Cherkassy, December 1943

From the Story Arc: Futures and Pasts.

Next Story in the Arc: Budapest, January 1944 by Albtraum (Friday, October 07, 2005)

(posted Monday, October 03, 2005)

Alles in Ordnung?” Sturmbannführer Johannes Dieter asked the young Obersturmführer.

Ja – everything is fine.” Lieutenant Stober sounded more confident than he appeared, Johannes noted as he stepped out of the makeshift command bunker and into the chill winter night.

Johannes carried a standard infantryman’s rifle and wore no insignia that marked him as an officer. To do so would certainly halve his life expectancy.

Damned Ivan snipers lurked everywhere, and even at night you could never be certain but an innocent drag on a cigarette or casual salute would see your brains splattered all over the frozen ground.

Johannes followed the young lieutenant he moved along the line, keeping low as they inspected the tired and frozen defenders who crouched in their foxholes.

Johannes offered a few words of encouragement as he passed by. Most of the men managed to reply, some grunted, and others merely nodded. More than one he noticed, turned away from him. That was to be expected.

The front was quiet tonight, save for the regular hiss of flares rising into the night sky, casting their crimson light as they burst. The brief illumination played upon the men’s imaginations. Snow covered bushes and broken piles of rubble were sometimes mistaken for sinister Ivan’s.

Yet no one could afford to waste shots on such phantoms. Ammunition was becoming scarce and the daily ration had been cut by a third again. Johannes was glad his men did not have to face the winter of 1944 with inadequate winter clothing.

November and December had been miserable months and Wiking had enough troubles without having to worry about frostbite and pneumonia. The men of the First Battalion of Panzergrenadier Regiment Nine were running short on everything, the lack of supplies and men threatened to turn the bitter holding action into a forced retreat as Stalin continued to pour its seemingly endless supply of soldiers into the meat grinder.

The Führer had ordered that Cherkassy be held at all costs. Johannes shuddered at the prospect of another Stalingrad. There would be no mercy given to the Waffen SS soldiers when Red Army soldiers, or worse NKVD units, caught them.

The Ivan’s had shown no quarter to SS men, and expected none in return if they were caught. War on the Eastern Front was an ugly, bloody business.

Another flare sailed lazily into the air and burst over the Russian lines.

Johannes caught a brief glimpse of Stober’s face in the garish light. A pale face that was lined with fear though he strained not to show it. He understood how the young man was feeling. Despite the chaos around them, officers were expected not to show fear.

Johannes wondered how SS-Oberführer Degrelle and the Wallonien Brigade were faring tonight. There were would be a heavy butchers bill to pay in the next few days.

At least the Ivan’s were quiet tonight. That was one small blessing Johannes thought as he made his way back to the command bunker. The past few nights he had heard nothing but the cry of “Slaa Krasnaya Armya!” – “Long live the Red Army!” proceeded by the mad charge of Ivan bastards.

Though the men of Wiking had bloodily repulsed wave after wave of mad Ivan’s with minor casualties, there were few reinforcements to be spared. The Red Army had men in abundance to throw into the line of fire - Wiking did not. They were slowly being ground piecemeal into the frozen earth.

“Try to catch a few hours sleep tonight Stober.” said Johannes as he headed into the command bunker. “Good night, sir.” said Stober as he trudged along into the darkness.

Johannes doubted he would get much sleep tonight. There were reports coming in all the time, and usually he would be up late poring over their contents.

He and the other senior officers would be plotting actions and trying to implement the strategies of the beleaguered Army Group South. But not tonight. Johannes had dismissed them early. Everyone was in bad need of sleep. Men and officers alike were pushed to the point of exhaustion. Yet without capable leadership….

A few more merciful hours sleep. Johannes risked lighting a lantern to take him through the battered restaurant to the cellar where he had set up his small cot. Men were strewn out on the floor of the restaurant, grabbing what sleep they could. The command bunker also doubled as a makeshift barracks.

The two sentries nodded in recognition as Johannes passed by, before resuming their silent vigil Johannes would have ordinarily have been slept alongside his men, but with officers in short supply common sense to place them near but not with the rank and file men.

It was a small luxury these days. Johannes remembered the glory days and sighed. He went down the stairs into the cellar and was glad at least for some privacy.

He closed the door behind him. It was warmer down here than upstairs and the makeshift cot wasn’t too bad. Johannes placed the lantern on an overturned wooden crate and leant his rifle against the wall, within easy reach of the cot. He struggled out of his overcoat and thanked God there was no snow to make it weigh twice as much. Johannes placed his pistol and belt near the lantern.

Though he hated doing it, Johannes removed his boots and socks to make sure there were no signs of infection or frostbite. His toes curled in protest on the cold wooden floor.

Satisfied, Johannes quickly put on a fresh – though definitely not a clean – pair of socks and pulled his boots back on. These days he slept in his uniform. Johannes pulled his overcoat over him as he got onto the cot.

He was about to put out the lantern when a voice from the shadows startled him.

“Sturmbannführer Dieter, a moment of your time?”

Johannes reached for his pistol, trying to catch the outline of the figures cast by the lantern.

“That will not be necessary, Sturmbannführer.”

A folded piece of paper has handed to Johannes and he got his first look at the man who presented it.

He almost jerked upright and saluted as he recognized the uniform and insigna.

“No need to stand on ceremony, Sturmbannführer. You may call me Goermann. I apologize for my comrade, he is somewhat sensitive to the light. A skin condition of sorts.”

Johannes couldn’t make out much of Goermann’s companion but pale, sallow skin and what appeared to be a thickset pair of welding goggles fixed on the gaunt face. Goermann’s companion remained silent, his hands hidden in the sleeves of his overcoat.

“Please read the letter, then burn it.”

This was not a request, but an order and Johannes obeyed. His pale blue eyes widened in surprise at the official seal and the black ink signature at the bottom.
The paper caught alight quickly, consuming the words in seconds. Yet Johannes dared not forget or ignore the words of the Reichsführer.

Goermann thin lips parted in a smile that was more disconcerting than discomforting.

“You are aware of the work of the Deutches Ahnenerbe, Sturmbannführer?” Goermann asked.

Johannes nodded. “Ja - I worked with them in the Middle East during the 1930s before transferring to the Waffen SS in 1938.”

Goermann appeared pleased. “Excellent,” he murmured.

“And what of the Sturm Korps?”

Johannes frowned. “The Führer’s Super Soliders? Only from what I read in Signal magazine and the occasional newsreel. I have never personally seen them in action.”

“Not many have,” Goermann nodded in agreement as he continued to stare at Johannes thoughtfully.

“Well, let’s get on with it. You have read the orders. Any questions?” Goermann responded, his smile fading sharply.

“When and where?” responded Johannes just as formally.

Goermann’s smile returned again, his eyes twinkling in the lantern light. “Tonight to Budapest, Sturmbannführer.”