The Story of Corporal Niewig


It was a rum lot, thought Corporal Nieweg of the 4th AntiAircraft Battery on January 26th, 1943, 
as he knocked out his pie against the boot of one of the men lying in front of him. The prostate
man had no comment to make, nor could he have made it had he had one. For his mouth was 
filled with snow and his body was buried in it too, as far as his knees, and even had there been 
no snow he still would have had nothing to say, for there was a hole as big as a man's fist where
his heart should have been. Nieweg did not spare much thought for the unknown soldier buried 
in the snow. There were so many all around him, and it was too much trouble to shovel the
snow off them in order to find their identity discs, as the regulations required. I'll do it later,
thought Nieweg ,  although I don't know when that will be...

A fearful stench came from his pipe, for mattress stuffing is not a very satisfactory substitute
for tobacco. The leader of the 'rum lot' rose to his feet, Nieweg did likewise and then the
rest of them, one by one. There they all were, the signallers, a couple of gunners, two men 
from the Army Postal Service, a lieutenant from the 71st Infantry Division, a couple of dozen
infantrymen from as many different regiments, seven artillery-men and a handful of soldiers
from as many units as a hand has fingers. Two of them were pilots who had dropped
supplies on Yelshanka the day before and had crashed after an enemy fighter had shot a wing 
off their machine. Nieweg knew all about that because a couple of the containers had
fallen near him and the supplies had been divided up on the spot without being reported. 
That had all happened a few hundred yards south of Voroponovo. All told there were
fifty-six men who had found themselves thrown together in this fashion and it will forever
remain a front-line secret as to how such a 'rum lot' could ever have come into existence.
Yesterday the divisional headquarters had been here, today these men were carrying out
'Operation Lion', though they had received no orders to do so. A break-out was the only
chance, and everyone knew it, and it was still the only chance even though the odds were a 
hundred to one against.

Nieweg knew of two other groups who had stumbled out of Stalingrad five days before 
and headed south. They had left nothing behind save wounded, starving, frozen men, men who
were, or would soon be, dead. Lord knew what had become of those two groups, 
Nieweg certainly didn't. He was too busy with his ovm thoughts. He thought of the bundles of
rags and torn coats that still showed signs of life every now and then: he thought of the houses 
which ware no longer houses: and of the wretched foxholes in which he and the other soldiers
had lived until yesterday: and then he thought of what he would take with him on his march to
freedom. Most of his possessions would have to be left behind, so much was certain: the 
mess-tin out of which he had eaten his dinner in the good old days, the little radio set which 
had belched dance music until the batteries had failed, the rusty, dirty machine gun, the icy steel
helmet, belt, knapsack and the rest. To avoid any possible misunderstanding, it should be
stated that the machine gun was only thrown way when there was nothing left in the ammunition 
box save empty belts.

They took their boots and coats and blankets and they carried a few letters or photographs 
in their breast pockets. They had long lost their passes and pay-books and ration vouchers.
They also took with them something of vital importance, namely the will and desire to complete
their journey. It was truly a 'rum lot', for each individual bore with him the experiences of the last 
six months, experiences which had taught him to recognise what was important and to be guided
by that alone. Only the two pilots still had something to learn. What was most important were 
the compass and something to shoot with. Their watches all told a different time, but that was
quite unimportant. If a man is going to die, it scarcely matters whether his watch shows 
Moscow or Greenwich mean time. The containers dropped on the previous day had contained 
ham, tinned foods, including pig's head, and loaves in the greaseproof paper. That was a
fortunate selection, and every man took as much of it as he could carry. They placed the rest
on the living bundles beside the road, or if that was not possible, on the snow in front of them.
It would be a long hike, the lieutenant observed, and those who heard him nodded their heads. 
At least sixty miles, the leader estimated, and he was quite right. It was perhaps just as well 
that he did not know that the distance between the two fronts was by then rather more
than 150 miles.

They started without any formality. The leaders simply trudged off, while the others did their best 
to follow in their footsteps. Their origins and units and clothing and the thoughts that buzzed
about in their heads were so varied, yet they all walked alike. Thus did all men walk who 
plodded and stumbled in the darkness through the snow south of Stalingrad. For a few hundred
yards the going was good. Indeed it was pretty good all the way to Zybenko. There was a bit of
shooting there, but that only affected the first ten men. Here and there one or two fell out, but the
others struggled on, and it was not only the grey forms of their comrades, hideously staining the
snow, that they failed to see, but also the brown clay-like figures that would block their path. 
It was harder to see in the dark, and at night blood always looks black. What counted was that
there should always be someone in front to follow. It was less important if one or two at the end 
of the column were no longer there. The private soldier has uncomplicated mental processes.

The railway was crossed south of Krasnov, exactly at the spot where the 371st Infantry 
Division had held the line a few days before. Zybenko and Rogachev are fifteen miles apart 
as the crow flies but they were fifteen miles of snow-covered steppe. Moreover, the Karpovka 
makes a hundred turns between the two places, and each bend was several hundred yards long. 
The men stumbled along between the camp fires of the Red Army, which helped them to find
their way. The way led to a river, the Donskaia-Tsaritsa presumably, then northwards across 
the Kalatch-Stalingrad railway line and then in a north-westerly direction towards Kamyshevka.
Five men stayed there in what had been the quarters of the Veterinary Company, where the
warm stables built a few weeks ago were irresistibly attractive. The rest of the group crossed 
over the frozen Don a thousand yards north of Kalatch and then later crossed the Liska near 
the Katchalinskaia Heights. Here they fought a lengthy battle with a Russian supply unit, but a
good thirty of them managed to escape.

On January 28th at about half past eleven in the morning a German reconnaissance plane
sighted a group of soldiers about two miles west of Kalatch, who fired Verey lights as the
plane approached. The pilot went down to a height of 600 feet in order to examine the group 
more closely and reported what he had seen to Novo-Cherkask. On the orders of Field-
Marshal Milch contact was to be maintained with the group, and on the afternoon of that same
day a fighter plane fired light signals and dropped a message to the unit which by now was 
some four miles west of the Don Heights. This message ordered the group to assume the shape 
of a swastika on the approach of German planes. On January 29th the group was pinpointed
ten miles west of Kalatch, marching towards Cherni-Chevskaia, and food, ammunition and maps 
were dropped to them. The group acknowledged their receipt by firing two green Verey lights.
On the third day after the group had first been observed the pilot of the reconnaissance plane
reckoned that they had marched some fifteen miles. He reported that there were about
twenty-five men in the group. On the fourth day they were twenty-five miles west of the
Don Heights, so their rate of progress must have been considerably slowed down.

That was the last day on which the Luftwaffe had contact with this lonely group in the middle 
of the steppe. Half their journey was behind them, but this they did not know. A fighter plane,
and later a reconnaissance machine, dropped food for the last time and also reports of strong 
enemy troop concentrations in the Cherkovo and Milerovo districts. The group was also told 
to fire two red and one green signal flares as a recognition in future.
Two reds and one green were never fired from the ground, for no signals of any sort were 
made after January 30th. On January gist the reconnaissance pilots reported: 'No trace of
the unit we are seeking.' On the orders of the Field-Marshal search went on until February 
2nd, but nothing more was seen of them. What are twenty-five weary, sick, stumbling, worn-
out men, in a desert of ice wide enough for a dozen armies to march across in line?
There was one man, however, who knew how it all ended. Corporal Nieweg arrived at a 
German outpost west of the Donetz on March 3rd and told the story of the lost group.
It was a tale of unspeakable suffering and much horror.

After the fight with the Russian supply troops, said Nieweg, a further six men fell out, suffering
from dysentry and exhaustion. The rest staggered on towards Oblivskaia. But their attempt to
find shelter there failed because it was occupied by strong Russian units. The end took place
in the steppe between the Dobraia and Beresovaia. By then only four men were left. They had
struggled along roads, across the steppe, through the snow, and once straight through the
middle of a Russian column, but always alone. Then two of them surrendered to a Russian 
ambulance unit. Nieweg and another man, who had belonged to the Army Postal Service, 
passed through many places of which they did not know the name. At Veluiki the last two 
met their fate. The man who had looked after the Sixth Army's mail at Stalingrad fell out, 
crippled by frostbite, and Nieweg surrendered. After being taken prisoner, he was brought to 
Kharkov, which was where he escaped and made a bolt for the front in a supply lorry 
bringing up rations for the "Russian troops. Behind this bare statement is much that is not 
relevant here. No one bothered about single individuals wandering about inno-man's-land, 
and so on March 3rd Nieweg reached the German lines. He was picked up during an attack 
by units of the SS Division 'Das Reich' and elements of the iith Panzer Division. His story
filled two pages of a report. He would have told more if he had not been so weak. 
Tomorrow, or perhaps the day after, he would be able to go on.

But tomorrow never came. The man who had walked from Stalingrad to the German front 
line was killed by a mortar bomb the day after his arrival at the dressing station of a Panzer 
Grenadier Regiment. The odyssey of Corporal Nieweg was over.