The Soviet Army’s advance westwards continued and their growing strength was evident across the front.
There are many accounts of massive artillery barrages where those on the gunners’ side assume that ‘no one could possibly survive that’ – and yet soldiers emerge from the ruins. In practice, a basic slit trench or foxhole offered remarkably good protection against artillery fire – apart from a direct hit. The Wehrmacht were especially vigilant in building not just trenches but substantial bunkers whenever they could.
George Grossjohann was able to live to tell the tale after seeking refuge in such a bunker. His account also gives an insight into the flexible command structure of German units, a factor that was to enable them to keep fighting for so long.
At 4:40 AM, on 26 January, a tremendous barrage came down on Votylevka, not only in our area but on a sector more than thirty kilometers in width.
The Russians must have employed hundreds of batteries in the artillery preparation for their attack. Artillery shells of all calibers crashed into our positions. Waves of 122mm rockets added their howling cacophony, too, before slamming into the earth around us.
The enemy paid particular attention to the coordinating point where our division’s lines joined those of our neighbor to the north, the 88th Infantry Division. It was a major attack!
We had only seconds to grab our weapons and clothes and to dive into a deep, narrow ditch which, as a precaution, we had dug out behind our house and covered with wood beams, dirt, and a thick layer of straw. A few minutes later, our cottage was already broken into pathetic pieces. From now on we could do nothing but crouch in our trench and hope. Just before leaping into the shelter, my Leutnant Armbruster got his hands on a bottle of cognac which, after the first seconds of shock were over, was soon passed around. Its contents helped deaden the terror, pounding shock that went on and on and on…
At 6:00 AM sharp, exactly eighty minutes later, the devastating barrage stopped suddenly… Dead silence prevailed!
Knowing that the soldiers of the Red Army started their attack – with tactical correctness – right after the end of their preparatory barrage, we broke out into the open and saw that everything in Votylevka, with a very few exceptions, was razed to the ground. Even the few trees had become stripped skeletons. Only the remains of a couple of chimneys still stood in the smoking, greyish- black moonscape of huge craters.
As we, fortunately, found out afterward, my battalion, as well as our regiment’s 1st Battalion, defending the outer perimeter of the town, did not suffer substantial losses. But my 6th Company, deployed outside of the town, was totally overrun.
According to statements from the few infantrymen who escaped, the young company commander and his messengers were taken, prisoner. These surviving Landsers of the 6th Company also reported that the Russian infantry and tanks broke through in great numbers between Votylevka and the 34th Infantry Division to the southeast.
There was only some minor battle noise to hear from the outskirts of the town. Apparently, after all the fireworks they had expended on the village, the Russians thought an attack on them was a waste of time and resources. From the regiment’s command post, which was about five kilometers behind us in Repki, our regimental physician appeared to establish communications.
Dr. Stochdorph seemed relaxed, grinned amiably, and asked nosy questions. He reported that Repki, too, had been hit heavily by the Russian artillery, with about the same results as the barrage on us. After I informed him that we did not yet have a clear picture of the situation, he had his Kubelwagen turned around and drove back to report to the regimental commander.
Dr. Stochdorph was typical in my experience – during the whole war, I never personally witnessed any physician or clergyman who was not exemplary in the practice of his duties. The Roman Catholic chaplain of our division even took part – naturally unarmed — in dangerous assaults. Our physicians, often enough, were surprisingly good at soldiers’ tactical tasks, and our staff physician was no exception. Without any special preparations, he would have been fully capable of leading a battalion or even a regiment. These qualities not only helped greatly in the command and control of our units but also naturally earned the even greater respect of us combat infantrymen.