Major Rudolf Sauerbrei
Träger des Ritterkreuz des Eiserne Kreuz

Major Rudolf Sauerbrei, Träger des Ritterkreuz zum Eiserne Kreuz
Photo Source: OdR

As the Adjutant of the "Führerreserve Nord," in the beautiful East Prussian city of Insterburg, I could have been very comfortable with my soldier fortune. However this was not the case! After my promotion to Leutnant, my ensuing transfer to Insterburg came as a complete surprise. I was suddenly deprived of my previous military life at home with the Infanterie-Regiment 47 in Lüneburg. It was painful for me when I had to take leave of the Kameraden from the unit's original cadre, with whom I survived our baptism of fire during the airborne operations in the West.

At the onset of the campaign to the East on 22 June 1941, my longing for a new home of record intensified, which I could not satisfy at the "Führerreserve." It was unbearable for me at 22 years of age to send older officers and family fathers to the front. By way of my compassionate commander I succeeded in having my name placed on a "Front-bound" list. During the first few days of July 1941 I was transferred to the East Prussian 121.Infanterie-Division and assumed the duties as commanding officer, Bicycle Company, Infanterie-Regiment 405. The bicycle company concept was the invention of the Regimental Commander and was primarily employed for reconnaissance and special combat missions. The Division that originating from East Prussia was on the advance since the beginning of the campaign and had proved itself on numerous occasions through extraordinary achievements.

Since that time 3.5 years had past and I remained with the Regiment where, as a Thüringer, I felt at home with the East Prussians. Over the course of several years that were now behind us I was always able to convince myself of their dependability and other soldierly qualities that were exhibited during our advance from Leningrad to the forested and swampy areas south of the Ladoga Sea and to the Wolchofront. We did not have to surrender our positions and withdraw into the combat area of Kurland, the western half of Lettland, until after the Soviets broke through the lines of Heeresgruppe Mitte. With the exception of a few weeks for refitting and training, just behind the front lines, the Regiment was continuously engaged along the front and suffered significant loses against a determined enemy. Throughout those years we exhibited patience and wearily had to "stick our necks out" when no end was in sight. After I had suffered 3 wounds that were treated at the main aid station I returned to my East Prussians Kameraden.

In the interim I led a rifle company and in November 1943 assumed command of the II. Battalion with whom I was engaged in the Kurland Front at Preekuln. After Christmas 1944 the Third Battle of Kurland came to an end after the enemy of substantial numerical superiority attacked our positions with heavy artillery barrages and strong tank forces. The Soviets tried to overrun our positions and throw us into the freezing cold Baltic Sea that lay only 30 km away from our position. He did not succeed! However, only the stars could tell how long we, the forgotten Heeresgruppe Nord, could hold off the enemy pressure. It was a matter of survival!

Die Nahkampfspange in Gold (The Close Combat Clasp in Gold)
Die Nahkampfspange in Gold (The Close Combat Clasp in Gold)
Courtesy of Tjelvar Military Collectibles

On the morning of 20 Jan 1945, my worries were calmed by the rattle of our field phone. The regimental adjutant advised me of a visit by the divisional commander, which does not happen very often. After a warm welcome and some discussion about the engagements he told me that he had endorsed the regiment's recommendation to award me the Close Combat Clasp in Gold. Calm and collected I responded with a certain degree of joy. But then came the hammer! The General explained that in accordance with the Führer's orders the decorated soldier was to be withdrawn from his combat line unit and placed in a clerical billet in the rear. In a disrespectful manner I asked if this was some kind of a joke. But the General insisted on following the Führer's orders. I did not give up and suggested that the award be postponed and placed in a drawer for a more appropriate time. I explained that a large number of older soldiers that belonged to the battalion would not understand my sudden disappearance, especially in the face of the coming defensive battles. However, my objections fell on deaf ears and I had to take leave of my battalion. I said goodbye to my brave East Prussians and no longer understood the world. The following day I reported to the Division staff for "special duty." Early that morning, as I rode off with a horse handler from the battalion supply, I could already hear enemy artillery fire, coming from the nearby front line, that grew into a heavy barrage. The Fourth Battle of Kurland had begun and my thoughts were with my men in the forward-most positions.

After I reported to the divisional commander, Generalleutnant Ranck, I did not attempt to deny the fact that a hectic and critical situation was at hand. Not surprisingly the Fourth Battle of Kurland had been launched against the division's entire front and the first reports of enemy penetrations along our defensive lines were being reported. Naturally I was most concerned with the situation at my Regiment 405, where suddenly all communications were lost and I feared the worst. At once I suggested to General Ranck that I dispatch to the critical area and take command of the uncertain situation. Having obviously forgotten why I was here, he agreed to my proposal. In a full gallop I rode in direction "Front." Nearing the regimental command post (I.R.405) I assumed the alarm. I sent the horse handler with the horses to the rear and carefully approached the bunker complex. I managed to reach the regimental commander and report my presence. With a handful of men from the Regimental Staff company we made or way to the II. Battalion's sector, with which I was well familiarized. Along the way we absorbed a number of soldiers from battered units and without their leadership. I recognized the fact that the enemy had occupied in our positions and appartently remained there without much concern (about us). In order to exploit the attacking enemy's moment of weakness we counterattacked with full vigor and fury and caught the unsuspecting enemy completely off guard. In close combat we succeeded in driving the enemy forces to full flight from our old positions and at a heavy cost. Even in the I. Battalion's sector we succeeded in clearing the area that had been breached, organized a weak defensive line, cared for our wounded Kameraden and ensured for their evacuation to the aid station.

After the I. Battalion commander was incapacitated I assumed command of both combat sectors and we succeeded in holding our positions against further enemy attacks throughout the Fourth Battle of Kurland. During this critical situation the defensive line of the I.R.405 was closed and the greater threat to the Kurland Front was eradicated. However there was no lengthy respite along the Kurland Front. When there was a lull in the fighting the need for improving our emplacements and conducting reconnaissance missions were priorities. Reconnaissance and shock-troop activity was unrelenting. It was not long before dark clouds blanketed the front. The atmosphere in the forward most fighting positions was tense and appropriate for the seriousness of the situation. We were cut off from our homeland with the cold Baltic See to our backs and we faced an enemy of numerical superiority whose only goal was to destroy us. How long could we bear this pressure? On 20 Feb 1945 the enemy opened the Fifth Battle of Kurland with a murderous one-hour artillery barrage. Our positions were smothered in an enemy carpet of fire that consisted of artillery and Stalin organs. After the firestorm shifted beyond our positions, concentrated tank and infantry forces attacked our front lines. Bled thin and without significant strength we were unable to make a concerted defensive effort. Although we had thwarted a major assault during the defense of my command post, we had suffered a number of casualties when the enemy was overrun. Throughout the course of the day I had suffered 4 wounds and lay unable to move or fight.

I explained to the 5 remaining soldiers near me to break through to friendly lines under the cover of darkness. I added that I would arrive later when one of the men said, "You will not stay here! Either we make it out together, or no one will!" Under the cover of darkness they packed me onto a broken sled and dragged me through enemy territory to the regimental assembly area. Presumed dead we were happily greeted at the command post and brought to the aid station. There I learned from the flamethrower company commander that our division commander, Lt.Gen.Ranck, led a counterattack that evening with a Pioneer Company and succeeded in recapturing my old battalion command post and the news calmed my soul. Our own loses on that day were very high. Every battalion commander and one regimental commander had been either killed or wounded.

In the field hospital "Strande," located near the harbor of Libau, more medical operations followed. In March 1945 I arrived at Swinemünde, after an adventurous 11-day "cruise" aboard one of the last hospital ships. Via railroad I continued on to Neustrelitz. Now I finally had the opportunity to think about all that had occurred during the war-years that, in the past, I could not. During the difficult years of costly fighting and bloody defensive battles we often had to take flight, however we always managed to hold out. Committed to my solution on life: "Recognize and carry out your responsibilities", I tried to carry out my duty to my home and country. With my brave East Prussians I was able to conquer many adverse situations. Even in the most desperate situations we fulfilled our duties because it required our honor and we were ready to sacrifice our lives for our home and country. Taking responsibility and caring for the men placed under my charge determined the way I handled situations.

The fact that I survived the dangerous war with 7 combat wounds and was able to return to my home is diffiuclt for me to comprehend to this day. Was it the catch-phrased "luck of the soldier" or the luck of a "Sunday child" or simply God's good will? I do not know the answer, but I am convinced that all these factors contributed to my survival. One things I know for sure: On 20 Feb 1945, five brave East Prussian Kameraden, despite being wounded themselves and risking their lives in the most dangerous situation, dragged me through enemy territory and brought me top safety. These men sparred me from entering Soviet captivity and possibly a more worse situation. For that I thank them to this day. I would very much like to share the decoration I received with my brave East Prussian soldiers, without whom I could not have evaded certain disasters. They stood loyally next to me to accomplish our military missions. Regarding the Close Combat Clasp in Gold, I never heard or saw anything more about the award which I could not have done without their help (East Prussians). Comradery, that is honor; a promise without words! Blossom in this instruction: purposeful; strong; an always forward!