Chapter 21

September 1943 – Little Man


ogilew was a smallish Russian town just under 200 kilometres from Roslavl. It took the convoy four days to get there: four days to cover terrain that is normally covered in a few hours! Mogilew could have been on another planet it seemed so far out of reach, so many things went wrong. Right from the start the partisan activity was fierce and caused constant delays. As soon as they set off every morning they were slowed down by enemy fire. All the trucks had engine trouble. Tyres had blown on three occasions. Everyone had terrible diarrhoea. Because the trucks were travelling at walking pace the men simply climbed onto the running-board, pulled down their trousers and emptied their bowels into the mud as they went along. And then there was the weather! Autumn had never felt so vicious, a cold snap with freezing temperatures at night. The morning thaw turned the ground to mud and bogged them down. At times the trucks were so stuck in the mud it was thought they would just have to abandon them and try to make it on foot. Only a mixture of sheer brute force, determination and desperation helped the men dig the tyres out of the slush. They knew it was better to have the trucks for shelter, and the cover they provided was better than being outside. Nevertheless it seemed to the men that during the time it took to cover the 200 odd kilometres to Mogilew they had spent almost as much time outside the trucks for one reason or another as inside.

On the third night they decided to start digging before the freeze; also at night there was less risk of being attacked. Everyone was ordered out; able-bodied men to excavate, wounded to make the trucks lighter.

They lay Walter Bütz down just to the side of the road. The stomach wounds he had received from the sniper after putting his hand up were bad and everyone was worried. It was touch and go – if they did not get him to a hospital soon he was finished. It took more than four hours to free the trucks from the mud, and they started to climb in.

Martin hobbled over to wake Walter. He had only managed some intermittent dozing after being shot three days ago but had finally managed to get some proper sleep. But Walter did not move, and Martin saw he was dead. He was frozen to the ground by his own blood, and they couldn’t move him. He lay there, the blood from his stomach wound saturating his uniform and staining the ground around him. There was nothing to do but wrap him in a blanket and leave him.

It was difficult for Martin to avoid the thought that he would be next. He felt the heat building in his legs each day and each day the pain getting worse. Sitting down was painful; standing up only marginally better. Worst of all, the previously unnoticed lice and fleas were now driving him insane. They had gotten inside the dressings and the itching was hell, even more so since he couldn’t scratch where it hurt. They were even starting to bite him at last.

But finally, somehow, on the 20th – four days after he had been shot – they made it back to Mogilew. He remembered thinking then how much it reminded him of Wiederitzsch, his own village. The same steep angle on the same layered thatched roofs so the snow couldn’t lodge. Everyone poor; all the houses in need of repair. The only building that looked relatively new was Kriegslazarett 2/521 – the field hospital that was converted from a school since the fighting for the airport had started.

Martin knew he had copped a bad infection. The bullet was still lodged in his left thigh. He watched as the medical orderly did his rounds, finally coming to him. God, he looks like he’s just out of school. “The lice are eating me alive. For heaven’s sake take the bandage off otherwise I’ll go mad.”

The young doctor looked at Martin, glancing at the now filthy bandage Martin had put on five days earlier.

“That can wait until tomorrow.”

Anger welled-up from a place he didn’t know, helping him find the strength to sit up. He leant over and retrieved his pistol from the dirty clothes bag. Pointing it, rather unsteadily, at the young doctor, he pulled back the cocking mechanism with his other hand.

“I’ve already waited five damn days. If you don’t take the bandage off I’ll put a bullet in you and you can see just what it’s like to wear the same filthy damn bandage for five days!”

“What’s up? What’s going on?” An older looking senior doctor in a blood-spattered white coat came hurrying over. The young doctor paled and turned very quickly.

The Oberarzt looked from the luger to Martin to the by now very pale young doctor. Martin offered no resistance as the senior doctor calmly took the luger, pressing its clip release button. The magazine slipped out of the grip into his hand.

“I see. Doesn’t one generally need bullets in the magazine?”

“I’m not stupid, Herr Oberarzt. I know they remove any rounds from our weapons when we come here as a precaution against self-harm. I would not have pointed a loaded gun at him. I just wanted to get him to move his sorry arse. I was shot five days ago. The pain and the fleas are driving me mad and this little arse with ears did not even bother to look under the dressing. I know it’s infected and I know I’ll die if you don’t treat it right now, not some time in the future.”

“Did you look at this man’s leg, ask when he was shot?”

“I did not think that necessary Herr Oberarzt.”

“Continue with your rounds – and ask, right? Always ask. You will report to me later.’

He turned to Martin. “Right, now, let’s have a look. Hmm, that’s bad luck. Both legs, and your balls I see. Yes, your diagnosis was correct – everything is infected. I can’t see any exit wound on this side which means the bullet is still there. It will need to come out right away. Otherwise you will lose the leg.” He paused. “Well, at least you were lucky in one respect – not having any rounds in that magazine. Pointing a loaded weapon at another man means … well, you know what it means. ”

“Thank you, Herr Oberarzt.”

Martin fell back on the bed with relief, too exhausted to say more. He woke up to find the wounds dressed with two relatively clean bandages.

“I see you are awake, Schläfer. I removed the bullet and you are lucky – it managed to miss the arteries in both legs. Though the testicular damage means it is most unlikely you will ever be able to have children. But one leg is not good, there was a lot of puss and muck I had to scrape out and you still have a high temperature which means the infection is still probably there. So, you are not out of the woods yet, not by a long chalk. We are going to keep an eye on it. If the temperature does not go down within the next 48 hours I’m afraid we will still need to take the leg off”.

There is no way I am going to lose a leg. I would rather die first.

The doctor had been right – the infection persisted and he slipped in and out of consciousness. Half the time he didn’t know where he was. But he fought to stay awake for one special occasion. Every time the nurse came around and slipped a thermometer under his tongue, he watched her out of the corner of his eye until she had moved on to the next patient. Then, out came the thermometer. He held it under the bed where it was cooler, only inserting it back where it belonged when sharp steps signalled her return. Over the next two days he somehow managed to control his delirium and stop the nurses from registering his proper temperature.

Three days later he began to feel, if not exactly better, still definitely on the mend. His temperature was down and he let them put the thermometer under his tongue as much as they wanted. As the doctor said, there was no major internal tissue damage in his legs and he was soon able to get up out of bed and walk, though still with crutches.

After about a fortnight he was transferred by hospital train to a proper war hospital, arriving in Molodetschno on the 3rd November. There had been many wounded to transfer and Martin was put in the very last wagon of the very last train out. No-one looked after them and when nature called it was once again a case of pulling yourself to the side of the train, hanging on, and discharging the diarrhoea.


He started chatting with the bloke in the bed next to him, the first topic of conversation being, of course, the nurses. One – it seemed from her accent she was Polish – had made an immediate impression. “You fancy her?” Martin asked his neighbour innocently.

“You bet!”

“Well, next time she comes round, you should say this to her: moja matka co to jest, mój pik tak mokry jest. That’ll really set you up with her. Better practice before she comes again! Remember: moja matka co to jest, mój pik tak mokry jest.”

“Well Martin, and how is our little man today?” The Polish nurse grabbed his willy gently but firmly and gave it a little shake before examining his testicles.

“He says he is much better now, nurse, thank you.”

“You are a very lucky man. You came this close – she held up forefinger and thumb – to losing that leg. Just about the size of our little man here, in fact.” She gave his willy another shake to emphasise the point.

“No way was I going to lose a leg.”

Martin looked over encouragingly to his mate in the next bed, who on cue delivered the Polish message that was going to put him in the nurse’s good books. She, however, picking up a wet towel, went over and gave him a very firm slap on the face. They could not see the grin she was trying unsuccessfully to suppress as she stormed off.

“Whatever was THAT for?” Then the penny dropped. “What did you make me say to her, you bastard?”

“It means Mum, what is this? My fart is so wet! Rhymes beautifully in Polish. You said it very convincingly I thought.”

The pain from Martin’s balls turned his laugh very quickly into a grimace.