Laurence Rees: Helmut Walz was a soldier with the German 305th Infantry Division, and he participated in Operation Blue, the huge German offensive across the steppes of southern Russia in the summer of 1942.
Words of Helmut Walz: The feeling was the mood was good. Nobody complained in any way. We were confident we would win. Every day we had successes. Every day we advanced and advanced. We always advanced, we never retreated, never. We always went towards the east. We never felt humiliated. We always felt superior because the Russians went away from us and wherever they actually entered into a fight with us they were shot down. And so we did have this feeling of superiority. In general you had the feeling that National Socialism was very much superior to Bolshevism. Well, we saw it. We did not know what it was like at the time of the Tzars, but we could see that they were really behind us in their development. Under Stalin they were only allowed to have one cow. The Stalin Cow, as we would say. We still believed in victory. What else could you do? Put up a grumpy face? You couldn’t do that. That’s where you have comradeship, absolute comradeship, because we were all closer to death than to life. We were just believing one hundred percent in victory, and that was it. At that stage you had that feeling, yes, we will finish this off. And the war is going to be over soon, at the end of 1942, yes, it had to end, it had to end. We were optimistic. All the news we received was good. Rommel advanced in Africa, we heard news of victories, we heard of the submarines who kept sinking other ships, whether it’s true I don’t know. And then, above all, the Japanese started as well in the Pacific area, so the whole world seemed to be on our side, in victory. We had major successes.
Laurence Rees: The Germans arrived at Stalingrad, on the river Volga, in late August 1942. And when they did, Walz and his comrades thought that this city too could be conquered swiftly.
Words of Helmut Walz: We did not think that we would have to fight metre by metre. In the beginning you thought you march over there, you give a little cover, and then you’re there. But that was not the case. The Russians really defended themselves metre by metre and so this resulted in close combat.
Laurence Rees: So within a matter of days, Walz found himself in one of the most brutal hand to hand battles fought in modern times. And he soon learnt new skills, not just in battle, but in dealing with his own comrades – like when one of his superiors called for volunteers, for example.
Words of Helmut Walz: I said, ‘I will go first,’ because I had a principle that I would always go first - voluntarily. And the background was that it had been proven to me in those fights in the craters that this was a good idea, because if you are the first one to jump you’ve landed in the next crater before the Russian could actually aim at you. But the second one will be the one who gets killed. And that’s why I always volunteered. It was tactics. Instinctive tactics. It could have been a lesson to the other ones, but I didn’t tell them. I always said, ‘No, I’m the first one to jump.’ We did not talk much about close combat, we just sort of drifted into it. The only thing that we did was to get rid of all the unwieldy weapons so that we were mobile. We all had to use spades at some stage. They were folded and you could screw them together. It could be a terrible weapon. Just hit it into somebody’s head or stomach or somewhere else. If they saw that you had a spade they tried to get away, or they surrendered.
Laurence Rees: Amidst the rubble of Stalingrad it was hard sometimes to know where the front line really was. As Walz discovered himself one day.
Words of Helmut Walz: Somebody called out for a medical orderly, and I said, ‘He must be over there.’ And we called out: ‘Where are you? Medic, where are you?’ But he did not answer, so I jumped back, and he wasn’t there anymore. So I called his name loudly, I asked everybody, ‘Did you see the medical orderly?’ And then I looked around, and then I saw the lid of the sewerage system. And somebody else came and helped me, and we found an iron bar, and with that iron bar we pulled that lid off, and we threw a hand grenade into it. We did not see any Russians but we threw the hand grenade into it, and I said, ‘They pulled him down there.’ Maybe, for one reason, that they needed a medical orderly themselves, because they did not have any, maybe, or maybe they just wanted to take away our medical orderly, that’s possible. He did not carry any weapon at all. He refused to do that. He was saving lives, it was his duty to save lives and nothing else. The Russians hid in the sewers. If you advanced three metres you always had to make sure and look around you to see whether they were not sitting behind you. You always had to defend yourself all around. Despite the fact we were attacking, you had to defend yourself all around.
Laurence Rees: After several weeks fighting house to house in Stalingrad, Walz was injured. And the story of how he was hurt reveals much about the horrendous nature of this struggle.
Words of Helmut Walz: On the day when I was wounded, that was the 17th October 1942, we went towards the red barricades. I think it was a metallurgical factory, and behind it was a gun factory. And what else was there? There was also - what do you call it - a steelworks? Yeah, that’s the Red October steelworks. And we were outside. That’s where the rubble field was. You had bomb craters and grenade craters and nothing else. So we fought our way to the factory yard of the red barricade. Schaubel runs with his machine gun as if he was on the parade ground. He had the machine gun shouldered and he just keeps on running straight. Then he was shot and fell into a grenade crater or a bomb crater. There he lies and I had to take care that I could get towards him without being shot. So I listened out whether they were still shooting, and for one or two seconds it was quiet, so I jumped over it into the crater towards him, and I saw that his mouth was all dirty and his nose as well. So I wiped that away and then I said to him, ‘Schaubel, you are seriously injured.’ And he said, ‘Yes, yes, and now I will be taken back home, now I’ll be brought back home.’ And that’s when I saw that he had bullet holes and exit wounds and bullet wounds and exit holes at the back. And you could see his lungs and blood all around it. Goodness, what am I going to do with this man? He was wearing his coat, his machine gun had dropped to one side, and I said to him, ‘Where are your first aid packets?’ Where they are supposed to be. They were in the front. He had four packets, actually. You had at least two, but because so many died you just kept putting extra ones into your pockets. And I said to him, ‘Schaubel, just stay where you are, we will fetch you tonight, I promise it to you.’ And then I took away his pistol so that he wouldn’t shoot himself, and put his canteen next to his mouth so that if he was thirsty he was able to drink. He was reported missing later on. I was told that in hospital.
Then I went forwards towards the dugout that they were shooting from. Bullets were flying above my head. And so I see Russians in front of me, maybe five metres away from me. So I called out to them to surrender, and they did not do that, so I threw in a hand grenade, and now you can imagine what it looked like in there. One of them came out and he had blood coming from his mouth, from his nose and from his ears. And he pulled his machine gun, the Russian machine gun with a drum at the front, he pulls it into the air and I say to myself: ‘Well, you ain’t gonna get me.’ And I aim my gun at him and all of a sudden I see little stars. I was shot and that was it. I saw little stars in front of my eyes. I looked to my right, and I ran my left hand over my face and a jet of blood comes out and my teeth flew out of my mouth. It was half past ten in the morning, a Saturday morning. Now it’s all over, I thought. And so my colleague saw it and he went, ‘Ah, ah!’ He crushed the head of the Russian who had shot me. He crushed his head despite the steel helmet he was wearing, right into the middle of his face. That made such a cracking noise, I can still hear it today. It’s brutal, but what can you do? And then I saw my second lieutenant, Hennes, he was maybe 20 or 30 metres away from me. So I gave this sign with my right hand, and then I waited again. Who’s shooting, where are they shooting, are there any bullets around me? Was it a sniper, was it one of our bullets? And then I went to the second lieutenant, into his hole, and he said, ‘Come on, where are your first aid packets?’ I could not say anything. And he took the two packets out and bandaged me. My steel helmet had gone anyway. So he bandaged me and all of a sudden he said, ‘Careful, a Russian.’ And he aimed his machine gun at him and then his steel helmet flies through the air. He got shot in his head and he had that leather strap underneath and that was just blown away and it flew through the air and then I looked at him and I saw how he was shot in his head and how his head split. That’s the first time I saw a brain. On the left hand side and on the right hand side there were parts of the brain, and in the middle there was water. No blood, but water. And he looked at me and he was standing on the soil with his wound. At the slope of the crater. And so he fell in there. Luckily he had bandaged me before. Now I was on my own. And then how do I get back?
In the distance I saw train wagons, and behind Stalingrad there was a railway. And so I tried to jump from crater to crater and all the time I got all these bullets around me, and I crossed the railway tracks by crawling through underneath the wagons. They gave me a bit of cover. And so I was thinking, well I could really stay here. Then you can take a breath. But of course I knew how wounded I was and if I lost too much blood I would become unconscious. I have to continue. There was a road, and I had to go to that road. So there was a sort of a ditch with water in it, first I had to cross that, and then I came to the road. And on the road, our armoured personnel carrier came with ten men inside. There was also a second lieutenant in there. He saw me and he stopped, opened the door at the back and then he said, ‘Gentlemen, we’re going to the main bandaging unit. The war is finished for us today. We’ll bring him back, we’ll take him back.’ And he did not take me to the division’s bandaging unit, but straight away to the main bandaging unit where there were also the planes. So in the evening, I was operated on. So the wound was sewn together whatever way they could. And the Protestant minister of the division and the Catholic priest of the division were standing next to me and the Catholic priest, Mr Spitz, said, ‘Hah.’ You know, he was looking at the head every now and again. ‘You can still kiss, but whether the girl’s lips will meet yours, I don’t know yet.’ I could have given him a kick, but I couldn’t talk, could I? They had put a little hose through my nose. So I got liquid food through that hose. That’s how they fed me. And then the next day or the day after that I was brought out by plane. I did lose quite a lot of blood, and I still did not know what was wrong with me. I realised that I did not have any teeth any more. Everything was a bit mushy. They were torn off all the way down, and they patched it up later on. By the way, I got seven operations on that. So they put in a lot of effort in Wurtzburg and in the university jaw clinic in Heidelburg. They operated on me again and again.
Laurence Rees: Despite his terrible injuries, Walz, in the context of Stalingrad, was lucky. Those of his comrades who carried on fighting, and who were captured after the German surrender at Stalingrad in February 1943, faced near certain death. Just over 90,000 Germans were taken prisoner by the Soviets. And of the ordinary soldiers amongst them 95% would die in Soviet captivity.
Originally recorded in German, this transcript is taken from a simultaneous translation.