Military history


The September Battles

The city of Stalingrad, some forty kilometres long, follows the western bank of the great Volga. After the sudden rush of XIV Panzer Corps to the northern tip of the city on 23 August, the Sixth Army’s advance on the city slowed. The Stavka, under tremendous pressure from a very nervous Stalin, ordered attacks from the open steppe to the north against the left flank of XIV Panzer Corps. These were hurried and ill-prepared, leading to terrible losses of men and equipment, but they made Paulus cautious, diverted the Luftwaffe from the city, and provided more time for the Stavka to rush reinforcements forward.

To the south-west, part of General Hoth’s Fourth Panzer Army advanced on Stalingrad relentlessly, even though Yeremenko had concentrated the bulk of his forces in that direction. Yeremenko’s ‘member of the Military Council’, which meant chief political officer, was Nikita Khrushchev, who had been in charge of the evacuation of Soviet industry from the Ukraine.1 Grossman later crossed the Volga to visit Yeremenko and Khrushchev in the new headquarters of the Stalingrad Front.

The exhausted and demoralised remnants of the 62nd and 64th Armies had retreated across the last of the Don steppe in towards the city itself. By 12 September, the 62nd Army was reduced to a perimeter which was three kilometres deep at the southernmost point of the city and up to fifteen kilometres deep at the point of the northern suburbs. By the end of the month, the defensive perimeter was reduced to a strip of the northern part of the city, some twenty kilometres long and between one and five kilometres deep.

Without any sort of diary, it is hard to follow Grossman’s movements precisely. One can, however, deduce from his notebooks that initially he seems to have been billeted in Dubovka, on the west bank of the Volga less than forty kilometres upstream from the northern part of Stalingrad. The west bank of the river, with a steep bank and sometimes with small cliffs, was much higher than the flat eastern side. The very idea of the German invaders reaching the Volga, the ‘heart of Russia’, did much to create a defeatist mood, as Grossman encountered in many conversations.

Now, there is nowhere further to retreat. Every step back is now a big, and probably fatal, mistake. The civilians in the villages beside the Volga feel it, as well as the armies that are defending the Volga and Stalingrad.

It is a joy and a pain at the same time to look at this most beautiful of rivers. Steamers painted grey green, covered with wilted branches, were standing by piers, with barely a light smoke rising from their smokestacks . . . Everywhere, also on the bank, there are trenches, bunkers, anti-tank ditches. The war has reached the Volga.

We are staying in the house of a dispossessed kulak. Only we suddenly see that the old owner of the house has returned, God knows from where. She watches us day and night and says nothing. She is waiting. And there we are, living under her stare.

An old woman sits all night in the slit trench. The whole of Dubovka sits in slit trenches. A kerosinka is flying overhead.2 It rattles, lights candles3 and drops little bombs.

‘Where’s the babushka?’

‘She’s in the trench,’ laughs the old man. ‘She sometimes looks out like a suslik4 and then rushes back.’

‘It’s the end for us. That trickster [Hitler] has reached the heart of our land.’

A soldier with an anti-tank rifle is driving a huge flock of sheep through the steppe.

In the following description, Grossman appears to be close to the northern edge of the city near Rynok, where the parks and allotments full of ripening fruit appeared like a minor Garden of Eden to the men of the 16th Panzer Division who had spent the last two months crossing the sun-baked steppe.

Aircraft roar all night over our heads. The sky is humming day and night, as if we were sitting under the span of a huge bridge. This bridge is light blue during the day, dark blue at night, arched, covered with stars – and columns of five-ton trucks are thundering over this bridge.

Fire positions on the other side of the Volga, in a former sanatorium. A steep cliff. The river is blue and pink, like the sea. Vineyards, poplars. Batteries are camouflaged with vine leaves. Benches for the holidaymakers. A lieutenant is sitting on a bench, with a little table in front of him. He shouts: ‘Battery fire!’

Beyond is the steppe. The air coming from the Volga is cool, and the steppe smells of warmth. Messers are up there. A sentry shouts: ‘Air!’ and the air is clear and smells of sagebrush.

Wounded men in their bloodstained bandages are walking along the Volga, right by the water. Naked people are sitting over the pink-evening Volga crushing lice in their underwear. Towing vehicles are roaring and skidding on the gravel by the bank. And then the stars at night. All one can see is a white church beyond the Volga.

A clear, cold morning in Dubovka. There is a bang, clinking of broken glass, plaster, dust in the air, haze. Screams and weeping over the Volga. Germans have dropped a bomb killing seven women and children. A girl in a bright yellow dress is screaming: ‘Mama, Mama!’

A man is wailing like a woman. His wife’s arm has been torn off. She is speaking calmly, in a sleepy voice. A woman sick with typhoid fever has been hit in the stomach by a shell fragment. She hasn’t died yet. Carts are moving, and blood is dripping from them. And the screaming, the crying over the Volga.

Grossman managed to get permission to cross the Volga from the east, or left, bank over to the burned-out city on the west bank. The crossing points were strictly controlled by troops from the 10th NKVD Rifle Division to catch deserters and even prevent civilians from fleeing the city. Stalin felt that their presence would oblige the Soviet troops to fight harder to save the city. Grossman was accompanied by Kapustyansky, another correspondent from Krasnaya Zvezda. Just crossing the Volga was dangerous as the Luftwaffe continually targeted the crossing points.

A terrifying crossing. Fear. The ferry is full of vehicles, carts, hundreds of people crowded together, and it gets stuck. A Ju-88 drops a bomb from high above. A huge spout of water, upright, bluish-white in colour. The feeling of fear. There isn’t a single machine gun at the crossing, not a single little anti-aircraft gun. The quiet, clear Volga is terrifying like a scaffold.

The city of Stalingrad, the last days of August, beginning of September, after the fire. Crossing the river to Stalingrad. At the start, for courage, we drink a huge amount of apple wine at a collective farm on the left bank.

Messers are howling over the Volga, there is haze and smoke over it, smoke canisters are burned constantly to camouflage the crossing.

The burned, dead city, the square of Fallen Warriors. Dedications on memorials: ‘From the Proletariat of Red Tsaritsyn to the Fighters for Freedom who died at the hands of Wrangel’s henchmen in 1919.’

Inhabitants of a burned building are eating shchi5 in a gateway, seated upon a heap of belongings. A book entitled The Insulted and the Injured6 is lying on the ground nearby. Kapustyansky says to these people: ‘You, too, are insulted and injured.’

‘We are injured, but not insulted,’ a girl replies.

The two correspondents made their way beyond the western edge of Stalingrad where the right-hand corps of Paulus’s Sixth Army was joining up with Hoth’s Fourth Panzer Army advancing from the south-west. On this side, the Germans, with nine divisions, heavily outnumbered the 40,000 exhausted Soviet troops of the 64th and 62nd Armies, retreating back into the city.

Varapanovo, where there are old trenches overgrown with grass. The most severe battles of the civil war had taken place here, and now, once again, the heaviest enemy attacks are directed at this place.

Grossman and Kapustyansky appear, however, to have spent most of this visit in the city. They heard about the first worker battalions to be raised from various factories in the city. They were under the command of Colonel Sarayev of the 10th NKVD Rifle Division. The shock of battle proved too much for many in their ranks, so NKVD and Komsomol blocking detachments were used to prevent them running away. Political officers gave the correspondents stories of the determination of their troops.

A soldier shot his comrade who had been carrying a wounded man back from the battlefield and had raised his hands in surrender. After this the soldier brought the wounded man back himself. His father, when saying goodbye to him, had given him a towel his mother had embroidered as a girl and his four crosses from [the First World War].

Night in Stalingrad. Vehicles are waiting at the crossing point. Darkness. Fires are burning in the distance. A batch of reinforcements that has just crossed the Volga is moving slowly up [the steep river bank]. Two soldiers walk past us. I hear one of them say: ‘They like an easy life, they hurry to live.’7

Grossman used some of these notes as well as material from the previous visit in his article for Krasnaya Zvezda which was published on 6 September.

We arrived in Stalingrad soon after an air raid. Fires were still smoking here and there. Our comrade from Stalingrad who came there with us showed us his burned house. ‘Here was the children’s room,’ he says. ‘And here stood my bookcases, and I worked in that corner, where the distorted pipes now are. My desk stood there.’ One could see the bent skeletons of children’s beds under a pile of bricks. The walls of the house were still warm, like a dead man’s body which hadn’t had time to go cold.

Grossman on the banks of the Volga with Kolomeitsev, another correspondent. The burning oil tanks can be seen in the background.

Walls and the colonnade of the Physical Culture Palace are covered with soot after a fire, and two sculptures of naked young men are blindingly white on this velvet-black background. Sleek Siberian cats are sleeping on the windows of empty buildings. Near the statue of Kholzunov, boys are picking up fragments of bombs and antiaircraft shells. On this quiet evening, the pink beautiful sunset looks so melancholy through hundreds of empty eye sockets of windows.

Some people have instantly accustomed themselves to the war. The ferry which transports troops to the city is frequently attacked by enemy fighters and bombers. The crew are eating juicy watermelon slices, looking into the sky now and then. A boy is looking attentively at the float of his fishing angle, dangling his feet outside. An elderly woman is sitting on a little bench knitting a stocking during bursts of machine-gun fire and anti-aircraft guns firing away.

We entered a destroyed house. The inhabitants of the building were having dinner, sitting at tables made from planks of wood and boxes, children were blowing at hot shchi in their bowls.

For the Soviet military authorities, it seemed that the only way to save Stalingrad was to launch attack after attack against the northern flank of XIV Panzer Corps. But the three infantry armies involved, the 1st Guards, the 24th and the 66th, stood little chance, even though they vastly outnumbered their opponents. They were short of ammunition, had hardly any artillery and their ranks consisted mainly of reservists.

Stalin’s furious orders urging speed led to total chaos. Divisions became confused as they marched forward from the railhead at Frolovo, north of the Don bend, with no idea of which army they were supposed to join or where they were going. The Luftwaffe strafed and bombed them on the open steppe, while the superiority of German tank-crew training made it an unequal struggle. Grossman, at Dubovka, was close to the forming-up areas for these ill-fated attacks.8

Divisions on the move. People’s faces. Engineers, artillery, tanks. They are moving day and night. Faces, faces, their seriousness, they are the faces of doomed people.

Before the advance began, Donbass proletarian Lyakhov, soldier from the motorised infantry battalion of a tank brigade, wrote this note to his commanders: ‘Let Comrade Stalin know that I will sacrifice my life for the sake of the Motherland, and for him. And I won’t regret it even for a second. If I had five lives, I would sacrifice them all for his sake, without hesitating, so dear is this man to me.’

Grossman was interested in the daily grumbles of soldiers. In the following case, a soldier talked about the open steppe, where Luftwaffe pilots could spot field kitchens easily, and then moved on to that other soldierly preoccupation: boots.

‘Most men got killed because of kitchens. Corporals “get tanned” by the kitchens, waiting for food. It’s usually gone off by the time we get it. I’ve suffered so much because of my boots. I’ve been walking with blood blisters. I took the boots off a dead man because they didn’t have any holes, but they were too small for me.’

‘We, young soldiers, don’t even think of home, it’s mostly older soldiers who do . . . A corporal from the 4th Company called Romanov has let us down on the battlefield. We, the young soldiers who are properly brought up and conscientious, we endure all this with patience, but the moods of older soldiers are worse than ever.’

Grossman was particularly taken with Red Army soldier Gromov, an anti-tank rifleman, who at thirty-eight must have appeared ancient to the young conscripts. According to Ortenberg, Grossman spent a week with the anti-tank unit. ‘He was not a stranger any more in their family,’ he wrote. Ortenberg claimed the credit for the idea of writing about him, perhaps because Grossman’s portrait of Gromov was later hailed as a masterpiece, particularly by Ilya Ehrenburg. These were Grossman’s notes on what he called Gromov’s story:

‘When you’ve hit it, you see a bright flash on the armour. The shot deafens one terribly, one has to open one’s mouth. I was lying there, I heard shouts: “They’re coming!” My second shot hit the tank. The Germans started screaming terribly. We could hear them clearly. I wasn’t scared even a little. My spirits soared. At first, there was some smoke, then crackling and flames. Evtikhov had hit one vehicle. He hit the hull, and how the Fritzes screamed!’ (Gromov has light green eyes in a suffering, angry face.) ‘The number one carries the anti-tank rifle. The number two carries thirty cartridges for it, a hundred cartridges for [an ordinary] rifle, two anti-tank grenades, and a rifle. What a noise the [anti-tank rifle] makes. The earth trembles from it.’

‘Our main losses occur because we have to go and get breakfast and dinner ourselves. We can only go and get them at night. There are problems with dishes, we should get hold of buckets.’

‘We used to lie down during the night and advance during the day. The ground’s as flat as a tabletop.’

These notes, including Gromov’s words, were then refashioned into the piece for Krasnaya Zvezda, which so impressed Ehrenburg and others.

When on the march, one’s shoulder bone aches like hell from the anti-tank rifle, and the arm becomes numb. It’s difficult to jump with the anti-tank rifle and difficult to walk on slippery ground. Its weight slows you down and upsets your balance.

Anti-tank riflemen walk heavily, in broad steps, and seem slightly lame – on the side where the rifle’s weight is. [Gromov] was filled with the anger of a difficult man, a man whom the war has taken away from his field, from his izba, and from his wife who had given birth to his children. This was the anger of a doubting Thomas who saw with his own eyes the huge troubles of his people . . . Walls of white and black smoke and grey-yellow dust rose in front of the anti-tank riflemen and behind them. This was what one usually calls ‘hell’ . . . He was lying on the bottom of the slit trench. The hell was howling with a thousand voices, and Gromov was dozing, stretching his tired legs: a soldier’s rest, poor and austere.

‘I fired at [the tank] again,’ [said Gromov]. ‘And I saw at once that I’d hit it. It took my breath away. A blue flame ran over the armour, quick like a spark. And I understood at once that my anti-tank shell had got inside and gave off this blue flame. And a little smoke rose. The Germans inside began to scream. I’d never heard people scream this way before, and then immediately there was a crackling inside. It crackled and crackled. The shells had started to explode. And then flames shot out, right into the sky. The tank was done for.’

Regimental commander Savinov, a wonderful Russian face. Blue eyes, red tan. There’s a dimple from a bullet on his helmet. ‘When the bullet hit me,’ Savinov said, ‘I became drunk and lay for fifteen minutes unconscious. A German had got me drunk.’

Civilians too were caught up in what was seen by both sides as the key battle of the war.

Spies. A twelve-year-old boy who could report on where [German] headquarters had been situated by its signal cables, kitchens and dispatch riders. A woman, to whom the Germans had said: ‘If you don’t go and don’t come back, we are going to shoot your two daughters.’

Soviet pitlilessness more than matched that of the Germans, when it came to forcing their own men into the attack. Stalin’s Order No. 227 – ‘Not One Step Back’ – included the instruction to each army command to organise ‘three to five well-armed [blocking] detachments (up to two hundred men each)’ to form a second line to ‘combat cowardice’ by shooting down any soldier who tried to run away. In the factory district of northern Stalingrad, Grossman came across Colonel S.F. Gorokhov, then commanding the 124th Brigade.

After the seventh attack, Gorokhov said to the commander of the blocking detachment: ‘Come on, that’s enough shooting at their backs. Come on and join the attack.’ The commander and his blocking detachment joined the attack, and the Germans were thrown back.

The defence of Stalingrad was stiffened by the most terrifying discipline. Some 13,500 soldiers were executed during the five-month battle. Most of these were during the earlier days when many men broke. Grossman heard about an ‘extraordinary event’, which was the official Soviet term for ‘betrayal of the Motherland’, a very broadly defined crime.

An extraordinary event. Sentence. Execution. They undressed him and buried him. At night, he came back to his unit, in his bloodstained underwear. They shot him again.

This may possibly refer to another case, but it is almost exactly what happened in the 45th Rifle Division, when the execution squad from the NKVD Special Department attached to the division failed to kill the condemned man, perhaps because their aim was affected by alcohol.9 This soldier, like so many others, had been condemned to death for a self-inflicted wound. After shooting him, the execution squad buried him in a nearby shell-hole, but the condemned man dug himself out and returned to his company, only to be executed a second time. Usually, however, the prisoner was forced to undress before being shot so that his uniform could be issued to somebody else without too many discouraging bullet-holes.

A number of Soviet generals did not shrink from hitting even quite senior subordinates, although the striking of soldiers by officers and NCOs had been one of the most hated characteristics of the Tsarist Army.

Conversation of Colonels Shuba and Tarasov with the army commander:


‘“May I say again . . . ?”


‘“May I say again . . . ?”

‘He hit Shuba in the mouth. I [presumably Tarasov] stood still, drew my tongue in and clenched my teeth, because I was afraid to bite my tongue off or be left with no teeth.’

At this critical moment of the war, Grossman recorded in his notebooks a number of stories about Soviet and military bureaucracy.

Aircraft had been bombing our tanks for three days, and all this time telegrams about it were travelling through different chains of command.

Provisions for an encircled division were to be dropped by parachute, but the quartermaster didn’t want to issue the foodstuffs, because there was no one to sign the invoice.

A chief of reconnaissance could not get permission for half a litre of vodka, nor could he get a badly needed piece of silk which cost eighty roubles fifty kopecks.

Information on take-off. Applications for bombing missions.

A plane caught fire. The pilot wanted to save it and didn’t bail out by parachute. He brought the burning plane back to the airfield. He was on fire himself. His trousers were burning. The quartermaster, however, refused to issue him with new trousers because the minimum period hadn’t elapsed before a replacement could be provided for the old ones. The red tape lasted for several days.

A Yu-53 with a full load of fuel was burning in the clear evening sky. The crew bailed out with their parachutes.

Stalin was beside himself with rage when he heard on 3 September that Stalingrad was encircled on the western bank. For General Yeremenko, the commander-in-chief of the Stalingrad Front, and Nikita Khrushchev, the member of his Military Council and thus chief commissar, the key question was who should be given the responsibility of defending the city itself. The candidate would have to take over the thoroughly demoralised and battered 62nd Army, which was cut off from its neighbour to the south, the 64th Army, on 10 September.

On the following day, 11 September, Yeremenko’s headquarters in a complex of tunnels in the Tsaritsa gorge came under direct fire. Grossman’s editor, Ortenberg, accompanied by the writer Konstantin Simonov, reached the headquarters that day. They spoke to a ‘gloomy’ Khrushchev, who found it hard to light a cigarette due to the lack of oxygen in the tunnel. When Ortenberg and Simonov woke the next morning, they found that the headquarters had departed while they slept. Stalin, still in a foul temper, had been forced to agree that Yeremenko must withdraw Stalingrad Front headquarters across the Volga. General Vasily Chuikov, a tough and thoroughly ruthless commander, was summoned to take command of the 62nd Army left on the west bank.10 Grossman later interviewed all those involved.

Ortenberg (centre) and Konstantin Simonov (right) sending despatches back to Moscow from Stalingrad Front HQ, September 1942.

Khrushchev – Tired, white-haired, bloated. Looks perhaps like Kutuzov. Yeremenko – He has been wounded seven times in this war.

Yeremenko claimed the credit for selecting Chuikov.

‘It was I who promoted Chuikov. I knew him, he was never prone to panic . . . I knew Chuikov from peacetime. I used to drub him during manoeuvres. “I know how brave you are,” [I told him], “but I don’t need that sort of courage. Don’t make hasty decisions, as you tend to.”’

According to Chuikov, the interview with Yeremenko and Khrushchev went as follows:

‘Yeremenko and Khrushchev said to me:

‘“You have to save Stalingrad. How do you feel about it?”

‘“Yes, sir.”

‘“No, it isn’t enough to obey, what do you think about it?”

‘“It means to die. So we will die.”’

In his memoirs written during the Khrushchev era, Chuikov recounted the conversation in a slightly different way:

‘Comrade Chuikov,’ said Khrushchev, ‘how do you interpret your task?’

‘We will defend the city or die in the attempt,’ came Chuikov’s reply.

Yeremenko and Khrushchev looked at him and said that he had understood his mission correctly.

As will be seen later, Grossman became disillusioned by the vanities and jealousies of the Stalingrad commanders after the battle, all of whom felt that their role had been insufficiently appreciated. Yeremenko was quite open in his boasting and his attempts to undermine Khrushchev.

‘I was a corporal during the last war and killed twenty-two Germans . . . Who wants to die? No one is particularly eager . . . I had to take terribly cruel decisions here: “Execute on the spot.”

‘Khrushchev proposed that we should mine the city. I telephoned Stalin [about it]. “What for?” [Stalin] asked.

“I am not going to surrender Stalingrad,” I said. “I don’t want to mine the city.”

‘“Tell him to fuck off, then,” [Stalin replied].’

‘We have held on thanks to our [artillery] fire and thanks to the soldiers. The fortifications were fucking bad.’

The inadequacy of Stalingrad’s defences was just about the only matter on which all the senior officers agreed. Chuikov observed that the barricades could have been pushed over with a truck. Gurov, the chief commissar of the 62nd Army, said that no fortifications had existed, and Krylov, the chief of staff, said they were laughable. ‘In the defence of Stalingrad,’ Chuikov said later to Grossman, ‘divisional commanders counted on blood more than on barbed wire.’

Chuikov, whom Grossman came to know very well during the course of the war, also liked to expound on his past experience and his role at Stalingrad. ‘I commanded a regiment at the age of fifteen,’ he said to Grossman of his time in the Russian civil war. ‘I was the chief adviser to Chiang Kai-shek,’ Chuikov added when talking of 1941. He did not mention that it was a great advantage to have been absent in China during that first disastrous summer of the war.

Chuikov’s army was not only exhausted and demoralised. Reduced to fewer than 20,000 men, it was heavily outnumbered and outgunned on the key sector of central Stalingrad, where four German infantry divisions, two panzer divisions and a motorised division attacked from the west towards the Volga. The two key objectives for them were the Mamaev Kurgan, a Tartar mound 102 metres high (and known as Point 102), and the Volga crossing point just beyond Red Square. Chuikov reached this landing stage on the night of 12 September immediately after his appointment as commander of the 62nd Army had been confirmed by Yeremenko and Khrushchev.

By the light from blazing buildings, he made his way to the Mamaev Kurgan where 62nd Army headquarters was temporarily established. The situation was even more desperate than he had feared. ‘I see Mamaev Kurgan in my dreams,’ Chuikov told Grossman later.

The only unmauled formation under his command was Colonel Sarayev’s 10th NKVD Rifle Division, but its units were dispersed and Sarayev, who reported to the NKVD chain of command, was more than reluctant to put his men under Red Army control. Chuikov’s commissar, Gurov, was scathing about the NKVD division.

‘The Sarayev division was scattered all over the front, and therefore there was practically no control over it. The Sarayev division did not fulfil its function. It hadn’t held its defensive positions, and didn’t maintain order in the city.’

The previous year, no military commander had had the courage to face up to one of Beria’s officers. But Chuikov, facing disaster, had no qualms. Evidently, his threat to Sarayev about Stalin’s anger if the city fell had the required effect. Sarayev followed orders and placed one of his regiments in front of the vital landing stage, as instructed.

Grossman only discovered later that Chuikov was another commander who used to punch his subordinates when in a foul mood. Chuikov was indeed ruthless, as ready to execute a brigade commander who failed in his duty as a simple soldier who turned tail in battle, but his own physical bravery was beyond question.

‘A commander must feel that it is better for him to lose his head than to bow to a German shell. Soldiers notice these things.’

‘The first task was to instil in your [subordinate] commanders the idea that the Devil is not so terrible as he is painted.’

‘Once you are here, there is no way out. Either you will lose your head or your legs . . . Everyone knew that those who turn and run would be shot on the spot. This was more terrifying than the Germans . . . Well, there is also Russian zeal. We adopted a tactic of counter-attack. We attacked when they became tired of attacking.’

In his memoirs, Chuikov openly acknowledged that when defending Stalingrad, he had followed the precept that ‘Time is Blood’. He had to hold the Germans at all costs and that meant throwing fresh regiments and divisions into the hell of the city as soon as they reached the eastern bank and were ready to be ferried across.

The Sixth Army’s major offensive into the city was launched just before dawn on 13 September. Chuikov had not even had time to meet his formation commanders when the German 295th Infantry Division came straight for the Mamaev Kurgan. Two other infantry divisions headed for the main station and the landing stage. Chuikov could only watch events from a slit trench through periscopic binoculars.

That evening, Führer headquarters celebrated the success of the 71st Infantry Division reaching the centre of the city. Stalin heard the same news in the Kremlin when Yeremenko telephoned him and warned that another major attack could be expected the next day. Stalin turned to General Vasilevsky. ‘Issue orders immediately for Rodimtsev’s 13th Guards Division to cross the Volga and see what else you can send over.’ Zhukov, who was also with them, poring over a map of the area, was told to fly down again immediately. Nobody was in any doubt that the moment of crisis had arrived.

Chuikov’s army headquarters now found itself in the front line, following the attack on the Mamaev Kurgan the day before. In the early hours they moved south to the tunnels of the Tsaritsa gorge, which Yeremenko and Khrushchev had so recently abandoned. Gurov told Grossman: ‘When we were leaving Height 102, we felt that the worst thing of all was uncertainty. We didn’t know how all this was going to end.’

The battle on 14 September went badly for the defenders. The German 295th Infantry Division captured the Mamaev Kurgan as Chuikov had feared, but the biggest threat came in the centre of the city, where one of Sarayev’s NKVD regiments was thrown into a counter-attack on the main station. It changed hands several times during the day.

The key event, according to the Stalingrad legend, was the crossing of the Volga under fire by General Aleksandr Rodimtsev’s 13th Guards Rifle Division.11 This formation had been hurried down by forced marches. Grossman recreated the march and the arrival on the bank of the Volga from participants.

The road turned south-west, and soon we began to see maples and willows. Orchards with low apple trees in them stretched around us. And as the division was approaching the Volga, we saw a tall, dark cloud. One couldn’t possible mistake it for dust. It was sinister, quick, light, and black as death: that was the smoke from burning oil-storage tanks rising over the northern part of the city. Big arrows nailed to the trunks of trees said ‘Crossing’. They pointed towards the Volga . . . The division couldn’t wait until night to cross the river. Men were hastily unloading crates of weapons and ammunition, and sugar and sausage.

Barges were rocking on the waves, and men from the rifle division felt frightened because the enemy was everywhere, in the sky, on the opposite bank, but they had to encounter him without the comfort of solid earth under their feet. The air was unbearably transparent, the blue sky was unbearably clear, the sun seemed relentlessly bright and the flowing flat water seemed so tricky and unreliable. And no one felt happy about the clarity of the air, about the coolness of the river in the nostrils, about the tender and moist breath of the Volga touching their inflamed eyes. Men on the barges, ferries and motor boats were silent. Oh, why isn’t there that suffocating and thick dust over the river? Why is the bluish smoke of the smokescreen canisters so transparent and fine? Every head was turning from side to side in anxiety. Everyone was glancing at the sky.

‘He’s diving, the louse!’ someone shouted.

Suddenly, a tall and thin bluish-white column of water sprang up about fifty metres from the barge. Immediately after it another column grew and collapsed even closer, and then a third one. Bombs were exploding on the surface of the water, and the Volga was covered with lacerated foamy wounds; shells began to hit the sides of the barge. Injured men would cry out softly, as if trying to conceal the fact of being wounded. By then, rifle bullets had already started whistling over the water.

There was one terrible moment when a large calibre shell hit the side of a small ferry. There was a flash of flame, dark smoke enveloped the ferry, an explosion was heard, and immediately afterwards, a drawling scream as if born from this thunder. Thousands of people saw immediately the green helmets of the men swimming among the wreckage of wood rocking on the surface of water.

Chuikov told Rodimtsev, who crossed to the west bank during the afternoon of 14 September to receive his orders, that the situation was so desperate that his men should leave behind all their heavy equipment, bringing just grenades and personal weapons. Rodimtsev described it to Grossman at a later stage in the battle.

‘We began the crossing at 1700 hours on 14 September, preparing weapons as we went along. One barge was destroyed [by bombing] during the crossing; forty-one men were killed and twenty survived.’

Much has been written of the 13th Guards Rifle Division charging up the steep bank of the Volga and straight at the Germans, who had advanced to within two hundred metres of the river’s edge. But Grossman heard about a special mission assigned to a small group of six men from the division.

Sapper Lieutenant Chermakov, Sergeants Dubovy and Bugaev, and Red Army soldiers Klimenko, Zhukov and Messereshvili carried out the task of blowing up a sealed building of the State Bank. Each carried 25kg of explosives. They made it to the bank and blew it up.

Inevitably, there was a less heroic aspect to the crossing of the river, which Soviet official accounts always suppressed.

Seven Uzbeks were guilty of self-inflicted wounds. They were all shot.

The exploits of the 13th Guards Rifle Division attracted a great deal of attention in the Soviet and international press. Rodimtsev, to Chuikov’s furious jealousy, became a world-famous hero. Grossman, however, was more interested in the bravery of the soldiers and junior officers than in the squabbles of the commanders. He persuaded Rodimtsev’s headquarters to let him have the report below, and he carried it with him in his field bag all through the war. He mentioned it in his essay ‘Tsaritsyn-Stalingrad’ and included it in the novel For a Just Cause.


Time: 11.30 hours, 20.9.42

To: Guards Senior Lieutenant Fedoseev (Commander of the 1st Battalion)

May I report to you, the situation is as follows: the enemy is trying to encircle my company, to send sub-machine-gunners round to our rear. But all their efforts have so far failed in spite of their superior strength. Our soldiers and officers are displaying courage and heroism in the face of the fascist jackals. The Fritzes won’t succeed until they’ve stepped over my corpse. Guards soldiers do not retreat. Soldiers and officers may die like heroes, but the enemy mustn’t be allowed to break our defence. Let the whole country learn about the 3rd Rifle Company of the 13th Guards Division. While the company commander is alive, not a single whore will break through. They might break though if the company commander is killed or heavily wounded. The commander of the 3rd Company is under stress and unwell physically himself, deafened and weak. He gets vertigo, is falling off his feet, his nose bleeds. In spite of all the hardships, the Guards, namely the 3rd and 2nd Companies, will not retreat. We will die like heroes for Stalin’s city. Let the Soviet land be the [enemy’s] grave. Commander of the 3rd Company Kolaganov has himself killed two Fritz machine-gunners and took from them a machine gun and documents which he has presented to the HQ of the battalion. [Signed] Kolaganov

The 62nd Army, continually outnumbered, held on as best it could within an ever diminishing perimeter along the west bank. Rodimtsev told Grossman: ‘We operated with no reserves. A thin defence line, that was all we had.’

Yeremenko told him: ‘I was sweating, [The Germans] were pressing hard, and we had positioned our troops stupidly. I felt hot all the time, [even though] I am a very healthy man. We were just feeding soldiers [into the battle]. That was it.’

Gurov, the chief commissar of the 62nd Army, pointed out: ‘There were days when we evacuated 2,000–3,000 injured men.’

Krylov, the chief of staff of the 62nd Army, remarked on the German conduct of the battle.

‘They rely on the massive use of fire-power, to stunning effect. Their powerful materiel is in inverse proportion to the potential of German infantry. German middle-rank commanders completely lack initiative.

‘The first days of September were particularly hard, the beginning of chaos. In the evenings I could pull myself together in order to give instructions to the troops. During the day, we just counted down minutes till the evening.’

The Germans knew only too well that they needed to break the 62nd Army’s life lines across the Volga, using artillery as well as the Luftwaffe. That was why there were so many struggles back and forth to secure the Mamaev Kurgan, the one hill from which direct fire could be concentrated on the landing stages. The river-transport troops, many of them Volga boatmen and fishermen, faced dangers as great as those of the frontoviki on the west bank.

The officer in charge of the crossing, Lieutenant Colonel Puzyrevsky, has been here about two weeks. His predecessor, Captain Eziev, a Chechen, was killed by a bomb on a barge. Perminov, the military commander, has been here for fifty-seven days. Deputy Battalion Commander Ilin has been taken away by air, heavily wounded. Smerechinsky – killed – was the chief of the crossing before Eziev. The battalion commander, who set up the Volga crossing, was killed by a bomb splinter. Sholom Akselrod, commander of the technical platoon, was killed on a barge by a mine. Politruk Samotorkin was wounded by a mine. Politruk Ishkin’s leg was torn off by a shell.

For the reinforcements assembling on the west bank opposite, the 1,300 metres of open water was enough to break anyone’s nerve. But Chuikov, with his characteristically brutal humour, observed that the crossing was just the start.

‘Approaching this place, soldiers used to say: “We are entering hell.” And after spending one or two days here, they said: “No, this isn’t hell, this is ten times worse than hell.” [It produced] a wild anger, an inhuman anger, towards Germans. [Some Red Army soldiers] were escorting a prisoner, but he never reached his destination. The poor chap died from fear. “Would you like to drink some water from the Volga?” [they asked], and they rammed his face into the water ten or twelve times.’

Suffering seemed to have become a universal fate. Towards the end of the month, Grossman received a letter from his wife, Olga Mikhailovna, in which she recounted the death of her son, Misha, who had been killed by a bomb. He wrote back in a clumsy attempt to mitigate her despair.

My own one, my good one. Today I received your letter which someone had brought from Moscow. It grieved me deeply. Don’t let your spirits sink, Lyusenka. Don’t give way to despair. There is so much sorrow around us. I see so much of it. I’ve seen mothers who have lost three sons and a husband in this war, I’ve seen wives who’ve lost husbands and children, I’ve seen women whose little children have been killed in a bombing raid, and all these people don’t give way to despair. They work, they look forward to victory, they don’t lose their spirits. And in what hard conditions they have to survive! Be strong, too, my darling, hold on . . . You’ve got me and Fedya, you have love and your life has a meaning.

Grossman with Vysokoostrovsky (centre) at Stalingrad, September 1942.

‘I’ve been recommended for the Order of the Red Star for the second time, but to no effect so far, just as before. I’ve got this letter taken from a dead soldier; it’s written in a child’s scribble. There are the following words at the end: ‘I miss you very much. Please come and visit, I so want to see you, if only for one hour. I am writing this, and tears are pouring. Daddy, please come and visit.’

He also wrote to their old German-speaking nanny, Zhenni Genrikhovna Henrichson, whom many years later he put into his novel Life and Fate.

You already know about our terrible grief: the death of Misha.

Sorrow has come to our family too, Zhenni Genrikhovna. Please write to me at my new address: 28 Field Post, 1st Unit, V.S. Grossman (don’t mention my position in the address). Have you heard from Papa? Where is he now? I don’t know at what address to write to him.

Grossman at this point had no idea that his nephew, Yura Benash, a young lieutenant in Stalingrad who had been trying to contact him having read his articles, had been killed in the fighting.

1 Khrushchev, Nikita Sergeyevich (1894–1971), a commissar in the civil war, he rose in influence by supporting Stalin against Trotsky. He oversaw much of the construction of the Moscow metro and played a leading part in the destruction of the Ukrainian intelligentsia during the Great Terror. In 1939, he became head of the Communist party in the Ukraine and, in 1941, organised the evacuation of factories to the east as the Germans advanced. After the war, following the death of Stalin in 1953, he led the coup against Beria and took power. He denounced Stalin at the XX Party Congress in 1956, but his attempts at liberalisation were inconsistent with other actions, such as the suppression of the Hungarian uprising in 1956.

2 A kerosinka (a ‘kerosene lamp’ or ‘Primus’) was the nickname for a very simple, canvas-covered biplane, the Polikarpov U-2, which had been designed as a training aircraft and was also used as a crop sprayer. They were called a kerosinka because they could catch fire in no time. At Stalingrad, they were often piloted by young women between eighteen and twenty years old. They would fly across the front line during the night, stopping their engines and dropping small bombs on German lines. The bombs were ineffective, but the tactic terrified and wore the Germans down. They called the aircraft ‘coffee grinders’ and referred to the young women pilots as ‘night witches’.

3 Presumably this means that it dropped a recognition flare to warn Red Army soldiers in the front line not to fire at them.

4 A steppe ground squirrel, or gopher.

5 Traditional Russian cabbage soup.

6 The Insulted and the Injured (1861) by Fyodor Dostoevsky.

7 This means that they are taking all they can from life while they still have a chance.

8 The beginning of this notebook, entitled ‘North-West of Stalingrad, September 1942’, has been lost or destroyed.

9 The 45th Rifle Division became the 74th Guards Rifle Division on 1 March 1943 as a tribute to its role at Stalingrad. It stayed with the 62nd Army, later the 8th Guards Army, until the end of the war.

10 General Vasily Ivanovich Chuikov (1900–1982) commanded the 4th Army in the invasion of Poland in 1939, then the 9th Army in the Russo-Finnish War. From 1940–2 he served as military attaché in China. After Stalingrad, his 62nd Army became the 8th Guards Army and he commanded it all the way to victory in Berlin where he conducted surrender negotiations with General Hans Krebs. From 1949–53 he was Commander-in-Chief Soviet Forces in East Germany and from 1960–61, he served as Deputy Minister of Defence.

11 The 13th Guards Rifle Division was founded on 19 January 1942, on a basis of the 87th Rifle Division. General Aleksandr Ilyich Rodimtsev (1905–1977) had won the gold star of Hero of the Soviet Union as an adviser in the Spanish Civil War, particularly for his role at the Battle of Guadalajara in 1937, when Mussolini’s blackshirt divisions were put to flight.

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