I Was There4 November 2014

Helmut Ritgen, 19 December 1942

This account comes from the memoirs of Helmut Ritgen, who was the Regimental Adjutant of Panzer Regiment 11, part of the 6th Panzer Division. Seated in his command tank on the night of 19 December 1942, he witnessed how strangely anticlimactic even an important victory can be. Operating well in advance of the main force, the biggest threat to the success of his unit’s mission was getting lost and running out of fuel in the featureless landscape of the Kuban Steppe. The poorly trained raw recruits of the Soviet 51st Army had probably never seen a German tank before, and so let them pass unharmed.

19 December 1942

We continue on. The kilometer counter on my tank reads 20. According to our maps the road has to veer to the left at this point, but no turn appears. Have we missed the road? No, wait, there it is! The column turns but after a few kilometers comes to a halt. Both point vehicles have run into a gully and got stuck. It is not the correct road, but the direction is the right one. Perhaps it also leads to the objective? We can no longer afford to turn back as our fuel is nearly finished. But a reconnaissance shows the impossibility of continuing. We decide to turn around again, but this proves to be easier said than done. The first vehicles get hopelessly stuck, and pulling them out is not easy on the icy roads. We cannot leave the tanks standing, however, as the enemy is everywhere and the tanks would probably be destroyed. There are several sets of tracks, undoubtedly made by Russian T-34s, running across the road. We need every tank if our mission is to stand a chance of success.

Finally we manage to get them free, and on we go again, eventually reaching the major road that leads north. Only 12 more kilometers to the objective. The engines growl monotonously on the road. Hold on, what is that? In the distance we see a Soviet position, and it’s well manned. In the moonlight we can clearly make out the Russian soldiers, at least two companies of them, who stand up as we approach. They grab their weapons and gaze at the strange column in silence. We hold our fire.

The bridge seems to be too weak for our heavy vehicles, but we spot a ford next to it. The first tank drives through and gains the other bank, the second follows and also makes it. The third and fourth make it as well, but the fifth tank, carrying the regimental commander and myself, gets stuck halfway up the far bank and stalls. We reverse and try again at maximum speed, again in vain. Twenty metres to our right is a platoon of Bolsheviks. What will they do? The commander and his adjutant grab their pistols and prepare their hand grenades. We reverse once more to try again a little to the left. The driver misunderstands and drives right, towards the Russian position. All our shouting is to no avail, is he deaf? LEEEFT, LEEEFT! Finally the wagon slowly turns, but now we’re standing in the middle of an enemy position. Luckily they seem to still think we are Russian. Don’t speak anyone. Slowly we back up, to gain room to speed up and then, into third gear and full speed ahead. Everyone holds their breath. The tension is unbearable. Again the tracks slip, but then grip again. Slowly interminably slowly, centimeter by centimeter, we crawl up the slope. Out in front the first four tanks are idling. It is still six kilometers to the objective but our fuel is almost gone.

A few hundred meters in front of us stands another Russian column. An enemy anti-tank gun fires once, at nothing. We ignore it. A Russian armoured car drives past, but we keep going in silence. We cross another bridge and then another, the Russians are standing on the road smoking and suspect nothing. We rumble on by, they ignore us.

Finally, the big anti-tank ditch comes into view and then the bridge. the surprised bridge guards are taken prisoner and the explosive charges on the structure are removed. We have reached our objective. As we move into position around the bridgehead, we finally encounter resistance. Two russian tanks open fire. They’re knocked out after a brief battle, but not before they manage to take out the command vehicle of company commander Oberleutnant Michaelis, killing one of the finest officers in the regiment.

At 20:00 hours a report is sent to division. “Objective reached, bridgehead formed, bridge in our hands and undamaged.” Now we just have to wait for the others.