Book Review – Hans Heinz Rehfeldt, Mortar Gunner on the Eastern Front Vols 1 &2 (Barnsley: Greenhill, 2019)

Hans Heinz Rehfeldt served on the eastern front during World War II. He joined the Reinforced Infantry Battalion Grossdeutschland in November 1941 and remained with this formation when it was expanded into a full division until the end of the war when he was captured by the Americans in May 1945. He initially joined a mortar team in the IV Platoon, 8 Company, II Battalion and then moved to the Tross, support unit within the formation before returning to command a mortar team.[1] He served with the unit through all its major engagements including actions around Moscow and Tula in 1941, fighting in the eastern Ukraine in 1942, participating in the recapture of Kharkov and Operation Citadel in 1943, defensive actions in the Carpathian mountains in 1944 and finally last-ditch defence of East Prussia against the Soviets in the final months of the war. 

 

The original German account was published in 2008 with the English translation being published in 2019. This account contains Rehfeldt’s account covers over 700 pages in two volumes. Rehfeldt mainly describes his daily activities, the action, weather conditions and extensively the action of combat that his unit was engaged. The account is interesting; it includes a large number of photographs and copies of Russian propaganda material dropped on German units. It also has useful annotations on from former US army colonel Gilberto Villahermosa.

 

Rehfeldt says that his ‘observations and the events I experienced were noted down directly on the day and place they occurred’ however, there are many times where a retrospective comment is added to the contemporaneous diary entries.[2] For example, in a diary entry in December 1941, he recalled that ‘to survive, one had to have the will to pull through. It sometimes happened that totally exhausted men simply lay down to sleep in the snow…sleeping in the snow meant certain death’[3] Also, some passages used the present tense and other bits used the past tense suggesting text may have been altered at a later date. There is no clear demarcation of where this is done which is difficult to know what was written during the war and when Rehfeldt was editing the document for publication in the early 2000s. This also raises the question of whether bits of the diary were left out?

Since the 1990s, the idea of the ‘clean Wehrmacht’ has largely been dispelled but Rehfeldt makes no reference to whether the Grossdeutschland Division committed any war crimes or other such acts. He acknowledged that Russian political commissars were shot dead on the battlefield but that said he ‘never saw it done during my four years.…but certainly, many Commissars were liquidated’.[4] Certainly, men of the Grossdeutschland Division committed war crimes in France in 1940 shooting French black soldiers dead.[5]

 

Rehfeldt’s account suggests that he and his colleagues in the Grossdeutschland may have been guilty of war crimes. He makes several references to having ‘organised’ items from civilians’ houses.[6] [7] In December 1941, while billeted in a house with his mates he wrote that ‘today we slaughtered a pig. Opa, Matka and the two children got portions: after all it was their pig…’[8] In July 1942, he said that that ‘every slit trench and cowshed had to be searched for enemy solders…but all we found were great-grandfathers, Matkas…Naturally very anxious, they offered us basis and baskets with fruit, eggs and melons but we ‘organised’ milk, cream, eggs and home-baked white bread for ourselves’.[9]

 

He also makes references to the killing of POWs. In December 1941, in response to a German soldier having been found upon a frozen pond ‘cruelly mutilated’, seven ‘Russian soldiers were discovered in hiding. These men were shot in complicity in the atrocity…C’est la guerre’.[10] The next day the ‘order came down from above, ‘take no prisoners’…The reason was the body of the Grossdeutschland comrade found on the village pond’.[11] Other incidents were reported.[12] He also reports that his unit took aggressive action against partisans. On the 13 February 1943, to make an important high way safe for German traffic ‘we made a surprise attack on a large village to the right of it accompanied by panzers…Our attack tempo, motivated by anger, resulted in a clean sweep after house-to-house fighting. We received fire from almost every window. We made a radical ‘cleansing’ of armed civilians’.[13]

 

There is also evidence that he anti-Semitism within the unit. In March 1944, the unit was sent to Hungry to help to support the ‘Hungarian state which filthy profiteers intended to drag down to wrack and ruin. We were also told that the Minister-President had been collaborating with the Jews and made himself a fortune by dirty dealings’.[14]

 

The account is interesting as it gives some interesting insights. He talked about the appointment of National Socialist Leadership Officers (NSLO) within in frontline units after the failed assassination attempt on Hitler in July 1944. In October 1944, Rehfeldt was appointed the NSLO for his unit and explained it as ‘similar to the Russian ‘Political Commissar’’. His had a ‘a few advantages, but also a heap more work. When we are resting, I have the chance to attend conferences with the officers and talk with them about the general situation, both politically and especially about the front…Although we of the Grossdeutschland are considered ‘political soldiers’ because initially, all had been volunteers from the Hitler Youth…the NSFO has never had any special significance for us…the officers are happy to have nothing to do with it, they have far, far more important tasks on hand!’.[15] He also mentions the extremes of the conditions; in December 1941 the unit recorded the temperature falling to minus 52C and then in July the following years the ‘thermometer reading was plus 50C’.[16]

 

Notes: 

[1] Hans Heinz Rehfeldt, Mortar Gunner on the Eastern Front, Volume 1 (Barnsley: Greenhill, 2019), p.9.

[2] Hans Heinz Rehfeldt, Mortar Gunner on the Eastern Front, Volume 1 (Barnsley: Greenhill, 2019), pp.vi, 182.

[3] Hans Heinz Rehfeldt, Mortar Gunner on the Eastern Front, Volume 1 (Barnsley: Greenhill, 2019), pp.62-63.

[4] Hans Heinz Rehfeldt, Mortar Gunner on the Eastern Front, Volume 1 (Barnsley: Greenhill, 2019), p.iv.

[5] Raffael Scheck, Hitler’s African Victims. The German Army Massacres of Black French Soldiers in 1940 (Cambridge: CUP, 2006), pp.124–126, 154–157.

[6] Hans Heinz Rehfeldt, Mortar Gunner on the Eastern Front, Volume 1 (Barnsley: Greenhill, 2019), p.16.

[7] Hans Heinz Rehfeldt, Mortar Gunner on the Eastern Front, Volume 1 (Barnsley: Greenhill, 2019), p.292.

[8] Hans Heinz Rehfeldt, Mortar Gunner on the Eastern Front, Volume 1 (Barnsley: Greenhill, 2019), p.20.

[9] Hans Heinz Rehfeldt, Mortar Gunner on the Eastern Front, Volume 1 (Barnsley: Greenhill, 2019), p.193.

[10] Hans Heinz Rehfeldt, Mortar Gunner on the Eastern Front, Volume 1 (Barnsley: Greenhill, 2019), p.22.

[11] Hans Heinz Rehfeldt, Mortar Gunner on the Eastern Front, Volume 1 (Barnsley: Greenhill, 2019), p.23.

[12] Hans Heinz Rehfeldt, Mortar Gunner on the Eastern Front, Volume 2 (Barnsley: Greenhill, 2019), p.153.

[13] Hans Heinz Rehfeldt, Mortar Gunner on the Eastern Front, Volume 1 (Barnsley: Greenhill, 2019), p.271.

[14] Hans Heinz Rehfeldt, Mortar Gunner on the Eastern Front, Volume 2 (Barnsley: Greenhill, 2019), p.55.

[15] Hans Heinz Rehfeldt, Mortar Gunner on the Eastern Front, Volume 2 (Barnsley: Greenhill, 2019), p.148.

[16] Hans Heinz Rehfeldt, Mortar Gunner on the Eastern Front, Volume 1 (Barnsley: Greenhill, 2019), p.56, 181.