On February 15th 1941, solider Zamfir Manole’s training began at the Petru Rares military school, near Cernavoda. After graduating, he was assigned to the Pioneers Company of the 36th Regiment from the 9th Infantry Division (Battalion commander: major Secareanu; regiment commander: colonel Vatasescu; division commander: general Panaitiu).
On 1 September 1942 the unit was sent to the Eastern front, in the Don sector. They were transported by train to the Stalino rail station and then marched for 6 weeks to reach the front line. At their arrival, the front line was quiet, so they were assigned to build fortifications and winter shelters.
The first serious Russian attack on their positions started on 9 November. It failed and the Russians suffered heavy casualties. It was followed by about a month of heavy fights, with attacks mounted by both sides, without any side gaining any decisive advantage. It was a pointless massacre, both sides registering heavy losses.
Pushed foreword by their officers, the Russian soldiers were yelling (in Romanian): “Brothers, why are you killing us? Antonescu and Stalin drink vodka together and we’re killing each other for nothing!”
Romanian attacks were mounted as frontal infantry assaults, preceded by an artillery bombardment of the enemy lines. One problem was that Romanian artillery had little impact on enemy strong points, partially due to the small caliber guns and partially to the poor accuracy. Another weak point was the obsolete weapons. Most soldiers had ZB riffles, with attached bayonets. There were only 2 machineguns and one Brandt mortar per company and 1 or 2 sub-machineguns in each platoon. That led to very heavy casualties, sometimes up to 90%. During this period Zamfir Manole was promoted to sergeant for his bravery and to cover the losses. After one unsuccessful attack, he recalls that there were only 7 survivors from the entire company, including him. The young officers leading the Pioneers Company were being killed so often that sergeant Zamfir did’t even got to know their names. They were leading the attacks in front of their men, so were often among the first to die.
After a few fights, the Romanian soldiers started to use captured weapons and equipment. Sergeant Zamfir took a Beretta sub-machinegun as his primary weapon. As for the anti-tank weapons, the situation was even worst. The grenades were ineffective and they had no mines or special AT weapons. They used Molotov cocktails, with pretty good results. Tank crews surrendered after their tank started to burn. But there were few tanks in that sector and the Russians were rarely using them to support their attacks. Those tanks were kept behind, for a kind of pointless artillery support. Romanian pioneers engaged tanks mainly when they were gaining ground in their attacks.
Most fights were WW1 style, infantry assaults with close bayonet fighting in the trenches. In one of these ocasions, sergeant Zamfir killed a Russian solider with his bayonet. Before he died, the Russian told him (in Romanian) that he had 5 children at home. To this day Nea Manole regrets that, even if he knows he had no choice.
Another “amazing” thing that happened on that front was the order (from the German high command) to kill all Russian prisoners. Romanian officers hated that, so they quietly suggested to the troops to “loose” Russian prisoners after taking the weapons and equipment. Many times there were Russian prisoners running through the “no man’s land” after a Romanian successful attack, while the officers were “looking the other way”. Sergeant Zamfir recalls one occasion when his platoon captured 4 women officers (supply officers, caught accidentally in the front line). The company’s commander ordered him to take them behind some thick bushes and shoot them. In that bush, he asked them if they knew Romanian language. To his surprise, they all did, they were Moldavian. He told them: “Now, you know where your positions are. I’ll shoot in the ground and I hope I’ll never see you again around here. Women are meant to be mothers, not soldiers!” The prisoners kissed him and melted in the forest. Than he shoot a few rounds in the ground and returned to the platoon.
There were also some Romanian soldiers that raped Russian women when they had the occasion. Sergeant Zamfir was very upset by that, he believes that is one of the greatest sins. If an officer saw such an act, he’d shoot that solider on the spot, but they weren’t around every time. The punishment came often from their comrades. A rapist was never recovered from the field if he was wounded.
One day, the commander ordered sergeant Zamfir to ask for 5 volunteers and conduct a search and destroy patrol behind enemy lines, in a forest about 2 km. away. There were reports of a tank unit deployed there. He took a corporal and 4 soldiers and infiltrated through the enemy positions. In the forest they discovered one tank without its crew around (empty). A few meters away he saw a pipe rising from the ground, with smoke coming up through it. No sentinels, no enemy activity around. He ordered his men to throw grenades through the pipe and inside the empty tank. To his surprise, the underground bunker’s explosion was far grater than the grenades could have done. It was a munitions store. After such a loud explosion, he decided it is wisely to return to Romanian lines. But in a few minutes 3 Russian tanks got out of the trees and started to chase them. Fortunately, the Russians used only the canons to shoot them down and not the tank’s machine-guns. They would have got away, but the Romanians thought that the Russians were starting a major attack, so Romanian artillery opened fire with all they had. The patrol was pinned down in between and they lost 4 men. Fortunately the 3 tanks got scared by the artillery barrage and withdrew, so sergeant Zamfir and the surviving corporal got to safety just in time.
On 30 December [most likely around 19 November 1942], 4 German high officers visit the Romanian lines. Although after weeks of heavy fights they gained just 2 or 3 kilometers, a German general proclaimed: “Until next Christmas we’ll march together on the streets of America”…. Sergeant Zamfir did not even know where America was, he was fighting to exhaustion in the cold Russian winter, hoping to see the next Christmas in one piece.
After only 3 days, the Russian started a devastating attack, supported by heavy artillery fire, masses of T34 tanks and dive-bombers. In just one night the Romanian front collapsed and a hasty retreat begun to avoid being surrounded. The Russians were shouting: “Romanian brothers, we’ll see you in Bucharest”.
The retreat got more organized after a few days, but the contact between the units was lost or very poor, each company (and in some cases each platoon) making its own strategy to avoid capture and secure the retreat. The orders from the high command were often contradictory, arrived too late and were delivered only to some units. The 36th Regiment managed to keep a degree of unity and order mainly because it was under the direct command of major Secareanu so they had the advantage of a proper leader. Other strained platoons joined them along the way.
In the first week, the retreat was hasty and desperate, leaving behind the wounded that could not walk. Sergeant Zamfir couldn’t forget the desperate calls of the ones left behind and the hands of the wounded trying to reach for their comrades. The Soviets were shooting any wounded prisoners.
After that, the 9th Division got a little more organized and started to mount limited operations to slow down the attack and allow a proper retreat. Most of the heavy artillery pieces were lost, together with most of the heavy equipment and transport means. So the men retreated on foot, separated in platoons or companies to avoid being located and attacked by the enemy bombers or surrounded by tanks. The pioneers were used to attack Russian tanks in order to create the impression of a much larger force arrived as reinforcements. They were also preparing booby-traps on the roads and in the villages. Occasionally one or 2 companies were digging trenches and resisting the attack of a smaller Russian unit for a while, to gain time and divert the enemy’s attention from the route used for the main retreat. These missions were only partially successful, as the Russian advance continued even if these small Romanian units caused severe losses to the enemy compared with their real strength.
The supplying of the troops was almost zero, so they had to use captured weapons and ammo and eat whatever they could find along the way. There were times when they were eating dogs, dead horses or even raw cereals and potatoes found in the villages. Captured provisions were the most appreciated, so a few “attacks” were mounted (as guerilla infiltrations) to reach to the enemy’s supplies. Soon, the Russians began to be more careful, protecting their supply units.
On May 2nd 1943 sergeant Zamfir was wounded by splinters from an artillery shell, in one of the many skirmishes with Russian infantry. He was lucky to be evacuated in a field hospital, so he survived. After a week, the field hospital was retreated with all the wounded in Sevastopol. He was taken on board of a German hospital-ship together with 700 other wounded, both Romanian and German and evacuated towards Constanta harbor.
Even if the hospital-ship was painted white, with the Red Cross on it, Russian bombers attacked it immediately after leaving the harbor. It sunk after just 12 km. (about 7 miles). Only about 200 men survived, including the crew. They’ve spent the night in the water, because the rescue boats of the ship were lost in the attack. In the morning less than 100 were living. They were saved by a German U-boat that was leaving Sevastopol, but submarine’s commander couldn’t change his route to leave them in Constanta. Many men died on the way, as the submarine had no medic on board, just a crewman with nursing training, and only 30 survived.
Sergeant Zamfir was taken in a big hospital in Vienna, where he recovered properly. After 2 months he was sent to Constanta (Romania) by plane to rejoin his unit. The 9th division had been relegated to costal defense of the Constanta area to recover after the huge losses on Eastern front. It was a quiet time for them, as the enemy made no attempt to land on Romanian shore.
During the fall of 1944, the 9th division completed its recovery and rearming and was moved by train to Tarnaveni, than marched on foot to Oarba de Mures. There they’ve met with some Russian units and received the order to cross the Mures River and attack the Germans by surprise. Romanian soldiers had to attack directly, as the Russian troops “supported” them from behind. Colonel Vatasescu addressed his men, telling them the truth about the situation: “We have to do this to stay alive and protect our country. If we don’t attack the Germans, the Soviets will shoot us as prisoners and burn our houses and kill our children. And the Russian units you see here are not supposed to support us, but to shoot us if we retreat, so don’t count on any help from them. If any of you survive this war, remember that we did it for our nation”.
They crossed the Mures River in rubber boats and mounted a frontal assault at the German troops across. The attack was successful mostly because the men fought desperately, as they had little artillery or armor support. The Germans enjoyed proper artillery support and had even a few tanks, so the Romanian losses were significant. But the Romanians broke through and they continued the attack almost without brake, liberating all Hungary. Sergeant Zamfir remembers a German officer saying after was captured: “You, Romanians, f***ed us in ‘16 and now you’ve done it again, you’re the reason for us losing the war in the East”.
Russian orders were for a continuous attack, without any rest or reinforcements. The first stop was only in Debrecen, when the 9th division was too weak to attack anymore with any chance of success. Even the Russians realized that reinforcements (from Romania) were needed if they wanted to gain more ground.
During the entire western campaign, Russian troops came behind Romanian troops, which were decimated in frontal desperate attacks registering huge losses. They were also receiving few supplies and equipment and were often refused proper artillery and air support. Russian tanks engaged German armor only when this was counterattacking through the Romanian infantry and Russian troops preferred to “secure” conquered objectives than attack in the front line. The German prisoners were shot immediately by the Russians, as the Romanians often refused to execute the “no prisoners” order.
The attack was restarted after the short break in Debrecen, in similar conditions. The heaviest and most horrific fighting took place in Tatra Mountains, where the fights often degenerated in hand to hand combat in the trenches, with knifes and sticks. It was a true massacre on both sides. Here sergeant Zamfir was wounded again, getting 3 bullets in his right hip. He was evacuated by plane to Mediash (Romania), where he was operated. Fortunately for him, the bullets were fired from a great distance and the hip bone wasn’t crushed too badly. After only 2 weeks he was sent back on the battlefield, incompletely recovered, but “able to fight”.
At some point, a Russian officer addressed the Romanian troops: “We must completely destroy Germany, shoot anybody, from children to old men and the women as well. Germany must remain completely uninhabited” (the place of this event is unknown, many soldiers were not informed on their location). Most Romanians were shocked by this order and very few followed it. But the Russian’s attitude encouraged some of the men to rape German women and steal from German houses alongside with the Red Army.
Sergeant Zamfir remembers women covered themselves in dirt and excrements, so the invading soldiers wouldn’t rape them. Mothers were sometimes giving themselves to the soldiers to spare their children. German men preferred suicide to avoid being captured and tortured by the Russian soldiers. It was a sub-human behavior, a horrible time. Sergeant Zamfir thinks that only his faith in God saved him, as the Christian teachings were the only law he was respecting in those days. He is ashamed by the behavior of some of his comrades and sometimes preys for the German civilians that were killed then.
Romanian troops stopped as the war ended. For the next month they patrolled in the occupied territory, under Russian command. After that were sent home by foot, as the Russians refused to transport them on the railroad. They’ve reached Romanian border on July 19th and were sent to Brasov. There they were disarmed by the Russians and sent home. They did not receive any payment for the time spent fighting against the Germans and they were sent home with nothing but their clothes. However, they were glad to be alive.
Today Sergeant Manole Zamfir is an 86 years lonely old man living in the village of Sinesti at 25 km from the Romanian capital Bucharest. He is known as “Nea Manole” and few people know he’s a WW2 veteran. His wife died last year of old age and his son is almost 60 and lives in Bucharest. He owns an old house of 3 rooms made from dirt and sticks, a goat and a 2000sqm garden. On this small piece of land he has the most beautiful garden in the whole village and he lives from the vegetables and grapes he cultivates here. Many young peasants came to him for advice regarding the work of the land. My country holiday house is near his garden and so I came to meet and know him in the last 10 years. I have the privilege to be his friend and I wanted to write his story here because such a man deserves not to be forgotten.