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

Six Days Behind Enemy Lines

Life's journey of an uninteresting man
By Milan Lorman

Since I have joined this Forum I haven’t been able to find any mention of the unit in which I have served during the last three months before being captured by the Russians – Kampfgruppe (Battle Group) Frencken. Previously, about two years ago, I was trying my luck on another Forum, and that brought me only a one-line entry in a listing of several hundred names of Battle Groups on the German side of the conflict. It would be a great shame if no record of any kind was found eventually of the contribution this unit made to the slowing down of the Red Army’s advance through what is now Western Poland. With every member having had previous frontline experience and every last one trained to the capacity of at least a sergeant, any record, whether official or preserved in private diaries could not fail to be interesting reading. But perhaps in the years to come someone will discover his grandfathers or great-grandfathers yellowed diaries and the memories shall not die after all.

Sometime in the early post-war years, while my memories were still fresh, I traced my movements as closely as I could determine, from what place and other names I could still remember, on a good and detailed map of the area. Unfortunately, during my travels in the half-century since then, the map was lost and today, even if I had a detailed map before me, I could not reproduce the line our trek followed. And even if I could do that, I could not record either the names or ranks of the officers, or any operational details, engagements, tasks allocated to us by the Area Command etc. Anyone who had watched even a modest number of American war movies may be under the impression that even "dogface" soldiers had a fairly good overview of every situation in which they were involved. That is not my experience. Mine is more along the line of the fellow who wrote the famous words: "Ours not to reason why, ours but to do or die." The story of Major Frenckens’ battalion may, with a bit of luck, come to light one day from some other source. The little that I can do is tell those who are interested in a narrative style about events as a simple frontline soldier remembers them.

Elsewhere, in my Story of a reluctant SS-Pioneer I have mentioned that by the time I was captured by the Russians, there was entered in my service record among other entries a total of 16 Days of Close Combat (ger. Nahkampftage). Six of those days constitute a period of days and nights spent behind enemy lines. Occasionally detachments of troops are sent on a clandestine mission behind the enemy’s lines to perform a specific task of sabotage or gather intelligence. In our case the circumstances were very different. According to my recollections of various things like the prevailing weather conditions and our unit strength at the time, it was sometime early in March ’45. Our three companies of Kampfgruppe Frencken were positioned along the edge of a forest facing similarly deployed Russian troops.

Roughly halfway between us run one of the countless canals irrigating the area. By that stage of the War such set positions never lasted very long and here too, our unit had received orders to withdraw at first light, which at that time of the year would have been about 6 o’clock and establish a new line of defence, I don’t know how far back. This would have been a simple routine, we were used to such constant piece-meal withdrawals, however, with about three hours to go the Area Command had decided to bring forward the move and a dispatch rider or maybe several of them took the new orders in turn to our three company Commanders and also to the other units on our left and right flanks, to start the withdrawal immediately. That message didn’t reach our Company, the man on the bike probably got killed, we shall never know. Our CO was aware of the withdrawing neighbouring units, but he was still stuck with the original orders to hold on until 6am. In the meantime, the Russians have moved forward filling the vacuum and although they were aware of us in our foxholes, they must have decided to deal with us later.

By 6 o’clock both German and Russian troops were perhaps two kilometres or more to the west of us and we were left like a bunch of orphans to fend for ourselves. Our company strength at that stage was about 120 officers and other ranks. That was enough men for perhaps staging some spectacular "Last Stand", but without supply lines of either ammunition or food, it would have amounted to little more than a senseless suicide. Our CO has decided that we must become "invisible" during the day and use the hours of darkness to silently and inexorably make our way west until we find an opportunity to break through the Russian lines from behind their backs and re-join our Battle Group.

It isn’t easy for a body of 120 men carrying maximum possible amount of gear on their backs to become invisible, but somehow, with the Moon in one of the quarter stages, we were making a good fist of it. But moving cross-country with so much of the equipment made of metal it was even more important not to make any noise. It is, in my judgment, largely thanks to our high level of training, especially in field craft, that we have succeeded night after night moving further and further west without being discovered. But even that would not have been enough. The deciding factor was the leadership performance by our officers and NCO’s under most demanding conditions.

"the hot meal – courtesy of the Red Army"

Most of the details of that six-day (or rather six-night) march have faded during the sixty years since, but some highlights are still vivid in my memory. One is a tense moment, when our stretched out company, about 5m between men in all directions was preparing to cross a rather major winding country road. In the faint light of the partial Moon, crouching or flat on the ground, we could easily be mistaken for small heaps of manure scattered over a large field in preparation for ploughing. Unless, of course, we moved. Some of us, including myself, were barely 20 metres from the road when we became aware of the sound of approaching column of vehicles. Only one order was given: "Freeze!" The leading officer still had time to underscore that with "If anyone moves I’ll shoot him!" – with the accent on "I" - when from around the bend in the road came rumbling a long line of assorted vehicles, from motorcycles up to and including three tanks. That road was winding along three sides of our bare field but not one of the Russians noticed anything unusual and pretty soon they were gone and we, thankful for a five minute long rest, crossed the road and continued on our trek.

Another memory, which still lingers is that of an outlying isolated farm with all its associated storehouses, barns and sheds grouped around a spacious yard. We have reached it at daybreak and the Russians having swept through that area perhaps only hour or two before our arrival, there was no sign of any obvious danger. Our CO has decided to spend the daylight hours right there. What makes that morning memorable, different from the other five, is the hot meal – courtesy of the Red Army – which the Russians apparently had to abandon before it was even ready to eat. They probably had their departure brought forward unexpectedly just as we had some three days earlier. They were interrupted in the middle of the preparation of hot breakfast in large pots suspended over open fires in the court yard. When we arrived on the scene the fires were already out but the ash covered heaps of embers were keeping the breakfast nice and warm. The cook didn’t overturn the huge copper pots and didn’t even bother putting out the fires. The breakfast was ready just in time for the Enemy to enjoy. But then, the poor cook had no idea who was following in his units’ footsteps.

I guess it would have been the second last night before our breakthrough and return to the fold, when there was need for us to cross a major stream. We had by then crossed countless irrigation canals and minor creeks by simply wading through the ice cold water with our weapons held high. In fact our feet were never dry while we were on the move. Only when we settled down somewhere for our daylight snooze that we could dry or preferably replace our wraparound linen squares and empty all the water from our calf-length "jackboots". This time though it was necessary to use a bridge and that meant moving silently into the centre of a rather large village. We could only hope that the Russians weren’t there in any great numbers, but if we had to fight our way across that bridge, then – so be it! We approached across some fields at about right angles to the road running through the village and found that the bridge was only a short distance to our right. There was no indication of any Russian troops in the village with one major exception: Right there at the point where we have reached the road it was divided and between the two lanes on the grassy strip stood a rather important looking building, perhaps the town hall and on two sides of it a number of parked vehicles.

One half of the ground floor was a well-lit kind of conference room and one of our NCO’s crept up for a closer look. Inside he saw a group of about a dozen Russian officers around a map table. Perhaps we could have sneaked past that point, but the temptation to inflict some telling damage after all those days and nights of skulking and hiding and crawling in the end proved too strong and it was decided that we shall wipe out that gathering. The NCO who had investigated the lay-out would go back and fire a burst or two from his submachine gun through the window and when the occupants come rushing through the front main entrance we shall fire a Panzer-faust (Anti-tank rocket) into the beam above the door. At the same time the whole company shall rush as fast as possible across the bridge. If any Russians should materialise and follow us, we would be able to make the bridge crossing very costly for them. A short while later everything happened as planned. And it was I who fired that rocket. I had carried that miserable thing for four days and nights in addition to my rifle and my back and side packs and now, that it was about to be put to some use I wasn’t prepared to hand it to somebody else to fire.

About two months later I had occasion to reflect upon the events of that night. By then I was a PoW in a Russian field hospital. Part of our daily routine was helping the nurses lift and carry wounded Russian soldiers to and fro. One of the most heart-breaking cases was a Captain with terrible wounds mainly in his back and after some six weeks as a bedridden case, in addition to his original wounds, which wouldn’t heal, he had developed festering bedsores. I only saw him once. From the nursing staff I heard his story. He was wounded when a rocket hit the beam of a door through which he and some other fellow officers tried to reach safety. He was one of only two survivors. I had never again entered the room where he lay, and I never asked about his fate. I hope his suffering didn’t last much longer and it is even possible that he was, in the end, one of the poor fellows whose funerals I had attended with my fellow PoW’s as gravediggers. When I think of him, the kindest words I can say for myself are: "There, but for the Grace of God, go I."

All things, good and bad also, come to an end and so too did our six days and nights behind the enemy’s back. As the sixth night progressed, the signs were becoming ever clearer that we were approaching the front lines. When we have actually reached the Russians’ front line positions, from behind of course, apart from a few sentries everyone seemed to be peacefully asleep. Two or three of our men, more experienced in commando style fighting, silently cleared a gap wide enough for the rest of us to cross undetected and disappear in the thinly wooded space about 20 to 30 metres wide. There on the edge of the sparse forest under cover of low bushes and undergrowth we laid down for a short while in a line running roughly parallel to the Russian line. The time was shortly before daybreak and we were all very tired. During our long silent trek our CO and most of the higher ranks were concentrated in the front of the long snaking column, but one senior NCO was bringing up the rear and it was his duty to see that not a single straggler got lost in the darkness.

"That Feldwebel, a masterful experienced warhorse led those 30 men out of harms way"

Most of the time the CO kept me close-by just in case we get suddenly challenged in the darkness by some sentry or patrol. I was expected to come up with a few Russian words and at least initially confuse them. Orders and instructions, all the absolutely necessary messages were relayed in whispers from one man to the next all the way down the line. Now, with only the one last sprint across the no-mans-land remaining, our formation had changed from a column to a long line with the leaders on the right flank and the rear-guard NCO on the left flank. At the break of day, with the darkness gradually retreating, we saw before us the ground sloping gently down to a plain, about 700 to 800 metres wide. Beyond that there were the outskirts of a sizable city, but I can not recall its’ name.

Thick morning mist was covering the empty plain and made it resemble a river of milk. Suddenly – it was time! The order came down the line in whispers, on a signal we all slipped down the incline into the fog and headed directly west in the direction of the city outline. It came to us as no surprise that in about the middle of this river of milk we had to wade through yet another, thankfully last, canal. After that we started making more and more "German" noises, announcing our approach. It worked reasonably well, only a few rounds were fired in our direction and only one of them found a target. One of our men suffered a minor head wound.

Unfortunately, worse calamity came to light, when we have assembled and found that about a quarter of the company was missing. That put a dampener on our elated mood, and it lasted through two following days. Suddenly, quite unexpectedly, there appeared our 30 comrades led by their rear-guard Feldwebel. He explained what had happened: One man went to sleep and the whispered message trail stopped right there. When we slipped downhill into the fog, it was done so silently that our own tail-end wasn’t aware of it. That Feldwebel, a masterful experienced warhorse led those 30 men out of harms way and found a way to cross the lines at another location. Our Company was its’ old self again and our spirits were as high as they had ever been. At that stage we still had about six weeks fighting ahead of us.

© 2006 Milan Lorman