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Olaf Ehlers: An Incident Near Yurkovka, 16 February

In the end, the XXXXVII Panzer Corps saw little action on 16 February. Most of the front line was calm, but some fighting took place over a few small hills northwest of Yurkovka. The Germans committed scattered units in this action. Olaf Ehlers was among the soldiers from 13th Panzer Division who participated, and he described his experiences in his diary. Early in the morning his Kampfgruppe formed, consisting of about 60 men. Ehlers, as observer for the artillery, brought with him a radio operator and radio equipment. However the few available vehicles did not allow Ehlers, his radio operator, and the equipment to be transported. Both the crates for the radios could be loaded in an SPW, but there was only room for either Ehlers or the radio operator. Ehlers thought it was best to let the operator go with the radios, while he followed on foot.646

Armed with a pistol, Ehlers struggled through the snow that covered the muddy ground beneath, following the tracks of the Kampfgruppe. The vehicles had already disappeared when he heard the unmistakable sounds of combat. It seemed to be a very brief action, as it soon became silent, and when Ehlers had squelched forward he found a few corpses of Soviet soldiers who had recently been killed. The German vehicles had continued forward and were invisible to Ehlers, because they had passed a crest line.647

Ehlers had not had anything to eat in the morning, but next to one of the fallen soldiers he found a bag with some bread and cheese, which he brought along. Before he continued forward, he took a Russian machine pistol, as he had lost his own a few days earlier. After only a few steps he found the bodies of two other Soviet soldiers, but there was something strange about them, as they lay in the snow without any trace of blood. With the newly acquired machine pistol he hit one of them on the boot, and suddenly the Soviet soldier moved up with his arms raised, and then the other “corpse” got up too. It was clear to Ehlers that these young boys had no intention of killing him, which they could easily have done when he walked toward them, had it been their intention. Rather they had thrown away their weapons and pretended to be dead.648

Unexpectedly Ehlers found himself in the possession of two prisoners of war, and decided to bring them along, as he was needed further forward. It was unthinkable to leave them, as they could get back to their unit and inform their commanders about the German forces they had encountered. Ehlers realized that he could have shot them, but he would not do that, even though he had seen Soviet soldiers kill Germans who had surrendered.649

Accompanied by his two prisoners, Ehlers continued forward. After walking for about half an hour they met a German tank which was loaded with killed and wounded soldiers, and had no space for the two prisoners. Ehlers continued the arduous march forward accompanied by the Soviet soldiers.650

After plodding through the snow for two and a half hours, Ehlers found his Kampfgruppe, which was busy improving foxholes that had been captured from the Soviet forces who had been defending earlier, but who had disappeared before Ehlers arrived. The Germans soldiers looked with amazement on the two Soviet soldiers Ehlers brought with him as he walked toward the command post. This was located in a small hut whose roof had been shot away. Ehlers let a grenadier guard the prisoners as he reported to the lieutenant who commanded the Kampfgruppe. The officer told Ehlers that they would have to prepare an all around defense, and his observation position would have to be part of the perimeter defense, since few riflemen were available.651

Ehlers concurred and said he could use his prisoners to dig. The lieutenant agreed and asked Ehlers to hurry, as an enemy counterattack could be expected at any moment. When Ehlers asked that the prisoners should be taken to the rear as soon as a suitable vehicle arrived, the officer replied that it would probably be difficult, as the only armored vehicle available was on its way with ammunition and rations, and would take wounded German soldiers to a dressing station after it had unloaded the supplies.652

Ehlers, the radio operator, and the two prisoners began working and had created a useful dugout when, in the afternoon, a blizzard set in. In the hope of using the whirling snow as concealment, Soviet forces launched an attack against the German Kampfgruppe, but Ehlers had contact with his battery and called artillery fire on the approaching enemy, whose attack halted under the fire from the German howitzers and machine guns.653

The Soviet attack on the position had been successfully repulsed, but it soon became apparent that the German position was almost cut off, as Soviet forces could fire upon the area behind the small hill held by the Germans. The tank that was supposed to bring food and ammunition had to wait until darkness before it could reach the exposed position. When it arrived it became clear to the soldiers that the amount of food was scarce and Ehlers’ two prisoners only got some bread. Ehlers’ hopes that the two prisoners would be taken to the rear with the tank were dashed, as not even all of the wounded German soldiers could be evacuated by the tank.654

About an hour after the tank had left with the wounded, Ehlers received a runner who conveyed an order from the lieutenant that the prisoners should be shot. Ehlers sent the runner back without any reply. He had no intention of killing the prisoners, and rather used his radio set to get into contact with Captain Iwohn, his commander, and described the situation. Iwohn replied that he would personally intervene to ensure that the tank came back once more, or else he would try to find another vehicle that could get the prisoners.655

After arming himself with the words of his commander, Ehlers went to the lieutenant at his command post. Ehlers told the lieutenant that the two Soviet soldiers were his personal prisoners and that he himself had the responsibility to ensure that they were treated according to international law.

“Now hear this,” the lieutenant bragged to two other NCOs next to him. “According to the international law, it is not allowed to put prisoners to dig fieldworks.” The lieutenant turned to Ehlers and said: “Herr Oberfänrich, I have given you the clear order to shoot the prisoners.”

“Herr Oberleutenant,” Ehlers replied sharply, “You have no right to order me, I am detailed to cooperate with you, but I am not your subordinate.”

“Hear this,” the lieutenant said to the other NCOs in the room, before turning to Ehlers again. “You are Oberfähnrich and still not an officer and you refuse to follow an order from an officer? I will report you for punishment.”

However, Ehlers did not back off:

“Here I do my service as observation officer and I hold the Iron Cross just as you do. And as for the artillery fire I do not decide, due to the shortage of ammunition, but my commander at the battery decides.”

“We are surrounded,” the lieutenant replied, “and as commander of the strongpoint I can order anyone within it, including you, to be part of the garrison. Thus I again give you the formal order to shoot the prisoners.”

Ehlers walked back to his foxhole and once more contacted Captain Iwohn on the radio. After hearing Ehlers’ description of what had transpired, Iwohn said that he could not prevent Ehlers from becoming part of the garrison, but nevertheless he strictly ordered Ehlers and the radio operator that they should not, under any circumstances, shoot the prisoners. During the radio conversation Ehlers noted that the two Soviet soldiers became white in the face; perhaps they understood some German. To Ehlers’ relief it turned out that the regimental commander, Colonel Daude, had forbidden the shooting of the prisoners, and armed with this information he returned to the hut, where the lieutenant had demanded a report on the execution.656