As a young lieutenant, Rolf Hertenstein was at the leading edge of Army Group South’s advance during the opening stages of Operation Barbarossa.
After the successful campaign against France, Rolf Hertenstein and his comrades in the 4th Panzer Regiment were transferred to the 13th Panzer Division. Originally an infantry organization, the 13th had been converted to a motorized division by the time of the invasion of Poland in September 1939. In the reorganization of forces that followed the 1940 campaign in France, the unit became a panzer division. As part of that transition, Hertenstein’s 4th Panzer Regiment joined the division, and he spent the winter of 1940-41 with his new unit in Romania as the 13th trained for its next mission. In the second of a three-part interview covering his wartime experiences with the Wehrmacht’s elite Panzerwaffe, Hertenstein recalls the first months of the advance into the Soviet Union.
World War II: The 13th did not take part in the Balkan campaign. Can you tell us briefly about your next stop and the division’s preparations for the upcoming invasion of Russia?
Rolf Hertenstein: In the spring of 1941 they transferred us to the southern part of Silesia. We were there for a couple of weeks and around June we slowly moved farther east toward the Soviet/German demarcation line in Poland. We were northwest of Lemberg in the area where we had fought in 1939.
WWII: That must have been a bit eerie. Did you have any idea at the time that the Soviet Union was next?
Hertenstein: There were all kinds of rumors going around as to what would happen next. One rumor was that we would go through the Ukraine and the Caucasus mountains, then down into Persia to cut off the British oil sources there. The Russians would supposedly permit us to go through their territory. There was a second rumor that we would go through the Caucasus, Turkey and Palestine, and go west from there to cut off the Suez Canal. Erwin Rommel with his Afrika Korps would then advance toward the canal from Libya. At one point we were told that a number of officers would be transferred to an officers’ reserve in case we suffered heavy losses. We weren’t thinking of war at that time. I was one of those officers, so I was transferred to the staff of our division. Then one morning we knew we were to attack the Russians.
WWII: The 13th Panzer Division encountered opposition pretty quickly into the invasion. Can you describe those initial few days?
Hertenstein: We came to the Szlutch River. This was the old Polish/Russian border before Russia invaded Poland in 1939. Here was the so called “Stalin Line,” which was a series of Russian fortifications. I was detached by the army corps and ordered to report to an infantry division that was going to cross the Szlutch the next day. I went down a valley to the west side of the river which was about 50 feet wide.
WWII: Usually the tanks were far ahead of the infantry columns, which were left behind to eliminate pockets of resistance. Seeing an infantry operation up close must have been something new for you. Can you describe what this attack was like?
Hertenstein: Preparations were made to breach the Russian defenses. Whoever was in charge on our side had set up every antitank gun, artillery piece and 88mm anti-aircraft gun that he could get ahold of. Each gun had one specific target: a gun opening on a bunker, a bunker window and so on. The next morning at dawn our combat engineers crossed the river in inflatable rafts unseen by the Russians. They advanced up the hill toward the bunkers, but all of a sudden some Russian soldiers opened fire. At that moment all hell broke loose! Each of our guns fired at its pinpointed target. It wasn’t just a certain house, but a certain window or opening. You could just inhale once and it was all over. It was quiet, and there was practically no more resistance. Our soldiers then crossed the river and cleaned out the bunkers. There was no bridge yet, so they had to cross with the rafts.
WWII: What was the situation on the other side of the river once the crossing had been made?
Hertenstein: After a while we heard from the units on the other side of the river that some Russian tanks were attacking them, so they needed antitank guns, but there was still no bridge. Some small 37mm antitank guns were loaded onto rafts to go across the river. They pulled the guns by hand because no vehicles could cross the river yet. Those 37mm guns were useless. Our antitank guns, or PAKs [Panzer Abwehr Kanonen], couldn’t penetrate the Russian tanks’ armor, so it was kind of harried for a while. Our PAKs had a nickname, “army knock-knock machines,” because all they could do was knock against the armor of the enemy tanks. The reports stated that these were new heavy Russian tanks. Our men finally knocked out some of these Russian tanks with handplaced mines or what have you.
WWII: What types of tanks were the infantrymen up against?
Hertenstein: That was the first time we were attacked by Russian T-34s. The T-34 was the best tank in the world at that time, bar none! It weighed about 26 tons, and it had sloped armor, which was thicker than that of our panzers. The T-34 had a 12- cylinder diesel engine. We used gasoline in our engines. Those T-34s were fast and had wide tracks that allowed them to go through soft terrain that our panzers couldn’t go through. The T-34s went through it like it was nothing.
WWII: Your infantrymen were lucky to beat off that attack. As an armored officer you must have been interested in what they had been up against. Did you have an opportunity to examine the Soviet tanks more closely?
Hertenstein: The next morning we saw the T-34s and, boy, we were impressed! Keep in mind that our short-barreled Panzer [kampfwagen Mark] IV was our heaviest tank. The T-34s could easily knock out our panzers from 1,000 yards. For us to have any chance at all against a T-34, we had to get as close as about 200 yards. Our Panzer IIIs had upgraded their guns from 37mm to 50mm, but they still had short barrels. Even with armor-piercing rounds, the Panzer IIIs didn’t have any chance either.
WWII: What sort of solution did the Wehrmacht come up with?
Hertenstein: Soon a new type of antitank ammunition was introduced on our side: shaped-charge rounds. The tip of a 75mm shell was hollow on the inside, and there was a concave powder charge in it. When this shell hit a tank’s armor, the fuse ignited the whole thing and concentrated all the power to one point. It was like welding through the armor. There was a small hole on the outside where it hit, but on the inside metal fragments went in all directions. The pressure on the inside would usually kill the whole crew, particularly if it hit the turret. I remember being told that the Russians complained about these shells. They said this ammunition was against the Geneva Convention, but these shells were the only thing we had at that time that worked. The T-34 remained the best tank in the world until well into 1943, but then we got the Tiger and the Panther.
WWII: You amassed an impressive collection of awards during the war. It is unlikely that this would have happened if you remained a staff officer. How did you get back into combat?
Hertenstein: We moved farther east and came to Fastov, which is southwest of Kiev. We saw long columns of Russian prisoners who were moving back to the rear. I was still with the division staff when we were near Fastov. I was on duty as an ordnance officer. This made me the direct companion of Maj. Gen. [Walter] Düvert, the division commander. Wherever the general went I went with him. One day the general and I were at division headquarters. Somehow I found out that my regimental commander in Panzer Regiment 4 had slipped on the rear section of his panzer and had broken his shoulder, so he was out of commission for a short while. My former platoon of my former company didn’t have a platoon leader. The next morning I woke up in my tent and put on my black panzer uniform. I requested that I be allowed to participate in the attack that morning. To be honest, one of the reasons I wanted to participate in the attack was because I had “chest pains.” I wanted the Iron Cross first class, which I didn’t have yet. We were advancing through Russia so fast at that time. I figured if I didn’t participate in the action, the war would be over before I could get the award. I wanted this medal in the worst way.
WWII: Did you find what you were looking for?
Hertenstein: I took off in a Panzer IV. This was in the wide open Ukrainian country. It was August 19, 1941, and there were miles of huge cornfields or sunflower fields in the cooperative farms they had there. Suddenly a Russian artillery battery fired directly at us! They were 200 yards beyond where the field ended. So immediately I gave orders to load high explosive rounds, and gave the distance and direction that they should be fired. I don’t remember now if we fired a round or not, but the Russians hit us. There was smoke and sparks all over the place, so I yelled for my crew to get out of the tank. How I got out, I don’t know. We were receiving infantry fire from all sides. There were a bunch of Russian soldiers in the field, but we couldn’t see them through all the sunflower plants. There were Russian foxholes all around us. It wasn’t a pretty situation. Three of the crew were with me behind the panzer, but our driver, Walter, was missing. My gunner had a large gash on his leg. We tried to get forward so we could check on the driver, but then our panzer was hit a second time.
WWII: It sounds as if you had stirred up quite a hornet’s nest.
Hertenstein: In the meantime more German panzers had arrived. Then our doctor came in a Panzer II. He took care of our gunner and brought him back to the rear. The fighting slowly simmered down. Our battalion was now sitting about 400 yards ahead of me in the open field. We then looked in our panzer to see what was wrong with our driver. When I opened the hatch we found Walter still in his seat with both hands on the steering sticks. Everything above his lower jaw was gone. We had been hit right smack in the front plate that was right above his vision slit in front. It must have been a high explosive round, because it didn’t penetrate the panzer. Four hundred meters is a short distance and the Russians had 4-inch howitzers. The explosion shot the glass back into our panzer. This took our driver’s head off. Walter had been in the same room with me when we were recruits in 1937. He was a young fellow who had a beautiful baritone voice and he often sang. Walter was a prince of a guy.
WWII: This unexpected fire must have thrown the attack into some disarray. How did things proceed from there?
Hertenstein: Captain Herbert Gomille was the senior ranking company commander, so he took over the battalion. I was the senior lieutenant in the 5th Company, so I took over the company. Of course, I never returned to the division staff again. I stayed with my company and led it for approximately a month.
WWII: Your first assault in the Soviet Union had been against entrenched infantry and artillery. What happened when you ran into T-34s for the first time in your own tank?
Hertenstein: We were to attack southwest in the direction of Dnepropetrovsk on the Dniepr River. [On August 21, 1941,] we were still well outside the city on a slight hill when we received some fire. Downhill, about 1,000 yards away, there was a hedge where about an equal number of Russian T-34s were facing us. We had approximately 30 panzers left, about 10 in each company. On the left side was the 7th Company under a Lieutenant Weichselbaum with 10 Panzer IIIs. In the center was my company with about 10 Panzer IVs. The 8th Company under 1st Lt. Gehrig was on the right with about 10 Panzer IIIs with 5cm guns. The enemy fire concentrated primarily on our left, and the 7th Company received a few hits from the enemy tanks. We soon received some orders over the radio from our battalion. Each panzer had a radio and a transmitter. The battle group ordered us to attack the T-34s, which were much superior to our panzers. We had almost no chance without artillery support. It was almost suicide. There was only one thing that could save us.
WWII: What was that?
Hertenstein: My company would lay a smoke screen in front of the Russians before we attacked. We would then advance full speed ahead and fire every gun and machine gun like crazy. We had the panzer crews pile up ammunition on the turret platform for the loaders, and we prepared the magazines for the machine guns. We prepared our panzers in about five to 10 minutes, and then reported back when we were ready. The battalion commander ordered my company to start laying down the smoke screen. Each panzer would fire three smoke rounds, so we fired about 30 rounds. I think each panzer carried about 10 smoke rounds. We laid a beautiful smoke screen. It worked like a charm! Then we got the order from our battalion commander, Captain Herbert Gomille, verbatim: “Battalion, full speed ahead! I’ll see you down by the hedge or in heaven!”
WWII: It sounds like the charge of the Light Brigade.
Hertenstein: We three company commanders ordered everyone to go full speed ahead and we fired like crazy. In the thousand yards that we advanced, my panzer fired approximately 50 rounds. We just fired one shell after the other no matter where it went. As we got down to the Russian positions and looked around, we saw the last of the Russian tanks taking off through a little valley. We then went into the hedge and received infantry fire from all sides. The bullets went ping, ping, ping off our panzers. Of course, they didn’t go through our armor. We backed out because we were afraid the Russians might explode some mines on our turrets or do something like that. Battalion then told us to go forward again. Our infantry came too and cleaned up the resistance.
WWII: It must have been a terrific feeling to have achieved your objective.
Hertenstein: We were just glad the Russian tanks took off. We wondered why in the world did they leave. We soon found out from some Russian prisoners that they thought our smoke screen was gas. Apparently, they didn’t have any gas masks.
WWII: The 13th was out in front during the advance toward Dnepropetrosk and the crossings of the Dnieper River. You must have encountered stiffer opposition the closer you got.
Hertenstein: [A couple days later] there was another hedge down the road, so we advanced toward it. When we were about eight feet in front of the hedge, we saw it was full of Russian soldiers in their foxholes. We were so close to them that we couldn’t lower our gun enough to fire at them. I ordered my driver to move the panzer backward so I could shoot in there. He moved us back maybe three or four yards. Then he yelled into the intercom, which was between the commander and the driver, “Herr Leutnant, I’m going to roll over them!” He put the panzer in gear and rolled forward. About 10 feet from the hedge, two explosive fireballs hit our panzer. Fire and burning liquid seeped into the panzer. The commander’s cupola didn’t have an airtight seal, and the panzer itself wasn’t airtight either. Smoke was coming inside, so we backed out 20 or 30 yards. We had to get out of the panzer because we couldn’t breathe anymore. We jumped out very quickly as we were under sporadic infantry fire. The land was flat so we had no cover whatsoever. We were receiving Russian fire from all sides. The situation was anything but nice.
WWII: It sounds like a job for the infantry.
Hertenstein: After a while the Russian firing slowed down as our infantry cleaned them up. We had been able to get out of the panzer, but my gunner got a slight wound in his shoulder. He was gone for only a couple days afterward. The battalion then moved on.
WWII: In these situations a tank unsupported by infantry is at its most vulnerable. Did you ever discover what the flames that shot into your tank were from?
Hertenstein: Two Molotov cocktails were thrown onto our Panzer IV and they were still burning, primarily on the panzer’s paint. A Molotov cocktail is a glass bottle with phosphorus and gasoline in it, which is ignited by a fuse. The Russians would light the fuse on a Molotov cocktail, and when it started to burn, they would throw it on a panzer. When the bottle broke the liquid started burning and it would spread all over the panzer. It was a very effective close range weapon. Our panzer was smoking like crazy and it looked really bad. We were wondering how we would get it out of there. Sticky stuff from the Molotov cocktails was running all over our necks, shoulders and arms. It was hot in August so we weren’t wearing our jackets, just our grey uniform shirts. It burned us, so we made a mixture of some pills that we had to fight against mustard gas. We dissolved them in some tea and smeared it on ourselves. Then our doctor, 1st Lt. Bachhaibl, came and put something else on us. The doctor took care of us, and then he took my gunner with him so he could be given some more first aid. That was my first wound, and we were all eventually awarded a Verwundetenabzeichen [wound badge] for it.
WWII: Did the doctor take you out of the line or did you remain with your vehicle?
Hertenstein: When it all got settled down a little bit, we tried to extinguish the fire on our panzer by throwing dirt on it. As soon as the dirt didn’t cover a spot, the phosphorus started burning again. We had a hell of a time there. Finally, we had it just about ready so we could stay in the panzer. It still smelled like hell.
WWII: One of the things that the fighting on the Eastern Front is known for is its brutality. Did you ever encounter what today would be considered a war crime?
Hertenstein: On our way to Mariupol, we were diverted to a village where the Russians had attacked a German supply unit. We went into the village, but we couldn’t figure out why there were a bunch of German soldiers with shaved heads running around. It wasn’t the custom for German soldiers to shave their heads. The Russians did that. Then these soldiers started to fire at us. To make a long story short, this Russian unit had overwhelmed the German supply column. You should have seen how the Russians massacred the 20 or so German soldiers that fell into their hands! They stripped the Germans of their uniforms before they murdered them in an unbelievable fashion. Their bodies were mutilated. The Russians put the German uniforms on and that is why we at first thought they were our men.
WWII: This was a very different sort of war than the one you had fought in France.
Hertenstein: Very few Russian prisoners were taken in the battle. Our battalion commander then ordered a court-martial for the five or six Russian prisoners who fell into our hands. They were condemned to death and shot. That was the only time during the entire war that I saw an execution.
WWII: People often condemn the behavior of German troops in Russia. What would you say to those who would consider your battalion commander’s order a war crime?
Hertenstein: I still believe that not only was it the right thing to do, but it was totally justified after the way they had acted against our soldiers. I have never felt ashamed to be, or to have been, a member of the German army. I’m not saying that the atrocities didn’t happen. I personally believe it wasn’t so much the Waffen-SS that committed these atrocities. It was done by the SS-Einsatzgruppen [task forces] and in the concentration camps. We didn’t see any of those atrocities, and didn’t have any opportunity to watch them. We heard rumors about the Einsatzgruppen, and that was the extent of it. I don’t know how things were in the SS, but there was still a lot of chivalry in the army. The army was run the way it should have been.
WWII: Adolf Hitler had intended to complete Operation Barbarossa before the autumn weather put a stop to the offensive. As we all know, despite the Wehrmacht’s many victories, this goal was not achieved. Where were you when the weather finally turned against you?
Hertenstein: We traveled farther east along the Azov Sea from Mariupol to Taganrog. We moved from there to an area northeast of Taganrog. It was open countryside again. This was in October 1941. We were pretty much at a standstill for a while. Our unit was sitting about 800 yards behind the frontline infantry. We dug holes under our panzers to sleep in. It rained quite often and there was a lot of mud. It was terrible. Around late October or early November, we were pulled back another five or six miles to a kolkhoz, which is a farmers’ cooperative. A number of storage buildings were there. We parked our panzers beside them and went inside. The buildings had straw roofs, and it got cold outside. We built a fire inside one of the buildings, but it was so cold we couldn’t sleep. We huddled up and sat all night around the fire. The Russian winter had arrived.
WWII: Did you find anything surprising that next morning?
Hertenstein: The next morning the tracks of our panzers were frozen into the mud, because it was so cold the previous night. With some of them we had to open the tracks and pull the panzers off of them. Then with blow torches we loosened the tracks out of the ground and then remounted the tracks on the panzers again. If the Russians had attacked us that day, we would have been defenseless. Fortunately, they didn’t.
WWII: That first cold snap did not entirely halt operations though.
Hertenstein: We took Rostov, but not for long. The Russians threw us out. We returned to a defensive line about two or three miles east of the Mius River. The Mius River went north of the Azov Sea toward Stalino, and we stayed there.
WWII: When was this?
Hertenstein: It was in early December 1941, and this is when we heard about the Pearl Harbor attack. Then we heard Adolf Hitler on our company’s portable radio giving a speech. He declared war on the United States. I remember that I thought— and I emphasize the word “thought” because you couldn’t say this, particularly as an officer—“I hope the idiot knows what he’s doing!” If you said that about Hitler you would have been court-martialed before you knew what happened.
WWII: Even with the halt of the offensive in Russia, everything had been going Germany’s way up to that point. Many probably thought Hitler’s declaration of war was of little consequence.
Hertenstein: I thought it was idiotic for Hitler to declare war on the United States. If America wanted to make war, then let them declare it. Why should we, little Germany, declare war on this big country? I had read a lot about World War I. In my opinion, once the United States entered the war in 1917, the end was near for Germany. America entered the previous war with tremendous superiority in men, machinery, ammunition and weapons. I feared the same thing could happen again.
WWII: The invasion of Russia had been going on for almost six months and the fighting continued. What did you do next?
Hertenstein: We were pulled back another 10 miles or more to another village. On Christmas Eve I was ordered to take my platoon back to Pokrovskoye again. I then reported to the commander of the 7th Company. He showed me three houses where we were supposed to stay. After a while the company commander of 7th Company was transferred somewhere else, so I took over the whole unit there. The situation was generally quiet but very cold. It was 20, 30, even 40 degrees below zero Fahrenheit. The snow was blowing almost horizontally in the strong easterly winds.
WWII: Nobody had thought that the fighting would go on into 1942. Were you ready and equipped for the winter weather?
Hertenstein: We were issued some heavy greatcoats for the winter, but it was still not enough. We didn’t even have any winter footwear. No! My unit and I were lucky, because we were basically in houses all winter long. We went outside as little as possible, only when absolutely necessary. We were definitely not equipped for that kind of Russian winter. I feel sorry just thinking about our infantrymen outside in their foxholes. How they survived is beyond me.
WWII: How did the extreme cold affect your panzers?
Hertenstein: The cold was a problem with our panzers. How do you keep them running? We had antifreeze, but it wasn’t sufficient. Our battalion had the same difficulties. We covered up our engine compartments as best we could. We used tarps, straw or whatever we had. Every four hours the drivers, or someone else from the panzer crews, went into the panzers and started the engines. They would run it up almost to the boiling point, and then shut off the engine. This went on both day and night. The panzers would drink gas like you wouldn’t believe. Someone at our division said we had to find a way to cut back on our gasoline consumption.
WWII: You had to be ready to fight. If you could not run your engines, what did you do?
Hertenstein: We received some little catalytic stoves to put in our engine compartments. As a test, we put six of them in a panzer and left them on overnight without running the engine. It later took us 24 hours to get the engine started again. Those stoves were no good. They then told us to dig holes for the panzers so just the turrets were above the ground. This way they wouldn’t be exposed to the cold wind. We couldn’t even dig into the frozen ground! They sent us some engineers who tried to use sticks of dynamite in the ground. They put the dynamite in shallow holes about an inch or two deep. That didn’t work either. The division finally told us to continue using gasoline and running the engines.
WWII: It sounds as if there was little you could do against the enemy in those conditions. How did you occupy your men and keep up their morale?
Hertenstein: We didn’t do very much during the winter. What could we do? We cleaned our guns, and went through our clothes and killed the lice. We had lice and there wasn’t a thing we could do about them. Besides, we didn’t have a room big enough to keep the whole outfit together for any activities. Occasionally, I would put a platoon in a room for however long. We had war games and singalongs. There wasn’t much we could do. We just tried to live decently and eat and drink when we could. It was a big day when the mail came. It arrived at widely various intervals. I had a young lieutenant in the 7th Company who was a good chess player. He was from Vienna. We played about 200 games of chess that winter, and I think I won twice. He was fantastic. Our morale wasn’t bad. We didn’t like the cold, but we were ordered to stay there. We didn’t have much choice.
Hertenstein’s account of his service in the USSR will conclude in the July/August issue. Robert Mulcahy is a U.S. Air Force historian. His interview with Hertenstein is provided courtesy of the Center for Oral and Public History, California State University, Fullerton. For further reading, see Blood Red Snow: The Memoirs of a German Soldier on the Eastern Front, by Günter K. Koschorrek.
Originally published in the April 2006 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.