The long-range patrol to Astrachan.
 

Guarding the deep, open flank of Army Group A's eastern group of forces, the
First Panzer Army, was a chain of powerful strongpoints manned by the 16th
Motorized Infantry Division.

It was September 13, 1942, east of Elista in the Kalmuck Steppe.
"Hey, Georg, get ready, we leave in an hour!"

"Sluschaju, gospodin Oberleutnant - yes Sir!" shouted back Georg the
Cossack, then he roared off.

Georg came from Krasnodar, where he had learned German in the pedagogic
seminary. The previous autumn he had run straight into the arms of the division
while serving as a runner with the Soviet army. Since then he had served 2nd
Company, first as a helper in the field kitchen, then, after volunteering, as an
interpreter. Georg hated Stalin's bolshevism for many reasons and he was trusted
by everyone in the company. Georg had even filled in as a machine-gunner in
several critical situations.

Oberleutnant Gottlieb came directly from a briefing held by the commander
of the motorcycle battalion, where they had discussed the final details of a patrol
operation through the Kalmuck Steppe to the Caspian Sea. The commander of the
Sixteenth, which had relieved LII Corps near Elista, wanted to know what was up
in the broad expanse of wilderness on the flank of the Caucasus front. A huge gap
nearly 300 kilometers across gaped between the area south of Stalingrad and the
Terek River, which the 3rd Panzer Division had reached near Mosdok on August
30. This unknown land between the Volga and the Terek appeared like a huge
funnel. Its base was the coast of the Caspian Sea. All sorts of surprises could come
from there. Therefore the area had to be kept under surveillance.

At the end of August the guarding of this huge no-man's-land was entrusted
to a single division. Its base was Elista in the Kalmuck Steppe. No reinforcements
were to be expected before the end of September, therefore at first the tasks of
surveillance and reconnaissance across to the Caspian Sea and the Volga delta had
to be taken care of by long-range patrols, which took the form of daring
expedition-type operations.

It was at this time that the 16th Motorized Infantry Division earned itself the
name of the "Greyhound Division."

Except for a few indispensable specialists, only volunteers were involved in
these operations. The first large-scale expedition operation along both sides of the
Elista-Astrakhan road began in mid-September. Four patrols were sent out. Their
assignment was as follows:

I. Discover if and where the enemy is feeding forces into the gap between the
Terek and the Volga, whether he is making attempts to cross the Volga, where
enemy strongpoints are located, and if any troop movements can be located on the
Stalingrad-Astrakhan shore road.

2. Carefully reconnoiter road conditions, the condition of the Caspian coast
and the west bank of the Volga as well as the previously unknown Kizlyar-
Astrakhan rail line.

The patrols set out at 0430 on September 13, a Sunday. A sharp wind blew out of
the steppe. The sun was not yet up and it was still very cold.

The patrols were well-equipped for their adventurous drive 150 kilometers
deep into enemy territory. Each troop had two eight-wheeled armored cars armed
with 20mm cannon, a motorcycle platoon with twenty-four men, two or three
50mm anti-tank guns - motorized or mounted on armored personnel carriers -
and a squad of engineers with equipment. Five trucks - two each with fuel and
water and one with rations - as well as a repair squad completed the equipment.
As well there was an ambulance with a doctor, a radio operator, a motorcycle
messenger and an interpreter.

Disaster struck the Schroeder patrol straight away. Soon after departure it ran
into an enemy patrol on the other side of Utta. Leutnant Schroeder was killed,
interpreter Maresch and Feldwebel Weissmeier were wounded. The patrol turned
back and set out again the next day under the command of Leutnant Euler.

Meanwhile the patrols led by Oberleutnant Gottlieb, Leutnant Schliep and
Leutnant Hilger were advancing north and south of and directly along the major
road from Elista to Astrakhan. On September 14 Oberleutnant Gottlieb, who had
initially the road before veering north into the steppe toward Sadovska, was forty
kilometers from Astrakhan. On September 15 he was only twenty-five kilometers
from the Volga. From the high sand dunes he had a good view across to the river.
Sand and salt marshes made the terrain almost inaccessible, but the armored
patrols always found a way.

The maps which Gottlieb had brought with him were not very good. At every
well they came to the Cossack Georg made inquiries of the nomadic Kalmucks,
who appeared to be very well-disposed toward the Germans. In the course of their
long palavers he was able to gather information about the way ahead and other
matters of interest.

"The big train? Yes, it runs several times each day between Kizlyar and
Astrakhan."
"And Soviets?"

"Yes, they ride around here. Just yesterday a large party spent the night at the
well over there, an hour's journey away. They came from Sadovska, there must
be many of them there."

"Aha." Georg nodded and gave the friendly nomads a few cigarettes.
The laughter was suddenly interrupted by a shout. One of the men pointed
toward the north. Two riders were approaching: Soviets.

The Kalmucks disappeared. The two armored cars were behind a dune and
could not be seen by the Russians. Oberleutnant Gottlieb called to Georg: "Come
here." But the Cossack didn't answer. He stuck his forage cap under his broad
motorcycle coat, sat down on the well and lit a cigarette.

The two Russians, an officer and his horseman, trotted cautiously up to the
well. Georg called something to them. The officer got down and came toward
him.

Oberleutnant Gottlieb and his men watched as the two talked and laughed.
They stood side by side. "The dog," said the radio operator. But then they saw
Georg whip out his pistol. Grinning, he said to the Soviet officer: "Ruki werch!"
The Soviet officer put his hands up and was so surprised that he called to his
horseman to surrender as well. The Gottlieb patrol returned to Chalchuta with two
valuable prisoners.

Meanwhile Leutnant Euler had been given the special assignment of learning
precisely how the defensive installations in Sadovska were constituted and
whether troops were being sent across the Volga in this area north of Astrakhan.

From Utta to Sadovska was about 150 kilometers in a straight line. Euler
immediately veered off from the main road toward the north. They had driven
about ten kilometers, when suddenly the Leutnant's heart skipped a beat: a huge
dust cloud was approaching rapidly. "Disperse the vehicles!" he ordered. Euler
raised his field glasses. The cloud was coming closer, fast. But then the Leutnant
burst out laughing: it wasn't Soviets coming towards them, but antelopes, a huge
herd of Saiga antelopes, which live in the steppes of southern Russia. When they
finally caught the scent of the humans they turned away and galloped off to the
east. Their hoofs raced over the dry steppe grass and whipped up a dust cloud so
big it looked as if an entire panzer regiment was driving across the endless plain.

Next Leutnant Euler reconnoitered to the north, found the villages of Justa and
Chasyk strongly manned, drove around them and turned toward Sadovska, the
main objective.

On September 16 Euler and his two armored cars were just five kilometers
from Sadovska and thus seven kilometers from the lower Volga. It was only
thirty-five kilometers to Astrakhan. In all probability the Euler patrol was at the
most easterly point reached by any unit of the German Army during the course
of "Operation Barbarossa" and had thus come closest to this campaign objective.

What the patrol found was of great significance: the Russians had dug an anti-
tank ditch around Sadovska and built an deep bunker line. This suggested a
prepared bridgehead position, designed to protect an obviously planned crossing
of the lower Volga by the Soviets.

When the Russian sentries recognized the German armored cars a panic-like
excitement broke out in the positions: the defenders, who until now had obviously
been quite unconcerned, raced into their bunkers and rifle pits and opened up a
furious defensive fire with anti-tank rifles and heavy machine-guns. Euler cut off
two Russians who were running through the terrain in the general excitement.

Scared to death, the two Red Army soldiers, a staff officer of the 36th
Machine-gun Battalion and his runner, gave themselves up. It was a great catch,
but now it was time to be off!

Leutnant Jürgen Schliep, the commander of the armored car company, had
likewise set out with his patrol on September 13. His route ran south of the large
road. His main task was to find out if- as prisoners had stated - there was in fact
a usable rail line from Kizlyar to Astrakhan which was not indicated on any maps.
It was most important that they find out about this oil rail line, which could also
have been used for transporting troops.

Schliep found the rail line. He related: "From a distance we saw a group of
fifty to sixty civilians who were working on the railway embankment. The line
consisted of a single track and was framed on both sides by a sand wall. Though
the guard bolted when we appeared, we were greeted joyfully by the remaining
civilian workers. The group consisted of Ukrainian families, old men, women
and children, who had been forcibly evacuated. They had been working here for
months. Many of the Ukrainians spoke German and we were welcomed as
liberators."

The soldiers were still talking with the Ukrainians when a smoke cloud
suddenly appeared in the south. "A train," shouted the workers.

Schliep brought his armored cars into position behind a sandy knoll. Then an
endlessly-long freight train with oil and gasoline cars came wheezing toward the
station. Two locomotives were pulling the train. Six shots from the 20mm cannon
and the locomotives blew apart. Steam sprayed from the boilers and glowing
coals whirled through the air. The train stopped. Car after car went up in flames.
"Damn, that lovely gas," grumbled the gunners.

The engineers were about to blow up the station building when the telephone
rang. Startled, they stood up. "Man, that scared the hell out of me," sighed
UnteroffizierEngh of the repair squad. But then he thought quickly and called to
Schliep: "Herr Leutnant, telephone!"

Schliep immediately grasped the situation and ran into the hut with his
interpreter. Grinning, the interpreter took the phone: "Stanzia senseli, natshalnik."
"Da, da, tovarich," he said reassuringly.

On the other end of the line was the Astrakhan freight depot. Astrakhan! The
southern end of the A-A Line (Astrakhan-Arkhangelsk), the objective of the war
against Russia. The spearhead of the German Wehrmacht had Astrakhan on the
telephone. The supervisor in Astrakhan wanted to know if the oil train from Baku
had passed yet. The opposite train had been waiting in a siding near Bassy for an
hour already.

An opposite train! The interpreter tried to convince the comrade in Astrakhan
that he should send the other train. But this piece of advice made the man in
Astrakhan suspicious. He asked a few questions and the inexpert answers he
received seemed to justify his suspicion.

He berated the imposter and cursed furiously. Finally the interpreter gave up
the game and said: "Just wait, little father, we'll be in Astrakhan soon."

At this the comrade in Astrakhan shouted the worst Russian curse he knew
into the receiver and hung up. Thus he couldn't hear how, two minutes later, the
wooden station at Senseli blew up with the aid of two explosive charges.

The Schliep long-range patrol returned to Utta on September 17 safe and
sound and without loss. Schlief had to make his report that same day to the
division and to the Commander-in-Chief of Arrny Group B, Generaloberst von
Weichs, who by chance was at the command post.

The senior officers breathed easier. There was still no threat from the steppe
and the lower Volga, meaning from the Caucasus flank. This was a decisive
discovery, because since the end of August Army Group A had been trying to get
its stalled Caucasus offensive going again on its left wing. Panzer Army von
Kleist was to smash open the door to Baku in order to capture the Soviet oil
paradise and thus reach one of the decisive objectives of the summer campaign.


Source : Paul Carell's Stalingrad
"Long-range patrol to Astrachan."