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Eastern Inferno 2

January 5th, 1942

“We receive orders to burn all files and boxes, personal paper and map material. The trucks with luggage and equipment are being prepared for detonation. The pressure of the Reds is huge. If that is not enough, now ammunition and provisions are becoming scarce. In the morning a heavy tank is blown up by 8.8cm flak artillery, the infiltrating enemy is destroyed. Among other things they have incinerated our provision storage; there are dead bodies lying in the snow, army bread tucked under their arms…” Eastern Inferno, the journals of Hans Roth

Roth’s unit or what is left of it is encircled by Soviet troops in the town of Obojan. Obojan is in the Ukraine and near the major city of Kursk, a place that would become famous a bit later in the fighting on the eastern front.

Roth’s entries for the winter of 1941-42 reveal the unpreparedness of the Wehrmacht to fight a winter campaign in Russia. Hitler and at least some of the German generals had expected a short campaign that would take at the most, the summer of 1941 and the fall. Hitler was reported as saying “we have only to kick in the door and the whole rotten structure will come crashing down.”

At first it seemed as if Hitler was right. One after the other Soviet armies were encircled and destroyed by the fast moving panzers and motorized infantry. Millions of Russian soldiers were either captured or killed in the first five months of the war.

After Smolensk fell Hitler turned Guderian’s 2nd Panzer Group southward toward Kiev in the Ukraine thus slowing the German drive toward Moscow. The Kiev encirclement netted the Germans even more Soviet prisoners as even more Russian armies were removed from the order of battle.  Roth’s unit, the 299th ID was part of the Kiev encirclement and was part of the vicious fighting that took place as the Russians tried to break out of the encirclement.

After the encirclement at Kiev Guderian’s Panzer Group again headed toward Moscow. The Germans thought that if the Soviet capitol was captured and the bulk of armies destroyed the Soviets would have no choice but to concede defeat.

But the Soviets did not roll over as the Germans expected. Stalin drew on the massive reserves of manpower that the Soviet Union possessed and threw them into battle. Many were barely trained but others came from the Soviet Far East command and these were men trained and equipped to fight in the harsh Russian winter.

Roth reports winter temperatures of -35 to -43 degrees Celsius. That’s about -31 to -45 degrees Fahrenheit. He notes that if his men took off their gloves their hands would freeze to the metal of their machine guns and anti-tank weapons.

The Germans were woefully unprepared to fight in the winter and most of the German infantry had to make do with their summer uniforms. By the end of the winter many of the Germans looked like Russians as they stripped the Russian dead of their winter clothing.

The Russians not only stopped the German advance but counter attacked along the entire eastern front. The encirclement of Obojan was the result of a Russian offensive in the Kursk-Kharkov area. Like all German units on the eastern front in the first winter Roth’s unit was ordered to stand fast and not give an inch.

This is one of the ironies of the war. Hitler was the one who ordered “no retreat” and that the Germans should fight to the last bullet. Many of his generals wanted to withdraw to more defensible positions (a rational and logical thing to do when an army is over extended) but Hitler would have none of it because he feared a rout.

In this Hitler was probably right. The winter and relentless attacks by the Red Army brought the Germans to the brink of total disaster. Hitler’s order to stand fast probably saved them from utter destruction.

You can pick up on this in Roth’s journals. Roth and his men take pride in holding the line time and time again against over whelming odds. When German units do retreat and are caught by the Soviets they are totally destroyed and the captured soldiers are often tortured and mutilated. This reinforces the resolve of Roth and his men and their tenacity to not step back nor be taken prisoner.

Ironically, because Hitler was proved right in this instance it clouded his future decisions as well as increasing his distrust of the German generals. He saw them as defeatist when they suggested withdrawals in order to shorten the front or to better concentrate their forces. This no retreat ever mentality led to the encirclement at Stalingrad in the winter of 1942-43 where 500,000 German soldiers were ordered not to break out when they had an opportunity to do so.

Roth’s account does not deal with bigger picture so much. He’s a panzerjaeger (tank hunter) that never reaches a rank higher than corporal. His main concerns are getting warm, getting fed, keeping himself alive, keeping his men alive and beating back one attack after the other as he longs for home and his wife and child. He survives the encirclement at Obojan as a Panzer unit finally breaks through to them.

One of the things that strikes me about Roth is his optimism. He has an unquestionable dedication to doing his duty and the “rightness” of the cause. He reports that men in his unit take up “anti-war” talk or “anti-party” talk as they suffer through the horrors of the winter fighting but Roth will have none of it.

I didn’t perceive Roth as a Nazi fanatic either. He comes across as a soldier who is defending his homeland against the eastern threat and as one who has the uttermost confidence in his leader’s abilities to gain victory. The only time he seems skeptical is when he realizes that the war will not be as short as the leaders said when they invaded Russia.

Roth kept three journals and the third differs a bit from the first two. By the time he wrote the third he was writing less frequently but more extensively covering larger blocks of time as his unit takes part in Case Blue.

Case Blue was the German summer offensive of 1942 designed to reach the Caucasus oil fields and much of the Soviet heavy industry located in the region. Again the Germans experienced much initial success but got bogged down in Stalingrad which in turn led the Soviet encirclement of that city as well as the major portion of the German 6th Army.

Roth’s unit, although part of the 6th Army escaped the debacle because his panzerjaeger unit was transferred to the German (and Italian units) fighting for the key city of Woronesh (Voronezh).

Although he escaped the disaster at Stalingrad he did not escape the Soviet follow-up offensives launched at the Hungarian, Rumanian and Italian armies that held the northern flank of the 6th Army. By the summer of 1942 the Germans were already experiencing manpower shortages and had to rely on the poorly equipped allies to hold major portions of the line. The Russians recognized the weakness and exploited it to the maximum shattering the Italians and Hungarians. Roth’s unit was one of the few German units sent to bolster the Italians but they were too few and too late to make any kind of difference what-so-ever. Roth finds himself in head long retreat heaping contempt on the routing Italians all the way.

Eventually the front stabilizes and Roth is about to go home on his second leave. This is shortly before the 1943 German offensive at Kursk and the editor notes that Roth probably missed it. Thus ends Roth’s third journal.

Roth must have left his journals at home when he was home on leave only to be rediscovered much later and translated by his family even later (Roth’s daughter Erika ended up in America after the war.) His family believes he was working on a fourth journal when he disappeared in the summer of 1944 when his unit was part of Army Group Center.

On June 22nd, 1944, three years to the day that the Germans invaded Russia the Russians launched a massive attack on Army Group Center. Roth’s 299th ID was in the front and utterly crushed by the Soviet offensive.

Roth was at first missing (MIA) but later presumed dead as he never emerged as surviving the attack nor was he (or if he was he did not survive the captivity). One touching part is the German Red Cross telegram Roth’s wife Rosel receives in 1950 (six years after Roth’s disappearance!) confirming his probable death in July, 1944.

I can’t end this review without saying something about Roth’s faith.

Most Germans from Roth’s era were either Catholic (mostly in the south) or Lutheran (mostly in the north). Roth was from Frankfurt on Main so I guess it’s a toss up as to what church he belonged to. My own German ancestors came from a Lutheran background. My dad converted to Catholicism thus breaking the chain of Lutheranism probably dating back to The Reformation.

Roth mentions God only a few times in his journals and for the most part in an impersonal way. Perhaps he wrote more in his letters home to Rosel but in his journals God does not get much ink.

I did get the sense that Roth believed in God. After all, it said “Gott Mit Uns” (God with us) on German Army belt buckles) but I am doubtful what that belief actually meant to him or his comrades who carried the inscription on their belts.

By and large the Catholic Church in Germany and Austria looked the other way when it came to the Nazi’s and the official Lutheran Church actually supported them. The notable exception was a Lutheran pastor by the name of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer represented what was known as the confessing church and that wing of Lutheranism actively opposed the Nazis as they sought to remain faithful to the gospel. In fact, in conjunction with the Abwehr (German Intelligence) Bonhoeffer took his beliefs to their logical extension and was part of the plot to take out Hitler in 1944. This cost Bonhoeffer his life as the SS executed him just days before the Americans liberated the concentration camp Bonhoeffer was in.

This shows that not all Germans were blind to the Nazi’s and that some put their faith in Christ first.

All this to say is that I wonder about the faith of the average German soldier who like Roth was dedicated to his duty and to his comrades in his unit. My ancestors came to America before WW1 from north Germany so I wonder about family members who stayed behind and fought in Germany’s two world wars, especially the second. Were they Bonhoeffers who stayed true to the confessing church or did they not give the gospel a second thought?

I’ll probably never know.

Eastern Inferno is a must read for anyone remotely interested in the experiences of the common soldier on the eastern front. There is much to admire about Roth himself. His grave is unknown but if it had an epitaph it would say, “Here lies Corporal Hans Roth. He was dedicated to his family, his comrades and his country. 1912-1944”

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2 comments on “Eastern Inferno 2

  1. I’m reading Eastern Inferno now. Very good account of the horrific actions on the eastern front. As a historian I compare the dates and locations in this book to try a reconstruct a better picture of the events.
    Great book so far. I’m half way through.

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