At fifty-two degrees below zero it takes but a moment for human flesh to freeze to metal. Unless withdrawn immediately, the only way to separate oneself from the icy point of contact is to tear the skin loose. At that temperature bleeding isn’t a problem, at least until later when the affected area starts to thaw. Not that it really matters, for frostbite kills the frozen skin anyway, leaving a blackened spot that turns to gangrene unless the offending area is amputated. I was lucky – I lost the skin and toenails on just six of my toes, instead of amputating the whole toes, as did many of my buddies. The reason I fared so well is that I had harvested a magnificent pair of felt lined boots from off the body of a dead Russian soldier. He wouldn’t miss them, and I desperately needed their protection from the cold Russian winter of 1941. Before the war, who would even think about stealing boots from a dead man? No honorable German would. Now it was a necessity.
The sub-zero cold taught us many lessons. Your rifle, for example, could be counted on for just one shot – then it would jam. I saw the deadly consequence of that problem after returning from a bitterly cold patrol, one night. One of the fellows with whom I shared the Russian house we Germans had commandeered came in from the cold and placed his machine gun on the oven above the fireplace. He then turned his back towards the fire to warm himself, with the muzzle pointed directly at his back. Someone in our group asked if that was wise, to which he confidently replied that the weapon was unloaded. Indeed, he had unloaded the clip himself just before placing the gun on the stove. What he forgot is that he had tried to shoot a second round earlier in the evening, which had jammed in the breech. So, even though he’d unloaded the clip of bullets, the one unremembered bullet still remained in the chamber. This soldier would never know the end of the story or recognize his mistake, for thirty seconds later the explosion of a single shell shattered the serenity of the room. The bullet ripped through this poor fellow’s back, exiting out his front, only to be deflected into the leg of one of our comrades. One German dead and one German wounded; casualties of the Russian winter. It seems that cold affects more than just inanimate objects like a machine gun; even the mind loses its abilities and judgments in such conditions.
These are just two instances out of hundreds that come to my mind as I recall those grueling days in Russia. In the quiet moments of that winter, I contemplated how I had come to be in this place so far away from home. As just one insignificant foot soldier amid the four million Germans who slogged through the endless Russian landscape in support of Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of Russia, I suffered with all the others.
Still, despite the adverse conditions, German morale was generally positive. Although stopped short of entering Moscow, we still held vast swaths of Russian territory and our Spartan German upbringing prepared us to endure even the vicissitudes of this foul weather. We fully expected that with the return of spring our offensive would renew and victory would be ours. That cheered most of my comrades who fought out of patriotic duty. But it depressed me, for I had felt from the beginning that Germany was doomed to failure in this war, and I ached to think of the unnecessary suffering it would cause for my fellow citizens as well as those with whom we waged war. I had but two hopes of personal survival; my faith in God and a secret promise I made with him before I ever picked up a weapon1.
Herbert Ludwig: A German Soldier Who Never Killed the Enemy
These introductory paragraphs are excerpted from a 1995 manuscript by Herbert Kurt Ludwig and the author. Ludwig was an active member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints who served in the German infantry in World War II. His journey through World War II took him from the freezing steppes of Russia to the burning sands of North Africa, where he served as a motorcycle messenger in the headquarters of Field Marshal Erwin Rommel. Along with a 136,000 other Germans, he was abandoned by his country in North Africa, facing new dangers, opportunities, and challenges throughout the rest of the war.
Through it all, Ludwig believed his life was preserved in miraculous ways. For example, in 1942 when his military group was transferred from the Russian Front to France, the men who exited the railroad cars were called to stand at attention. Then, in succession, each army group was commanded to step forward to identify themselves; Regiment, Battalion, Company. When Ludwig’s unit numbers were called he was the only one to step forward. All others with whom he started the war had been wounded or killed. He was the lone survivor out of more than 1,000 who started the campaign.
But that’s only one part of the story. Not only did Herbert Ludwig survive, but he did so without ever having killed another person; not a single enemy. It’s impossible to tell how many others like him go into war without believing that their country is in the right, but so it was for Ludwig. From the first moment he discerned that Germany was likely to start a second world war, he was convinced that they were on the wrong side of history and that God would humble the German people for their hubris. As an active member of the Church, he felt it was wrong to kill or injure the Allies who were fighting for freedom. Here is what he wrote about the night he received his draft notice:
But then one night my ordinary life as a farmer changed; the noise at the gate, the two men with a letter for Herbert Ludwig; the notification of the draft for me. It stated time, place, day and hour when I would have the great honor to join the ‘mighty and victorious army of the Fuehrer,’ and how proud I could be to put my life in the service of my Fatherland. Now, I guess under normal conditions in peace time, or at a time where for some reason the land needed to be defended, the feeling would have been different. How did I feel? I can’t describe it, being torn between being anxious to see the world and knowing that all was wrong and had to end in disaster…
How can you describe the feelings? There was a fire burning and I was called to put more fuel on it, not to extinguish it. You knew within yourself it was all wrong, you should not support the government, but the German government was not a democracy. You could not object. So, off I went, with one last look and waving of hands for goodbye2.
A German, but Not a Nazi
Just how did this young German man conclude that his country was in error and that God would ultimately punish them—particularly since Adolf Hitler was so highly revered for rebuilding the German economy and putting people back to work? After defeat in World War I, most Germans felt it was time for Germany to rise again to a leading role in world affairs. They enthusiastically supported the great new “Millennium of Germany,” where the Third Reich would dominate Europe for a thousand years. Yet, Ludwig felt differently. His sense of doom was born out of childhood experiences that recognized the cruelty and dehumanization of the Nazis, as well as from his church membership, which brought him many contacts with Americans. Unlike his neighbors, who viewed the world strictly through the lens of Nazi party propaganda, Ludwig and his family had a broader perspective. He loved Germany, but wanted nothing to do with the Nazis. But to refuse to serve was treason and would bring down wrath not just on him, but on his family and even on the other members of his church. That was a risk he was not willing to take, so he marched off to war, conflicted as he went.
In the end, Herbert Ludwig trained well and served in a way that was consistent with his beliefs. A star student in school, he was a quick learner in the military, which served him well in all the theaters of war in which he served. These included Russia, the French Riviera, and North Africa. But, in all the situations he encountered, he was somehow able to keep his promise to God and to himself, which was this:
In all my activities, frustrations and suffering by the hands of the enemy, I will say this: never had I the desire to kill for revenge or punish the opposing one; and whenever a direct confrontation or situation arose, the Lord showed forth his hand and I did not have to squeeze the trigger, Him of course knowing the desire of my heart and seeing the hesitation of my trigger finger. Yes, the Lord lives even in atrocities and the slaughter and horror of war3.
In other words, Herbert Ludwig promised that he would not kill another person in war. Now that is a difficult thing to do, for if any other soldier or officer suspected him, he would be charged with dereliction of duty, subject to court-martial and potential execution. The stakes could not be higher.
Chance or Divine Intervention?
Here are three instances where Ludwig felt he received divine help to keep his promise:
As we pushed forward, day after day, we of course sustained losses in tanks and equipment, but what hurt most was the loss of men—our friends and buddies. We lost five out of our original twelve; two died and three were wounded. That wasn’t enough to call the war off, however, and replacements soon took their place. One day, as the new men were trying to figure things out, we were sent into a town that had been captured the day before. There was still resistance in some areas, so we went in for ‘cleanup.’ This was the most terrifying of all duties, for snipers or guerillas could hide in any one of a thousand places. You had no idea who to trust, for the little child that seemed harmless could be drawing you into a trap. On this occasion, I was moving down the street by myself when I came upon a bunker. Somehow, I sensed that there were people inside, so I moved forward even more cautiously than usual. Not cautiously, enough, apparently, for suddenly I heard the shouted Russian words, ‘Hands Up – Hands Out!” But before I could do anything, I saw the flash of a muzzle and felt the particles of burning gunpowder hit my face. I’d been shot at from point blank range, but somehow the bullet missed! I was whole, even though it was totally impossible. My poor guardian angel drew extra duty that day.
Falling to a crouching position, I slowly loosened my two hand grenades, hating what I felt I must now do. Just then two of my buddies came up to me and, hearing my warning, quickly lobbed their grenades inside the bunker. I watched the grenades roll into the building, then felt the sickening rumble of multiple explosions. Dust flew as the ancient building collapsed in on its inhabitants. There wasn’t even a human sound to haunt my ears, no moaning or crying. The silence tormented me, for I knew the fate that had befallen those men who moments before had crouched in anxious darkness.
Yet, it was not my hand that destroyed them. Had the Lord sustained me by staying my hand? I believed so at the time. Not that the results were any different, or that my buddies were any less worthy than I. It’s just that I had made a promise not to shed innocent blood, if at all possible, and this seemed to indicate that the Lord would sustain me in that promise. I left the scene heartbroken that I had to be part of such a thing, yet grateful for life and for my escape from completing such an awful deed.4
On another occasion, Ludwig came under suspicion for not taking easy shots against fleeing Russian civilians and military. In his mind, the course of action he took, and the consequence that quickly followed were the most powerful evidence yet that he was sustained in his promise:
One day we were in progress of over-running a village. From the point where I was, I could see lots of people fleeing from us; their lower extremities were obscured by a fence, but their upper torso, shoulders and heads were clearly in view and in range. Most of my unit was standing there taking aim with their rifles and let go. I was also standing there, the gun at my side, watching the incredible; they were actually aiming at human beings as if they were stray dogs! While lost in these thoughts I was startled by my corporal shouting and cursing at me because I was not shooting. So, I raised my rifle and aimed very carefully two feet over the Russian’s heads, and then let go; . . .
Did I ever receive an answer to prayer with a lesson that day! After we had taken the village, there were still some big Russian guns sitting in the distance, ready to blast us. My buddy and I were standing on the corner of a barn with a thatched straw roof, our heads almost touching the roof when it happened. We must have been looking straight into the muzzle of the large gun when it fired. Flash! A shadow for less than a split second and a swoosh just two feet above us through the roof. Two feet! No time to act; but at the same moment an impression, or you could say a voice which let me know for the rest of my life, “Just as you had aimed!” Nothing more, nothing less; what a lesson. “Thank you, Lord!” If this shell had hit a piece of lumber while going through the roof, our lives would have ended there and I would have found my rest. How can I forget such a lesson? All the days of my life it rings, “Do unto others as you want them to do unto you.” To this day, even if I feel justified to act, I always ask myself, “would you want them to do it to you?”
For the rest of his life, Ludwig spoke of aiming two feet high and the shell that intended to kill him passing two feet above him as his personal miracle. The two were indelibly paired in his mind.
Later that month Ludwig had another close encounter while doing cleanup to roust out any Russian soldiers hiding in a town the Germans had recently occupied:
Later that day the order came to divide our group in half so we could make a split counter-attack that night. If a battle during daylight is a bad experience, one at night is incredible: it was impossible to tell which houses were still ours; to see the enemy; to even knew if we were going in the right direction. Amid all the shooting, shouting, and yelling for help, two of us entered a darkened house. Inside there was not sound, yet intuitively I sensed that someone hiding inside. While my buddy was covering the door against the surprise of hand grenades, I moved into a second room. Even though I entered it as quietly as possible, I couldn’t help but make some shuffling noise. At the same moment, the enemy soldier who was hiding in there also made a noise, which startled me. Instinctively I jumped up, right into his body, as it turned out. Rifles were useless at that close range, so I let go with my fist, launching a strong uppercut that caught him somewhere on his neck or his head. It was enough to knock him off balance, which gave me time to race for the front door. I heard him moving in the opposite direction towards the door from which he must have entered. He had plenty of time to escape before we threw in the hand grenades.
Why he failed to shoot when I first entered the room, I’ll never know. He clearly had the drop on me and could have killed me. But once again, I escaped with both my life and my promise.
In a chilling to the aftermath to this story, Ludwig adds that at this point in the war the German High Command issued new orders for nighttime fighting. Torches were applied to the Russian farmhouses, sending them up in flames, solely for the purpose of providing light by which the Germans could advance. About the brutality Ludwig witnessed during the war, he said, "I prayed to God that I might keep my humanity. While others lusted for destruction, I secretly wept for our lost innocence. ‘Please, I prayed, ‘help us hold onto that which gives life value!'"
For an in-depth look at more of Herbert Ludwig's experiences during WWII and his memories of being a prisoner of war, go to the second page of this article.
Images from Wikimedia Commons. Lead image of German troops parading through Warsaw, Poland. Other image of German troops crossing the Soviet border during Operation Barbarossa.
Read more remarkable stories from award-winning historical fiction author Jerry Borrowman in Invisible Heroes of World War II: Extraordinary Wartime Stories of Ordinary People.
Invisible Heroes of World War II, documents ten fascinating true stories of a diverse group of soldiers and noncombatants from all over the world, including African Americans, women, and Native Americans who worked and fought to keep the world safe from tyranny and oppression. Some were frontline soldiers and spies, while others were engineers, industry workers, or war correspondents and photographers. Without much fanfare, these heroes made noteworthy contributions to the war effort. Some even gave their lives for freedom and liberty. All served with valor and distinction, and their names should never be forgotten.
- Pat Patton: Abandoned at Bataan
- Nancy Wake: The White Mouse of the French Resistance
- Joseph Hyalmar Anderson: Missing in Action
- Joseph Medicine Crow: The Last War Chief
- Dickey Chapelle: American Journalist
- Navajo Code Talkers: Heroes of the Pacific War
- The Purple Heart Battalion: Rescuing the Texas 1st
- Combat Engineers: Builders and Soldiers
- African Americans at War: Heroes Despite Prejudice
- Rosie the Riveter: Women in the War Industries