Note: From the beginning I would like to say that the style of these memories is not a formal one. It is practically a dialogue between a grandfather and his nephew. It is more like a long monologue, which I adapted, my presence in it being unnecessary. There are some problems with the names of some of the cities/villages, which my grandfather did not know exactly how to spell.
My name is Sandu Aurel and I was born in Nartesti, Tecuci county on 5 May 1922. I had my first contact with the army at 18 when, together with some other boys from the village we were called for pre-military training. I didn’t last very long because after a while we heard rumors about Hitlerjugend and their training program. They practiced with real guns while we had to make do with wooden ones. Because of this I got into a fight with reserve captain Marcas, our supervisor. I smashed my wooden gun. Marcas was very aggravated and threatened me with a Court Martial. After that incident I and two of my friends, Chifu Neculai and Mrejeru Panait were expelled and having no pre-military training, we later had to spend 1 year instead of the regular 8 months in the army.
Until the mobilization order arrived, we kept busy as best we could. Being afraid, my family left Galati and moved back to Nartesti. My friends and I remained in Galati to "watch the war". We spent most of our time in cafés talking about it. It was very amusing when the air raid alarm sounded and we always ran in a bakery. The owner, a nervous Jew, ran for cover and, while he was gone, we would steal as many baguettes as we could handle. After the war, from our group only I survived. God only knows where the others left their bones.
I received my mobilization order on 10 February 10 1943. On1April, I was at the Tecuci Territorial Mobilization Centre from where I was assigned to the 24th Infantry Regiment Tecuci. When I arrived, the chief of the mobilization bureau was captain Iacomi Constantin, which was also the CO of the pioneer company and assigned me to his company.
The special weapons company was formed from three platoons: communications, reconnaissance and pioneers, where I was. Our barracks, which had been built by the Germans, were located near the railway. Here we were given uniforms made of poor quality materials (which tore with the first rain) and PEASANTS' SANDALS!!!! I believe that I was the first soldier in my contingent to get smacked. Being unfamiliar with military ranks, I entered the Officers’ Mess Hall and I saluted with a casual ‘morning chaps’. What followed was to be expected. I still remember the one who slapped me: captain Tabacaru Toader a crude man from the Serbanesti, Tecuci.
The platoon commander was lieutenant Lazarescu Neculai. He was a very connected man; two of his brothers in law were chiefs of staff so he could get away with not doing night training or whatever else, which he did. The section commanders were sergeant Becleanu Marin from Gimbasani, Ialomita, corporal Barbarasa Ion from Rachitoasa, Tecuci and private first class Munteanu Vasile from Corbita, also in Tecuci.
A period of drill training followed: soldier about left, soldier about right… and this lasted almost two months. I didn’t really understand why so much attention was given to such small things. Except for parades it was a waste of time. Only after the war I heard how the Americans were training. Private John, here’s your riffle, now shoot until you hit your target 2-3000 meters away. When you do you’re off to war. Anyway you learn the rest there. That much the Americans did well. They did not train an army for parades.
Because of the poor quality of the uniform, our superiors weren’t allowed to give the order "down" directly, but we still had to do it when they yelled "enemy airplanes". Because of this our uniforms ended up very ugly and torn. Perhaps we should have trained in our underpants. The drill instruction was followed by weapon familiarization and target practice, at Funceni on the Siret shore: once a week, 5 cartridges per soldier!! The Germans were shooting 100 cartridges daily while we had 5 a week. And some still wondered why a German soldier was 10 times more competent than any of us.
Food was the same throughout the training period – a cup of coffee substitute with a quarter of a bread; lunch and dinner consisted of peeled barley with prunes and beans. For weapons we used ZBs [VZ24].
In the barracks we didn’t stay too long. From the first night I realized they were full of bed bugs. On 29 July 1943 we took all the beds outside to have them cleaned. You should have seen the ground, it was red because of them. We were saved thanks to an inspection of general Dascalescu, who seeing the atrocious living conditions and the boils on our bodies had us all relocated to a small forest nearby, where we lived in tents until we left for the front.
Being the tallest in my section, I was assigned the right flank each time. Behind me was always Grecu Ion, who carried the light machine gun. I remember passing by a very expensive restaurant in Tecuci: Corban. At all times we could see Germans trough the windows. They always looked back with arrogance. Compared to them we looked like a band of beggars. I remember Grecu telling me “Boy, how I’d like to shoot them!”. I still remember how those Germans looked, like right out of the box.
Meanwhile, captain Damian became the company CO. He was very mean and strict. At target practice I had problems with him because I was aiming with my left eye, not the right like all the others. He said that if I didn’t hit my mark with the first shot he would trample me with his horse. He went mounted everywhere. In the end, needing someone with beautiful calligraphy, I ended up as his secretary, taking care of the company papers. I know that after we were sent to the front, three sergeants always guarded Damian, because many soldiers wanted him dead. Everyone hated him. I do not know what became of him.
On 1 October , after a short vacation, we received new equipment. However, I never had the chance to try my new uniform because it was stolen. Stealing was common; the soldiers were then selling the uniforms to buy alcohol. I was lucky with my cousin Sandu Toader who was a sergeant and got me a new uniform.
On 10 October, we got on a train and we went on the Vaslui – Iasi - Odessa route. The travel lasted a week, maybe more. I think it was 20 October when took positions along the seashore, in the Eastern sector, towards Nikolaev. There we have heard a kind of joke about general Dascalescu. Before entering Odessa, he would have told the officers around him “I’ll take Odessa with a blind horse and a limping soldier if that is what it takes”.
Our job for the start was to guard the seashore and place mines. There I cheated death for the first time. I had to go mining with a group of soldiers, but the company commander, Filimon, retained me for some job. Sergeant Georgescu took my place in the mining group. They had to place 3000 mines. Those were MAN anti-tank mines. First, they had to remove some older mines and then replace them with these new ones. Nobody is sure what happened, but all the old mines exploded in a chain reaction, creating a huge blast. 17 people died, including Georgescu. Some speculated that the cause was a mine secured against defusing attempts. I believe that someone rushed, but the incompetence was coming probably form the higher ranks. There was a mining plan, but I never was allowed to see it, I don’t know why. The body of Georgescu could not be found. I guess that the blast had thrown him into the sea. That day were also killed two men from my village: Pricope Constantin and Murgulet Alexandru, they have also been in my platoon. Their bodies were also never found.
There were also many Germans in Odessa. Every morning we were finding 3 or 4 naked bodies in the street. There were the Germans that went to the brothels during the previous evening and were caught and killed by the partisans. Odessa was full of partisans; you didn’t even know who to avoid there. Anyway, the partisans had little interest in Romanians; it was the Germans they were hunting down.
On some occasions, the Romanians were feeding the civil population in Odessa, but without the Germans knowing it. They were very nasty. When long columns of poor Russian prisoners were passing by, people were throwing them pieces of bread and cigarettes, but if any of them was trying to get some he was immediately beaten with the rifles by the German guards.
I went once to the opera in Odessa. The opera building was splendid. I remember that it was a kind of variety show, with many artists playing. During the show, a clown went up on the scene with a baby doll. I can’t remember exactly what was he doing there with it, but at a point he got down from the scene in front of the first row, where the German officers were sitting. He went to one of them and put the doll in his arms. I’m not sure what happened, that doll wetted the German. The whole room went silent and the officer stood up slowly, wiped his face with a napkin, then drew his gun, and shot the clown in the head. Nobody said anything; you couldn’t say anything in front of the Germans. That ended the show everybody went home…
The civilians from Odessa were put to work at the anti-tank ditch in the Eastern part of the city. For 8 hours of work, they received one bread and one liter of milk as payment. Of course, there were “exceptions”. At the ditch, there were some of my comrades supervising the work. Three of them were involved in the black market: Raznoveanu Mihai – corporal from Galati, Beregoi Gheorghe from Bessarabia and Antohi Neculai from Oncesti, Adjud. They received money from the more wealthy citizens that wanted to avoid working, and sold the milk and bread left from this arrangement to the hungry population. They made a lot of money. Eventually they were caught and deserted to avoid punishment.
Before retreating from Odessa, we faced a terrible cold. On 23 March the blizzard came and the snow piled up to one meter high. We left Odessa on 29 March 1944. Part of the unit went towards Tiraspol – Tighina, and the other part (that included me) towards Ovidiopol – Cetatea Alba, on the shore of the Dniester, where the river was 12 kilometers wide. On the road to Ovidiopol we have encountered a group of gypsies coming from the Bug, where they were sent by Antonescu. We wanted to give them clothes because it was very cold and they were poorly dressed, but they refused, “We don’t want them kind sir, if we take them the partisans might shoot us”. On the Dniester shore, we were supposed to get on ships to cross the river, but as we had none we tried getting on the German ships (that were very fast, they made 6 trips back and forth in a day, while our ships made only one trip in 6 hours). Then they opened fire at us and killed many Romanians, maybe a few hundred, because we were not allowed to travel on German ships and we did not want to leave the ships. I was lucky that the water was shallow and we could walk through it. We started crossing on foot until a Romanian tug got us aboard and took us to Cetatea Alba. To this day, I am amazed that I didn’t get sick, as the water was freezing and I’ve walked more than an hour through it.
On the barge was lieutenant colonel Caramlau. When we disembarked, general Lioveanu was waiting for him. I remember the dialogue between them:
“Caramlau, where are the carts?”
“On the other shore, they remained there!”
“Go get them!”
“No, you go get them!”
Everybody went silent, including Lioveanu. This was a Court Martial case. Caramalu was very angry. I don’t know what happened to him because I left. I never hared of Caramalu again.
We got in the barracks of the 35th Infantry Regiment, that was part of our division (21st Infantry – commanded by general Dascalescu [more accurately, at that time general Dascalescu commanded the 2nd Corps and the 35th Infantry Regiment belonged to the 15th Division]) planning to dry our clothes and maybe eat something. But the Russian airplanes appeared and started bombing us. We scattered all over: on the streets, over the fields. In the rail station, an ammunition train exploded. Bullets were flying in all directions; you didn’t know where to run to escape. Many men died that day. One of my comrades was hit in the back by a broken foot that still had the boot attached. I had to carry him for a while. We could get together again only the next morning, we returned to the barracks where we were ordered to form columns in order to receive tea and bread. We were starving; we had nothing to eat for two days. When we finally gathered to receive food, a Russian airplane appeared and dropped two bombs in the yard. We were lucky that none exploded, because it was crowded we would all have been killed.
After that we gathered and moved along the Dniester to take position in the north, at the Cossacks, were the Russians succeeded to cross Dniester and secure a bridgehead, about 40 kilometers long. Less than a half of us reached the area. Because of hunger and exhaustion, many had all over the sole infected blisters, filled with pus. We could not help them: for more than one week we could not see any medic. So we left them behind. Who could waste time to wait?
When we reached the designated position, in cooperation with other companies we succeeded to repel the Russians back over the Dniester. From here we moved upstream. We occupied the Dnister bend area, in Ciobarciu village, where we dug trenches. Here the situation was quite calm. Over the river the Russians were entrenched like us. After a while, we even went to take baths in the river together with them: 7 of us, 7 of them. When the Russian commanders heard about that, they replaced the troops with that kind of Asians, who were so mean that they did not even allow us to take water from river. As soon as we plunged with a rope a can in the river, they riddled it with bullets. Now it was out of question to pop-up our head from the trench. Anyway we always were in disadvantage regarding the ability to use snipers. We had some very bad Dutch helmets, which dropped over our eyes, and when by instinct we lifted the head for a better sight, we became an easy target… Not to mention that when it rained, the shape of the helmet allowed the water to pour along the throat, along the spine and down to the boots. Once I fitted a German helmet on my head. It was a luxury compared with what we used.
One night I left in a scout mission with sergeant Nour Ilie. Near us there was the beach with a few bushes. There the Russians saw us. They launched several flares. We were lucky that the bushes were not targeted, otherwise they would have killed us. After the situation calmed down, we walked a little and reached an area with shrub. There we stopped. After less than 10 minutes we heard noises and we hid. 17 Russians passed very close to us. Two of them knew Romanian. Their target was beyond our rear lines. They did not return till dawn, so we drew the conclusion that they had links with the villagers – the Bessarabians. They wore usual clothing, thus they could walk undetected. We reported this but nobody bothered to listen. The platoon commander Georgescu said they were probably deserters, but personally I do not believe it. I think they were spies helped by the Bessarabians. I cannot understand even today why the Bessarabians helped the Russians.
One day I went to the 5th artillery observer, upward to the edge of the forest, and I saw a truck coming on the road which led to the Hlinoe village, perpendicular to the Dniester. Together with the soldier from the observation outpost we thought that there were several drunken Russians and we did not report the presence of the truck. Shortly after that, we saw a big flame on the truck and a familiar fizzle of flying projectile over our heads. A projectile flying lower hit an oak, 20 meters from us, and exploded. When we looked to the road, the truck had disappeared from sight. Then we realized it was the Katyusha. We did not report it, being afraid of a Court Martial. The projectiles fell over the 4th Battery of the 5th Artillery Regiment and destroyed it.
Also along Dniester, before the big attack, the 3rd Infantry Regiment Olt took position on our left, toward Tighina. The Oltenians were such cowards… The Russians always broke the front line through them and we always had to get there to throw them back. The Oltenians were running as soon as they heard the Russians coming. We could hear: “aoleu muica!” [regionalism, characteristic for Oltenia; in Romanian: “Oh, my mother!”]. We were accustomed by now with it: “…The Russians broke the frontline again at the 3rd Olt”.
We had in the platoon a soldier named Gheorghita Constantin from the Bucesti, Tecuci, from the ’41 contingent. He chattered that any time he got a Russian prisoner to escort to the command point, he took him to a nearby forest and shot him. It seems he did that with about 30 prisoners. After the start of the great Russian attack [20th August 1944], we occupied some new positions and started digging individual pits. He did not want to dig, so he lit a cigarette… Immediately the Russian mortars started to fire. A projectile fell right on the edge of his pit, and because he did not dig too deep, a splinter punched under the collarbone, straight to the heart. He died instantaneously.
Around 15 August, the Russians started to pound us with all their artillery and their air force. Our anti-aircraft artillery was smashed by the Soviet artillery. It was a disaster there. You could not see further than 5 meters, due to the dust. The Russians broke the frontline and we retreated to the edge of the Elephant forest. Here we had a 60 mm mortar, me, corporal Tanasica Ion from Adjud and sergeant Buzelan Neculai from Barlad. First we installed it in a pit dug for a 120 mm mortar and then we decided to emerge up to the shore, because we had fired about 40 projectiles and we had only few left. In that moment I went to the ammunition trucks to take few more boxes with projectiles. When I left I heard canon noise and I jumped to the ground, in a ditch.
A Katyusha projectile exploded right there and destroyed everything. All the men there died, about 20, and the horses. A horse was laid, broken in half, about in the spot were I should have been, if I would have remained there for a few more minutes. I left in a hurry towards the mortar and we fired about 20 projectiles when sergeant Buzelan on my right yelled that the Russians are coming, and they are entering into the forest. The forest was already encircled from Tighina – they were advancing towards southwest. There, everyone at the mercy of God… I ran as fast as I could and I succeeded in escaping the encirclement. I was very lucky to find a breach in the encirclement. Most of my comrades fell prisoners. I still carried the mortar barrel and 2 boxes with rounds in my hands. What should I do with them now – I don’t know… At the edge of the forest, colonel Stefanescu from the 5th Artillery [Regiment], in a car, which had broken down, was shouting: “Do not leave me, comrades!”, but who listened to him… If his car had malfunctioned, he wouldn’t have stopped to take any of us.
From there, me and a boy named Gheorghita, from Ghimbasani, Ialomita crawled almost 500 meters through the weeds. We went towards the antitank ditch. We passed over it and we occupied a position there, at about 50 meters from the ditch. There we stayed till the next day. About 100 men were gathered there. That was all what remained from 3500 men, including the colonel Trestioreanu, the regiment commander. We had no idea that the Russians occupied the antitank ditch over night, at only 50 meters from us, and in the morning they reveled themselves to attack us. They were shouting: “predai romanski!” [“Surrender, Romanians!” – first word in Romanian, second word in Russian]. We shot at them as much we could, then we fled. There I shot a Russian boy right in his throat. He was a blonde boy, no more than 18 years old. I had no choice. Only those who ran through the cornfield escaped. Those who chose to use the highway were machine-gunned by Soviet airplanes.
From the anti-tank ditch the Russians pushed us back to Frumusita and from there were picked up by some German half-tacks and went as far as Comrat. We took up positions in a vineyard on the western side of the village. Here we dug some trenches and waited until the next day. Several TU tanks [probably SU-76s] appeared on the hill in front of us and started to shell us. When they entered the village, the Germans left with their half-tracks and we on foot. We were a mixed group, from many units, and we had had nothing to eat in the last two days, except for some watermelons.
We reached the river Prut at the village I. G.Duca, when some elder people gave us food. The Prut was full of soldiers who could not get on the other side because they couldn't swim. Only three people got across: me and two other guys. The rest, about 400, were taken prisoners by the Russians. We arrived in the Carja village, where all the houses were covered with reeds. An old lady gave us something to eat and told us that she also had two boys in the 11th [Regiment] Siret, but she knew nothing of them. While we were eating, the Russian bombers came. In 10 minutes the village was in flames.
We continued our way through Ganesti, Cavadinesti, Slivna and Beresti. When we got to Beresti, the Russians were already on the other side of the railway tunnel, very close. Anyway, it was after 23 August, I believe on 24, but we were still afraid. We did not even know who to avoid. We walked to Galati, which was under German bombardment. Many people died in the railway station. We continued to Braila and there, near Tichilesti, we finally caught up with the regiment. From the pioneer company, only 15 men remained. From there we were sent to Transylvania.
We passed through Pogoanele, Bordeiu-Verde, Bradeanu and then Stelian Popescu. There we rested and reorganized until 10 October 1944, when we left again for the front. The company CO was Indrea Alexandru from Salaj. They decorated everybody that got away from the encirclement with the Barbatie si Credinta Medal. We boarded a freight train at Draganesti-Olt and went as far as Apahida, near Cluj. We met the Russians for the first time at Faurei, but did not made contact with them. The Russians had already brought political officers into our regiment, which many times told the colonel what to do. From Apahida we marched on foot to the front. The Germans had been expelled from Romanian soil, but we caught up with them in Hungary.
The first serious engagement with them was at Megyazo, then at Gegeny and then they retreated. When we arrived at Dombrád, on the Tisza, the Germans were already on the other side. There we stayed for about two weeks and there were several brifgeheads established. The Germans were pushed back and we crossed the Tisza at Nirehaza, then we went to Taktaharkany. There we stayed with some old people. I remember that after two days a Gendarmerie captain and a sergeant came and looked in the attic and found their boy hiding there. He was a deserter and was shot immediately. The same period, walking through the village, I stumbled upon two Russians who were raping an 84-year-old woman. They were completely drunk and, because they reached for their weapons, I had to shoot them. I was lucky that no one investigated the matter.
Next there was the battle for Hill 222, at the Lorincz farm. At Megyazo, we were at the foot of the hill, the farm was above us and the Germans higher, beyond it. I remember that one day, at about 1100 hours, we were just receiving food, when the Germans fired about 30 shells. We were lucky that we were in some kind of marsh and none exploded. Supported by Soviet artillery we attacked the farm and pushed the Germans back. The Soviets always gave us difficult missions. The artillery support was often weak and imprecise, although they had the possibility. The Germans usually retreated and took up position on the higher ground. We followed them and caught up in the village Szadalmas, on the border with Czechoslovakia. There we occupied the village wit the help of Soviet artillery. We had a Katyusha battery. When they fired, one had the impression it was raining.
During the night of 31 December/1 January 1945 a propaganda unit came to the village. They started to speak in Hungarian and German telling them that the war was lost. The Germans replied by counter-attacking and pushed us back to the Miskolc – Budapest highway. There it was a Soviet general with a submachine-gun, who yelled at us to go back: “Nazat, nazat!”
We counter-attacked and pushed them out of the village and reoccupied it. After a week we attacked again and managed to enter in Czechoslovakia. Just before the attack, a comrade was wounded, sergeant Nour Ilie from Galati, whom I carried back to a medical unit. I returned and we managed to drive the Germans out of the outskirts of the Krivany village, where they took up positions on a hill. We stayed there for two weeks.
On the road to Krivany there was a tunnel and above it a crossroad. As we marched down the road we heard airplane engine roar. Four Stukas appeared and startedt o machinegun us. I jumped in a nearby ditch. They made 3 or 4 passes and launched several bombs, of which one dell on the road and killed 10 Russians. The others fell in the tunnel and buried alive the workers who were trying to reopen it.
We attacked together with a Soviet division and pushed the Germans back to the village Detva. They occupied the Vyglas Castle, which closed up the valley, like a gate. Strategically it was a very good position. The bridge had been destroyed and the road was under the action of German machine-guns. There, near the castle, a sniper killed two sergeants: Daraban Vasile from Tudor Vladimirescu, Galati and Apreutesei Spiridon from Tecuci (shot in the forehead, during the night) and badly wounded corporal Heinrich Walter from Libling, Timis. The sniper was caught by sergeant major Nedelcu, from Braila. He was only 17 years old! After this the Russian air force bombed the castle, which could not be taken by the infantry. The same sergeant major Nedelcu managed to get in the ruins where only 7 out of 29 Germans were still alive.
From there we attacked the Zvol – Slatina village, which was behind the castle and the Germans retreated to Zvolen. At Zvolen we attacked the city together with Russian units. They did not let us enter the city and we went around it. In Zvolen there were alcohol factories and the Russians got drunk and many died, several hundred, because the Germans had poisoned the tanks. It was good that they did not send us inside the city, because we could have died instead of them. The Romanian soldier also liked to drink, not only the Russian. After this we advanced up the road towards Banska Bystrica. We encountered Germans at Velikiluka, but they did not put up much of a fight and retreated.
Here we met a man who approached us and said "Good day!" in Romanian. We were surprised that he spoke the language. He had worked for a while in Timisoara before the war. He asked us what army was that that was fighting alongside the Germans, with green berets. We replied that it was Horia Sima's army [probably one of the rumours going around the soldiers in that period; the Romanian SS regiment that took parting the fighting on the Eastern Front in 1945, did not meet Romanian units] and then he told us that for the past two days he heard gunfire at the anti-tank ditch one kilometer away. We went there and found the ditch filed with bodies, shot and covered with about 10 cm of dirt. They were of every kind: Gypsies, Russian soldiers, even Jews I believe.
At Banska Bystrica I heard that general Dascalescu was wounded [probably another rumour, because gen. Dascalescu remained at the command of the 4th Army until the end of the war]. The city was occupied by the Germans. At the entrance, on a tall building it was written in Romanian with black letters: "THE ENGLISH HAVE SOLD YOU TO THE RUSSIANS". Probably Horia Sima's legionnaires had written this. We took up positions on a mountain, above the village Malahova. The Katyusha fire pushed the Germans back. After their retreat we marched on the road to Trenchin. From there onwards we did not encounter any resistance. Beyond Trenchin, near a town called Pivin took place one of the last tank battles. Many tanks, about 30-40 on each side. During the following night we heard that the armistice was signed. After that we entered Brno ans camped in the Novemesto forest, where we remained for about a month.
The Czechs with whom we spoke said that the Russians considered us prisoners of war. One day came to us two men from the Tudor Vladimirescu Division [division formed by the Soviets with Romanian volunteers from the POW camps]: lt. Imbre and serg. maj. Patrichi, and told us that Imbre was the new political officer of the regiment. They also told us that the ECP (education, culture and propaganda) section was formed and to throw away the medals we received on the Eastern Front, because we would risk a deportation to Siberia. Because I was afraid I did not even write down my service in Russia in my file.
We returned on foot to Romania. We left in June from Czechoslovakia and we arrived in Cluj on 23 August, just in time to take part in the parade. Here an unfortunate incident took place. The 11th and 35th Infantry Regiments had just entered Cluj, that we received the order: "To arms!". We heard gunfire in the city. The Hungarians had fired on the Romanian troops. 15 or 20 soldiers died.
From Cluj we boarded a train, which took two weeks to reach Tecuci, because of the Russian trains, which had priority.
I remained in the army for another year. I worked at a mobilization bureau. The funniest and in the same time saddest thing was that at my discharge I had to pay for some underwear I had lost on the front. This is what pays a soldier in the Romanian army with three years on the front. A piece of underwear!