From Germany to Russia
Travelling to the Front
in 1942 before it was destroyed. The flat building behind the Dome is the
main railway station.
Cologne is like a multi layered cake
with several thousand years of settlement history. Multiple remains in the
different layers reach out to the surface: six thousand year old tools, four
thousand year old graves, two thousand year old walls left behind by the
Romans. Then all these houses and churches built in the Middle Ages, having
a good thousand years of history to carry. In the heart of the city and
close to the river there is the “modern” iconic creation: The Dome of
Cologne. Construction of the cathedral began in 1248 on the foundations of
an older church and it took 600 more years to finish the Dome as we see it
The Cologne people were always very aware of its significant historical past
simply through the mere fact that one could never lose sight of it. The
Burghers shaped their identity through an ancient city culture with powerful
rulers and strong traders living on the banks of that vivid artery named the
Rhine flowing past their front doors.
Two months after the event I shall
describe below the thus established collection of churches, patrician
houses, shops, cafés and department stores would cease to exist any more. In
the space of a few hours the buildings would be obliterated by aerial
But the start of the story is still
prior to that great shock.
The townsfolk felt depressed but were
naïve in what awaited them.
The long and extremely cold winter had got them down. Barely two months ago
the big river flowing through town had congealed into arctic scenery. Along
the banks the sharp-edged ice floes had shuffled above each other as if they
intended to send a signal from distant Russia.
In heavy clothing people had been sliding over the silent frozen river
paralyzed by the thought that their soldiers camped in arctic conditions in
Russia wearing thin garments only.
The gentle spring sun had long ago
consumed the icy surface and the Rhine was streaming along in ignorance.
Traffic in the streets was throbbing. Seen from a bird’s eye perspective the
source was obvious. It was the main railway station of Cologne. From above
it looked like a huge flounder; the bundled rails disappeared into its mouth
and came out compressed at the other end to head over the bridge crossing
Next to the glossy skin of the
flounder the more complicated sculpture of the Dome squeezed in. Both
lace-like perforated towers reaching out up to the sky like soaring rockets,
pitch-black in colour.
It was the 20th of March, 1942.
Punctually at the start of spring the garrison had completed recruit basic
training. They assembled like migrating birds on the platforms of the
Cologne main railway station. The “bird plumage” was represented in the
various arms of service by their respective uniform piping colours, back
packs were shouldered, hair neatly trimmed, eager young faces, good mood and
hallos all round.
Waiting for the troop train. The soldiers were standing together in little
groups. Some knew each other already from training. Nobody however knew at
which front line he would fight. All top secret.
The surprise trip was organised like a paperchase. It all began at a
specified reporting point at the train station. This was an office run by an
admin officer of the Wehrmacht with his box of personnel index cards.
Clemens presented his Wehrmacht ID and the officer flipped through the card
"Ah, yes; here we are."
He looked up at the young man: “From now on you belong to the 95th
Actually, Clemens was originally assigned to the 26th Infantry
Division and its 78th Infantry Regiment. This was the home
division of recruits from the Rhineland and Munster areas. At that moment
the 78th was fighting at Rshew, the most dangerous front section
close to Moscow. Was it luck or intention that the new boy was not sent to
the worst trouble spot?!
The officer gave the young man the necessary instructions:
”You take the train with number x waiting at track y, take the goods wagon
with number z, the train will leave at …”
”Where will the train head for”, Clemens asked inquisitively.
”No idea”, the officer replied.” All I know is that the train will be going
to the East.”
Now the cat was out of the bag! The train will leave for Russia. The young
man felt his heart drop. His big brother had fallen last June and lay
rotting somewhere in front of Minsk.
Instinctively he suppressed these thoughts focussing his attention on his
notepad. Where is the platform?
“Jean?“ Clemens spotted a friend from basic training. They were the only
ones from the original intake who had made it up to officer cadet level.
They compared notes. Indeed they belonged to the same division but to
different units. Each unit was allocated to a specific wagon. It was said
that a veteran soldier would accompany them to the front .Tension,
nervousness and unease. Everyone felt quite alone although the platform was
choked with masses of departing men.
Waiting. Observing. Trawling for information.
Locomotives puffed into the roofed
railway station pulling vast numbers of goods wagons.
Attentively the soldiers eyed the numbers on the freight cars.
The train slowed down. It stopped.
The heavy wagon doors were pushed aside and soldiers climbed into the empty
On the platform a chaotic crowd of searching soldiers.
At last the whistle for departure.
The engine pushed the long chain of wagons out of the station.
The sliding doors were kept slightly open to allow the last intensive images
of home to sink in; the riveted steel structure of the Cologne railway
station, all the many tracks, the mighty Dome next to the station, the
strong Rhine bridge and the river.
The voyage into uncertainty began. A voyage of endless surprise.
In the Train
Möller was well into his twenties;
brisk, funny and likeable. He came from Dorsten, a small town
in the Ruhr area. He was to look after the new boys, on their way to the
front. He also didn’t
know the final destination, but he enjoyed a huge advantage compared to the
novices; Möller had
already been in the war. He was an insider. Therefore he automatically
commanded respect when
he introduced himself to the boys as being in charge of their group.
“Do you know where we shall be fighting?” was the first question he got.
“No, we’ll know this first when we are actually there.”
“How long do we travel to get to Russia?”
“It will take several days.”
“What, several days?!”
The boys were lying on the planks of the freight cars joking about that
comment. They had spread their tarpaulins and greatcoats and used their
backpacks as pillows.
Staring out of the train the scenery still looked familiar. Düsseldorf,
Essen, Bochum, Dortmund. It was their homeland, the densely populated Ruhr,
from where the Wehrmacht drafted so many divisions. The train stopped in
various towns to pick up more new soldiers. The stop and go ceased only when
the train entered the State of Westphalia. In comparison to the Ruhr this
area was poorly populated and there was no constant need for stops to pick
(Unteroffizier Möller. Photo CP. 1943)
The native Westphalians among the
youngsters were a completely different tribe compared to their Rhineland
colleagues. The Rhinelanders often had the mentality of party animals in
slim and agile bodies while the Westphalians by comparison generally were
more heavy-set and taciturn but even so well able to floor any verbal
opponent with a single well-chosen comment. On the face of it, they did not
go well together. The only criterion that fused them in the same division
was the bureaucratic fact that both states belonged to the same “Defence
Area VI” with Munster as centre. This North western German territory was
made up of the most divergent mentalities one could ever imagine.
The train was trundling along at
modest speed. The doors were slightly open and the boys were staring out at
the countryside; empty farm land, leafless trees, here and there some snow.
The first hunger pangs. They unpacked their sandwiches and immersed
themselves in the last scents from home. Nerves calmed down. One man fished
out a deck of playing cards and the connoisseurs of Schafskopf, Doppelkopf
and Skat were busy over hours accompanied by loud noise. Now the ice was
Suddenly the train stopped. In the
middle of nowhere. Möller got up and pushed the sliding door aside. He
jumped out and curiously the boys followed him. Nothing special out there.
No building, nothing. But then they got it; there was a long chain of
hole-in-the-ground latrines just planted there in the wilderness. The famous
thunder boxes. Forget about toilet paper. Already here the stationery for
letters home got used for the first big business. Also suitable was to pick
some dry winter grass and bunker it in the trouser pockets for the next
occasion. Some stretching of legs and off the train went again. Later it
stopped at a small station where the men could fill up their water bottles.
A quick body wash and off again.
Hannover. Magdeburg. Berlin.
Meanwhile one had travelled 600
kilometres to the East and could tell the continental climate. The air was
decidedly colder than in Cologne and the boys warmed their lungs with
cigarettes. It got damned boring and the first complaints about the far too
hard floor were heard.
One by one the men fell asleep curled up in their coats and tarpaulins.
Slowly the long cargo train slid through the night.
The soldiers had been travelling for
many, many hours. 1200 kilometres were behind them. In the early morning
light they arrived in Warsaw, the capital of Poland. For the first time in
their lives the new boys were confronted with the war; the houses were shot
up and the bridges destroyed. The broad river Weichsel wound its icy way
through the lifeless town. Amputated long arms of fantastic bridges
stretched out over the waters. Silently the young men stared at a
frostbitten town, which seemed completely broken, gutted and washed-up. Yes,
it had surely been hit by the Sword of War. The Sword had however moved on
and the young soldiers followed in its wake. When would they arrive at its
front line, the epicentre of destruction? And what had happened here in
Two and a half years ago the Wehrmacht
had attacked Poland and taken its capital city using all means at its
disposal; strategic air raids, artillery and infantry assault. The Poles had
capitulated. Hundreds of thousands of their soldiers went into German
captivity. Many civilians were dead. Then the complete and utter submission
of the city began; eradication of the Jews and emergence of Polish
All the pock-marked or ruined walls which the inexperienced soldiers could
see through the open doors were even so nothing in comparison to the
destruction of the human souls behind. Whatever the stunned young men did
see this did not even come anywhere close to reflecting the actual brutality
which had been visited upon this most unfortunate city.
Warsaw: Blown up bridge over the frozen Weichsel. March 42. Photo CP.
It started with the strange lettering
at the provincial train stations which the travellers assumed to indicate a
different state. It was White Russia, a landlocked expanse between Poland,
Lithuania, Latvia, Russia proper and another Russian territory at the time;
The landscape was similar to Eastern
Poland; a huge vast plain with long stretches of hills, the terminal gravel
mounds of the ice age. The many rivers looped their wild ways through nature
often turning the plains into broad swamps and wetlands. Man had never
attempted to tame the ancient streams. There was never a need for that
because there was enough safe ground for the small population of the
Now the snow was hiding the details of
nature. The play of colours resembled a black and white film with a slight
fade into grey and brown. Totally bored the boys were peering through the
gap, which the door revealed. Suddenly the train reduced speed. It came to a
standstill. Quickly the soldiers pushed the door aside and jumped out on the
rail embankment. They were by now familiar with the ritual; the train just
stopped without any plausible reason in the middle of wilderness.
Occasionally there was a house or a modest train station. They used the
break to stretch their legs.
Clemens discovered a water tap which despite the frost delivered fresh
water. Quickly he filled his water bottle and started washing his face. The
water was biting cold and forced his skin pores to freeze.
“Cle!” A loud choir of young voices were yelling his name.
Alarmed Clemens turned around and watched the train slowly moving. His
friends were leaning far out of the open doors and waving their arms in
utter excitement. While taking off he grasped his belongings and chased
after the train. He saw all the many heads glancing out of the cars and
heard them cheering him on as if it were some sort of race.
He was quite sporty and caught up with the last wagon. He jumped up and
climbed in. A group of young soldiers gave him a hand. It was great fun for
them all. What a hoot! Just imagine if he had missed the train and been
left alone in the prairie! All the new boys babbled in excitement. It was
the event of the day.
When the train stopped again Clemens
sprinted in direction of the engine to rejoin his „home wagon“. His comrades
welcomed him joyfully. Again the laughter started fuelled by all kinds of
fantasies. They all were still so easygoing. What did war mean to them?
Nothing at all. They just had no inkling. Nobody thought of the travel to
Russia as a trip to potential death, simply because they lacked any
experience enabling them to make such a prediction. Above all, the will to
survive inhibited any thought concerning death. In any case, one would
always be the last man standing.
Lacking any philosophical bent, the
boys protested about very banal problems; they griped over the hard planks
or were annoyed at having finished their food reserves far too early. Over
hours and hours they were playing cards.
Then general exhaustion set in. And then boredom generated by the daylong
bucking of the train. Tension began to show..
In the end there was only self discipline left to carry one’s immutable
The soldiers had been sitting
lying for 1750 kilometres on the planks of the cargo train. Through the
mostly wide open wagon door they watched the outside film reel composed of
flat farm land, a few solitary trees, the occasional village, all covered
with snow, tinted in dull greyish winter colours. Interesting though it may
have been it was not enough to form a proper picture of Russia except that
it was very, very big.
“We’ll make a stop in Minsk to obtain new orders”, Möller explained. That
sounded quite thrilling for it would be the first time the soldiers would
interrupt their journey to get to know a foreign city.
Minsk. The name sounded quite familiar
to the ears of the soldiers. They knew that last summer the Wehrmacht had
taken the Eastern Polish town of Bialystok and the White Russian capital
Minsk. In the Wochenschau – the official war news reel shown in cinemas -
one had watched German troops entering Minsk. The men remembered the damaged
buildings and the flames devouring the wooden houses.
What had happened since?
The Wehrmacht had established its administrative machinery in the town to
command Army Group Centre. All its divisions had long ago advanced further
to the East.
Shortly after the conquest of the town the killer units had arrived. They
did not belong to the Wehrmacht but to the overall police organisation as
commanded by Himmler. The Einsatzgruppen gathered all Jews from Minsk in a
fenced-off area and deported them piecemeal to concentration camps in the
West. The killers wanted to murder in an out-of-the-way corner.
All the Wehrmacht-soldiers who were channelled through Minsk to the Eastern
front did not have a clue about the horrors. However, those soldiers,
stationed in town in the admin could not have avoided noticing the Ghetto.
If the war already was a brutal scaffold for soldiers and civilians the
persecution of the Jews was sheer slaughter for which no adequate words can
Minsk was an old trading town, which
was ruled by local dukes, then by Lithuanian and Polish kings and later by
the Russian Tsar. The Swedes vandalized Minsk as did Napoleon with his
Grande Armée. In World War I the Germans had also made it to Minsk. The
peace treaty of Brest-Litovsk between the Central Powers and Russia enabled
the Germans to leave. Russia dropped out of the war and the communists used
their energy to turn the country into the state we know as the Soviet Union,
founded in 1922.
White Russia had become a Soviet state and Minsk had developed into an
industrialized centre during the last 18 years. Its factories were
specialized on the construction of tractors, vehicles and machinery.
The main railway station of Minsk was
a respectable building designed in the International style of the West. Now
it served as turntable for transiting soldiers. Möller got further travel
orders at the Kommandantur and brought the news to his little detachment.
“We’ll stay here for two days and sleep in the station. There are special
dormitories and wash rooms for soldiers passing through. The day after
tomorrow we’ll get to know our next stage.” Patiently the group trooped off
to their quarters.
“I have to go the military administration”, Clemens excused himself. “Family
“It’s all right.”
Clemens crossed through the station and entered the office of the “Militärverwaltung”.
The conscript behind the desk had the task to assist soldiers with general
“What can I do for you?” he asked politely.
Clemens recounted his story which had burdened him greatly during the whole
journey: “Last June my brother was killed in action close to Minsk. Is there
a military cemetery where I might visit his grave? I would much like to lay
The smile died on the face of the desk conscript. Here was a very young man
on his way to the front line asking for the grave of his brother.
“I’m sorry, there is no military cemetery,” he regretted. “There are only a
few little memorials in outside town. But you won’t find your brother there.
I am so sorry.” His regret was heartfelt. What could he tell the young man?
The truth? That all the dead were lying somewhere where they had fallen?
Without cross or name?
While the admin soldier started fidgeting behind an ever stiffening mimicry
Clemens felt stranded.
Highly frustrated he left the office
and walked back to his friends.
„Could you work something out?“ Möller asked compassionately.
“You know, let’s make an excursion through the town. That will take your
mind off things.“
The group left the station. They really felt the wet and cold weather. With
hands in their pockets they ambled along the row of houses. High drifts of
snow lined the roadsides and the first snowmelt formed puddles on the
lightly paved street. A horse passed by with its cart at a slow trot through
the water, a truck ploughed through the mud and vans were parking along the
side of the street.
The East European town which had
looked so cosy and pleasant in the past had suffered severe damage through
the war; roofs were fallen in, windows had been smashed and the houses
gutted through fire. The charm had gone. The icy chill of winter with mounds
of snow on the streets and in front of houses gave the formerly beautiful
city a final air of “tristesse”.
Everywhere on the streets countless screws and spare parts were scattered;
in Germany Clemens had never seen such a mess. Could it be that all the
parts were from German vehicles and lost through vibration, wear and tear?
Indeed, many German vehicles including tanks died a wretched death due to
long distances and extreme temperatures.
Next day Clemens explored the town on
his own. All the houses seemed abandoned. Everywhere war damage. Only a few
civilians and German soldiers gave life to the streets. Big wooden signposts
were erected at intersections labelled from top to bottom with signs like „Ortskommandantur“,
Despite the rape of the town it still showed beauty. Everywhere wonderful
churches. Clemens entered a House of God. Inside was a square white room
plastered with painted and gilded wood panels. In the centre of each tableau
was the peaceful portrait of a saint, meticulously painted with fine brush
strokes, exuding warmth and harmony. What peace and intimate true faith.
Deeply impressed Clemens stepped from one icon to the next. All the saints
seemed somehow connected to a godly cosmos. He was touched.
„Didn’t they tell us, that the communists had destroyed all the churches? “
Clemens thought. He remembered the Wochenschau newsreel in the form of a
documentary about Russia. It was depicted as an underdeveloped, rural and
Confused he left the quiet little
paradise and stepped out again into the winter cold reality of war. On his
way back to the train station he spotted an industrial building that seemed
to be a factory. “Let’s have a look how the Russians are technically”,
Clemens decided and entered the building. The soles of his boots were
hobnailed which caused the only noise; clack, clack, clack. A huge silent
hall was before him devoid of any worker. Only the iron machines were
waiting in rank and file for their masters. Clemens approached closer. Could
it be true? He hardly trusted his eyes; these were hyper modern engine
lathes and machines. On some of them the logos of German producers stood
out. He stroked the machines with his hand. He loved technology. Close
inspection revealed that the Russians had destroyed all ball bearings.
Thereby the entire precious machinery park had become worthless.
“Russia is backward”, was the tone of
the Wochenschau. “It is an agricultural society, which is suppressed by the
communists.” Already when he had watched that film he had reacted with
scepticism because he had met with Russians at home who had spoken fluent
German while buying modern machinery displaying expert technical know-how.
These buyers had been highly sophisticated and matched the picture he formed
from this factory he now stood in. Russia was industrially advanced and
attuned to Western standards.
„What are they actually telling us in Germany?” Clemens grumbled silently.
One was young and had never been outside one’s own country. The political
propaganda dominated public opinion. How could one possibly know what was
happening on another planet?
Walk through Minsk, March 1942. Photo CP.
All Clemens had inherited from his
fallen brother he carried in his uniform breast pocket. This was a pocket
dictionary to learn Russian. The columns of German words started with A and
ended with Z. How do you best communicate using such a text book? He picked
some words which had genera everyday value: : „gollod“ - hunger, „chljäb“
– „bread“, „wintowka“ – rifle. To Clemens wintowka sounded like
Winnetou – the famous red Indian warrior in Karl May’s boys’ stories – and
the mnemonic rhyme was fixed. Gradually he was immersed in a new world of
sounds. Occasionally he stared out of the rolling wagon at the scenery.
Silence, snow, bare trees, the odd building. Then after many, many hours the
next big town: Smolensk.
“Let us ask what our next destination
is”, Möller told his group.
Together they crowded into the Kommandantur at the train station of
Check of their identity cards and then the magician behind the counter
pulled the white rabbit out of the hat:
„Where is that then?!“
Why were there no maps?
The group switched to another freight car. The journey continued in
direction East, or more precisely, towards Moscow. Suddenly the train turned
sharply to the South. Change of direction. Are we going to the Caucasus?
Sometimes the train stopped at minor stations to unload soldiers and pick up
others. Curiously one looked for site names written in German. Some seemed
vaguely familiar due to the Wochenschau. The boys pooled their rudimentary
knowledge to craft a mental map illustrated with impressions out of the
train or later from the front line. This inner map would never ever die,
even when several decades later dementia nibbles on the brain.
“Möller, why does the engine push
several empty wagons in front of it?”
One smart young soldier had observed that there were several freight cars
hooked-up in front of the locomotive which never were laden although all
other cars were crammed with men and material.
“Good point”, Möller was surprised. “That’s a precaution against mines
planted under the tracks by partisans.”
The novices listened, ears pricked.
“If the train rolls over a mine, only the first empty wagons get blown up
while the precious engine remains undamaged.”
The youngsters were horror stricken at the mere thought.
„Most of the time the wagons are derailed and you can imagine the damage.”
“What can you do against partisans?” a soldier asked.
“One can’t really do much at all against them because the country is too
big“, Möller explained. ”Our trains go at irregular hours so that the
partisans never know when a train will come. Or in a forest we cut down all
trees along the railroad to have unobstructed view. Often we also put
sentries in sensitive places to keep partisans away.”
Suddenly one sensed the immediate odour of war and definite unease filled
There is a map in the present-day German military archives of the Russian
rail network made by the Reichsbahn showing the attacks of partisans and
Russian aircraft in summer 1943. Some spots the enemy had attacked up to
nine times. It is not difficult to imagine the damage to men and material.
Train travel was truly dangerous.
Russian attacks on German trains in Russia executed by
partisans or Russian aircraft in July 1943.
freight cars after bomb attack.
The first Russians
The men were gazing out at the white
landscape. They were somewhere behind Orel. One man peed standing up and out
of the wagon. Finally some light entertainment.
As so often in the past the train suddenly decelerated and came to a stop.
Meanwhile one knew the ritual well. Wagon doors were slid aside and the men
jumped out in the snow. Some chatting, one felt damned cold without
headgear, cigarettes were lit, shoulders shrugged.
Suddenly two small, hooded creatures
showed up out of nowhere. They were two boys in the age of let’s say eight
to ten years. They wore an array of padded jackets and trousers, primitively
held together with ropes and leather straps. On the heads fur lined caps
with earflaps hanging down like dog ears. They approached the German
soldiers in a friendly manner, and the men clung like curious sparrows at
the railings of the open wagons, happy at some little diversion.
„Do you want a cigarette?“ a soldier passed a lit one over to one boy.
Happily he grasped the cigarette and puffed away.
Talking about age, both sides were not that far apart. The memories of
childhood were still very fresh and dominated the short time of adulthood
thus far. Both sides acted uncomplicated and easygoing. Of course they could
not communicate but it still seemed fun.
What did these young fellows really want?
Were they perhaps little scouts, who collected information for the
partisans? Or just curious boys wanting some cigarettes from the foreigners?
Whatever. This was the first encounter with real Russians!
(The Russian boys
described in the text above. CP. 1942)
locomotive started pulling with a groaning noise and the soldiers jumped
back in their containers. One just had no idea where one was. Now in the
middle of Russian nowhere they began to have severe anxiety for what might
come up. There was only one clear sign that one was approaching
uncomfortably close to the front section; the long chain of wagons had
become very short. There would come the moment when also their car would be
uncoupled at some small train station.
Finally the railway itself came to an end at a lonely minor station.
End of journey
Soldiers of the 95th Infantry-Division pick up the freshmen
from the station in Kolpna to guide them to their training camp behind the
front. This is a footwalk of around 20 kilometres. The horses pull sledges
with the back packs of the soldiers. End of March 1942. Photo CP.