Military history

FIFTEEN

The Stalingrad Academy

It was General Chuikov who coined the phrase the Stalingrad Academy of Street-Fighting. Chuikov’s idea was to keep the Germans constantly engaged. He ordered his troops to site their trenches as close to the enemy as possible, because that would make it harder for the Luftwaffe, which enjoyed air supremacy by day, to distinguish between the two opposing forces. Chuikov boasted to Grossman:

‘During air raids our soldiers and Germans ran towards each other to hide in the same holes. [The Germans] could not strike our front line with their air attacks. At the Red October plant they demolished a fresh division of their own.’

Grossman emphasised this proximity in an essay written towards the end of the battle.

Sometimes, the trenches dug by the battalion are twenty metres from the enemy. The sentry can hear soldiers walking in the German trench, and arguments when Germans divide up the food. He can hear all night the tap dance of a German sentry in his torn boots. Everything is a marker here, every stone is a landmark.

The way to wear the Germans down was by small-scale night attacks, to prevent them sleeping, and playing on their fear of darkness, and of the hunting skills of the Siberian troops. Snipers also provided a powerful psychological weapon as well as a boost to Soviet morale.

Chuikov could be as wasteful of lives as any Soviet general – especially in the early days when he ordered one counter-attack after another to blunt the German advance – but he also quickly recognised the advantage of close-combat engagements, using small groups armed with grenades, sub-machine guns, knives, sharpened spades and a flame-thrower. This savage system of fighting in cellars, sewers and in the ruins of apartment blocks became known to the Germans as Rattenkrieg. Chuikov told Grossman later in the battle:

‘Stalingrad is the glory of the Russian infantry. Our infantry has taken and made use of German weapons and ammunition. We didn’t just receive attacks, we had to attack. Retreat meant ruin. If you retreated, you’d be shot. If I did, I’d be shot . . . A soldier who’d spent three days here considered himself an old-timer. Here, people only lived for one day . . . Weapons for close-quarter combat have never been used as they have in Stalingrad . . . [and our men] didn’t fear tanks any longer. Our soldiers have become so resourceful. Even professors wouldn’t be able to think up their tricks. They can build trenches that are so good you wouldn’t notice soldiers in them even if you step on their heads. Our soldiers were on an upper floor [in a building]. Some Germans below them wound up a gramophone. Our men made a hole in the floor and fired [through it] with a flame-thrower . . . “Oh, may I report to you, comrades, what a fight it was!”’

Grossman was fascinated by the way soldiers watched, learned and improvised new methods to kill the enemy. He was especially interested by the snipers and got to know the two star snipers in Stalingrad quite well. Vasily Zaitsev, who was made the biggest star by Soviet propaganda – the character played by Jude Law in the film Enemy at the Gates – had been a sailor with the Pacific Fleet based in Vladivostok. He belonged to General Nikolai Batyuk’s 284th Division of Siberians.1 Anatoly Chekhov, whom Grossman accompanied on a sniper mission to observe him at work, was part of Rodimtsev’s 13th Guards Rifle Division. It may well have been the case that Chuikov’s jealousy of Rodimtsev and the press coverage of his Guards Division led to Chekhov’s exploits being subordinated to those of Zaitsev. Rodimtsev told Grossman about Chekhov during his October visit. ‘Red Army soldier Chekhov killed thirty-five fascists [during the fighting]. I wanted to give him some leave. He’s killed enough Germans to deserve a lifetime’s leave.’ Grossman then went to interview Chekhov.

Chekhov, Anatoly Ivanovich. Born 1923. ‘We moved to Kazan in 1931. I was at school there for seven years. Then my father took to drinking, and left my mother. There were also my two sisters. I had to leave school although I was a top pupil. I liked geography very much, but I had to stop . . . A notice appeared on 29 March 1942, and I volunteered for sniper school. In fact, I had never shot anything as a child, not even with a slingshot. My first experience of shooting was from a small-calibre rifle. I scored nine out of fifty. The lieutenant got very angry: ‘Excellent marks in all subjects, but you shoot badly. We’ll never make anything of you.’ But I wasn’t dismayed. I began to study theory and weapons. First, the experience of shooting with a proper rifle – chest shots and head shots. We were given three rounds and I hit the target [each time]. And from then on I became the best shot. I volunteered for the front.

‘I wanted to be someone who destroyed the enemy on his own. I first thought about it when I read the newspaper. I wanted to be famous. I learned to judge distances by sight. I don’t need an optical device. My favourite books? I didn’t read much, actually. My father would get drunk and we would all scatter, sometimes I couldn’t even do my homework. I never had my own corner.

‘I took part in the attack on the morning of 15 September. I was advancing to Mamaev Kurgan . . . I had the feeling that this wasn’t war, that I was simply teaching my section to camouflage in the field and to shoot. We shouted “Urra!” and ran about two hundred metres. Then their machine gun opened up and wouldn’t let us work. I crawled as I had been taught, and slithered. And I fell into a trap. There were three machine guns around me, and a tank. I’d set myself a task, so I didn’t look back. I knew that my section wouldn’t desert me. I was shooting point-blank, at a range of five metres. [The machine-gunners] were sitting side-on to me. I knocked both of them down. Then three machine guns, a tank and a mortar began firing at me at the same time. I and my four soldiers lay in a crater from nine in the morning till eight in the evening . . . After this I was appointed the commander of a mortar platoon.

‘When I was given a sniper’s rifle, I chose a place on the fifth floor. There was a wall and its shadow concealed me. When the sun came out, I slipped downstairs. From there I saw the German house a hundred metres away. There were sub-machine-gunners and machine-gunners there. They were there during the day, they sat in basements. I went out at four in the morning. It starts to get light at this time. The first Fritz ran to get some water for the chiefs to have a wash. The sun was already rising. He ran side-on to me. I didn’t look at their faces much, I looked at their uniforms. Commanders wear trousers, jackets, caps and no belts, privates wear boots.

‘I sat on the landing of a staircase. I’d arranged my rifle behind the grill so that the smoke would drift along the wall. At first they walked. I knocked down nine on the first day. I knocked down seventeen in two days. They sent women, and I killed two out of five.2 On the third day I saw an embrasure! A sniper. I waited and fired. He fell down and cried out in German. They stopped carrying mines and getting water. I killed forty Fritzes in eight days.

‘When it was sunny, there was a shadow on the wall when I moved [so] I didn’t shoot them when it was sunny. A new sniper appeared by the open window . . . This sniper had me cornered. He fired at me four times. But he missed. Of course, it was a pity to leave. Well, they’ve never drunk from the Volga. They went to get water, and they carried reports, dinner and ammunition . . . They drank filthy water from locomotives. They went to get water in the morning, with a bucket.

It is more convenient for me to shoot [a man] when he is running. It’s easier for my hand and eye. It’s more difficult when he is standing still. The first one appeared. He walked five metres. I took aim at once, a little in front of him, about four centimetres from his nose.

‘When I first got the rifle, I couldn’t bring myself to kill a living being: one German was standing there for about four minutes, talking, and I let him go. When I killed my first one, he fell at once. Another one ran out and stooped over the killed one, and I knocked him down, too . . . When I first killed, I was shaking all over: the man was only walking to get some water! . . . I felt scared: I’d killed a person! Then I remembered our people and started killing them without mercy.

‘The building [opposite] has collapsed inside down to the second floor. Some [Germans] sit on the staircase, others on the second floor. There are safes, all the money in them has been burned.3

‘Some girls are living on the Kurgan. They make bonfires and cook. [German] officers go to see them.

‘Sometimes you see the following picture: a Fritz is walking and a dog barks at him from a yard, and he kills the dog. If you hear dogs barking at night, this means the Fritzes are doing something there, roaming about, and the dogs bark.

‘I’ve become a beast of a man: I kill, I hate them as if it is a normal thing in my life. I’ve killed forty men, three in the chest, the others in the head. When you fire, the head instantly jerks back or to the side. He throws up his arms and collapses . . . Pchelintsev, too, had been sorry to kill: his first one, and the second, ‘How could I?’

‘I’ve killed two officers. One on a hill, the other one by the State Bank. He was dressed in white. All the Germans sprang to their feet and saluted him. He was checking on them. He’d wanted to cross the street, and I hit him in the head. He fell down at once, raising his feet with shoes on them.

‘Sometimes I come out of the basement in the evening, I look around and my heart sings, I would love to spend half an hour in a city which is alive. I come out and think: the Volga is flowing so quietly, how come such terrible things are happening here? We had a man from Stalingrad here. I kept asking him where all clubs and theatres were, and about going for strolls by the Volga.’

The editorial staff at Krasnaya Zvezda could hardly believe it when they received the full text of this article in a signal more than four hundred pages long brought over from the Stavka, the general staff headquarters attached to the Kremlin. Grossman had persuaded the signals detachment of Stalingrad Front to transmit it to Moscow. That they agreed to such a request in the middle of the battle of Stalingrad is sufficient proof of the regard in which he was held. Ortenberg was the first to acknowledge that the effort and risk to which Grossman subjected himself was worth it. ‘It was probably because Grossman had got close to [Chekhov],’ he wrote, ‘and had shared the hardships and dangers of fighting, that he succeeded in creating such an expressive portrait of a warrior, going so deep into the world of his thoughts and sentiments.’

The exploits of snipers were talked about and admired almost like those of football players. Each division was proud of its star, and the Siberians of the 284th Rifle Division were convinced that they had the greatest star of all in the form of Vasily Zaitsev. But the compulsion of propaganda exaggeration made the scores achieved by these Stakhanovites of the urban battlefield somewhat suspect.

Zaitsev is a reserved man, about whom soldiers in the division say: ‘Our Zaitsev is cultivated and modest. He has already killed 225 Germans.’4 His other snipers are [known as] young hares.5 Batyuk says: ‘They obey him, just like little mice. He asks: “Am I saying the right things, comrades?” Everyone answers: ‘Yes, Vasily Ivanovich.”’

There is a striking entry in Grossman’s notebook, which is hard to verify.

Murashev and medical orderly Zaitsev had been sentenced to be executed. Murashev for shooting himself through the hand, the other, because he had killed a famous pilot, who was coming down by parachute from a shot-up aircraft. [The sentence of] execution was commuted for both of them. And now they are both the best snipers in Stalingrad. (Murashev is nineteen.)

Zaitsev was the only well-known sniper of that name in Stalingrad, and there is no other account that he was ever a medical orderly, or had shot a ‘famous pilot’ coming down by parachute. Perhaps Grossman was the only person to have recorded this story before the Soviet propaganda machine rewrote his life into a legend.

Like the other snipers, Zaitsev seemed to be proud of taking revenge on any Russian woman seen associating with a German.

Zaitsev has killed a woman and a German officer: ‘They fell across each other.’

Several of the leading snipers at Stalingrad, including Chekhov and Zaitsev, reported brief duels with German snipers. This was hardly surprising since counter-sniper actions were regarded as their highest priority.

A single combat between Zaitsev and a German sniper: ‘He had killed three of our men. He waited for fifteen minutes. Our little gully was empty, and he started to get up. And I saw that his rifle was on the ground. And I stood up upright. He saw me and understood. And I fired.’

This brief, but deadly encounter was probably the one seized upon later by Soviet propaganda. It was blown up into the epic saga of a protracted duel between Zaitsev and the untraceable ‘Major Koenig’, the chief of an equally unidentifiable ‘Berlin Sniper School’, who had been flown in to track down Zaitsev and kill him. There is, however, no mention of any of this in any German source. Zaitsev’s claim that they both stood up is also highly unconvincing. Snipers on both sides tended to work in pairs, and a victorious sniper who indulged in such a boastful gesture would have been shot down immediately.

To judge by the way General Chuikov played up the story in his memoirs, he may well have been the one who had the idea of promoting the myth, especially since Zaitsev belonged to Batyuk’s division and not to Rodimtsev’s. It is intriguing that Grossman, who reproduced in Life and Fate his wartime notes about the sniper meeting almost as he had written them at the time, makes one change. The duel, which Zaitsev had described so perfunctorily at the meeting recorded in Grossman’s notes, lasts ‘for days’ in the novel. Grossman, for once, appears to have preferred the propaganda version.

Zaitsev’s subsequent memoirs (almost certainly written with heavy assistance by Soviet propaganda experts) recount the same exciting, but ultimately unconvincing, story of a duel over several days. A German telescopic sight, with a label stating that it had been recovered from the corpse of the German major, is displayed to this day in the Armed Forces Museum in Moscow. Yet, most telling of all, there is no mention whatsoever of the famed duel in any of the accounts of the Stalingrad Front political department sent back to Moscow during the battle, even though every detail on sniper activities which could be used for propaganda was reported.

Colonel Batyuk was equally proud of their other weapon stars.

‘In our division, we have the best sniper on the [Stalingrad] Front, Zaitsev; the best mortar man, Bezdidko; and the best artillerist, Shuklin, commander of the 2nd Battery (who destroyed fourteen tanks with one gun from a pillbox). Bezdidko remarked: “He hit them all with one gun because he’s only got one.”

‘Here one likes to make fun of the legendary heavy-mortar sniper Bezdidko. When German mortar bombs fall by the command post, the divisional commander says: “Oh, that son of a bitch, Bezdidko, why haven’t I taught him to shoot like this?” And Bezdidko, who never misses his aim, which is accurate to a centimetre, laughs and frowns. And Bezdidko himself, a man with a melodious soft little tenor voice and a sly Ukrainian smile, who has 1,305 German kills noted in his scorebook, affectionately teases Shuklin, the skinny commander of the 2nd Battery.’

Bezdidko also appears in the sniper meeting recounted in Life and Fate, and the conversation left virtually unchanged from the original notes.

‘Comrade Colonel, I’ve killed five Fritzes today, and used four bombs.’

‘Bezdidko, tell them how you destroyed that little brothel.’

‘I regard it as a bunker,’ Bezdidko answered modestly.

Some improvisations were less successful. Zaitsev tried attaching a sniper scope to an anti-tank rifle, thinking he could put a round through a gun-slit in an enemy bunker, but the quality of the ammunition was so unpredictable that no two rounds came close to the same target. Grossman noted another invention, which was in fact less perfect than is implied here.

The brains of the Red Army have finally turned to the anti-tank rifle . . . [using] a cart wheel, fastened to a picket and rotating [through] 360°. Seven aircraft have been hit.

Battalion Commander Captain Ilgachkin had a problem: he never could manage to hit an aircraft with a rifle. He made theoretical calculations of the speed of the bullet from an anti-tank rifle (one thousand metres per second), made a table, supplemented it with information on whether an aircraft is moving towards the firing point or away from it. Having made this table, he hit an aircraft immediately. After that, he fastened a stake in the ground, made an axle, put a wheel on it and they attached an anti-tank rifle to the spokes.

Batyuk also recounted how the Germans tried to taunt them on the radio or just make jokes.

‘“Rus, have you had dinner? . . . I’ve had butter, I’ve also had eggs, Rus. But not today. Today I’ve eaten nothing.”

‘“Rus, I am going to get some water. Please shoot at my legs, not at my head. I’ve got children, I’ve got a mother.”

‘“Rus, do you wanna swap an Uzbek for a Romanian?”’6

Batyuk, known to his soldiers as ‘Bulletproof Batyuk’, appears to have been one of those commanders genuinely impervious to danger.

Batyuk: ‘In this very bunker, the door used to crash down inside and fall on to the table.’ While the Germans were shelling the bunker of the artillery commander, Batyuk stood outside the entrance of his bunker laughing, and [pretending to] correct them: ‘Further right, further left.’

Artillery, as Chuikov had realised right from the start of the battle, would be their only hope. As there was little room for deploying heavy artillery among the ruined buildings of the west bank, he had withdrawn all guns and howitzers over 76mm to the east bank. The key people were the gun batteries’ forward observation officers, often concealed in high buildings like snipers. They relayed target details back by radio or by landline. ‘Artillery on the battlefield must be like a kite,’ General Yeremenko observed to Grossman. But he had no illusions about the frequent danger of ‘friendly fire’. ‘In Stalingrad, when our artillery fires at our soldiers, they joke bitterly: “Here we are, the second front has opened at last.”’

Chuikov’s main tactic for blunting heavy German assaults was to create ‘breakwaters’ with defended houses. Fighting patrols would slip forward at night towards a chosen target, then be reinforced.

Seizure of a house. The assault group of ten men, [followed later by] a consolidation group, [with] ammunition and food for six days. [They would dig] trenches ready in case they were surrounded.

Resupplying forward and isolated units was a major problem. The 62nd Army often resorted to U-2 biplanes, mostly flown by the young women pilots, who could switch off their engines and glide silently either over German trenches to drop bombs, or over Soviet positions to drop supplies.

During the night, U-2s drop food for our troops. We mark the front line with oil lamps (flat dishes), which the soldiers light on the bottom of trenches. Company Commander Khrennikov once forgot to do this, and suddenly he heard a hoarse voice coming from the dark sky above: ‘Hey, Khren!7 Are you going to light those lamps or not?’ That was the pilot. The engine had been switched off. Khrennikov says this made a terrifying impression on him: a voice from the sky calling his name.

General Rodimtsev said to Grossman:

‘My division and the Germans are stationed in houses next to each other, like pieces on a chessboard . . . They are living in basements, apartments and trenches . . . Four [soldiers] held a house for fourteen days. Two would go to get some food, the other two stayed to guard the house . . . Reconnaissance became very complicated . . . All anti-tank defence crews have been killed or wounded, to the last man . . . Moods – [the men were] tired, but spirits were high . . .

Lice – we got hold of Primus stoves and irons, and squashed them. [That] got rid of them.

And once again, jokes and insults would be hurled between trenches or even floors of the same house, often with heavy German humour: ‘Rus, give me your hat, and I’ll give you my tommy gun!’

Grossman was slightly perplexed by the ‘strange anxiety’ of the soldiers and officers he talked to. They seemed to be unusually concerned about the outside world.

‘And what do they say about us there? What do they think about us?’ There is a terrible lack of confidence.

Generals, especially Yeremenko, liked to pontificate on war and soldiering, but they often brought the subject back to themselves.

‘Young people have little experience of life, they’re like children. They die where they are sent . . . The cleverest soldiers are those aged between twenty-five and thirty. Older soldiers are “not exactly healthy men, tormented with worries about their families”. And I am tormented by my leg. I was under a terrible strain in Smolensk, and then at the Bryansk Front. Once, at the North-Western Front, I never went to bed for five days.’

‘Yes, when two generals fight each other, one of them will definitely turn out a clever man, and the other a fool. Although they are both fools,’ he added, laughing.

Gurov, the chief commissar of the 62nd Army, made similar sweeping statements.

‘The men, the soldiers, are all alike. Only commanders are different.’

If there was one area where Soviet commanders had little influence over events, it was on the vital Volga crossings. Everything depended on the men of the river-transports battalions – many of them Volga boatmen from Yaroslavl.

General Rodimtsev gave Grossman the official – and therefore optimistic – view.

‘We’ve been collecting boats from all over the river. Now we’ve got quite a fleet: twenty-seven fishing boats and motor boats. We raised a launch from the bottom of the Volga, but it was destroyed by a direct hit. The division is fully supplied: there is hot food, a spare set of underwear, chocolate and condensed milk. The evacuation of the wounded is exemplary. We have enough supplies for three days.’

Grossman, however, spent enough time with the boatmen, who had been conscripted into the army, to form a more accurate picture.

The Volga is 1,300 metres wide here . . . The boat has been hit. It was loaded with flour. Soldier Voronin didn’t lose his head. He emptied the flour from one sack, plugged the hole with the sack and blocked other holes with glue made from flour. There were seventy-seven holes in the boat. The soldier plugged them all in one day.

Corporal Spiridonov’s rear end has got smashed up. He is asking for some alcohol. Two heavily wounded men, Volkov and Lukyanov, barge in. They had walked thirty kilometres from the hospital. They’d escaped from the hospital. When put on a vehicle and driven back, they were both crying: ‘We won’t leave the battalion.’

When Eziev and Ilin were wounded, Red Army soldier Minokhodov dragged both of them from the barge and bandaged them. He himself was wounded in the back. He ran a kilometre back to the second echelon and told them that the battalion commander had been wounded, and he fell down unconscious. They were all taken to hospital together.

Sergeant Vlasov, forty-eight, an old man, from Yaroslavl. The barge was holed by a shell. While one man held his legs, Vlasov plugged the hole with his coat and nailed planks over it. There was four hundred tons of ammunition on the barge. [Vlasov] had been the chairman of a collective farm. His two sons are at the front, his wife is back home with three other children.

After the commissar’s speech, Vlasov shot a coward, the helmsman of a motor launch, the driver Kovalchuk. Kovalchuk had been ordered to take soldiers across to the Red October factory. There was a heavy bombardment, he got frightened and took them to an island instead, saying: ‘Life is more important to me . . . You can transfer me, or shoot me, but I’m still not going to do it. I’m an old man.’ He was simply afraid, and he was swearing. He wouldn’t recognise anyone, and he said about the general’s order: ‘To hell with generals!’

The battalion was formed up for Kovalchuk’s execution in front of the ranks. ‘At a time when hundreds of thousands of soldiers are fighting for Stalingrad, he has betrayed the Motherland,’ [the commissar proclaimed]. ‘Who would like to shoot him?’ Vlasov stepped forward. ‘Allow me, Comrade Commissar.’

[Kovalchuk] cringed. He cried: ‘Have mercy on me, Comrade Commissar, I will reform.’ [The commissar] embraced Vlasov in front of his company.

The battalion commissar clearly had considerable respect for Vlasov.

‘The most terrible thing I’ve been through was when a barge [was hit]. There were about four hundred men on it. There was panic, and cries. “We are sinking, we are lost!” Vlasov came up to me: “It’s ready, Comrade Commissar.” [i.e. the barge was already patched up.] And just then a fire broke out. A soldier, the son of a bitch, had taken a bottle of KS8 and started drinking, and a fire began. We put it out with a groundsheet. At any moment they could have started jumping in the water! Old man Muromtsev was there with us as well. He found two holes and plugged them. Everyone can get scared, can’t they? I got frightened myself, everyone is prone to it, but some can keep this fear under control. Now we are so used to it that when it becomes quieter, they say: “It’s a bit boring!”’

Grossman did a full interview with Vlasov.

Vlasov, Pavel Ivanovich, forty-eight years old, from the area of Yaroslavl. He has a family of five. One of his sons is a guards mortarman. Vlasov was drafted in August 1941. To begin with he guarded depots.

‘We have been here on the Volga since 25 August. The barge was large, about four thousand tons of amunition. A bombardment began while we were loading it, but we paid no attention to it. We cast off. I was in the front of the boat, that was my place. They opened fire. I had to watch out. A hole appeared in the deck and in the side of the boat, one metre below the waterline. The wood was splintered. We heard the noise of water [pouring in]. People began to cry out.

‘I snatched a groundsheet from one of them and ran into the hold. It was light [enough to see] there because the deck was broken. We crammed the big hole with the groundsheet and a greatcoat. And the small holes, we filled them from the outside. They held me by the legs, and I leaned over.’

About the cowardly driver of the motor launch. ‘That was at the beginning of October. We had received an order to cross over to the other [western] side and mend the mooring. He took us to an island and said: “For me, life is more important.” We started cursing him in foul language.

‘A report was made to the commissar about it. We were formed up, the whole battalion. The commissar read out the order, and he, Kovalchuk, was not behaving well. He was crying and pleading to be sent back to his post. But he was a bad offender already: he’d said that he’d desert. I had the feeling that, if I could, I’d tear him to pieces, even without that [death] sentence. Then the commissar said: “Who would like to shoot him?” I stepped out of the line, and [Kovalchuk] collapsed. I took a rifle from my comrade and shot him.’

‘Did you feel any pity for him?’

‘How can one speak of pity?’

‘I received my call-up papers on the night of 28 August [1941]. I don’t drink much normally, I am not used to it. I don’t write much [in letters home]: “I am still alive,” and I ask them to describe how they are managing the household. The kids aren’t spoilt, I don’t know how they are behaving in my absence, but they did help when I was there. There’s a lot of work. One has to work night and day. Of all crops, flax is the most labour-intensive. You need to weed it, and weed again, to pull it by hand, to dry it in stooks, then beat it down, spread it and then lift it . . . In general, the work here is not so hard as back home, although we had to go three days without sleep while we were making a bridge. If you get tired well and truly, you sleep. If you haven’t slept one night, you’ll sleep the following one.

‘Our anti-aircraft guns aren’t doing a good job. So far, I have only seen three aircraft knocked down by them. They don’t deserve any praise.

‘The youngsters obey me. Sometimes I am strict with them, but it’s necessary. If one shows a weak spot, it’s no good, either at home or at war . . . I handed everything over when I was leaving for the war. I have no debts. If I get killed, there’ll be no debts left unpaid . . . One carries all one’s belongings on oneself: a mug, a pot, a spoon. Money we send home, there’s nothing to buy.

‘In my section there’s Moshchav and Malkov. There’s no one else. Everyone else has been killed or wounded . . .

‘We catch fish. The Germans stun ’em for us. I caught a sterlet, then an ide, and we made soup.9

‘There are dogs who know aircraft very well. They pay absolutely no attention when one of our aircraft is flying over, even if it roars across right above their heads. But they start to bark immediately at German planes. They start to howl and hide, even when one of their aircraft is flying very high.’

‘Shells and bombs send off no shrapnel or splinters when they explode in the water. Only a direct hit is dangerous. Yesterday a trawler was hit. It went to the bottom with seventy-five wounded men.’

In his article ‘The Stalingrad Crossing’, Grossman wrote:

The earth around the landing point was ploughed up by their evil metal . . . And German fire never stopped even for a minute . . . Between the piers on the bank and Stalingrad lay 1,300 metres of the Volga’s water. Soldiers from the pontoon battalion had heard many times, in brief moments of silence, a distant sound of men’s voices. At that distance it sounded sad: ‘A-a-a . . .’ That was our infantry rising for a counter-attack.

The [Germans have a] timetable: [Artillery] fire until midnight. From midnight until two in the morning – quiet. From 2 a.m. until 5 a.m. – they fire again. From five till noon – quiet. The [Luftwaffe] works from nine in the morning until five in the afternoon, as if it were a regular job. They aim at the bank. They don’t waste bombs in the river.

‘The crossing operates from six o’clock in the evening until four thirty in the morning . . . [one of the men said] We camouflage [the boats], bringing them under cover of the bank and trees. The steam pinnace Donbass is hidden inside a destroyed barge . . . It’s very hard when there’s a moon. It’s beautiful, but damn the beauty.’

A welder at the west bank crossing point soon found himself mending more than battered boats.

Welder Kosenko was so good people came to him from the front and asked him to mend their Katyushas. ‘You do it better than at the front.’ Two tanks rushed back from the front. ‘Quick, we’ve got to go back and fight.’ He fixed them and they went back into the battle.

Everyday life. The [transport troops] have their own bakery, banya and delousing facility. The banya is dug out of the earth. The soldiers like to go there with birch twigs. They would stay there all the time if they could. Its chimney has been knocked down by an explosion. The bakery is a Russian stove, dug into the earth. They bake a wonderful, light hearth bread. They are excellent bakers, but the whole bakery was smashed by the latest bombing! The 2nd Company’s kitchen [suffered] a direct hit too. ‘May I report? The kitchen has been blown up, together with the shchi!’

‘Well, go and cook more dinner, then.’

Grossman, although only a correspondent, evidently pitched in when the situation demanded.

[A supply of] Katyusha rockets caught fire. There was one truckload of them and dozens of vehicles around it. We dragged them away.

But above all, he was pleased that his articles meant so much to the men.

They all liked my piece very much about the soldiers from Yaroslavl. They were as proud as peacocks: ‘This is written about us!’

1 The 284th Rifle Division became the 79th Guards Rifle Division on 1 March 1943 in honour of its role at Stalingrad.

2 There were no German servicewomen in the front line, so one assumes that these were Russian civilians recruited or forced to act as auxiliaries. Under Stalin’s personal order, they were to be treated as traitors even if they had been compelled to work for the Germans at gunpoint.

3 In his Krasnaya Zvezda article, Grossman added extra detail. ‘Sometimes it is very quiet, and then one can hear small pieces of plaster fall in the house opposite where Germans are sitting. Sometimes one hears German speech and the creaking of German boots. And sometimes the bombing and shooting gets so strong that one has to lean to the comrade’s ear and shout as loudly as one can, but the comrade answers with gestures: “I can’t hear.”’

4 It is impossible to judge the claimed kill scores of snipers in Stalingrad, especially Zaitsev’s, since according to his own account, he did not become a sniper until 21 October, when he shot three men, one after another. Colonel Batyuk is said to have seen this feat and ordered that he be made a sniper. So how Zaitsev achieved such a stupendous score when the most intense phase of the battle was over is hard to tell.

5 ‘Zaitsev’ in Russian means hare, so Zaitsev’s apprentice snipers were known as zaichata, or leverets.

6 Uzbeks had the reputation of being the least reliable members of the Red Army while the Germans were openly contemptuous of their Romanian allies of the Romanian First and Third Armies which were supposed to secure the north-western and the southern flanks of the German Sixth Army at Stalingrad.

7 ‘Khren’ in Russian means horseradish, but it is also a euphemism for an insult similar to ‘motherfucker’. So when the pilot shouted: ‘Hey, motherfucker!’ Khrennikov was astonished at hearing what he thought was his own name.

8 KS was an industrial mixture containing unpurified spirit.

9 Acipenser ruthenus, or freshwater sturgeon, and Leuciscus idus, sometimes known as the orfe.

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