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When Ehlers told him about Colonel Daude’s message, the lieutenant changed tactics: “Good, I understand your problem, but consider this. Here in the hut there is no room for the prisoners. Even when the wounded have been evacuated the available space has to be used for my soldiers to get some rest. For the moment they can only squat in their foxholes, and to send the prisoners back to the Russians is out of the question. Also, during the night we have too few men to spare to guard the prisoners. And what if we come under attack? As we are only 42 men, every soldier will be needed to fight, none can be spared to guard prisoners.”

“Perhaps we can tie up the prisoners to prevent them from escaping.”

“Well, if they are tied they will have to lie on the ground. If they do they will have frozen to death in the morning. However, I cancel my order that you should shoot them. Rather I order you to hand the prisoners over to me.”

Ehlers went to his foxhole, where he found that the radio operator was talking to Captain Iwohn, who said that the prisoners would have to be handed over to the commandant of the strongpoint, but the regiment commander was working to arrange a transport. With weak knees Ehlers walked back to the command post, bringing the prisoners along. They stepped into the hut and Ehlers, with some exaggeration, reported that Colonel Daude had personally worked to make a transport available. The lieutenant dryly replied that so he had apprehended. He ordered one of the NCOs to take charge of the prisoners and take them outside, and soon two pistol shots cracked. With heavy heart, Ehlers walked back to his foxhole and he had hardly arrived when Soviet mortar shells landed and exploded. Ehlers ordered his radio operator to call for barrages on both sides of the position.657

The fate of prisoners captured on the Eastern Front was far too often deplorable. In this particular situation, it seems that the initial intent was to treat the Soviet soldiers as international law demanded, but still they were killed in the end. Perhaps such circumstances influenced Stemmermann’s order for the breakout, where he emphasized that there should be no violations of international law. During a breakout it would be difficult to make proper arrangements for prisoners. On the other hand, there was actually little risk of just letting them go, after removing their weapons. There would be little valuable information they could possibly reveal when they again found a Soviet unit to report to. Before the breakout it was of course wholly different, as secrecy had to be maintained, but as long as the breakout had not begun it would be relatively easy to guard prisoners.

The German Attack Toward Oktaybr, 16 February

As we recall, Stemmermann deemed it necessary that 1st Panzer Division should defeat the Soviet units defending northeast of Lisyanka. Breith of course realized the importance of gaining ground northeast of Lisyanka and flew to the village early in the morning, with the intention of staying there until the soldiers of Gruppe Stemmermann had reached safety. At the same time as Kampfgruppe Frank began to attack toward Oktyabr, Breith’s Fieseler Storch landed.658

As Breith could see for himself, the attack did not get off to an auspicious start. Kamfgruppe Pietsch, which was to support Frank, consisted of one PzKw IV, one StuG III, and 19 officers and men from the 17th Reconnaissance Battalion. However, the StuG III fell out due to a broken drive shaft before even getting in position, halving the armor strength of the Kampfgruppe. Furthermore, a Soviet attack by T-34 tanks had to be repelled by a Panther company, but during the action two Panthers crashed into small ravines that were covered by snow and thus invisible to the tank drivers. Both tanks were eventually recovered, but only after much work.659

Another Soviet attack followed soon. The Germans estimated that the attack force was made up of 30 T-34s. Sergeant Strippel, with three Panthers, was sent to counterattack. Fortunately for him he received reinforcements; first two more tanks were detailed to him, then another two followed. With his seven Panthers Strippel repulsed the Soviet attack, and it was claimed that no less than 27 T-34s had been knocked out in the action as opposed to only one Panther. Whatever the true loss to the Soviet attack force, this success paved the way for a German attack on Oktyabr, which was launched after noon.660

While Kampfgruppe Frank attacked toward Oktyabr, another Germans force approached from the north. It was heavy Panzer Regiment Bäke, which was attacking toward hill 239.0, situated about two kilometers east-northeast of Oktyabr. Bäke’s regiment had seen its strength decline considerably. At the moment it amounted to two platoons of Panther tanks and two platoons of Tigers, rather than a battalion of each type. He deployed his Panthers to the right and the Tigers to the left, as his force attacked toward hill 239.0.661

When the tanks had reached a point approximately two kilometers north of hill 239.0, the small force halted, as Stukas from Geschwader Immelmann launched attacks on a forest east of Oktyabr. Also, a stretch of forest east-southeast of Dzhurzhentsy was attacked by the aircraft. Both these areas were good positions for Soviet antitank guns to hide in. After about 15 minutes the Luftwaffe had made its contribution, and Bäke’s tanks rolled forward. Walter Scherf, in command of the Tigers, almost immediately heard gunfire. It turned out that a number of T-34s had been observed and were taken under fire by the Panthers, who eliminated the threat from the Soviet tanks and thereafter engaged enemy antitank guns near Oktyabr.662

Scherf’s Tigers proceeded uneventfully until they reached close to the area where the Stukas had attacked. Fires could be observed, and Scherf concluded that the Stukas had done their job. However, it soon became apparent that the Soviet soldiers were tenacious. At the edge of the forest east of Oktyabr a few antitank guns had survived the Stuka attack, and the Red Army soldiers strived to man their weapons as the Tigers approached. Unfortunately for them, the crews of Scherf’s Tigers had already seen them and had the advantage of power traverse for their guns. The Germans opened fire first and knocked out the antitank guns before they could respond, but the troubles for the Tigers were not over. A firefight with T-34 tanks broke out, and one Tiger was hit in the engine compartment and caught fire. The crew bailed out in time and saw how the ammunition exploded. After further actions with Soviet tanks the other Tigers reached their goal and established a defense at hill 239.0.663

In the meantime, Kampfgruppe Frank had battled on toward Oktyabr, after receiving an air resupply, especially of fuel. Rather than attacking straight on from Lisyanka, Frank chose to send his few available tanks and scarce infantry in a “left hook,” to take Oktyabr from the north. Despite the fact that three Panthers bogged down in marshes that had been concealed by recently fallen snow, Frank’s troops pushed on to take Oktyabr. They managed to create a weak screen west of Dzhurzhentsy, but to clear the forest east of Oktyabr proved beyond their strength.664

Toward the end of the day Kampfgruppe Frank counted barely a dozen operational Panther tanks. The infantry companies of II./Pz.Gren.Rgt. 113 had a combat strength of only about a dozen men each. Within or near Lisyanka there were also many tanks that had suffered minor damage or had bogged down. As it was clear that the position held by Kampfgruppe Frank was dangerously exposed, and the condition of the terrain made rapid recovery of damaged tanks unlikely, many of the immobile tanks were prepared for demolition.665