I Was There24 October 2014

Joachim Stempel, 25 October 1942

On 25 October 1942, Joachim Stempel was seconded to the 103rd Panzergrenadier Regiment because most of the regiment’s officers had become casualties. He was to lead the 2nd company in a renewed offensive to force the Red Army back just a few hundred metres to reach the Volga. The first target was the so-called administration building of the “Bread Factory”. This was part of the key complex of factories (by now largely in ruins) that had by October become the focus of the infantry battle.

25 October 1942

Stempel takes command of the 2nd company. 103rd Panzergrenadier Regiment.

Early in the morning I am ordered to the brigade commander, Colonel Freiherr von Falkenstein. Here I get a new task: “Report to Panzergrenadier Regiment 103! There you are to take over the remains of the Panzergrenadiers as company commander. The commander of the 2nd Battalion is Captain Erich Domaschk. This is a detachment. Afterwards you are to return to brigade. All the best, ‘Hals-und-Beinbruch’ (literally “Break your neck and leg!”; meaning “All the best of luck”)!” I report my departure.

At the brigade command post my things are quickly packed. After that I am taken in a “Kübel” (German jeep) to the command post of Panzergrenadier Regiment 103. It is very difficult to get there with the impacts of artillery shells and the labyrinth of obstacles. And yet we arrive there after only a short time. In the ruins of buildings I descend into a cellar, where the regimental staff has nestled itself. Then I am standing in front of the commander of Panzergrenadierregiment 103, Lieutenant-Colonel Seydel. I report to him and am greeted with joy, as out in front there is no officer anymore that can lead the forces of the regiment that have shrunk to a company.

I get a short briefing, everything else will be told to me by the battalion commander. The last hundred metres down to the Volga are at stake! They have to be taken! And here comes an Unteroffizier (corporal), who is to lead me to the main line of resistance, to the battalion. Immediately we report our departure and work ourselves forward. The corporal in fully torn up and muddied uniform takes me - in bounds - in the direction of the “Front” to the battalion command post. Over mountains of rubble, through collapsed buildings and through the remains of halls and factories. And everywhere projectiles strike the walls still standing. Onward, onward! Over shattered rails, through hollows with loose stones and iron beams that have come down, then again through factory halls, in which parts of machines, work benches and material of all sorts lie around, toppled, destroyed. From the iron girders that are still standing are hanging wavy metal plates and wiring.

And then it is time. In front of us is the administration building of the “Bread Factory”. We’re attacking! Metre by metre we crawl forward, following the bombs that the Stukas are dropping in front of us. We are deafened by the howling of sirens and explosions. Fountains of mud caused by the exploding bombs erupt all around us, forcing us to take cover. More howls overhead – our own artillery! But also over from the other side! A whole series of salvoes by Soviet artillery makes the earth shake. With an exploding sound the shells impact against the factory walls that still are standing. The noise is like that of an underground train entering a station. Unbelievable, one cannot understand anything anymore. We continue to jump from shell crater to shell crater, from earth pile to the remains of a wall. Now quickly to the remains of a house, to the next cover. And once again they come down on us – Soviet shells. Onwards. We have to seize the last hundred meters to the Volga!

But the Russians are hanging on and bitterly contesting every hole in the earth and every pile of rubble. Enemy snipers hit us in the flank and inflict bloody losses. They are hiding all around, but we cannot see them.

When it slowly gets dark, and the view is too unclear to make out anything, we stop the attack and take up defensive positions to safeguard us from any nightly surprises. There is no rest. We have to recover the killed and prepare the wounded for transport to the rear. I make an evening report with sketches and send it to battalion HQ. No one has any rest, we are all wide awake and ready for anything. And in the back of our minds is the question, what will tomorrow bring? Throughout the entire night “the devil is loose” with us. Our food carriers have been taken out by the Russians behind us, to our rear! The Russians rise up out of tunnels, which lead behind our frontline and then in the dark wait for runners, ammunition and food carriers, and overwhelm and kill them.