In the middle of January, I was summoned to the divisional commander. General von Funk received me in particularly friendly fashion.
"Luck, two important bits of news for you. I had recommended you for the Knight's Cross. A few weeks ago, Hitler founded a new order, the German Cross in gold, which ranks between the Iron Cross First Class and the Knight's Cross. All recommendations for the Knight's Cross have been converted. Yours too. In the name of the Fuehrer, I have the honor to present you with this new order for bravery in the face of the enemy."
I was appalled: a large and clumsy star, with an oversized swastika in the middle of it, to be worn on the right breast. The General smiled.
"Nice and impressive, isn't it ? May I congratulate you all the same." His words were full of irony.
We at once coined a new name for this monstrosity: Hitler's fried egg. Except for headquarters' visits, I never wore the order.
"Now for the second bit of news, Luck: you are being transferred with immediate effect to the Africa Korps, to take over 3rd Panzer Reconnaissance Battalion. I have to confess that this transfer has been on my table since November. I didn't tell you or release you because you couldn't be spared in that decisive phase. Now Rommel is threatening me with the consequences if I don't send you on your way at once. I find it hard to let you go. In spite of our little differences, you were a great help to me as adjutant and was a commander, you have been outstanding. Get everything ready. You can go in your beloved Mercedes. Report, in the first place, to Personnel in Berlin. Drop in here just before you leave. An appropriate movement order will be issued by my adjutant. Thank you, once again, for everything and best wishes for the future."
The news of my transfer came like a bombshell to my officers and men. We had, after all, fought together since the beginning of the war, shared joys and sorrows, and merged, into a real team. The morale of the men had picked again. Although conditions were no better, the days of rest had done them good, nevertheless.
I planned to leave on 25 January 1942. Beck had the Mercedes checked and procured supplies for several days, as well as reserve cans of fuel. As is usual among men, no one showed his feelings when we said good-bye. A few jokes passed between us and then off to divisional HQ, where I took my leave again and was supplied with the movement order: "Destination, Berlin, Captain von Luck is to be given every assistance by all service posts." From my supply section, we collected mail for home and from the doctor, I procured some Pervitin, a stimulant. The last person to whom I said good-bye was Staff Sergeant Kuschel, the RSM, of my old company.
I turned to Beck, "We'll drive without stopping until we're out of Russia. We'll relieve each other every 100 kilometers, swallow Pervitin and stop only for fuel."
After 200 kilometers, we made our first stop for refueling at a supply unit. "We're not authorised to issue fuel to individual vehicles." said a "silverling," as we called the servicemen behind the lines, because of the silver stripe on their arms.
"Listen," I replied, "I will have fuel within five minutes if you value your life. Besides, the Russians have broken through in our sector and might be here by morning," I lied to him.
Great excitement and in a few minutes , I not only had fuel but also delicacies never seen at the front, such as a bottle of cognac, cigarettes, tins of meat.
We were disgusted by the life behind the lines. The army supply units had soon been followed by the first Party functionaries, what took over civilian control and treated the population, who had begun by greeting us as liberators, in the manner decreed by the Party and Propaganda Minister Goebbels, as "subhumans" of an "inferior race."
No one took any notice of us when we appeared, tired and unshaven, in our white-painted car. Every village, every bridge was guarded by old, conscripted soldiers. Only once, when we produced our movement order yet again, did an old reservist ask me, "Sir, have you come from 'up there'? How do things look ? We hear nothing definite. I have a son in the infantry. For weeks, my wife has had no news of him. Please tell me the truth, sir. We are very worried." I tried to give the old reservist some reassurance.
From the region of Volokolamsk, we drove west along minor roads that had scarcely being cleared, so as to reach the Moscow-Minsk "runway" as soon as possible, along which progress would be easier. We traveled across broad, snow-covered plains, through forests, deep under snow, and through deserted villages. The snowstorm that snatched at our heels covered our tracks in an instant. We drove with the top down, to make it easier to stop Russian planes. Across his knees, Beck had a machine-pistol at the ready. Everything seemed unreal to us. We were traveling through a virgin land that no one could grasp or possess.
Beck and I were lost in thought and enjoying the peace. But we wanted to get on, to put a distance between ourselves and the gruesome experiences of the past weeks, to get out of that country in which we had to leave our comrades.
Finally we reached the "runway." I had brought maps with us, of course, to avoid losing our way. We grew tired. Pervitin had to help, for we wanted to drive through the night.
On the trail, traffic was brisker and so brought us back to reality. The trail passed north of the cities of Vyazma and Smolensk. I resisted the temptation to revisit Smolensk cathedral. In Smolensk too, the Nazi functionaries would have made themselves at home.
I decided to go back along the route we had used for our advance. One one hand, it was familiar to me and on the other, I was curious to see how things looked now. It was no great detour on the way to Berlin.
We drove day and night, taking turns. North of Minsk, we left the trail for Vilnius, the capital of the former Baltic state of Lithuania, which had been pocketed by the Russians in 1940 as one of the Soviet republics, Hitler's "present" to Stalin for the nonaggression pact.
The indicator showed that we had so far covered about 1,000 kilometers. We no longer knew, at the moment, how many days and nights it had been. Gradually, even Pervitin was no help. We were dog-tired and tried to overcome our fatigue by singing or telling each other stories.
"Beck", Vilnius isn't Russia; Lithuania is more part of Europe than the east. We'll just drive the remaining 200 kilometers and spend the night there."
Now the snow-covered roads had been smoothed by traffic; the Mercedes ran without a sound and like clockwork. Eventually, late one afternoon, we reached our destination. As usual, there was a local German HQ. We came across an understanding reserve officer, who assigned us a room in Hotel Regina. We threw ourselves onto the beds. For the first time in eight months, a bed and a bath. Only then did we realise that we were no longer at the Russian front. The strain of the past weeks began slowly to fall away.
"Beck, we'll have a bath now, shave off your stubble, and go to the restaurant for a meal. And then, we'll have a really good sleep."
As we entered the restaurant, we felt as though reborn. We thought we were dreaming: officers of the base units were sitting at the tables with women, apparently leading a dolce vita. The little band could hardly make itself heard above the loud conversation. No one here, it seemed, wanted to know about the war. We bolted our food in disgust, handed in the voucher provided by the HQ, and disappeared to our beds, lacking for so long.
I woke late the following morning.
"Come on, Beck, we're going, as fast as we can, on to Berlin. There is nothing to keep us here any longer."
A further 600 kilometers lay before us. Finally, after two days, via Grodno, Warsaw, and Posen, we reached Berlin.
The Russian chapter was closed.
"The desert calls, Beck."