The Man in the Field Grey Uniform: A WWII Soldier’s Historical Sketch

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When I met the ex-German soldier, Horst Prison /Pre’zon/, he was a ninety-five-year-old man living in the shadow of the Wellsville Mountains. He was small and missing his pointer finger on his left hand. He seemingly had osteoporosis and was nearly blind. He wasn’t wearing the field grey uniform of a Wehrmacht soldier, but a plaid button-down shirt tucked neatly into a pair of chinos. So who was he and what was it that made Horst great? To figure that out, I looked at his war experience.

Horst received his draft notice in January 1940 into the Wehrmacht or German Army of the 12th Company, 321st Regiment, 3rd Battalion and the 197th Infantry Division. He did basic training for three and a half months in Kaiserslautern, Germany.

In May the Battle for France began. Horst was part of the army reserves and placed in front of France’s Maginot Line tasked with distracting the enemy as German forces got into Blitzkrieg positions. Then, trailed the army, finally arriving at Dunkirk six weeks later just after Germany had conquered France.

I believe it was the French town of Reims that Horst narrowly escaped getting a bullet to the heart.

Horst was on watch duty and climbed a house leveled by bombs. He scaled five feet to the top to see the wreckage of the town. Suddenly, he heard someone say, “Get down!” Horst looked around. No one was there, so he ignored it. Two more times he was told to get down, yet when he looked around no one was there. Horst debated whether or not to jump down when he was shoved hard from behind. He stumbled forward and down the ruins as he heard a gunshot.

Horst went back to camp. As he washed up for bed, he noticed a tear in the shoulder of his coat. There was also an identical tear in the sweater he was wearing as well as the shirt he wore underneath that. A bullet had grazed Horst. Thinking back, he believed that if he hadn’t been pushed forward, the bullet would have hit him in the middle of the chest.

After being part of the occupied forces in Holland, Horst went to Heidelberg for more advanced army training. Training consisted of endurance hikes every Friday night until he could hike twenty-nine miles and back.

It was probably here that Horst was made a machine gunner. I asked how he got the job? He said, “That’s simple. They gave you a gun, and I was a good shooter, and they gave me a machine gun.”

In the 1940’s machine guns were transported on small wooden carts pulled by horses. As a machine gunner, Horst had to walk behind the wagon.

Around late spring, the entire army was sent to the River Bug on the border of Poland and Belarus with the intention of invading the USSR and then capturing Moscow. From June-December 1941, Horst was part of several major battles and participated in two major German Offensives; Operation Barbarossa and Operation Typhoon.

After trekking 215.5 miles from Bialystok, Poland to Minsk, Belarus, Horst said, “I understood the long hikes, now.”

For the German advance, the military was divided into three massive armies; Army Group North, Army Group Center, and Army Group South, and each was given specific directives. Horst was part of Army Group Center, assigned with clearing a path from Poland westward, ending with the capture of Moscow.

He fought in The Battle of Smolensk, a grueling conflict during which a Russian counterattack known as the Yelnya Offensive, amassed 23,000 casualties within the two-month long engagement.

In mid-September, an enemy tank tried to run Horst and a friend over. The two laid in a trench three feet wide by four feet deep, one on top of the other, pulling the machine gun over them. A tank came and crushed the gun. Horst had been lying with his arms crossed over his chest. When the coast was clear, Horst sat up. The only thing broken was the glass face of his wristwatch.

October 2 launched Operation Typhoon. Horst fought in the Battle of Vyasma. In a photo album, on the backside of a picture of Horst in a field was written, “We lost all our officer’s. We made 650,000 prisoners and lost 700,000”. The conflict was so intense that Horst used his military issued spade and dug a hole to hide in, later comparing himself to a badger.

The German troops kept fighting through the miserable rainy season and the minus 50-degree weather. Around mid-December Horst’s group made it to the town of Istra, less than fifty miles from Moscow. Horst was hospitalized with frostbite on both feet.

The recommendation was amputation from the ankles down. Horst pleaded with the doctor to wait. He then prayed. The next day, the doctor saw a bit of color returning to both feet and amputation wasn’t needed. Horst spent seven months in the hospital recovering.

Conditions were so terrible that winter that all soldiers who participated in Operation Typhoon received a medal.

In 1942 Horst got engaged to Elfriede and was immediately sent to Rzhev, Russia, with the 9th Army and participated in several scuffles raging in a 200-mile by 200-mile area called the Demyansk Pocket.

Horst was added to the 4th Army from April-October 1943 in the region of Nevel, Russia. The city contained one of two important railroad junctions connecting western Axis troops to those near Oryol. On August 7, at 4:40 am, artillery bombarded the Eastern Front beginning the 2nd Battle of Smolensk. But by October 4, Russia took the city of Nevel back.

It was likely in the Nevel territory on October 25, 1943, that Horst was talking to his company chief when two mortar shells hit the ground within feet of him spewing shrapnel. A piece of iron went through his right calf and shin, leaving a crescent shaped scar. Horst was hospitalized for three months.

As soon as Horst recovered, he and Elfriede got married, January 20, 1944. Meanwhile, Germany was low on experienced soldiers and had collected any Reserves to bolster strength.

In March 1944, Horst’s unit, the 3rd Panzer Army was part of a German campaign to take out rebellion cells in the Vitebsk, Belarus area. I’m unsure if Horst was there. I do know that at some time he was transferred to another group for talking back to his commanding officer. Soon after, he learned his entire army unit had been killed. The only time an entire German army had been wiped out during a battle happened in 1944.

I believe Horst was transferred to the 4th Army, which was relatively close by of about fifty miles or less.

By May 31, the Red Army had surrounded the city of Vitebsk sending Axis armies scrambling. I think this was when Horst was made an Unteroffizier or Sergeant over fifty men because he was in charge of a small group during the summer of 1944.

In June, the 4th and 9th Armies joined forces at Bobruisk Belarus. The Allied forces were only six miles ahead of them. On June 22, the Soviets began Operation Bagration a defensive plan to remove all occupying German forces.

On the first day of fighting the Russians blasted the Vitebsk-Orsha area. Horst led a small group probably to Germany’s 1943’s Ostwall defensive line. However, it felt wrong to him, and he took the men to another old line. Then the Allied forces came by the thousands.

Horst trying to elude capture, steered his group up and down the defensive line for five days. On June 28, Horst and his men were out of essentials; ammunition and food. It could’ve been in Borisov Belarus, where Horst and his men surrendered to a German-speaking Red Army Lieutenant and his men holding a white flag.

When Horst returned to the Eastern Front, he was a newlywed and Elfriede was expecting a child. In August, Elfriede received a telegram stating Horst was missing in action. Two weeks later, the baby was stillborn.

Horst and his men marched three days to Vitebsk and were loaded onto a train heading to Moscow. There, prisoners were given food and rest. On the 17th, the POWs were forced to participate in the Soviet’s Victory Parade at Red Square. Prisoners were then loaded onto cattle cars and scattered throughout the USSR.

I asked Horst if he was officially charged with a crime. He chuckled and said, “We were Germans. We were the enemy.”

Horst arrived at a mining gulag in Stalino, now Donetsk, Ukraine. It was July 22, 1944, Elfreide’s 23rd birthday.

He said,“1500 men were put down into the coal mines. By the end of September, the first group got sick. By Christmas [,] we were taken out of the mines because there weren’t 1500 men anymore. There was only 500 men left. A thousand men died of hunger…of starvation.” He was part of the first group who got sick and spent weeks in a camp hospital.

Horst spoke about his imprisonment as a list of tasks he was a part of. During 1944-1946, he worked in coal mines, he harvested crops and weeded fields on farms. He worked at a fabrication plant and repaired machinery and helped build a railroad by hand.

Although the war with Germany ended May 1945, due to reparations, Russia was allowed to keep prisoners, especially German captives, to repair war damages. Horst was noted as the last POW returning to southwest Germany.

After two years of confinement, Horst was allowed to write to his wife saying little more than, “I’m alive. Horst.”

In the spring of 1947, Horst was put on a work crew, made up of twenty-five men. The difference between a work crew camp and a gulag was they weren’t heavily guarded and were given more food than at most camps. However, they were sent to a vast and harsh area where there was nowhere to escape to. And although they got more to eat, they also built large-scale structures with less help.

The men were put on a train and taken far south. They sailed the Black Sea and arrived in Sochi, a resort and the home of the 2014 Winter Olympic games.

124 miles from Sochi in the Caucasus Mountains, Horst’s group was assigned to build housing for 25,000 prisoners. They were also put to work building a hydroelectricity dam. They cut timber and made cement forms out of their lumber. Construction took two years to complete and then he was released.

Horst said this of his last days, “After we had built [the dam] big enough and the first electricity came on for southern Russia, [they] told us we did our work and was going to be sent home. That was the 16th of December [.] [We] got loaded up on the railroads and tripped home. So I was home the last day in December 1949”.

But his release wasn’t as smooth as he made it sound. The men being issued at this time were very old Austrians and the ones too sick to recover. Horst was a German and was twenty-nine-years-old. I believe he was being sent home to die. The fact he was sent home coupled with that upon leaving he got back most of his confiscated war medals, tells me he was well respected by his guards.

At first, Horst didn’t believe he was going home. He thought it was a lie to amp productivity. The thought of home was so painful that he had discontinued writing letters to his Elfriede two years prior.

After Horst was on the train, it stopped on the border of Poland, and the soldiers were led into the forest by Polish guards. I bet Horst was scared. He could’ve guessed what happened to German soldiers taken as prisoners and then taken into the woods.

The men went into the forest without food, water, or warmth. Overnight people died still no one came for them. After three days, guards retrieve those who were left and ordered them back to the train station. The prisoners were asked for their Release Papers and loaded onto passenger trains according to destination.

The day before Horst was to arrive home, Elfriede heard on the radio, a list of POWs being released. Horst was one of them. Early the next morning, she received a telegram telling her to pick her husband up at the Stuttgart train station.

Elfriede couldn’t believe the news. She hadn’t heard from Horst for over two years and wasn’t sure if he was dead or alive. However, if anyone asked, she would say she was certain he was coming home.

When the train pulled up to the Stuttgart station, two men got off. The first man was swept away by his family members immediately. The second man just stood there. According to Elfriede, the man was fat, bald, and dirty with broken and rotting teeth. She didn’t realize that he wasn’t fat but in the final stages of malnutrition in which the body bloats. Malnutrition was also the reason he was hairless.

Horst later confided that as his brother and parents ran passed without recognizing him, he decided that if Elfriede did too, he would get back on the train and never come back.

Elfriede began to follow Horst’s parents and brother but for some reason stopped in front of the stranger. She said something to him. He said something back. When he spoke, she realized it was Horst!

Horst was born and raised in Dudweiler, a town in southwest Germany, and near France. Because of it, there was and still is a strong French influence found in the region’s food, architecture and even their blended French-German accents. Maybe his accent was why Elfriede recognized Horst when he spoke? However it was, she knew him!

So, was Horst Prison just an old man suffering from osteoporosis and blindness? No. I argue the slight curve in his back was due to the giant story he carried on his shoulders. And the reason his vision had receded to no more than the size of the head of a pin, was because he had already seen so much.

Who was Horst Prison? He was a young man thrust into an insufferable war. He was a German soldier and a machine gunner. At times he was afraid and became a badger. He was God fearing. He was a decorated military hero. He was a newlywed and a Sergeant. He was a prisoner, and as such, a lumberjack, an architect, and a civil engineer. He was an ex-soldier and a stranger. He was a husband and a traveler. And finally, he was a father, a grandfather and a great-grandfather.

All of his experience adds up to what made Horst Prison. But the largest measure of his greatness lies in the legacy he leaves behind—his family.

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