Military history

SIXTEEN

The October Battles

General Chuikov’s headquarters had been less than a week in the Tsaritsa tunnel when another German offensive crushed the centre of Stalingrad. Chuikov and his staff moved some four kilometres north to the Red October works. The factory district of northern Stalingrad soon proved to be the focus of German attacks, with the first major offensive starting on 27 September. These attacks were heralded by squadrons of Stukas, which Red Army soldiers dubbed ‘screechers’ or ‘musicians’ because of their screaming sirens as they dropped towards their target.

The fighting was equally desperate on the northern flank where the 16th Panzer Division had captured Rynok and Spartakovka and advanced towards the tractor works from the north.

Bolvinov’s 149th Brigade – probably, one of the best units . . . was sent to fight under Gorokhov [commanding the 124th Brigade], and Gorokhov pushed Bolvinov into the backgound. But Bolvinov was doing what he had to. He crawled, armed to the teeth with grenades, from one fire point to another, and Red Army soldiers loved him.

For all headquarters on the west bank, the major problem was communications. Signal cables were forever being broken by shellfire and runners were cut down. Chuikov described to Grossman the feeling of frustration and fear.

‘[It was] the most oppressive sensation. There’s firing and thunder all around. You send off a liaison officer to find out what’s happening, and he gets killed. That’s when you shake all over with tension . . . The most terrible times were when you sat there like an idiot, and the battle was boiling around you, but there was nothing you could do.’

The most direct threat to Chuikov’s headquarters came on 2 October. The headquarters of 62nd Army had been sited on the steep bank of the Volga just below some fuel storage tanks which everyone had assumed to be empty. This was a dangerous mistake. The Germans targeted the tanks successfully and suddenly the headquarters was engulfed in burning oil, as Chuikov later described to Grossman.

‘Oil was flowing in streams to the Volga through the command post. The Volga was in flames. We were only some fifteen metres from the river’s edge . . . The only way out was to move towards the enemy . . . The fuel tanks were on fire. A fountain of smoke eight hundred metres high. And the Volga. All this stuff was flowing with roaring flames down to the river. They dragged me out of the river of fire and we stood on the water’s edge until morning. Some men who had been asleep burned to death . . . Up to forty men were killed at the headquarters.’

Chuikov’s chief of staff gave his own version.

Then [headquarters] moved into a tunnel by the Barrikady plant and was there from 7 to 15 October. There we were being forced away from the main forces, [so] from there, we moved to the Banny gully, into the tunnel headquarters of the 284th Rifle Division which had left there and moved towards the bank. Here one often hears of the Banny gully.

‘“The Army Command Post has disappeared!”’

‘“Where to?”’

‘“It’s not gone to the left bank, it’s moved closer to the front line.”’

On 6 October, General Paulus sent two divisions against the huge Stalingrad tractor plant on the northern edge of the city. Paulus was under heavy pressure from Hitler to finish off the pocket of Soviet resistance on the west bank. Meanwhile, Yeremenko was being urged by Stalin to counter-attack and throw the Germans back. Chuikov ignored this unrealistic order. He could barely hold on as it was, and then only thanks to the Soviet heavy artillery positioned on the east bank, firing over their heads into German forming-up areas to disrupt their preparations for an attack.

The Stalingrad Tractor Plant was the scene of nightmare fighting as the tanks of the 14th Panzer Division smashed like prehistoric monsters into workshops, their tracks crunching the shards of glass from the shattered skylights above. The remains of the 112th Rifle Division and Colonel Zholudev’s 37th Guards Rifle Division could not withstand the force, but although their defence lines were broken, they fought on in isolated pockets.1

Zholudev’s division. Commissar Shcherbina. Tractor plant. The command post was buried by an explosion. It became quiet at once. They were sitting there for a long time, then they began to sing: ‘Lyubo, bratsy, lyubo.’ [‘Life is great.’] A sergeant dug them out under fire. He worked like a madman, frenziedly, with bubbles on his lips. An hour later, he was killed by a shell. A German ‘sneezed’ with his sub-machine gun. He had crept into the ‘tube’ [tunnel] and opened fire when there was noise from mortars and guns. They dragged him out. He was all black, and they tore him to pieces.

When the Germans captured one workshop, they even managed to raise a disabled tank up to a certain height and fire from the window.

Grossman crossed once more to the west bank just as the battle erupted again with a renewed German offensive. He wrote to the editor of Krasnaya Zvezda to inform him of his movements.

Comrade Ortenberg, I arrived on the 11th with Vysokoostrovsky [another Krasnaya Zvezda correspondent], and crossed the river to Stalingrad during the night. I’ve done thorough interviews with soldiers, officers, and with General Rodimtsev.

Grossman overheard two Red Army soldiers talking on the way to the Volga crossing point:

‘It’s been a long time since I last had hot food.’

‘Well, we’ll soon be drinking our own hot blood over there,’ the other one answered.

Rodimtsev’s 13th Guards Rifle Division had almost been destroyed in a surprise attack. On 1 October, groups from the the German 295th Infantry Division had infiltrated gullies on Rodimtsev’s right flank and nearly managed to cut off the division from the rest of the 62nd Army. Rodimtsev’s guardsmen had reacted with furious counter-attacks and only just managed to force the Germans back. Grossman spent the 12 and 13 October with the division.

Funeral by the Volga. Speeches, salute. A memorial was put on the grave, stating when they were killed and under what circumstances. Funerals are done at night, always with a salute.

The salute in Stalingrad consisted not of a volley fired in the air, but towards the Germans.

Charming and sad. Mamaev Kurgan – here is the command post of the battalion. Men from the mortar company are playing a record all the time with the song ‘No, friends, please not now, don’t put me yet on this bed of frost.’

There was never another place with so much music. This ploughed-up clay, stained with shit and blood, was ringing with music from radios, gramophone records and from the voices of company and platoon singers.

‘We also had two concerts here,’ [Rodimtsev told him]. ‘Hairdresser Rubinchik played the violin in our tunnel. And everyone began to smile remembering the concert.’

Rodimtsev also recounted an anecdote rather more representative of soldiers’ priorities.

‘Today, for example, two soldiers came to me. It turned out that they had been fighting for fourteen days in a house surrounded by German houses. And these two, so quietly, you know, demanded rusks, ammunition, sugar, tobacco, loaded it all in their rucksacks, and went off. They said: “There are two more of our men there, guarding the house, and they need a smoke.” Actually, it is such a peculiar affair, this war in houses,’ he smiled. ‘I don’t know whether I should tell this to you, but a funny incident happened yesterday. The Germans captured a house, and there was a barrel of spirits in its basement. And our guards soldiers became angry about [the idea of] the Germans drinking this barrel, so twenty men attacked the house, seized it back and rolled the barrel away, while almost the whole street was held by the Germans. All this caused a great sense of triumph . . .

‘I’m not afraid,’ he said. ‘It’s the only way. I think I’ve seen everything. Once, a German tank was ironing flat my command post, and then a sub-machine-gunner threw a grenade, just to be sure, and I threw the grenade back . . .’

Grossman also went on another occasion with Efim Gekhman to see Rodimtsev on the west bank. The Guards general said that he was getting uneasy about interviews. ‘You know, I am a superstitious man. I remember how [Krasnaya Zvezda] published a leader about Dovator. He was killed on the very same day.’2

Grossman, with typical generosity, always praised the courage of others. ‘Gekhman is extremely brave,’ Ortenberg remembers him saying. ‘Once, on a dark October night, we had to leave Rodimtsev’s tunnel in Stalingrad and cross the Volga in a boat. Rodimtsev was listening anxiously to the thunder [of fire] outside. He shook his head and said to us: “Comrades, have a glass before you go, it is too hot out there, crossing the water.” Gekhman shrugged his shoulders and answered: “No, thanks. I would rather have another piece of sausage.” He said this so calmly and ate the sausage with such good appetite that everyone couldn’t help laughing.’

At dawn on Monday, 14 October, the German Sixth Army began what General Paulus hoped was the last offensive to push the 62nd Army from the west bank. Every available Stuka in General Wolfram von Richthofen’s Fourth Air Fleet was used to soften up Soviet positions. It was the most intensive bombardment yet. Chuikov had sensed that the climax of the battle was approaching.

‘The press3 was teasing Hitler [about his failure to take Stalingrad], and we were terrified. We were sitting here, knowing, feeling, realising that Hitler has sent his main forces here.

‘After the 14th, I decided to send all the women back to the opposite bank. There were many tears. Courage is infectious here, just like cowardice is infectious in other places. Take my word for it, we were living by the hour, by the minute. One waited for the dawn. Well, it all started again then. And in the evening, one thought: “Well, thank God, another day is gone, how surprising.” Yes, if someone had told me that I would [live to] celebrate the new year, I would have laughed.’

Levkin (left), Koroteev (centre right), and Grossman (right) talk to civilians, October 1942.

On the night of 15 October, 3,500 wounded men were evacuated across the river. Many had to crawl to the river bank because there were not enough medical orderlies. In the early hours of 16 October, General Yeremenko himself crossed the river to see Chuikov. He needed to know for certain whether they could hold on. ‘Yeremenko arrived during the night4 . . . Gurov and I went out to meet him.

‘There was a hellish fire, an air raid.’ Chuikov did not explain that he and Gurov could not find Yeremenko on the river bank, but Yeremenko stumbled across their headquarters and waited for them there. Yeremenko told Grossman how he encountered a soldier on the river bank: ‘“I recognise you, Comrade Commander-in-Chief’.” He told me where he had been, where he had fought, how many Germans he had killed.’

After the battle was over, Chuikov’s version of events tended to make light of the reality, but this obscured the fact that during the crisis of mid-October, the 62nd Army’s bridgehead was down to less than a thousand metres deep, and would soon be squeezed even further.

‘German attacks: they smash everything into the earth, send in their tanks, and after this mad chaos our infantry come out of their trenches and cut their infantry off from the tanks . . . There are shouts: “Tanks at the command post!”

‘And infantry?’

‘We’ve cut ’em off.’

‘Everything’s all right, then.’

Grossman asked Chuikov what he thought of the Germans’ performance. ‘Not particularly brilliant. But we must do them justice concerning their discipline. An order is the law for them.’

His chief of staff, Krylov, who had suffered the terrible siege of Sebastopol, compared the battle there with Stalingrad. ‘There, our force was melting away, while here it was replenished. There was a lot in common. It seemed to us sometimes as if we were still continuing the same battle. But we did not feel doomed, like we did in Sebastopol.’

The loss of the tractor works had meant that Gorokhov’s 124th Brigade was cut off in Spartakovka.

On the day of glory, I remembered the battalion which crossed the river and reached Gorokhov in order to divert the main blow on to themselves.5 They all died. Not a single man survived. But has anyone remembered this battalion? No one has thought of those who crossed the river on that rainy night in the latter part of October. (Two days later, I saw a captured Georgian from this battalion. He had deserted and surrendered. He said that there were many who surrendered.)

A man from Ossetia, Alborov, was killed at his post (a bomb). He was still holding in his hand the butt of his rifle, the barrel had been torn off by the explosion, his pulse was still throbbing. His friend was sobbing, and he cried: ‘My comrade is killed.’

Grossman spent time with Colonel Gurtiev’s 308th Rifle Division of Siberians who had been defending the silicate works just north of the Barrikady factory complex.6 They had crossed the Volga on 30 September, and went straight into action. This is his compilation of what had happened to them since the last day of September, when they crossed to the west bank.

The first line went in, the second, and the third. Thirteen attacks were thrown back on that day. [The Germans] were struggling to reach the crossing point. Our artillery played a major role.

On 1 [October], four artillery regiments and Katyusha batteries fired for half an hour. Everything froze. Germans were rooted to the spot. Everyone was watching and listening.

Germans were on the edge of the plant. That was in the afternoon of the 2nd. Some of them took cover, others ran away. A Kazakh was escorting three prisoners. He was wounded. He took out a knife and stabbed the three prisoners to death. A tankist, a big red-haired man, jumped out of his tank in front of Changov’s command post when he ran out of shells. He grabbed some bricks and [started throwing them at] the Germans, effing and blinding. The Germans turned on their heels and ran.

The men’s spirits were high, they had had some experience of fighting. Their ages ranged from twenty-three to forty-six. Most of them were Siberians, from Omsk, Novosibirsk and Krasnoyarsk. Siberians are more stocky, more reserved, more stern. They are hunters, they are more disciplined, more used to cold and hardship. There wasn’t a single case of desertion [en route to Stalingrad]. When one of them dropped his rifle, he ran three kilometres after the train and caught up. They aren’t talkative, but are witty, and have sharp tongues.

‘We’re used to “whistlers” [Stukas]. We even get bored when the Germans aren’t whistling. When they are whistling, this means they aren’t throwing anything at us. They started attacking the silicate plant on the night of 2 October. The whole of Markelov’s regiment was killed or wounded. There were only eleven men left. The Germans had taken the whole plant by the evening of the 3rd. Our instruction was: not one step back. The commander was wounded heavily, the commissar was killed.

‘We began to defend a destroyed and burning street in front of the sculpture garden. No one came back from the fighting. They all died on the spot. The climax came on 17 October. The enemy kept bombing us day and night on the 17th, 18th and 19th. Two German regiments started to advance.

‘The attack began at five in the morning and the battle went on for the whole day. They broke through on a flank and cut off the command post. The regiment fought for two to three days from house to house, and the command post was in the fighting, too. The commander of the 7th Company with twelve men took out a company of Germans in a gully. They got out of there during the night, then they occupied a house. There were twenty of them in a grenade battle, fighting for floors, for stairs, for corridors, for rooms.

‘Kalinin, the deputy chief of staff, killed twenty-seven men and hit four tanks with an anti-tank rifle. There were eighty workers and a security company at the plant. Only three or four of them survived. They had never received any military training. Their commander was a young worker, a communist, and they were attacked by a regiment of Germans.

‘On 23 October, fighting began inside the plant. Workshops were on fire, as well as railways, roads, trees, bushes and grass. At the command post, Kushnarev and the chief of staff, Dyatlenko, were sitting in the “tube” with six sub-machine-gunners. They had two boxes of grenades and they beat the Germans off. The Germans had brought tanks to the plant. The workshops changed hands several times. Tanks destroyed them, firing at point-blank range. Aircraft were bombing us day and night. A captured German, a teacher, told us on the 27th about the strict order to reach the Volga. His hands were black, there were lice in his hair. He began to sob.’

Mikhalyev, Barkovsky, Chief of Staff Mirokhin have all been killed. They all received posthumous awards . . . Sub-machine-gunner Kolosov was buried up to his chest in earth. He was stuck there laughing: ‘This makes me mad!’ The signals platoon commander, Khamitsky, was sitting by the entrance of his bunker reading a book during a heavy bombing raid. Gurtyev [the divisional commander] became angry.

‘What’s the matter with you?’

‘I’ve nothing else to do. He’s bombing and I read a book.’

Mikhalyev was very much loved. When someone now asks: ‘How are things?’ ‘Well, what can I say?’ [comes the answer]. ‘It’s as if we’d lost a father. He had pity for his men. He spared them.’

Liaison Officer Batrakov, a chemist, black-haired and wearing spectacles, walked ten to fifteen kilometres every day. He would come in to headquarters, clean his glasses, report on the situation and go back. He arrived at exactly the same time every day.

‘It was quiet on the 12th and 13th [October], but we understood what this quietness meant. On the 14th, [the enemy] began firing at the divisional command post with a Vanyusha.7 [The bunker] became blocked up with earth, but we got out. We lost thirteen or fourteen men at the command post. A thermite shell makes a hollow noise. It hits one’s ears. At first, there’s a creaking noise: “Aha! Hitler’s started playing [his violin],” and one has time to hide. Vladimirsky was dying to go to the toilet, he suffered so much until nightfall. He wanted to take a mess tin from a soldier.’

Workshop No. 14 started to burn from the inside. When Andryushenko was killed, the regimental commissar (holder of four medals, Lieutenant Colonel Kolobovnikov, a man with a face of stone) telephoned the command post and started to speak: ‘Comrade Major-General, may I report?’ He stopped, then said, sobbing: ‘Vanya is dead,’ and hung up.

A ‘hired’ tankist [i.e. the commander of a tank attached to the infantry]: they gave him chocolate, vodka, and collected his ammunition for him. And he worked like an ox. They thought the world of him in the regiment.

‘We had grenades, sub-machine guns, and 45mm [anti-tank] guns. Thirty tanks attacked. We were scared. This was the first time it happened to us! But no one ran away. We started firing at the armour. The tanks were crawling over deep slits. A Red Army soldier would take a look and laugh: “Dig deeper!”’

Postmen: Makarevich, with a little beard, a peasant, with his little bag, with little envelopes, postcards, letters, newpapers. Karnaukhov has been injured. There are three wounded and one killed . . . When he was wounded, Kosichenko tore the pin from the grenade with his teeth.

Grossman wrote up the the story of the attack on the 308th Rifle Division for Krasnaya Zvezda and it was published just over a month later under the title ‘Axis of the Main Attack’. Ortenberg wrote a little later about Grossman’s interviewing technique. ‘All the correspondents attached to the Stalingrad Front were amazed how Grossman had made the divisional commander, General Gurtiev, a silent and reserved Siberian, talk to him for six hours without a break, telling him all that he wanted to know, at one of the hardest moments [of the battle].’

Grossman may have been influenced by the superstitions of the frontoviki, the result of living constantly with death in its most unpredictable form, but he also had his own as a writer. His editor was entertained to find that Grossman believed it was bad luck to seal up your own letters and packages. ‘When he wrote another of his essays, he would ask Gekhman, who often accompanied him on trips to the front: “Efim, you’ve got a light hand. Could you take my material, seal the envelope with your own hands and send it to Moscow?”’

Ortenberg, a hardened Party journalist, was also amused by how carefully Grossman checked the final printed version of his articles. ‘I remember how he would change when a newspaper with his essay in it arrived. He was so happy. He would reread his essay, checking how one or another phrase sounded. He, an experienced writer, simply worshipped the printed word.’ Ortenberg may well have been a little disingenuous in this description. Grossman was often furious at the way his articles were rewritten and chopped about. He wrote in a letter to his wife, Olga Mikhailovna, on 22 October:

I’ve written an angry letter to the editor and now await his reply not without interest. I wrote about a bureaucratic attitude and officials’ tricks on the editorial board.

In fact, Grossman’s prose was probably interfered with less than that of most other journalists’. Ortenberg openly acknowledged that much of the newspaper’s popularity was due to Grossman. Even the Party hacks in Moscow were well aware of the determination which his prose gave to the soldiers of the Red Army, to say nothing of the whole population. It had far more effect than the most impassioned Stalinist clichés.

It is only here that people know what a kilometre is. A kilometre is one thousand metres. It is one hundred thousand centimetres. Drunken [German] sub-machine-gunners pushed on with a lunatic stubbornness. There is no one now who can tell how Markelov’s regiment fought . . . Yes, they were simply mortals and none of them came back.

Several times during the day, German artillery and mortars would suddenly fall silent, and the squadrons of dive-bombers would disappear. An incomprehensible quietness would ensue. It was then that the lookouts would shout: ‘Watch out!’ and those in forward positions would grip their Molotov cocktails, men in anti-tank units would open their canvas ammunition bags and sub-machine-gunners would wipe their PPSh with the palms of their hands. This brief quietness preceded an attack.

It wasn’t long before the clang of hundreds of caterpillars and the low humming of motors would announce the movement of tanks. A lieutenant shouted: ‘Watch out, comrades! Sub-machine-gunners are infiltrating on the left!’ Sometimes the Germans got so close that the Siberians saw their dirty faces and torn greatcoats, and heard their guttural shouts . . .

Looking back now, one can see that heroism was present during every moment of daily life for people in the division. There was the commander of a signals platoon, Khamitsky, who was sitting peacefully on a hillock reading a novel while a dozen German Stukas dived down roaring, as if about to attack the earth itself. And there was liaison officer Batrakov, who would carefully clean his glasses, put reports into his field bag, and set out on a twenty-kilometre walk through the ‘death ravine’ as if it were a Sunday walk in the park.8 There was the sub-machine-gunner Kolosov who, when an explosion buried him in a bunker up to his neck, turned his face to Deputy Commander Spirin and laughed. There was a typist at the headquarters, Klava Kopylova, a fat red-cheeked girl from Siberia, who had begun typing a battle order at the headquarters and was buried by an explosion. They dug her out and she went to type in another bunker. She was buried again and dug out again. She finally finished typing the order in the third bunker and brought it to the divisional commander to sign. These were the people fighting on the axis of the main attack.

The balkas, or ravines, many of them running at right angles to the Volga river bank, provided shelter as well as danger if the enemy managed to slip into them unnoticed.

The balka has a great influence, particularly here in Stalingrad. [It provides] good approaches, [being] narrow and deep. Command posts or mortar units use it. It is always under fire. Many people have been killed here. Wires go through it, ammunition is carried through it. Aircraft and mortars have levelled it with the surrounding area. Chamov was buried there, too [by an explosion]. They had to dig him out. Spies have walked through it.

Grossman observed life at Gurtiev’s command post.

Reports [written] on forms, scraps of sheets from plant, party papers, etc. The return of Zoya Kalganova. She had been wounded twice. The divisional commander [greeted her]: ‘Hello, my dear girl.’

The courage of the young women medical orderlies was respected by everyone. Most of those in the 62nd Army’s Sanitary Company were Stalingrad high school students or graduates, but the 308th Rifle Division had brought some of their own female medics, clerks and signallers all the way from Siberia. The medical orderlies went out under heavy fire to collect the wounded and carry or drag them to safety. They would also take rations forward.

Our girls, with thermos flasks on their shoulders, bring us breakfast. Soldiers speak of them with so much love. These girls have not dug themselves any slit-trenches.

One of the young women later provided an improvised casualty list for him of those who had come with her from Siberia.

‘Lyolya Novikova, a cheerful nurse afraid of nothing, was hit by two bullets in the head. Lysorchuk, Nina, wounded. Borodina, Katya, her right hand was smashed. Yegorova, Antonina, she was killed. She went into an attack with her platoon. She was a junior nurse. A sub-machine-gunner shot her through both legs and she died from loss of blood. Arkanova, Tonya, accompanied wounded soldiers and was posted missing. Kanysheva, Galya, killed by a direct hit from a bomb. And there are just two of us left: Zoya and I . . . I was wounded by a mortar-bomb fragment near the bunker, and then by a shell splinter near the Volga crossing.

‘We studied at School No. 13 in Tobolsk. Mothers were crying: “How come you’re going [to the front]? There are only men there.” We imagined war very differently to how it’s turned out. Our battalion was in the advance guard of the regiment. It went into battle at ten in the morning. Although it was frightening, it was very interesting for us. Thirteen girls survived out of eighteen.

‘I had long been afraid of dead men, but one night, I had to hide behind a corpse when a sub-machine-gunner blazed away. And I lay behind this corpse. I was so afraid of blood on that first day that I didn’t want to eat anything, and I saw blood when I closed my eyes.

‘We had marched for eight days, 120 kilometres, without sleep and without food. I had been imagining what war was like – everything on fire, children crying, cats running about, and when we got to Stalingrad it really turned out to be like that, only more terrible.

‘I was peeling potatoes with the cook. We were engrossed in a conversation about soldiers. Suddenly, smoke covered everything, and the cook was killed, and a few minutes later, when the lieutenant came, a mortar bomb exploded and we were both wounded.

‘It’s particularly frightening to move during the night when Germans are shouting not far away, and everything is burning all around. It’s very hard to carry the wounded. We made soldiers carry them.

‘I cried when I was wounded. We didn’t collect the wounded in the daytime. Only once, when Kazantseva was carrying Kanysheva, but a sub-machine-gunner shot her in the head. In the daytime, we put them into a shelter, and collected them in the evenings, helped by soldiers.

‘There were moments sometimes when I regretted having volunteered, but I consoled myself saying to myself that I was not the first one, and not the last. And Klava said: “Such wonderful people get killed, what difference would my death make?” We received letters from our teachers. They were proud of having brought up such daughters. Our friends are jealous of us, that we have the chance to bandage wounds. Papa writes: “Serve with honesty. Come back home with victory.” And Mama writes . . . Well, when I read what she writes to me, tears start streaming.’

Klava Kopylova, clerk: ‘I was buried in the bunker while I was typing an order. The lieutenant shouted to us: “Are you alive?” They dug me out. I moved to a bunker next door, and was buried there once again. They dug me out again, and I started typing again, and typed the document to the end. I will never forget it if I manage to stay alive. There was a bombardment that night. Everything was on fire. They woke me up. All were Party members in the bunker. They congratulated me so warmly, so nicely. On 7 November, I was given my Party card. They tried to photograph me several times for the Party identity card, but shells and mortar bombs were falling all the time. On quiet days, we tap dance and sing “The Little Blue Shawl”.9 I read Anna Karenina andResurrection.’

Lyolya Novikova, junior nurse: ‘Galya Titova’s friends told me that once when she was bandaging someone, there was heavy firing, the soldier was killed, and she was wounded. She stood up straight and said: “Goodbye, girls,” and fell. We buried her . . . The wounded soldiers write mostly to their commissars . . .10 Although I speak German, I never speak to the prisoners, I don’t want even to speak to them.

‘My favourite subject was algebra. I had wanted to study at the Machine Manufacturing Institute . . . There are just three of us left, out of eighteen girls . . . We buried Tonya Yegorova. After the first battle, we lost two girls. We saw the corporal who said that Tonya had died in his arms. She had said to him: “Ay, I am dying. I am in such pain, I don’t know whether these legs are mine, or not.” He said: “They are yours.” It was impossible to get close to the tank for two days. When we finally got there, we found her lying in the trench. We dressed her, put a handkerchief there, covered her face with a blouse. We were crying. There was myself, Galya Kanysheva and Klava Vasilyeva. They are both dead now. In reserve, we didn’t get on well with the soldiers. We checked them for lice and quarrelled with them all the time. And now the soldiers are saying: “We are very grateful to our girls.”

‘We have gone into the attack with our platoon, and crawled side by side with them. We have fed soldiers, given them water, bandaged them under fire. We turned out to be more resilient than the soldiers, we even used to urge them on. Sometimes, trembling at night, we would think: “Oh, if I were at home right now.”’

Sergeant Ilya Mironovich Brysin: ‘In the evening we began to carry shells from the crossing. It was six kilometres, first along the bank, then through a balka, then the city, and then to the plant. We carried sixteen kilos each. We carried them in groundsheets, eight at a time. We had to walk along the bank under mortar fire. One didn’t look in front of one’s feet any longer. Everyone looked up into the sky. Bombs were falling about five metres from us. We would leave the wounded with someone to take care of them and carry on. In the ravine, sub-machine-gunners and mortars fired at us. We gave it a name, the Ravine of Death. It was about four hundred metres long. One would walk [only about] five steps and then have to get down. Twenty-two men brought two hundred shells. Ten were killed or wounded. When we reached a street, we somehow managed to move forward between the buildings. Once, we stockpiled three hundred rounds and the enemy blew them up with a direct hit. Oh, how infuriated we were, to have to start again from the beginning.

‘We were firing all day. The Germans were about seventy metres from us. With me were Dudnikov, Kayukov, Pavlov, Glushakov and Pinikov. Before morning on the 28th, a lieutenant had crawled out to us, but his eyes were injured by a mortar bomb at dawn. I had to send him away. I sent Pavlov with him. There were four of us left. The Germans were advancing in a column, standing upright.

‘We kept beating them off all day. Pavlov called to me: “Let’s attack.” I asked: “How many people have you got?” “Ten. And you?” “Four.” “Well, let’s attack!” And there were about a hundred Germans, two companies of SS.11 Well, we went for them.

‘I leaped out and ran upright. “Follow me! Ura!” I ran to the second house alone. There were Germans about fifteen metres from me. It was quiet, and dawn was breaking. I felt a little scared. I ran into the house, into its first room and listened. Germans were firing from behind walls, from corners. I threw a grenade at one corner from the window, and from the door, at another. It’s hard to express how I was feeling, I wanted to get closer to the Germans, but they had disappeared behind an earth wall and I couldn’t reach them.

‘I climbed to the next floor up a smashed wall. I had hidden eight grenades there the afternoon before. We referred to them as “sausages”.12 I was standing there as if behind bars in a prison, armaments were hanging there, but there were no walls. I threw those eight grenades at them. They began firing at me with two machine guns and a mortar. I wasn’t in fact afraid. I tied together two groundsheets, fastened them to a bar and got down to the ground floor through a shell-hole. I managed to crawl back to my men in the first house. I was told: “Kayukov has been mortally wounded.”

‘The company commander summoned me: “Can you recce the slag heap behind the [railway] line? There’s a wooden house there.” I said: “I must eat. And what about some sleep?” “To hell with sleep.” The lieutenant gave me some bread and sugar, but then the shells began to fly. So I didn’t manage to eat anything. I just went without eating. Well, I set off . . . I went to the slag heap. I spotted two machine guns and a mortar. I came back and reported. “Well,” said my lieutenant, “you’ve spotted them, and you will destroy them.”’

‘When Germans had pushed us right back to the Volga, their sub-machine-gunners were shouting: “Rus, glug-glug!” And we shouted back: “Hey, come here, you’re thirsty, aren’t you?”’13

Soldiers burned to death in the houses. Their charred corpses were found. Not one of them had fled. They burned holding out.

One of Grossman’s most celebrated articles in Krasnaya Zvezda was entitled ‘The Stalingrad Battle’, a collection of descriptions, some just vignettes.

In the light of rockets one sees the destroyed buildings, the land covered with trenches, the bunkers in the cliff and gullies, deep holes protected from bad weather by pieces of tin and planks of wood.

‘Hey, can you hear me? Have they brought dinner yet?’ asks a soldier, who is sitting by the entrance of the bunker.

‘They left a long time ago to fetch it, and look, they haven’t returned yet,’ a voice anwers from the darkness.

‘They either had to shelter somewhere, or they’re never coming back. [Enemy] fire around the field kitchen is too heavy.’

‘What louses! I badly want my dinner,’ says the sitting soldier in an unhappy voice, and yawns . . .

Germans sitting in one of the buildings were resisting so stubbornly that they had to be blown up together with the heavy walls of the building. Under a fierce fire from the German defenders who could sense their own death, six sappers carried up by hand ten poods14 of explosive and blew up the building. And when I imagine for a moment this picture – Sapper Lieutenant Chermakov, Sergeants Dubovy and Bugaev and Sappers Klimenko, Zhukhov and Messereshvili crawling under fire along the destroyed walls, each with 1.5 poods of death, when I picture to myself their sweaty, dirty faces, their shabby army shirts, when I remember how Sergeant Dubov shouted: ‘Hey, sappers, don’t be scared!’ And Zhukhov answered, twisting his mouth and spitting dust out: ‘There’s no time to be scared now. We should have been before!’ – I feel a great pride for them.

Here, where the meaning of measurement has shifted, where an advance of only several metres is as important as many kilometres under [normal] battle conditions, where the distance to the enemy sitting in a house next door is sometimes counted in dozens of steps, the location of divisional command posts has also changed accordingly. Divisional headquarters is 250 metres from the enemy; command posts of regiments and battalions are correspondingly closer. ‘If communications are broken, it is easy to communicate with regiments using one’s voice,’ a man from the headquarters says jokingly. ‘You shout, and they’ll hear you. And they’ll pass the order on to their battalions, also by voice.’ . . . And in this catacomb where everything is shaking all the time from explosions of bombs and shells, the staff and commanders are sitting bent over the maps, and a signaller, who is always present in all essays from the war, is shouting: ‘Luna, luna!’ And here, a runner is sitting shyly in the corner, holding amakhorka cigarette in his hand, averting his eyes and trying not to exhale in the direction of his chiefs.

After the battle, Grossman heard this story of Gurtyev, the commander of the 308th Rifle Division, and Zholudev, the commander of the 37th Guards Rifle Division. They had been neighbours in the terrible battle for the tractor works when Zholudev’s guardsmen were crushed.

Gurtyev telephoned Zholudev and said: ‘Courage, I can’t help. Stand firm!’ When Zholudev was ordered to move to the left bank, [i.e. withdrawn entirely from the battle] he said to Gurtyev: ‘Stand firm, old man! Courage!’ and they both laughed.

Ortenberg also recounted a bizarre event, which took place during one of Grossman’s trips to Stalingrad from Akhtuba, the base on the east bank of the Volga. ‘Once, in mid-October, he told officers from the Political Department of the front that he was going to visit [General] Rodimtsev the next day. They had two well-packed parcels with presents sent by an American women’s organisation. Grossman was asked to deliver these presents to the two “most courageous women defending Stalingrad”. The Political Department had decided that the two most courageous women could be found in Rodimtsev’s division, and that Grossman was a suitable person to deliver these presents to them. Although he did not like official ceremonies, Vasily Semyonovich reluctantly agreed. He crossed the Volga in a motor boat, and joined Rodimtsev. The two girls stood in front of him. They were very excited about the famous writer and the heroic general presenting them with gifts. They said a formal thank you and started unwrapping the packages at once. Inside were ladies’ swimming costumes and slippers to go with them. Everyone was extremely embarrassed. The luxurious swimming costumes looked so strange in this environment, under a thundering cannonade of the Stalingrad battle.’

1 The 37th Guards Rifle Division was formed from I Airborne Corps in August 1942, and later became part of the 65th Army once it had been re-formed after its heavy losses in Stalingrad.

2 Major-General L.M. Dovator, the commander of the II Guards Cavalry Corps in the battle for Moscow, was killed on 20 December 1941.

3 The international press was more likely to have had an effect than the Soviet press.

4 Grossman notes this as the night of 13 October, but most accounts put Yeremenko’s visit to the embattled west bank as taking place in the early hours of 16 October.

5 Grossman is probably referring to 17 October, when all the west bank bridgeheads faced the most intense onslaught. The battalion was from Lyudnikov’s 138th Division, a fresh batch of reinforcements which Chuikov brought across the Volga at the critical moment.

6 The 308th Rifle Division became the 120th Guards Rifle Division with the 3rd Army. Like almost all the divisions at Stalingrad, it fought all the way to Berlin.

7 A Vanyusha was their nickname for the German Nebelwerfer multi-barrelled mortar. This less effective counterpart to the Katyusha was originally called a Vanya, and then the joke arose about what would happen to little Vanya if he married the rather more powerful Katyusha. It was sometimes known also as the ‘braying donkey’ because of the noise the mortar bombs made in the air.

8 In the final article, the daily walk appears to have grown from Grossman’s original ten to fifteen kilometres a day all the way to twenty kilometres a day.

9 ‘The Little Blue Shawl’ had such a powerful influence that some soldiers even added the song’s title to the official battle cry so that it became: ‘Za Rodinu, za Stalina, za Siny Platochek!’ – ‘For the Motherland, for Stalin, for the Blue Shawl!’

10 A good soldier when wounded feared, with justification, that he would never be allowed to return to his comrades. The authorities in the rear would just make up a batch of those deemed to be battleworthy again and send them off to any regiment. This was why they were writing to their political officers.

11 Almost every account by a Red Army soldier at Stalingrad talks of fighting SS soldiers, but in fact there were no SS formations serving there at all. It had tended to become a figure of speech for well-armed and disciplined German soldiers.

12 The standard grenade of Soviet manufacture was known as a ‘sausage’. The American hand grenade, supplied through Lend-Lease, was known as a ‘pineapple’.

13 As mentioned in the previous chapter, Soviet snipers had been killing all their water carriers. Germans, desperate for water, had even resorted to tempting Stalingrad children with crusts of bread to go and fill their water bottles in the Volga, but snipers had orders to shoot down any civilians, including children, who assisted the enemy for whatever reason.

14 A pood was the equivalent of 16kg, so ten poods of explosive was 160kg, a huge charge.

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