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  • Print publication year: 2015
  • Online publication date: February 2015

9 - Down to the wire

Summary

Victory or death: the Nazi cult of the dead

As of 26 November 1941, the Ostheer had sustained 743,112 casualties in the war against the Soviet Union. That equalled 23 per cent of the total German invasion force on 22 June 1941, and even this figure did not include those released from duty due to sickness. Overall, by the end of November more than a quarter of a million men (262,297 German troops) had been killed outright or died of their wounds. With the reserves of the Replacement Army long since exhausted, the Ostheer was now some 340,000 men short, which, according to Buhle at the OKH, meant that the combat strength of the infantry divisions was reduced by 50 per cent. Army Group Centre’s losses from the beginning of November to 3 December came to 45,735 men. Under such circumstances less and less could be expected of the combat units and yet, as Siegfried Knappe noted, ‘Russian resistance became more and more determined now as we neared Moscow, and our casualties were becoming much heavier.’ Similarly, Gustav Schrodek recalled: ‘Our ranks were getting thinner. A couple got hit every day. When would it be our turn?’ Such fatalism was easy to understand among the worst affected companies. One non-commissioned officer, writing a letter home on 21 November, spoke of his company being reduced to just twenty men as early as October: ‘We few remaining soldiers of our division crave so badly the forlorn hope of replacement.’ Ultimately, the division was forced to provide its own replacements by disbanding one battalion in every regiment and using the men generated to reinforce the remaining formations. Such administrative sleight of hand may have raised the number of active service companies, but it left the same number of men having to achieve the division’s objectives. Just how German casualties were impacting upon the long stretches of the eastern front was illustrated by Ernst Kern when he noted on 24 November: ‘This time we had to hold a position that, until now, had been defended by a whole battalion. There were five of us in a sector half a kilometre long, with twenty-eight bunkers that we felt were royally built. Each of us could have five bunkers to live in … We decided to stay together in a centrally located bunker.’

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