Military history

THIRTEEN

The Road to Stalingrad

While Grossman was working on The People Immortal, the German general staff had been preparing the plans for Hitler’s great summer offensive, Operation Blue. In what was almost a relaunch of Operation Barbarossa, Hitler counted on charging into the Caucasus to seize the oilfields there. He was convinced that securing this source of fuel would enable him to hold out against the ‘Big Three’ powers now ranged against him. But on 12 May, six days before the German operation was scheduled to start, Marshal Timoshenko launched his own offensive south of Kharkov, as mentioned in the previous chapter. The Stavka was hoping to recapture the city. The Soviet attack, however, was doomed. The large concentration of German forces in the area, and their rapid reaction to the new situation led to another disastrous encirclement five days later when General Paulus’s Sixth Army sealed the trap on more than three Soviet armies. News of the disaster was a shock, especially for Grossman, who had spent so much time in that area and had met many men involved in the battle.

One important side effect of this engagement was to postpone the main phase of Operation Blue until the end of June. A German staff officer, with all the plans for the offensive in the south, was shot down on Soviet territory when his pilot lost his way, but Stalin refused to believe the evidence. He thought it was a trick, just as he had refused to believe warnings before Barbarossa. He was convinced that Hitler would again attack towards Moscow. It was not long, however, before he realised how serious his obstinacy had been. Timoshenko’s South-Western and Southern Fronts, already badly mauled near Kharkov, were soon in headlong retreat. Paulus’s Sixth Army pushed into the great bend of the River Don, while three other armies – Fourth Panzer, First Panzer and the Seventeenth Army, approached the lower Don to advance into the Caucasus.

Stalin began to panic. On 19 July, he personally ordered the Stalingrad Defence Committe to prepare the city for war immediately. It had seemed unthinkable that the Germans might reach the Volga, let alone attack the city named after him, for he had bolstered his reputation on a highly inflated version of its defence in the civil war when it was still called Tsaritsyn.

Hitler, meanwhile, began to meddle with the German general staff’s operational plan. In the original version, the task of Paulus’s Sixth Army had been to advance towards Stalingrad, but not to take it. The idea was simply to guard the whole of Operation Blue’s left flank along the Volga as the main thrust went southwards into the Caucasus. But soon the plan changed. The Sixth Army, supported by part of the Fourth Panzer Army diverted back from the Caucasus, was ordered to capture the city which bore Stalin’s name.

On 28 July, just after the Germans took Rostov and three of their armies crossed the River Don into the Caucasus, Stalin issued the notorious Order No. 227, known as ‘Not One Step Back’. Anyone who retreated without orders or surrendered was to be treated as a ‘traitor to the Motherland’. Grossman’s daughter later heard of the following exchange in the editorial offices of Krasnaya Zvezda. ‘When the famous order was issued to shoot deserters, Ortenberg said to my father, Pavlenko and [Aleksei] Tolstoy,1 who all happened to be in the office at that moment: “Could one of you write a story on this subject, please?” My father replied immediately, without reflecting: “I am not going to write anything of the sort.” This made Pavlenko furious. He twisted his body and, hissing like a snake, said: “You are an arrogant man, Vasily Semyonovich, such an arrogant man!” But Tolstoy, who had just stood there and did not take part in this verbal exchange, soon wrote a story about a beast-like deserter who, when fleeing from the Red Army, goes into a house and kills little children there.’

The retreating Soviet armies were in chaos. Thousands of lives were wasted in futile counter-attacks. Many trapped in the bend of the River Don, some sixty kilometres west of Stalingrad, drowned trying to escape. Grossman later interviewed a number of men involved in the disaster.

This was the account which Grossman took down from Vassily Georgevich Kuliev, a twenty-eight-year-old military correspondent and former Komsomol head of Young Pioneers, who appointed himself commissar of the group.

We were retreating from the battle under fire from mortars and machine guns. At the Markovsky farmstead, we squatted in a trench, under a terrible fire, and then slipped through the encirclement. I appointed myself the commissar of a group of eighteen men. We lay down in [a field of] wheat. Germans appeared. A red-haired one shouted: “Rus, uk vekh!2 We fired bursts from our sub-machine guns and knocked four Germans off their horses. We broke through, shooting with a sub-machine gun and a machine gun. There were about twenty-five Germans. Sixteen of us were left out of the eighteen.

‘At night, we walked through the wheat. It was overripe and rustled and Germans fired at us with a machine gun . . . Then I assembled the sixteen men again and took a compass bearing to avoid roads and villages on our way. We spent the night lying on the high bank of the Don.3 We tied groundsheets together into a rope in order to haul the wounded men across the river, but it wasn’t long enough. I suggested we swim the river. We put all our documents inside our forage caps and ammunition into a bag. I got tired halfway across the river and dropped the bag into the water. I kept my notepads in the forage cap.’

Once the Germans had finally cleared the west bank of the Don of Soviet troops, General Paulus redeployed his formations ready for the next leap forward. In the early hours of 21 August, German infantry in assault boats crossed the Don and seized bridgeheads on the east bank. Engineers went rapidly to work, and by the middle of the next day, a series of tank-bearing pontoon bridges were in place across the ‘Quiet Don’. Armoured units rapidly filled the bridgehead.

On Sunday 23 August 1942, the 16th Panzer Division led the charge across the steppe to reach the Volga just north of Stalingrad, late that same afternoon. Overhead, the bombers of General Wolfram von Richthofen’s Fourth Air Fleet waggled their wings in encouragement to the ground forces. Behind them lay the ruins of Stalingrad which they had carpet-bombed in relays. During that day and over the course of the next three, some 40,000 civilians are said to have died in the burning city.

It was also the day that Grossman, on Ortenberg’s orders, left the Soviet capital for Stalingrad to report on the approaching battle.

We left Moscow in the vehicle on 23 August. The chief fitters at the editorial board garage had spent time preparing our vehicle for the thousand-kilometre race from Moscow to Stalingrad. However, we suddenly came to a halt three kilometres outside Moscow. We had flat tyres on all four wheels at the same time. While Burakov, the driver, expressed his surprise at this incident and then started repairing the tyres in a leisurely fashion, we, the correspondents, began interviewing the population of the Moscow area, [in fact] a girl beside the main road. She had a tanned face, aquiline nose and cheeky blue eyes.

‘Do you like colonels?’

‘Why should I like them?’

‘And what about lieutenants with their cubes?’

‘Lieutenants get on my nerves. I like soldiers.’

Despite the urgency of their journey south, Grossman could not forgo a visit to Leo Tolstoy’s estate, which he had last seen just before it was occupied by General Guderian the previous October.

Yasnaya Polyana. Eighty-three Germans were buried next to Tolstoy. They were dug up and reburied in a crater made by a German bomb. The flowers in front of the house are magnificent. It’s a good summer. Life seems to be filled with honey and calm.

Tolstoy’s grave. Flowers again, and bees are crawling in them. Little wasps are hovering above the grave. And in Yasnaya Polyana, a big orchard has died from the frost. All the trees are dead, dry apple trees stand grey, dull, dead like crosses on graves.

The blue, ash-grey main road. Villages have become the kingdom of women. They drive tractors, guard warehouses and stables, queue for vodka. Tipsy girls are out singing – they are seeing a girlfriend off to the army. Women are carrying on their shoulders the great burden of work. Women dominate. They are coping with an enormous amount of work and send bread, aircraft, weapons and ammunition to the front. They feed us and arm us now. And we, men, do the second part of the job. We do the fighting. And we don’t fight well. We have retreated to the Volga. Women look and say nothing. There’s no reproach in [their eyes], not a bitter word. Are they nursing a grievance? Or do they understand what a terrible burden a war is, even an unsuccessful one?

The woman owner of the house where we spend the night is mischievous. She loves silly jokes. ‘Ah, it’s war now,’ she says. ‘The war will write everything off.’ She looks at Burakov intently, squinting. He is a handsome, good-looking guy. Burakov frowns, he is embarrassed. And she laughs, and begins ‘household talk’. She wouldn’t mind swapping some butter for a shirt or to buy half a litre [of vodka] from the military.

The woman owner of the house where we spend the next night is cleanliness itself. She rebuffs any dirty talk. At night, in the darkness she tells us trustingly about the household and about her work. She brings chickens and shows them to us, laughs, speaks of children, husband, the war. And everyone submits to her clear, simple soul.

That’s how the life of women is going, in the rear and at the front – two currents, one that is clear and bright, and the other a dark, military one. ‘Ah, it’s war now,’ [people say]. But the PPZh is our great sin.

The PPZh was the slang term for a ‘campaign wife’, because the full term, pokhodno-polevaya zhena, was similar to PPSh, the standard Red Army sub-machine gun. Campaign wives were young nurses and women soldiers from a headquarters – such as signallers and clerks – who usually wore a beret on the back of the head rather than the fore-and-aft pilotka cap. They found themselves virtually forced to become the concubines of senior officers. Grossman also scribbled down some bitter notes on the subject, perhaps for use in a story later.

Women – PPZh. Note about Nachakho, chief of administrative supplies department. She cried for a week, and then went to him.

‘Who’s that?’

‘The general’s PPZh.’

‘And the commissar hasn’t got one.’

Before the attack. Three o’clock in the morning.

‘Where’s the general?’ [someone asks].

‘Sleeping with his whore,’ the sentry murmurs.

And these girls had once wanted to be ‘Tanya’, or Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya.4

‘Whose PPZh is she?’

‘A member of the Military Council’s.’

Yet all around them tens of thousands of girls in military uniforms are working hard and with dignity.

Story about a general who escaped from an encirclement leading a goat on a rope. Some officers recognised him. ‘Where are you going, Comrade General?’ [they asked]. ‘Which way will you take?’ The general (Efimov) grinned sardonically. ‘The goat will show me the way.’

Krasivaya Mecha – the inexpressible beauty of this place. Lamentation over a cow during the night, in the blue light of a yellow moon. The cow had fallen into an anti-tank ditch. Women are wailing: ‘There are four children left.’5 In the blue moonlight, a man with a knife is running to bleed the cow. In the morning, the cauldron is boiling. Everyone has replete faces, red eyes and swollen eyelids.

Thin women and girls wearing shawls on their heads are working on the road, loading earth on wooden handbarrows, levelling uneven places using picks and spades.

‘Where are you from?’ [we ask]

‘We are from Gomel.’

‘We were in the fighting near Gomel.’

We look at each other and say nothing. We drive on. It was a bit alarming, this encounter near the village of Mokraya Olkhovka, just forty kilometres from the Volga.6

Women in the village. The whole heavy burden of work now rests entirely on them. Nyushka – as if made of cast iron, mischievous and whorelike. ‘Ah, it’s war now,’ she says. ‘I’ve already served eighteen [men] since my husband left. We have a cow between three women, but she lets only me milk her. She won’t have anything to do with the other two.’ She laughs. ‘Now it’s easier to persuade a woman than a cow.’ She grins, offering us her love in a simple and kind-hearted way.

The vastness of our Motherland. We’ve been driving for four days. The time zone has changed – we are now one hour ahead. The steppe is different. The birds are different: kites, owls, little hawks. Watermelons and melons have appeared. But the pain we see here is still the same.

The village of Lebyazhye. The tall village houses have rooms painted with oil paint. We woke up, it was quiet, the sky was overcast in the morning, it was raining. The distance to the Volga is fifteen kilometres. The deceptive calm and quiet of the village was terrifying.

The Volga. Crossing. A bright day. The enormous size of the river, its slowness, greatness. In short, the Volga. There were vehicles on the barge loaded with aircraft bombs. [Enemy] aircraft are attacking. There is the crackle of machine-gun bursts. And the Volga remains slow and carefree. Boys are fishing from this fire-spitting barge.

There were several airfields in the area, which became important in the battle for Stalingrad. One of them was a melon field next to an open-air market which remained open for business, despite the strafing of German aircraft. The Soviet Union was already receiving a large quantity of Lend-Lease war material from the USA, including Willys Jeeps and the Douglas DC-3 ‘Dakota’, which Russians called the ‘Duglas’.

Arrival. Roar of engines, chaos. Cobras, Yaks, Hurricanes. A large Duglas appears, flying effortlessly and smoothly. Fighters are in a frenzy. They are sniffing, running after it in its trace. The Duglas is looking for a place to land, and they are dancing in all directions. The Duglas has landed, with fighters above and around it. This sight is majestic, almost like a movie (with the steppe and the Volga).

Red Army soldiers were watching the scene and discussing it. One of them said: ‘Just like bees. Why are they rushing about?’

‘Guarding a melon field, apparently.’

The third one, looking at the Duglas which had just appeared: ‘Must be the corporal from our company catching up with us.’

The passenger on board would of course have been rather more important. It may even have been General Georgi Zhukov, who flew down on 28 August on Stalin’s orders to supervise the defence of the city.7 ‘What’s the matter with them?’ Stalin exploded on the telephone to General Aleksandr Vasilevsky, the first Stavka representative to reach Stalingrad.8 He was furious with the local military commanders. ‘Don’t they realise that this is not only a catastrophe for Stalingrad? We would lose our main waterway and soon our oil too!’

Grossman spent at least one night in Zavolzhye.

Spent the night in the house of the RAIKOM chairman. He talks about collective farms, and about the chairmen of collective farms who take their livestock far into the steppe and live like kings there, slaughtering heifers, drinking milk, buying and selling. (And a cow now costs 40,000 roubles.)

Women talking in the kitchen of the RAIKOM canteen: ‘Oh this Hitler, he’s a real Satan! And we used to say that communists were Satans.’9

Land beyond the Volga [i.e. the east bank]. Dust, brown steppe, miserable autumn feather grass, tall weeds, sagebrush. Grass snakes crushed on the roads. Linnets. Camels. Camels’ cries. The sun is rising in a pale misty haze. Half the sky is covered with smoke, the smoke of Stalingrad.

The bombing of Stalingrad on 23 August had set the oil storage tanks on fire, and the columns of black smoke, which continued to burn for days, could be seen from far around.

‘A German’s flying towards us!’ [somebody shouts]. Everyone remains sitting.

‘He’s turning round!’ Everyone rushes out from the izba and looks up.

Old man, the owner of the izba: ‘I’ve got four sons at the war, four sons-in-law, and four grandsons. One son has been done for. They’ve sent me a notice.’

The kind-heartedness of our people. I don’t know if any population could be strong enough to carry this terrible burden. The tragic emptiness of the villages. Girls are driven away in vehicles. They are crying, and their mothers are crying, because their daughters are being taken away to the army.

An old woman goes at night to guard barns at the collective farm. She is armed with a detachable pan handle. When someone approaches her, she shouts: ‘Stop! Who’s there? I’ll shoot!’

Once again, looking across the Volga steppe towards Kazakhstan, Grossman is amazed at the vastness of the country. Yet the very size and depth of the Soviet Union no longer seems to be the defence that it once felt.

This war on the border of Kazakhstan, on the lower reaches of the Volga, gives one a terrifying feeling of a knife driven deep. General Gordov had fought in western Belorussia.10 Now he is commanding troops on the Volga. The war has reached the Volga.

Grossman finally reached his destination as the German Sixth Army and part of the Fourth Panzer Army approached the northern, the western and the southern suburbs.

Soldiers with letters from home sent folded in a triangle and a copy of Krasnaya Zvezda, bottom right.

Stalingrad is burned down. I would have to write too much if I wanted to describe it. Stalingrad is burned down. Stalingrad is in ashes. It is dead. People are in basements. Everything is burned out. The hot walls of the buildings are like the bodies of people who have died in the terrible heat and haven’t gone cold yet.

Huge buildings, memorials, public gardens. Signs: ‘Cross here.’ Heaps of wires, a cat sleeping on a window sill, flowers and grass in flowerpots. A wooden pavilion where they sold fizzy water is standing, miraculously intact among thousands of huge stone buildings burned and half destroyed. It is like Pompeii, seized by disaster on a day when everything was flourishing. Trams and cars with no glass in their windows. Burned-out houses with memorial plaques: ‘I.V. Stalin spoke here in 1919.’11

Building of a children’s hospital with a gypsum bird on the roof. One wing is broken off, the other stretched out to fly. The Palace of Culture: the building is black, velvety from fire, and two snow-white nude statues stand out against this black background.

There are children wandering about, there are many laughing faces. Many people are half insane.

Sunset over a square. A terrifying and strange beauty: the light pink sky is looking through thousands and thousands of empty windows and roofs. A huge poster painted in vulgar colours: ‘The radiant way.’

A feeling of calm. The city has died after much suffering and looks like the face of a dead man who was suffering from a lethal disease and finally has found eternal peace. Bombing again, bombing of the dead city.

Although most of the men had been called up and were serving outside the city, the civilian population of Stalingrad had been swollen by refugees from the Don steppe. Grossman tried to interview some of them, including an old woman and a younger one called Rubtseva from a collective farm.

‘Where is your husband?’

‘No, don’t ask,’ whispers Seryozha, her boy. ‘You’ll upset Mama.’

‘He’s done his share of the fighting,’ she replies. ‘He was killed in February.’ She had received the notice. Her story about Red Army cowards: ‘A German [plane] was diving like a spear. Just the right moment to shoot him, but all our “heroes” were lying hidden in the tall weeds. I shouted at them: “Ah, you bastards!”

‘Once, some soldiers were escorting a [German] prisoner through the village. I asked him: “When did you join the fighting?” “In January,” he answered. “Then it was you who killed my husband.”

The Palace of Culture in Stalingrad, described by Grossman.

I raised my arm, but the guard didn’t let me hit him. “Come on,” I said, “let me hit him.” And the escort replied: “There’s no such law [to permit it].” “Let me hit him without any law, and I’ll go away.” He wouldn’t.

‘Of course, one could live under the Germans, but it wasn’t the life for me. My husband has been killed. Now all I’ve got left is Seryozha. He’ll become a big person under the Soviets. Under the Germans he’d die a shepherd.

‘The wounded men stole so much from us, we couldn’t stand it any longer. They dug up all our potatoes, cleaned out all our tomatoes and pumpkins. Now we’ll have to live through a hungry winter. They are cleaning out our homes too – shawls, towels, blankets. They’ve slaughtered a goat, but one feels sorry for them just the same. If a wounded man comes to you and he’s in tears, you’ll give him your supper and you start crying yourself.’

The old woman: ‘These fools have allowed [the enemy] to reach the heart of the country, the Volga. They’ve given them half of Russia. It is true, of course, that the [Germans] have got a lot of machines.’

Grossman, when visiting the Traktorny, the great tractor works in northern Stalingrad, heard about the attack of the 16th Panzer Division on 23 August from the confusingly named Lieutenant Colonel German commanding the anti-aircraft regiment.

On the night of the 23rd, eighty German tanks advanced on the Traktorny in two columns, and there were a lot of vehicles with infantry. There are many girls in German’s regiment, instrument operators, direction finders, intelligence, and so on. There was a massive air raid at the same time as the tanks came. Some of the batteries were firing at the tanks, others at the aircraft. When the tanks had advanced right to the battery of Senior Lieutenant Skakun, he opened fire at the tanks. His battery was then attacked by aircraft. He ordered two guns to fire at the tanks, and the other two at the aircraft. There was no communication with the battery. ‘Well, they must have been knocked out,’ [the regimental commander] thought. Then he heard a thunder of fire. Then silence again. ‘Well, they are finished now!’ he thought again. Firing broke out again. It was only on the night of 24 August that four soldiers [from this battery] came back. They had carried back Skakun on a groundsheet. He had been heavily wounded. The girls had died by their guns.

Golfman’s battery was fighting for two days using [captured] German weaponry: ‘What are you, infantry or artillery?’

‘We are both.’

Both sides were using captured weapons and vehicles, which caused great confusion.

A light tank brigade commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Gorelik was having a break in the area of the tractor plant when some tanks broke suddenly into the area. ‘Germans!’

‘Germans?’ The lead tank in the German column was one of our KVs.12

One anti-aircraft subunit had been ordered to retreat, but as they were unable to remove their guns, many of them stayed. Their commander, Lieutenant Trukhanov, took over from the gun-layer and was firing at point-blank range. He had hit a tank and then was killed himself.

Stalingrad, Autumn and Winter 1942

With Gorelik’s brigade. People don’t realise the importance of the events of 23 August. But they are offended by the lack of attention. No medals have been awarded. And the staff car has been taken away from the brigade commander who is down with typhoid fever.

Sarkisyan. He didn’t go to Stalingrad on Sunday, because he knew a woman in the village, and he found out that beer was going to be delivered there. He had jammed himself in the machine of the German military scheme like a simple piece of metal. Perhaps, he caused Hitler insomnia for several days: they hadn’t managed to keep up the momentum! And speed is almost the most important thing of all.

Grossman is presumably referring to the battle fought on 23 and 24 August by Captain Sarkisyan and other anti-aircraft gun crews also operated by young women, many of them Stalingrad high school students. Demonstrating an astonishing courage, they held up the 16th Panzer Division until all thirty-seven emplacements were destroyed by tank fire. Sarkisyan, like Colonel German, recounted the battle to Grossman, emphasising that ‘the girls refused to go down into their bunkers’, and fought the panzers head-on. But the real problem facing General von Wietersheim’s XIV Panzer Corps was a lack of fuel.

Using a combination of his own observations and the remarks of those he interviewed, Grossman later wrote an imaginative description of the retreat late in August from the Don to the Volga when headquarters groups from the retreating 62nd and 64th Armies reached Stalingrad.

Those were hard and dreadful days . . . The armies were retreating. Men’s faces were gloomy. Dust covered their clothes and weapons, dust fell on the barrels of guns, on the canvas covering the boxes full of headquarters documents, on the black shiny covers of staff typewriters, and on the suitcases, sacks and rifles piled chaotically on the carts. The dry, grey dust got into people’s nostrils and throats. It made one’s lips dry and cracked.

That was a terrible dust, the dust of retreat. It ate up the men’s faith, it extinguished the warmth of people’s hearts, it stood in a murky cloud in front of the eyes of gun crews. There were minutes when people forgot their duty, their strength and their weapons, and a murky feeling would come over them. German tanks were moving on the roads with a rumbling noise. German dive-bombers were hanging over the Don crossings by day and by night. ‘Messers’ were whistling over the supply carts. Smoke, fire, dust, terrible heat. On those days, the faces of the marching soldiers were as pale as those of the wounded men lying on the shaking one-and-a-half-ton trucks. On those days, men marching with their weapons felt like moaning and complaining, just like those who lay on the straw in villages, their bandages bloodstained, waiting for the ambulances to pick them up. The great nation’s great army was retreating.

The first units of the retreating army entered Stalingrad. Trucks with grey-faced wounded men, front vehicles with crumpled wings, with holes from bullets and shells, the staff Emkas with star-like cracks on the windscreens, vehicles with shreds of hay and tall weeds hanging from them, vehicles covered with dust and mud, passed through the elegant streets of the city, past the shining windows of shops, past kiosks painted light blue and selling fizzy water with syrup, past bookshops and toyshops. And the war’s breath entered the city and scorched it.

One has to be honest. On those anxiety-filled days, when the thunder of fighting could be heard in the suburbs of Stalingrad, when at night one could see rockets shot far away into the sky, and pale blue rays of searchlights roamed the sky, when the first trucks, disfigured by shrapnel, carrying the wounded and the belongings of retreating headquarters appeared in the streets of the city, when front-page articles announced the mortal danger for the country, fear found its way into a lot of hearts, and many eyes looked across the Volga. It seemed to these people that they didn’t have to defend the Volga, that it was the Volga that had to defend them. These people were saying a lot about the evacuation of the city, about transport, about steamers going to Saratov and Astrakhan; it seemed to them that they cared for the city’s fate, while in fact, unwillingly, they made the city’s defence more difficult by silently indicating, with their fears and anxiety, that Stalingrad had to be surrendered.

1 Tolstoy, Aleksei Nikolaevich (1882–1945), novelist and playwright, a cousin of Leo Tolstoy, but estranged from the rest of the family. He embraced revolutionary politics before the First World War, yet returned to the Soviet Union only in 1923 when flattered and reassured by the new Bolshevik authorities. His major work was the epic Peter I, yet he also wrote science fiction. The survival of his career was assured in 1938 during the Great Terror with his grovelling novel Khleb, praising Stalin’s defence during the civil war of Tsaritsyn, later renamed Stalingrad. During the war he wrote Ivan Grozny in two parts, as well as the sort of ‘patriotic articles’ described here.

2 German pidgin-Russian meaning: ‘Rus, hands up!’

3 There is an unexplained topological phenomenon in which the great rivers of Russia flowing southwards, especially the Volga and the Don, tend to have very high western banks and flat eastern banks.

4 Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya, a sixteen-year-old Moscow student, served behind German lines in the province of Tambov with a partisan group and used the nom de guerre of ‘Tanya’. She was caught by the Germans, tortured and executed in the village of Petrishchevo on 29 November 1941. Before the Germans hanged her in the village street, she is said to have cried out: ‘You’ll never hang us all. My comrades will avenge me.’ She was awarded posthumously the medal of Hero of the Soviet Union. In more recent years, the story of her heroism has been rather undermined by accounts from local people who blamed her for setting fire to houses, part of Stalin’s ruthless order to destroy all shelter so that Germans froze to death, even though probably far more Russian civilians suffered.

5 They are bewailing the fact that there will be four children deprived of her milk.

6 This was west of Kamyshin on the Volga, two hundred kilometres by road north of Stalingrad.

7 General (later Marshal) Georgi Konstantinovich Zhukov (1896–1974), a cavalry sergeant in the First World War, he was wounded in Tsaritsyn (later Stalingrad) in 1919. In 1939, he won the battle of Khalkin-Gol against the Japanese in the Far East. In 1941, Zhukov was made responsible for the defence of Leningrad and he then masterminded the battle of Moscow.

8 General (later Marshal) Aleksandr Mikhailovich Vasilevsky (1895–1977), the son of a priest, who served as an officer in the Tsarist Army in the First World War. A brilliant staff officer and planner, he escaped the purges, despite his bourgeois origins. He was on Molotov’s staff during the November 1940 visit to Berlin, a failed attempt to save the Nazi-Soviet Pact. When the Germans advanced on Moscow, Vasilevsky became, along with Zhukov, one of Stalin’s chief advisers and was made a representative of the Stavka to be sent to crisis points, such as Stalingrad at the end of August 1942.

9 Such naive remarks, if reported by an informer, could lead to several years in the Gulag, as reports from the Stalingrad Defence Committee make clear.

10 General Vasily Nikolayevich Gordov (1896–1950), the commander of the 64th Army during the retreat across the Don, became commander-in-chief of the Stalingrad Front for a very brief period until replaced by General Yeremenko. Arrested in 1947 during the Lesser Terror, he was executed for treason in 1950.

11 The city of Tsaritsyn had been renamed Stalingrad in honour of the grossly exaggerated resistance which Stalin mounted against a marauding force of White Cossacks during the Russian Civil War.

12 The standard Soviet tank by 1942 was the T-34, a medium tank, but there were still a number of the heavy KV tanks in service. KV stood for Kliment Voroshilov, Stalin’s old crony who had been minister of defence during the Soviet-Finnish war.

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