Diaries of a soldier broken by the horrors of Operation Barbarossa

The remarkable ‘lost’ diaries of a German tank commander who went from being a hardened Nazi to a broken soldier in just a few weeks of fighting in the Second World War war have been unearthed.

Leutnant Friedrich Sander lost faith in the German war machine after cracking during the brutal Operation Barbarossa – the German invasion of the Soviet Union, which began in June 1941. 

His secret journals have been found 80 years later and are to be turned into a documentary by History Hit, the streaming network set up by historian Dan Snow.

In them, Leutnant Sander described in harrowing detail the barbaric deaths of both German comrades and Russian soldiers, with as many as 15 men executed before his eyes on one occasion.

The gruesome acts were enough to tip the highly decorated Panzer commander over the edge.

After seeing many colleagues killed and horrifically maimed from driving through a minefield he wrote: ‘I have had enough. I want to scream. I just want to scream it all away. My nerves can’t take any more.’

Also revealed in the new documentary are Leutnant Sander’s unseen images of the doomed invasion.

The first months of the operation were a success for Nazi troops, who made it to within 15 miles of Moscow before a Soviet counter-offensive pushed them back from December 1941.

This fightback, coupled with the fact that the Germans were not prepared for the horrendous conditions of the Russian winter, led to Nazi forces being pushed westwards from late 1941 onwards.

Ultimately, the invasion forced Adolf Hitler’s troops to fight a war on two fronts and ultimately led to their defeat in the Second World War.  

The remarkable 'lost' diaries of German tank commander Leutnant Friedrich Sander, who went from being a hardened Nazi to a broken soldier in just a few weeks of fighting in the Second World War war, have been unearthed

The remarkable 'lost' diaries of German tank commander Leutnant Friedrich Sander, who went from being a hardened Nazi to a broken soldier in just a few weeks of fighting in the Second World War war, have been unearthed

The remarkable ‘lost’ diaries of German tank commander Leutnant Friedrich Sander, who went from being a hardened Nazi to a broken soldier in just a few weeks of fighting in the Second World War war, have been unearthed

Leutnant Sander lost faith in the German war machine after cracking under the gut-wrenching scenes during Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of the Soviet Union. After seeing many colleagues killed and horrifically maimed from driving through a minefield he wrote: 'I have had enough. I want to scream. I just want to scream it all away. My nerves can't take any more.'

Leutnant Sander lost faith in the German war machine after cracking under the gut-wrenching scenes during Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of the Soviet Union. After seeing many colleagues killed and horrifically maimed from driving through a minefield he wrote: 'I have had enough. I want to scream. I just want to scream it all away. My nerves can't take any more.'

Leutnant Sander lost faith in the German war machine after cracking under the gut-wrenching scenes during Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of the Soviet Union. After seeing many colleagues killed and horrifically maimed from driving through a minefield he wrote: ‘I have had enough. I want to scream. I just want to scream it all away. My nerves can’t take any more.’

He was so disillusioned that he predicted that Germany would lose the Second World War by as early as December 1941.

His ‘unique and amazing’ diaries that run to 150,000 words have been unearthed by German military historian Robin Schaefer.

Mr Schaefer said: ‘These diaries are absolutely unique and quite amazing.

‘They tell the story of the campaign through the eyes of a German junior officer in a way in which it has never been told before.

‘Written during the fighting, on long marches and often after terribly gut-wrenching events, Sander’s diaries offer a frank and honest assessment of the German situation in 1941 and the unforgiving nature of war on the Eastern Front.

‘They have only recently been discovered, clearly they were not meant to be seen by anyone as much of the content could have gotten the author into severe trouble.’

Also revealed in the new documentary are Leutnant Sander's unseen images of the doomed invasion, the failure of which ultimately led to Nazi Germany's defeat in the Second World War

Also revealed in the new documentary are Leutnant Sander's unseen images of the doomed invasion, the failure of which ultimately led to Nazi Germany's defeat in the Second World War

Also revealed in the new documentary are Leutnant Sander’s unseen images of the doomed invasion, the failure of which ultimately led to Nazi Germany’s defeat in the Second World War

Leutnant Sander (pictured during Operation Barbarossa) became so disillusioned that he predicted that Germany would lose the Second World War by as early as December 1941

Leutnant Sander (pictured during Operation Barbarossa) became so disillusioned that he predicted that Germany would lose the Second World War by as early as December 1941

Leutnant Sander (pictured during Operation Barbarossa) became so disillusioned that he predicted that Germany would lose the Second World War by as early as December 1941

The war graves of German soldiers who died during the invasion. The photo was among those in Leutnant Sander's archive, which was uncovered by German military historian Robin Schaefer

The war graves of German soldiers who died during the invasion. The photo was among those in Leutnant Sander's archive, which was uncovered by German military historian Robin Schaefer

The war graves of German soldiers who died during the invasion. The photo was among those in Leutnant Sander’s archive, which was uncovered by German military historian Robin Schaefer

A destroyed German Panzer tank after it had been blown up in the summer of 1941. Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa on June 22, 1941 with the aim of invading the Soviet Union to secure future German interests

A destroyed German Panzer tank after it had been blown up in the summer of 1941. Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa on June 22, 1941 with the aim of invading the Soviet Union to secure future German interests

A destroyed German Panzer tank after it had been blown up in the summer of 1941. Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa on June 22, 1941 with the aim of invading the Soviet Union to secure future German interests

Mr Snow added: ‘The invasion launched by Hitler against Stalin 80 years ago this month was the start of the most terrible clash in human history.

‘The diaries are so powerful, so vivid and so rich that interviews with historians, presenters and re-enactment are all unnecessary.

‘His voice unbiased by the horrors that were to come.’

Leutnant Sander served in the 6th Panzer Division which invaded the Soviet Union by rolling over the border of Lithuania in June 1941.

Then aged 24, he recalled the moment he and his colleagues stood around to listen to Adolf Hitler’s address at the start of the operation that would result in almost one million deaths.

He wrote ‘the show would go ahead.’

He described how the mood in his tank was excellent with one colleague playing the harmonica as they advanced. 

Spirits were so high that Leutnant Sander even took a bottle of champagne with him to toast his division’s first attack.

An extract for August 24 described the horrific aftermath of one fight his crews engaged in. He wrote: 'In total more than 20 corpses lay around the destroyed tank. A wounded Russian was also lying there, still with his rifle in his hand. He didn't react when I ordered him to raise his arms. I shot him myself. I did the same to another who pretended to be dead'

An extract for August 24 described the horrific aftermath of one fight his crews engaged in. He wrote: 'In total more than 20 corpses lay around the destroyed tank. A wounded Russian was also lying there, still with his rifle in his hand. He didn't react when I ordered him to raise his arms. I shot him myself. I did the same to another who pretended to be dead'

An extract for August 24 described the horrific aftermath of one fight his crews engaged in. He wrote: ‘In total more than 20 corpses lay around the destroyed tank. A wounded Russian was also lying there, still with his rifle in his hand. He didn’t react when I ordered him to raise his arms. I shot him myself. I did the same to another who pretended to be dead’

Leutnant Sander (second from the left) with his German Panzer tank crew during Operation Barbarossa in 1941. At the start of the invasion, Leutnant Sander cracked open a bottle of champagne but by the end he was even wondering if the German cause was right

Leutnant Sander (second from the left) with his German Panzer tank crew during Operation Barbarossa in 1941. At the start of the invasion, Leutnant Sander cracked open a bottle of champagne but by the end he was even wondering if the German cause was right

Leutnant Sander (second from the left) with his German Panzer tank crew during Operation Barbarossa in 1941. At the start of the invasion, Leutnant Sander cracked open a bottle of champagne but by the end he was even wondering if the German cause was right

Two members of a German tank crew are seen smiling next to their vehicle in the summer of 1941

Two members of a German tank crew are seen smiling next to their vehicle in the summer of 1941

Two members of a German tank crew are seen smiling next to their vehicle in the summer of 1941

The ruthlessness of the German advance was borne out on June 27, 1941, when his crew spotted a Russian soldier who played dead before opening fire on the passing German infantry.

He wrote: ‘That isn’t a good idea when facing tank men like us – floor the accelerator, turn left and run over him. Problem solved.’

He went on: ‘Some of the gunned down Russians in front are still moving. Szepanski finishes them off with a rifle.’

As the Germans advanced towards Leningrad (St Petersburg) in July 1941, the young officer is convinced of the Nazis’ goal to end Bolshevism, calling the local population a ‘big herd of submissive cattle.’

An extract for August 24 described the horrific aftermath of one fight his crews engaged in.

He wrote: ‘In total more than 20 corpses lay around the destroyed tank. 

‘A wounded Russian was also lying there, still with his rifle in his hand. He didn’t react when I ordered him to raise his arms. 

‘I shot him myself. I did the same to another who pretended to be dead.’

A big turning point for Leutnant Sander came on October 2 when many tanks were destroyed in a minefield near Wjasma, between Smolensk and Moscow.

Panzer tanks in the summer of 1941. A big turning point for Leutnant Sander came on October 2 when many tanks were destroyed in a minefield near Wjasma, between Smolensk and Moscow

Panzer tanks in the summer of 1941. A big turning point for Leutnant Sander came on October 2 when many tanks were destroyed in a minefield near Wjasma, between Smolensk and Moscow

 Panzer tanks in the summer of 1941. A big turning point for Leutnant Sander came on October 2 when many tanks were destroyed in a minefield near Wjasma, between Smolensk and Moscow

He wrote of the terrible injuries suffered by two men in particular. He states: 'They have managed to pull Gossler out alive, but both his legs are badly torn up. 'Both legs are only attached to the body by thin strips of sinew and flesh. Gossler doesn't want to stay still, he has gone insane'. Pictured: German Panzer tanks seen in 1941

He wrote of the terrible injuries suffered by two men in particular. He states: 'They have managed to pull Gossler out alive, but both his legs are badly torn up. 'Both legs are only attached to the body by thin strips of sinew and flesh. Gossler doesn't want to stay still, he has gone insane'. Pictured: German Panzer tanks seen in 1941

 He wrote of the terrible injuries suffered by two men in particular. He states: ‘They have managed to pull Gossler out alive, but both his legs are badly torn up. ‘Both legs are only attached to the body by thin strips of sinew and flesh. Gossler doesn’t want to stay still, he has gone insane’. Pictured: German Panzer tanks seen in 1941

A German Panzer tank crossing a bridge in the winter of 1941. By December 21, 1941, when the Red Army had turned the tide of the German advance and the invaders were enduring the harsh conditions of the Russian winter, Leutnant Sander started to doubt the Nazi cause

A German Panzer tank crossing a bridge in the winter of 1941. By December 21, 1941, when the Red Army had turned the tide of the German advance and the invaders were enduring the harsh conditions of the Russian winter, Leutnant Sander started to doubt the Nazi cause

A German Panzer tank crossing a bridge in the winter of 1941. By December 21, 1941, when the Red Army had turned the tide of the German advance and the invaders were enduring the harsh conditions of the Russian winter, Leutnant Sander started to doubt the Nazi cause

He wrote of the terrible injuries suffered by two men in particular. ‘They have managed to pull Gossler out alive, but both his legs are badly torn up,’ he stated.

‘Both legs are only attached to the body by thin strips of sinew and flesh. Gossler doesn’t want to stay still, he has gone insane. 

‘He has started to sing with a slurring voice, so great is his pain.

‘Next, I have to take care of Oberholz. He is still sitting in the driver’s seat. Two men then carefully lift him out. 

‘His spine is broken, and he is totally paralysed. He can hardly speak.

‘It is just awful. I briefly jump onto the tank to look at Weigand. I have enough. I want to scream. I just want to scream it all away. My nerves can’t take any more.’

On November 30 he described coming across the sight of eight partisan fighters, including two women, who had been hanged by the Germans.

Further along the road he encountered more Russian prisoners of war (PoWs) who had been summarily executed by their German captors.

He wrote: ‘We found the bodies of many Russians who hadn’t been able to walk further and had been shot by the guards. 

‘I myself alone counted 15 men who were lying in a ditch.’

By December 21, 1941, when the Red Army had turned the tide of the German advance and the invaders were enduring the harsh conditions of the Russian winter, Leutnant Sander started to doubt the Nazi cause.

He wrote: ‘I tell my men that this is about the reshaping of Europe, the absolute defeat of Bolshevism, the enemy of the people. 

‘But have I myself really taken these slogans to heart?

‘Am I myself convinced by what I try to convincingly explain to my men? 

By December 21, 1941, when the Red Army had turned the tide of the German advance and the invaders were enduring the harsh conditions of the Russian winter, Leutnant Sander starts to doubt the Nazi cause. Pictured: A German Panzer tank on the move next to a car

By December 21, 1941, when the Red Army had turned the tide of the German advance and the invaders were enduring the harsh conditions of the Russian winter, Leutnant Sander starts to doubt the Nazi cause. Pictured: A German Panzer tank on the move next to a car

By December 21, 1941, when the Red Army had turned the tide of the German advance and the invaders were enduring the harsh conditions of the Russian winter, Leutnant Sander starts to doubt the Nazi cause. Pictured: A German Panzer tank on the move next to a car 

erman infantry soldiers alongside a Panzer tank. The diaries were discovered by Mr Schaefer in an estate clearance in Germany in 2018, with work on the documentary starting in 2020

erman infantry soldiers alongside a Panzer tank. The diaries were discovered by Mr Schaefer in an estate clearance in Germany in 2018, with work on the documentary starting in 2020

erman infantry soldiers alongside a Panzer tank. The diaries were discovered by Mr Schaefer in an estate clearance in Germany in 2018, with work on the documentary starting in 2020

‘Again and again it is damn hard to get my own head around the fact that everything we are being ordered to do here is right.’

On January 14, 1942 he added: ‘Even if we manage, against my expectations, to stop the Russian advance, then no one needs to know more than necessary about the hammering we have received. 

‘And if we fail to stop them, then this will be the beginning of the end.

‘This is how I see it at least. All our sacrifices would have been in vain.’

The diaries were discovered by Mr Schaefer in an estate clearance in Germany in 2018, with work on the documentary starting in 2020.

Two German Panzer tanks rolling through a village in the summer of 1941. The Nazis had initial success with the invasion, but were pushed back by Soviet forces who eventually gained the upper hand in the bitter fighting

Two German Panzer tanks rolling through a village in the summer of 1941. The Nazis had initial success with the invasion, but were pushed back by Soviet forces who eventually gained the upper hand in the bitter fighting

Two German Panzer tanks rolling through a village in the summer of 1941. The Nazis had initial success with the invasion, but were pushed back by Soviet forces who eventually gained the upper hand in the bitter fighting

Mr Snow said: 'We have been searching to find a way to do this conflict justice, to get beyond the statistics, the tens of millions killed, wounded and brutalised and tell the story of what it was actually like'. Pictured: A German soldier stands next to the turret of a Panzer tank

Mr Snow said: 'We have been searching to find a way to do this conflict justice, to get beyond the statistics, the tens of millions killed, wounded and brutalised and tell the story of what it was actually like'. Pictured: A German soldier stands next to the turret of a Panzer tank

Mr Snow said: ‘We have been searching to find a way to do this conflict justice, to get beyond the statistics, the tens of millions killed, wounded and brutalised and tell the story of what it was actually like’. Pictured: A German soldier stands next to the turret of a Panzer tank

Leutnant Sander became disillusioned with Germany's ultimate aim in the war. He wrote: 'I tell my men that this is about the reshaping of Europe, the absolute defeat of Bolshevism, the enemy of the people. But have I myself really taken these slogans to heart? Am I myself convinced by what I try to convincingly explain to my men?. Pictured: A German soldier sits on the top of his tank

Leutnant Sander became disillusioned with Germany's ultimate aim in the war. He wrote: 'I tell my men that this is about the reshaping of Europe, the absolute defeat of Bolshevism, the enemy of the people. But have I myself really taken these slogans to heart? Am I myself convinced by what I try to convincingly explain to my men?. Pictured: A German soldier sits on the top of his tank

Leutnant Sander became disillusioned with Germany’s ultimate aim in the war. He wrote: ‘I tell my men that this is about the reshaping of Europe, the absolute defeat of Bolshevism, the enemy of the people. But have I myself really taken these slogans to heart? Am I myself convinced by what I try to convincingly explain to my men?. Pictured: A German soldier sits on the top of his tank

Mr Snow added: 'For the first time in a documentary series we are letting the voice of a soldier be the narrator. 'This is the first instalment. The story of the Eastern Front through the eyes of one young German'. Pictured: German soldiers stand atop a tank which appears to be damaged, as another of the vehicles sits next to it

Mr Snow added: 'For the first time in a documentary series we are letting the voice of a soldier be the narrator. 'This is the first instalment. The story of the Eastern Front through the eyes of one young German'. Pictured: German soldiers stand atop a tank which appears to be damaged, as another of the vehicles sits next to it

Mr Snow added: ‘For the first time in a documentary series we are letting the voice of a soldier be the narrator. ‘This is the first instalment. The story of the Eastern Front through the eyes of one young German’. Pictured: German soldiers stand atop a tank which appears to be damaged, as another of the vehicles sits next to it

One page in Leutnant's diary includes his small sketch of a tank. The documentary 'Barbarossa: The Lost Diaries' will be coming soon via History Hit TV

One page in Leutnant's diary includes his small sketch of a tank. The documentary 'Barbarossa: The Lost Diaries' will be coming soon via History Hit TV

One page in Leutnant’s diary includes his small sketch of a tank. The documentary ‘Barbarossa: The Lost Diaries’ will be coming soon via History Hit TV

Mr Snow said: ‘We have been searching to find a way to do this conflict justice, to get beyond the statistics, the tens of millions killed, wounded and brutalised and tell the story of what it was actually like.

‘As soon Rob came to us with an unpublished multi-volume wartime diary that he had discovered we knew we had found our approach.

‘For the first time in a documentary series we are letting the voice of a soldier be the narrator.

‘This is the first instalment. The story of the Eastern Front through the eyes of one young German.

‘We will live through the war in the east as he lived it.’

The documentary ‘Barbarossa: The Lost Diaries’ will be coming soon via History Hit TV.

What was Operation Barbarossa? The beginning of a campaign that would ultimately decide WWII 

Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa on June 22, 1941 with the aim of invading the Soviet Union to secure future German interests. 

It marked the beginning of a campaign that would ultimately decide the outcome of the Second World War.

Hitler saw the Soviet Union as his natural enemy and aimed to destroy its armies, capture its vast economic resources and enslave its population.

He believed that he needed the east in order to win the war and secure the long-term prosperity of his county. His commitment was so strong that he sent a huge number of troops to carry out the invasion. 

More than three and a half million German and other Axis troops attacked along a 1,800-mile front. This was around 80 per cent of the German army.

How the German forces advanced during the opening stages of Operation Barbarossa in August 1941. The German offensive was launched by three army groups under the same commanders as in the invasion of France in 1940. The invasion took place along a 2,900-km front and took the Soviet leadership completely by surprise

How the German forces advanced during the opening stages of Operation Barbarossa in August 1941. The German offensive was launched by three army groups under the same commanders as in the invasion of France in 1940. The invasion took place along a 2,900-km front and took the Soviet leadership completely by surprise

How the German forces advanced during the opening stages of Operation Barbarossa in August 1941. The German offensive was launched by three army groups under the same commanders as in the invasion of France in 1940. The invasion took place along a 2,900-km front and took the Soviet leadership completely by surprise

The devastating Panzer division was also deployed – seventeen in total. This consisted of around 3,400 tanks which were supported by 2,700 of the Luftwaffe. It was the largest invasion force to date.     

At the time of the invasion German combat effectiveness had reached its peak and the forces invading Russia represented the best it had to offer.

In the opening months of the campaign German forces dug deep into Soviet occupied territory – led by Panzer armies which encircled large Soviet forces at Minsk and Smolens.

But, the Germans severely underestimated their opponent and the weather they would face on their journey to Moscow. 

German forces eventually made their way to the gates of Moscow but were pushed back by Soviet forces and in the end had to make a slow retreat from the early months of 1942.

Ultimately, this led to the crumbling of Germany’s northern front, culminating with Russian troops’ push into Germany, where in 1945 they took Berlin and declared victory in the war.      

Hitler saw the Soviet Union as his natural enemy and aimed to destroy its armies, capture its vast economic resources and enslave its population. Pictured: German soldiers seen in 1941 march past a group of Russians who had been taken prisoner

Hitler saw the Soviet Union as his natural enemy and aimed to destroy its armies, capture its vast economic resources and enslave its population. Pictured: German soldiers seen in 1941 march past a group of Russians who had been taken prisoner

Hitler saw the Soviet Union as his natural enemy and aimed to destroy its armies, capture its vast economic resources and enslave its population. Pictured: German soldiers seen in 1941 march past a group of Russians who had been taken prisoner

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