-out instead of going to bed was ordered to march up and down, carrying a bag of cement on his shoulders, until collapsing from exhaustion. One by one the others have reached that state but Jano carried on until daybreak. What made things even more difficult was drizzling rain, which caused the bag of cement to get heavier by the hour. Finally, at first light Jano threw the bag of wet cement on the guard's head, which knocked him unconscious for some two hours while Jano disappeared into the forest and joined the partisans. I can only hope that they have accepted him into their ranks.

Short time after that incident the partisans have mounted one of their harassing attacks on the Penal camp. From time to time they succeeded in capturing certain amount of food or ammunition before vanishing back into the forest. On this occasion Laco was wounded by a bullet through the tip of his right lung, but was also noticed by his Commanding Officer as doing some excellent work with his machinegun. As a result he was awarded the Iron Cross 2nd class and, after recovering from his wound, was returned to our company. One never knows what's around the corner.

"slow down the Red Army's advance at least long enough until"

So now, when Laco went his way, I was quite alone. No-one again got as close to me as those two fellows did. From then on I have concentrated more than before simply on the task of surviving each day, one at a time, and hopefully, one day returning home. Life of a soldier in the frontline is very different from the one we have led in Greece. Lot of time is spent in foxholes, in defensive trenches. Rarely though did we need to dig our own trenches. That whole phase of the war was for us just one long controlled withdrawal.

It soon became a routine that we were sent to occupy (usually Wehrmacht) positions and slow down the Red Army's advance at least long enough until the German Army established new lines of defence. On one occasion, when we have arrived at one such recently vacated trench, we have found in it a seriously wounded soldier whom his retreating buddies must have assumed to be dead. I and a few others had not yet jumped into the trench, so I just threw off my backpack and others have lifted the poor fellow out of the hole and placed him on my back as I lay on the ground.

I was to take him back in that position across about 20 metres of open ground to the edge of forest, from where others would take him back to the aid station. I didn't cover more than about five metres when I felt that another bullet hit the man, He stopped moaning and rolled off my back and came to lay face-up beside me. It was clear that he felt no more pain so I slithered like a frightened lizard back and joined the others in the trench.

At another time I have experienced an entirely different set of conditions, lasting about ten days, in one of the larger, quite prosperous villages, still in . I was temporarily posted to the battalion HQ as a field engineer "man Friday". I had to take care of odd tasks, like, for instance, securing and destroying unexploded mortar shells and other ammunition. Twice I was posted forward, luckily for only a few hours at a time, as a sniper. Because, quite by chance, I was the only one around able to communicate to a certain degree with Russian prisoners of war, I was also able to assist in their interrogation. But most of my time was taken up by the training of a succession of small groups of soldiers pulled out of the front lines for that purpose, in the use of a new (at that time) weapon, which we all know now as "bazooka". It was then a new addition to our arsenal.

I was trained in it's use by the armourer, who has delivered a large number of them, together with rocket ammunition, to our battalion and after he left, I had to teach others. It was a routine, that specialised weapons, such as flame-throwers, mines, anti-tank and anti-personnel, anti-tank magnetic charges and so forth, were first used by the field engineers (sappers) before they became more widely distributed to other units. Some, like mines, were never handled by anyone else but us. When I think of the unexploded mortar shells, I would like to mention one in particular. Some-one came running to the HQ with the news that one of these things fell into somebody's bedroom. Please, help! When I got there I saw that the shell came down through the thatched roof and the ceiling leaving barely a mark.

The flight-blades of the grenade were sticking out of the mud floor of the bedroom barely a metre from the bed in which a petrified middle-aged farmer and his wife didn't dare to move a muscle until I assured them that things are under control. And I did manage to loosen the thing out of the ground and remove it through the window and explode it harmlessly far enough from the house so that nothing got damaged and no-one was hurt. The Battalion Headquarters were housed in one of the larger farm houses in the central location in the village. These houses, as a rule, are built to conform to a traditional functional lay-out on three sides of a rectangular sheltered yard.

The fourth side of the rectangle is formed by the back wall of the neighbouring house. The front, facing the street has on the ground level, the main living room and a wide and high entrance gate. On the floor above are the bedrooms, Under the living room is a large cellar. This is where, during our stay, was located the real nerve centre of the Battalion Command.

It was considered to be the safest of the unsafe places to be and, as well, it was the place where the farmer kept, among other things, his wine in some eight or ten huge barrels. Along the side, facing the neighbours' blank back wall across the yard, were, first the roomy kitchen and, with a separate entrance, additional living space. These rooms were usually occupied by the grandparents. There followed stables for cows and horses. The back end of the rectangle was blocked off by a large barn containing working area as well as a two-level storage space for sacks of grain and other produce and also straw, hay and other feed for the animals. Beyond the barn were situated chicken coops and pigpens as well as vegetable garden and fruit trees.

I have described the lay-out in detail so that you can visualise the following scene: from time to time, usually after a meal, we were able to relax and enjoy a little rest on the benches near the kitchen. During one such break in the warm autumn sunshine one Russian mortar bomb has found its way into our yard. This one didn't just bury itself harmlessly into the ground but exploded like all good bombs should, and I felt a tug on my right ear. It didn't hurt though, and the first thought that flashed through my mind was, that I want to keep the piece of metal as a souvenir. It was, after all, my first wound, such as it was.

I turned carefully, so as not to lose the place, because that wall was pretty well scratched and damaged by then, and carefully dug the piece of shrapnel out of the soft mortar. I didn't succeed in hanging on to it for very long, Soon the times became a lot more hectic and I lost it somewhere. The only reminder I still have of that first scratch is a small scar and even that is exactly where I already had a scar since the time when I fell from a pushbike as a 10 or 11-year-old boy. Still, the wound was duly entered by the battalion commander in my service book and I began to feel a little bit more like a real soldier.

We remained in that village for about ten days. The Russians were pushing the front relentlessly ever farther west. When the time came to leave that reasonably comfortable farmer's house behind, especially the cellar with its barrels of wine, a messenger was sent to call me back from the forward position, into which I was posted only a few hours earlier as a sniper. The column of vehicles was assembling at the western edge of the village, ready to move out. I barely managed to climb on top of a tank, for the ride, when one of the battalion command officers suddenly remembered that in our recently vacated farmhouse, in the stable, handcuffed to posts, laying on a heap of straw, we have left behind three prisoners of war, three Ukrainians, two older men and one youngster in his teens. I, myself had assisted in their interrogation, because, after all, I was the only one around who could communicate with them reasonably easily.

Now here was this officer calling for a volunteer to go back and shoot them, before we leave the place. I raised my hand quickly, but he didn't fall for it. He knew very well that I had become quite friendly with the poor fellows during the few days which we have spent under the same roof and that I would not go back to shoot them but instead to set them free. So, he sent back another man and this one, when he returned, secretly gave me a wink and I have no reason to doubt that those three men have survived his return just as they would have survived mine.

"left for dead, with a number of others, in the trench"

During the days, even weeks that followed, we have continued to move inexorably in the general direction of Budapest. The fight for the capital city of Hungary was going to be tough and I wasn't looking forward to it. Retreating just about every day gradually from one village to another, I didn't even bother to make a mental note of their names. Until, finally, one name did earn the distinction of being remembered and it was the town of Kiskunfélegyháza . You can find it on the map if you follow your finger from Budapest in a south-easterly direction. I remember it because that is where I have received my second wound. The situation was the usual one: Almost immediately after arriving there, our unit was sent out, into an open area east of the town where some Wehrmacht troops with the help of some very unhappy civilians were constructing a line of anti-tank trenches and other barriers.

Their work was not quite finished, but it was urgently necessary for them to withdraw, because they were already coming under mortar shell fire. So, we have covered their departure and as we ourselves started to move back towards the town one of the mortar bombs exploded only about two or three metres behind me. Piece of shrapnel entered my left elbow. I didn't feel any pain immediately, only when I tried to change the bend of that arm. I could neither straighten it, or bend it to a different angle. The piece of metal was lodged between two bones. It was barely the size of a pea and I have lost no more than two or three drops of blood, but my left arm was rendered virtually useless, for who knows how long.

Even during our limited frontline experience we saw daily far worse examples of wounds and I, myself, did not feel that I deserve any particular sympathy. Luckily, our "Company's Mother", (the austr. Sergeant-Major, in german army "Spiess" ) Neumann, was an experienced veteran of the battle for Leningrad, more sympathetic to the lower ranks than most. He sent me to the Aid Station with his recommendation that I should go back to a proper hospital. The doctor who examined my arm agreed and sent me, as far as his authority went, to a hospital in Vienna. But his order still required a counter-signature from some higher Command Centre in Budapest. Here it seemed as if my luck run out.

I have run up against a kind of robot in uniform who, instead of hospital was determined to send me to some unit just then hastily being slapped-up from such "lost souls" as I was at that time. That Divisional or, perhaps, Army Command Centre was located in one of Budapest's most luxurious hotels and as I was dejectedly making my way down the wide marble staircase, I met my "Spiess" Neumann, who was in the same building arranging for some supplies for the company. I told him about my bad luck and he took me straight to some higher authority and, thanks to his intervention, I was sitting in the train travelling to Vienna before the end of that day. I stayed in that hospital as a "walking patient", even doing some light duties, until my elbow loosened up again. Then I was granted two weeks' leave after which time I was to report to Dresden, to the same training barracks, where I received my basic training one year and a half earlier.

In the title which I chose for this lifes' journey of mine I refer to myself as uninteresting. And so I am, when compared with some of the people that I met along the way. One of them is my Company "Spiess" Neumann. In the days when, it seemed, the only acceptable hairstyle for a man, especially a man in uniform, was "short back and sides" he was proudly showing off his luxuriant head-of-hair. No head covering, not even a steel helmet could fully cover it. In fact an army hat only seemed to make it more conspicuous. People who met him only fleetingly would go on their way somewhat puzzled, but those who got closer to the man soon heard his unusual story:- During the battle for Leningrad, before things have settled into a prolonged Siege, one day Neumann, then a Corporal was seriously wounded and when his unit was forced to withdraw, was left for dead, with a number of others, in the trench.

Short time later the Russian troops reached those trenches and that's when one crazy "Ivan" pulled out a hunting knife and – scalped him. Neumann survived, perhaps largely thanks to the terribly cold weather, and when the see-sawing situation brought back the German troops, he was finally rescued and rushed to hospital. He has recovered, was fitted with a silver plate for protection and for the rest of his life was wearing this, quite attractive wig. For him it was never a handicap, quite the opposite, it gave him an edge, especially in his dealings with the ladies. Shortly before, in the autumn of 1944 russian-supported partisans and other elements staged an uprising in Slovakia and during that time my parents and siblings moved out of harms' way to a small village in Austria, in the province of Steiermark, called Anger bei Weiz. Here I was able to join the rest of the family, by co-incidence, during the Christmas Season. Father was teaching at the local primary school and, during Christmas holidays, we had a chance to spend a fair amount of time together.

This proved to be a mixed blessing, because we could not see eye to eye with my father on the most important subject of war. He knew only what he was fed by the media and I, fresh from the front, was telling him that the war was all but lost. He could not see how I can believe that and still go back and fight some more. Well, I didn't go back because I wanted to, but because I had to. Perhaps by that stage I was also to a certain degree a robot. No matter what may have awaited me, desertion was absolutely unthinkable. And so, with three or four days of my leave still to go, I kissed them all good-bye and headed for Dresden. I didn't know that I shall never see either my father or my youngest brother ever again, and the rest of the family only 46 years later.

On arrival in Dresden I had to report to the Allocations officer. It was his job to decide the next posting for each man not able to return to his original unit. At that time my 16th Company 8th SS Panzer Grenadier Regiment was encircled in Budapest. It managed to fight its' way out of there and made its way to an area north of Berlin, where it eventually surrendered to the Americans in the final days of war. But I have only learned this long after the war. Until then I had assumed that they have either perished or were captured in Budapest.

The Allocations officer in Dresden turned out to be Major Frenken who, as a captain was commanding my company of raw recruits in those same barracks from March until June '43. He must have remembered me too, because the first thing he asked was: "I suppose you have forgotten by now all that I taught you last year?". And I replied: "Not only have I not forgotten, but I have learned a bit more since then." Then he asked me if I want to become an officer. He intended to send me to an Academy. And here I had to do some very fast thinking, because one of the things which I had learned since my recruit days was, that camouflage is very important. The better a man succeeds in blending into the background, the better are his chances of survival. So I managed to talk my way out of it mostly by stressing my inadequate command of the german language.

When he saw that he won't make a commissioned officer out of me, he settled for a non-commissioned one. Just then, the day after the Christmas break, there began in Dresden a one-month accelerated course of training for non-commissioned officers (sergeants), field engineers. Major Frenken sent me to that course. It was a terribly tough month. I would not have believed that a man could spend such a long period in a permanent state of utter exhaustion and still keep going. Each days' routine started at 4 a.m. when we were still tired from the previous day. We have worked hard all day, until two or three hours after darkness fell, then had something to eat and dropped off to sleep utterly exhausted. And at 4 a.m. we had to put on the muddy clothes, still damp from the previous day, eat a quick breakfast and begin another day of torture. European winter in January '45 was very cold and we were spending most of our time in muddy, wet clothes. Even during the brief rest periods, the heating facilities in the high-ceiling halls filled with double- and triple-bunks were fighting a losing battle. It is a wonder that we have not all ended up in hospital or, indeed, dead.

"first contact with the Red Army units was bound to come as a surprise"

A few days before the end of January '45 we have sat for written exams and after that there remained only a small matter of a passing-out parade and we would have been split-up and sent as replacements to a hundred different units. But a different fate waited for us. Suddenly, without warning, in the middle of the night our barracks have turned into a disturbed ants' nest. The news came of a massive Russian break-through near the polish city of Poznan (Posen) and our non-com course of one thousand newly qualified sergeants was formed into a field battalion under the command of Major Frenken and sent with all possible haste to that general area to help stem the Russian advance. The designation of our unit was Einheit (Unit) Frenken.

We were travelling to the front in some army vehicles but most of us in hastily commandeered civilian trucks and buses. Our equipment was rather basic, incomplete and along the way, wherever we could find something useful we had to help ourselves as best we could. Even clothes, from socks to great-coats we have found in storehouses abandoned by the construction units of the OT (Organisazion Todd). They were the wrong colour, but they were warm.

In one of these storehouses we came across something even more warmly appreciated by soldiers everywhere than a warm coat – alcohol. And, even though I wasn't a drinking man even then, I decided to put one bottle of Schnaps (favourite german hard liqueur made from pears) into my great-coat pocket. It was mid-winter, the whole countryside was covered by a blanket of snow, sooner or later, I thought, a swallow or two will help to warm me up. Pretty soon that "good idea" came close to costing me my life.

Since that Russian break-through a few days earlier no hard and fast frontline had yet been established and our first contact with the Red Army units was bound to come as a surprise. And so it did. In the middle of the night in the middle of one of the countless nameless villages, some of us dozing in the busses or on the benches in the backs of trucks, suddenly found ourselves under fire from all sides. The fellows in the backs of trucks dismounted in seconds, and gave us covering fire, My group was travelling in a bus and that only had one exit – in the front.

The Russians had the streets under control and we had to move over fences and stone walls from house to house, garden to garden. Our aim was to find the railway lines at the edge of the village and make our way back in the direction from which we had just come and there re-assemble. As I was jumping over those fences and stone walls, I was uncomfortably aware of the bottle in my pocket. I didn't want to throw it away but I had to do something. One thing I didn't need right at that time was a wet trouser leg and a boot full of schnaps.

So I sat down in the snow and transferred the contents into my field flask. There remained on the bottom of the bottle about two mouthfuls and, very foolishly, as it turned out, I decided to drink it. There was no-one nearby to remind me that I had not eaten since breakfast about sixteen hours earlier. Within minutes my legs refused to work. When one is simply exhausted, in desperate situations the brain can force muscles to come up with some hidden reserves of energy, but that alcohol has done its evil work on my brain also. And so there was only one thing left for me to do – make myself comfortable and die.

At the base of each telegraph pole along the railway line the wind forms in the snow an inviting-looking depression just big enough for a man to curl up in and go to sleep. People say that drowning is the most pleasant way to die. Well, I can tell you that freezing to death doesn't hurt either. Especially, if you are falling asleep under the influence of alcohol. I had already said good-bye to the world when, out of the darkness, from the direction from which I had just come, there emerged a few figures. The Russians – I thought to myself and was rather annoyed, that I wasn't going to be allowed to die in peace. But they weren't Russians. They were, perhaps, the last of our stragglers and one of them happened to be a young fellow from my own section, powerfully built, in civilian life a butchers' apprentice and he was determined not to leave me there. Seeing that my brain was temporarily out of order, he lent me his own and forced me to stand up and keep moving my feet, one in front of the other until we have reached a little railway shelter shed at the edge of the next village. It seemed that, with the sounds of war getting ever closer, no-one in that village slept that night and we were told that the soldiers who came through during the night didn't stop there but continued on their way to the larger town only about two kilometres down the road. I said "thank-you!" to my rescuer and assured him that after a short sleep I shall be able to continue on my way by myself.

One of the villagers took me to his house, gave me something hot (and fatty) to eat and I dropped off to sleep. When they shook me awake, we saw through a lace curtain a group of about ten Cossacks on horseback riding past the house. It seemed that this time it was really the end. I took out my Service Record and Pay-book also a few photos of myself in uniform and shoved them into the kitchen stove. They burned in no-time. My rifle and the snipers telescopic sight I stuck in the bread-baking oven. The master of the house was going to start a fire in it as soon as possible. But then – the Cossacks were passing by the windows again and I realised that they were only a reconnaissance patrol. I estimated how long it would take them to ride back to where we rode into a trap during the night and then how long for the main body to arrive and I decided that I still had enough time to get out of there. I pulled the rifle and ‘scope from the oven and hurried, as fast as I could, to catch up with my unit. There I learned that during the night Einheit Frencken lost fifteen men and I thought to myself: "It could have been worse, the number could have been sixteen".

As I read back to myself this account of my first day back at the front, I realise that I can not write in such detail about the almost three months which have followed, The space provided by the pages of Vatra is not sufficient for that. So let me say only that even though I have managed to avoid volunteering for any exceptional "heroics", at the end, on the 18th of April, when I was captured, I had in my (replacement) Service Record entered 5 days of Attacks against fortified positions (ger.:Sturmtage) and 16 days of Close combat (ger.:Nahkampftage). For Close combat (in WWII) qualified days during which side arms and hand grenades were used, including street- and house-to-house battles and also days spent cut-off behind enemy lines before re-joining own troops. And now it remains only to end this chapter with a kind of "final score": Out of those 1000 newly trained sergeants who have departed from Dresden at the end of January '45 were only about sixty left still fighting in the morning of the 18th of April and at 3pm of the same day only seventeen.

© 2006 Milan Lorman