Mortar Gunner on the Eastern Front: The Memoir of Dr. Hans Heinz Rehfeldt
Volume II: Russia, Hungary, Lithuania and the Battle for East Prussia
Hans Heinz Rehfeldt
Greenhill Books, Yorkshire, United Kingdom, 2019, 352 pages
Book Review published on: July 10, 2020
Hans Rehfeldt served on the eastern front during World War II, a soldier in the German army’s elite Grossdeutschland division. This unit earned its nickname “the Fire Brigade” (or the German idiom feuerwehr) for its employment to stop Soviet breakthroughs and its role as a reserve on-call, so to speak, in case of emergencies.
Mortar Gunner on the Eastern Front is the second book based on Rehfeldt’s wartime journals. This one covers the period from 1944 to his postwar return home. This is the same time period that the Grossdeutschland became a Panzergrenadier division, or mechanized infantry.
Rehfeldt mostly served with the Tross, or support troops, of his battalion. In addition to frontline services, the Tross also included heavy weapons platoons, such as Rehfeldt’s mortar unit. Because he was an enlisted soldier, his observations are very interesting and are sometimes at variance with the mental picture we often have of combat on the eastern front. For instance, as a mechanized unit, the Grossdeutschland would be expected to have not just tank units equipped with the latest models but also armored personnel carriers for the infantry and possibly armored personnel carriers for support elements. In fact, Rehfeldt’s mortars had to rely upon captured transport, including Russian Studebakers. He noted that antitank training was conducted with Panzerschrecks, a weapon based upon the bazookas captured from the U.S. Army in North Africa. Rehfeldt often found himself dependent upon the Hiwi, or voluntary assistants (many of them of non-Russian Soviet nationalities), to get jobs done, like evacuating the wounded. The division did indeed have heavy assault guns and Tiger tanks, but Rehfeldt only saw them deployed in ones and twos. And the Grossdeutschland was an elite unit; it does not take much imagination to envision how standard units were equipped.
The elite status of the Grossdeutschland came from its élan. Unlike the “numbered” divisions of the German army, the members of the Grossdeutschland had earned a cuff title and a cipher device for the shoulder straps of their uniforms, a distinction unusual in the World War II German army. The Grossdeutschland was also an “all-German” unit that traced its origins to the Reichsheer regiment, which was raised to protect Berlin during the turbulent 1920s.
Rehfeldt was sent to the veterinarian school, but he was not permitted to stay and complete the course due to a bureaucratic error. As an unassigned soldier, he should have been sent to whatever unit required replacements the most or possibly to be a cadre in a new unit being formed. Instead, he pointed out that his paybook included an annotation that he could only be assigned back to Grossdeutschland. For the remainder of his time, he and his fellow noncommissioned officers utilized the heavy weapons of their regiment to support the infantry and to inflict serious casualties on the Russians who never seemed to run out of men.
Rehfeldt collected some of the propaganda materials both sides put out during the war. It is interesting that leaflets and magazines of both sides promised safe conduct and a good life for “defectors.” He knew that such promises were not kept for Russian soldiers who surrendered (except maybe members of the Russian units raised to augment the German army), and he doubted the promises made by the Russians with the help of German prisoners of war and communists who had fled to Moscow when the Nazis came to power. Soldiers of both sides knew that at best they could expect harsh treatment. It is little wonder that Rehfeldt wrote of being surrounded several times by the Russians in “pockets,” but outright surrender was never an option for the cornered Germans. The technical skill of the Germans and their discipline got them out of tight spots many times, but sheer numbers and the loss of air support really began to take their toll.
Mortar Gunner on the Eastern Front’s soldier’s-eye view of combat, without reference to the larger operations or strategy of the fighting, makes it an interesting read.
Book Review written by: James D. Crabtree, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas