Military history


Winning Back the Motherland

Stalin’s misplaced certainty that the Germans were about to collapse after the Stalingrad campaign led to overextended Red Army advances and sharp reverses. Field Marshal von Manstein’s timing was impeccable. He struck just as the Soviet armoured columns were exhausted and low on fuel. The XXV Tank Corps had to abandon their vehicles near Zaporozhe and flee on foot through the snow.

The main setback to Manstein’s plans, however, came in early March when, against his orders, General Paul Hauser took the SS Panzer Corps into what was known as the third battle of Kharkov, a rash and costly recapture of the city. In the latter part of March, after this swirling campaign in which Manstein had managed to stave off disaster, largely by ignoring Hitler’s orders, both sides went on the defensive to recuperate and reorganise. Perhaps the most important consequence of this toing and froing was the large Kursk salient, a great chunk of Soviet territory more than eighty miles square, sticking into the German front. It was to obsess Hitler in the coming months, with results that would prove fatal for his armoured forces.

Grossman found himself back in the familiar territory of the eastern Ukraine, at Starobelsk, just north of the River Donets. Ortenberg noted how Grossman had adapted to military life. ‘Months of war passed one after another, and Grossman, who was utterly civilian by nature and who had not been liable for call-up because of health problems, had made himself at home in the war. He did not change much on the outside, except perhaps his tunic did not ride up so much as before, and his greatcoat had shrunk a bit from rain and snow. There were still no commanding intonations in his voice, in spite of his lieutenant colonel’s shoulder-boards.’

Grossman, attached to the 3rd Guards Army in the northern Donbass, found the military situation rather like the year before. In his notebook, he wrote: ‘Early spring. Complete lull at the front.’

In Starobelsk, he encountered strange echoes of the pre-revolutionary past.

I gave a lift in my truck to a priest, his daughter and granddaughter, with all their belongings. They received me [at home] as if I were royalty, with a supper and vodka. The priest told me that Red Army soldiers and officers come to him to pray and to talk. One major came to see him not long ago.

Grossman at the headquarters in Svatovo, April 1943.

Story about the Tsar’s sister Kseniya, who lives in Starobelsk. She had protected Soviet people from the Germans. People say that she had returned from abroad with Dzerzhinsky’s permission some time ago, in order to find her son.1

This is a complete myth. The Grand Duchess, who had left the Crimea in 1919 with the Dowager Empress and other members of the imperial family on board the battleship HMS Marlborough, never returned to Russia. During the Second World War she was living at Balmoral, not in Starobelsk.

An attempt to fish, [but] a Messer attacked suddenly, firing at us.

The Ukrainian government has accommodated itself on a scrap of liberated Ukrainian land, in the tiny town of Starobelsk, in a tiny white building. A talk with Bazhan.2 He complained about our great-power chauvinism. A guard standing at his door has one of those inhuman faces that takes one back immediately to the time of peace.

A war correspondent, the Ukrainian writer Levada, is terribly upset because he has been given a medal instead of a [military] order.3 After receiving it, he returned to the izba where he was based. A little girl shouted, looking at the medal: ‘A kopeck!’ The boy corrected her: ‘That isn’t a kopeck, you fool, that’s a badge.’ This was the last straw for Levada.

Starobelsk had been occupied by remnants of the Eighth Italian Army after it was shattered on the Don by Operation Little Saturn in the second half of December.

People, especially women, speak well of the Italians. ‘They sing, they play, “O mia donna!”’ However, people disapprove of them for eating frogs.

How agonising, how alarming this lull at the front is! There’s already dust on the roads.

The rainy period of deep mud, the rasputitsa, was over, as the dust showed, which indicated that the ground was already hard enough for all vehicles, yet nothing had happened.

Grossman interviewed General Belov.4

‘A German division’s area of responsibility is eight kilometres deep. If we break through to a depth of eight kilometres, we will paralyse the front to a depth of thirty kilometres. If we break through thirty kilometres, we would paralyse a hundred kilometres. If we break through a hundred kilometres, we would paralyse the command [and control] of the whole front.

‘We made one mistake on the Don: I was told that the men were tired. I lost two hours while they rested, and the [Luftwaffe] had the opportunity to attack and [the German ground forces] pulled in their reserves. If we hadn’t had that rest, we would have made it. One must act boldly. If you look over your shoulder, you get squashed.

‘There are commanders who show off: “I am facing the [enemy’s] fire. I’ve halted, I am carrying out reconnaissance.” What nonsense! What else can you face? Of course [it’s going to be] fire. Are they going to throw apples at you, or what? You must break through even more deeply and suppress their fire. The deeper you break through, the weaker and more confused the enemy will be . . . Yet both in the battle and in the whole operation there’s a moment when one should think things over, whether to rush forward, throw all your reserves into fighting, or, on the contrary, to stop. Our commanders sometimes love ordering: “Forward, forward!”

‘There should be an operational pause, after about five days, when you’ve run out of all ammunition, the rear echelon is left far behind, and soldiers are so tired that they cannot carry out their tasks. They drop into the snow and fall sleep. I’ve seen an artillerist who was asleep two paces away from a firing gun. I stepped on a sleeping soldier, and he didn’t wake up. They need rest. Twenty-four hours – well, even eight hours would be good. Let the reconnaissance company advance.

‘The men in one of my companies were so fast asleep that they didn’t want to wake up even when the Germans were pricking them with their bayonets. The company commander was awake and with his sub-machine gun managed to hold the Germans off. That’s why it’s clear, one shouldn’t overstrain the men, no good will come of it.

‘One should evaluate absolutely clearly, soberly, what one has done to the enemy: defeated them, or just pushed them back. Don’t announce that you’ve defeated the enemy. They might retreat a bit, and then hit you hard right in the face.

‘I could see that the enemy was strong, rear echelons were left behind, and [front headquarters] was telling me: “Forward, Forward!” That way ruin lies. That’s what happened to Popov.’5

‘We don’t really know [enough about] the enemy, and sometimes reconnaissance disorientates us.6 Where the enemy is, what they are doing, where their reserves are, where they are going. One has to fight blind without all this information.

‘The main conflict with higher commanders occurs because they always think that the enemy is weaker than the enemy really is, but I, I do know what strength the enemy really possesses. There I was, with fifteen machine guns facing me, and they were shouting at me: “Go forward!” And I knew that there were fifteen machine guns that I had to suppress. But it also happens that a commander shouts: “I am up against thirty tanks,” when in fact there’s just one tank. That’s why there is mistrust.

‘There are young commanders who have seen nothing but the offensive,7 so when they had to organise defensive positions, they didn’t know how to dig trenches or even why they should dig them at all, how to organize fire, etc. We also have another type of commander – those who were always on the defensive and are afraid to advance.

‘A bad thing about defensive battles is that people lose confidence in their strength, and they become depressed. In defence, the faith in victory becomes weaker, as well as faith in one’s strength. In defence, troops need more moral strength, while in the advance, more physical effort is required, and spirits are high . . .

‘Once we had dug in, men became used to German tanks [attacking them]. You know, when I was sitting in the trench I felt I would have run away, but there was nowhere to run away to. Three or four men sit in a trench at a time, the rest are inzemlyankas, in “Lenin tents”.8 If the enemy stirs just a little, I give a ring and everyone jumps out.’

The need to resist the fear of tanks was vital on the Eastern Front. The Germans even had a special name for the phenomenon – Panzerschreck. Before his Siberian troops crossed the Volga to defend the factory district of Stalingrad, General Gurtyev made them dig practice trenches on the west bank and then ordered some tanks to run over the trenches with the men in them. A tank running over a trench was known as ‘ironing’. The vital lesson was to dig deep, so that the trench would not collapse, and the soldiers in it would keep their nerve. There were many stories about such incidents.

An enemy tank had ironed the trench of machine-gunner Turiev, but he began to fire at the slits, and then at the file of enemy infantry, which dropped flat under his fire. When the men in the tank noticed this, they turned the tank back, and drove it over Turiev’s trench. Then this brave soldier took his machine gun, crawled from under the tank, settled by a haystack and began to mow the Germans down. This way hero Turiev went on fighting until he died, crushed by the tank.

Grossman also talked to one of Belov’s subordinate commanders, Martinyuk.

Once, I nearly shot him [Zorkin] when his regiment started to run away and he lost control, lost his head and did not take measures. Zorkin changed by December. They now call him the “professor”, he sits over maps, thinking, while German tanks are advancing. Now, after the advance battles, the middle-rank commanders are mostly those promoted [from soldiers and sergeants].

‘Commanders are being pushed aside from the political work while deputy commanders [i.e. commissars] are occupied entirely with political work.’

This was a rather euphemistic observation on the situation following Stalin’s Decree No. 307 of 9 October 1942, which re-established the single command and downgraded commissars to an advisory and ‘educational’ role. Commissars were shaken to find in many cases how much Red Army officers loathed and despised them. The political department of Stalingrad Front, for example, complained bitterly to Aleksandr Shcherbakov, the head of the Red Army’s political arm, GLAVPURRKA, about the ‘absolutely incorrect attitude’ which had emerged.

‘There’s a lack of affection and care towards Red Army soldiers; on the other hand, our commanders aren’t [sufficiently] demanding. This comes from the lack of culture. Why did Red Army soldiers love Lieutenant Kuznetsov? Because he cared about them; he lived with them. They would come to him with both bad and good letters from home, he promoted men, he wrote about his soldiers to the newspaper. Yet he punished negligent soldiers. He never overlooked the smallest sign of negligence: a button missing, someone coughing on a reconnaissance mission. Care [also means checking]: have you got cartridges, have you got dry foot bandages? It often happens that because of giving our work insufficient thought we lose people and don’t accomplish our mission.

‘Soldiers who have been promoted as officers fulfil their tasks extremely well and are very attentive towards their men. As far as everyday life is concerned, combatant officers are usually upright characters. In rear units, corporals, orderlies of regiment commanders, quartermasters in regiments and battalions – these are the most susceptible to moral degeneration in everyday life.

‘The phrasing of an order – “If you don’t go forward now, motherfucker, I’ll shoot you” – comes from a lack of will. This does not persuade anybody, this is weakness. We are trying to reduce such cases, and there are fewer and fewer of them. However, it would be very, very useful to raise this problem.

‘The nationality issue is quite all right. There are individual cases when it isn’t, but they are exceptions.’

This is an optimistic view of the nationality question, to say the least. The sometimes arrogant attitude towards ethnic minorities within the Red Army, particularly those from Central Asia, made notions of ‘Soviet brotherhood’ sound very false. Although no figures are available, the rate of desertion and self-inflicted injuries appears to have been much higher among soldiers from Central Asia. The only solution of the political department was: ‘To indoctrinate soldiers and officers of non-Russian nationality in the highest noble aims of the peoples of the USSR, in the explanation of their military oath and the law for punishing any betrayal of the Motherland.’

‘There are lots of people who come to us from the occupied territory; they believe in the strength of the Red Army and are witnesses, sober and useful to us, of the occupation regime.’

Once the Germans began to retreat, many more stragglers and civilians from the occupied territories were incorporated into the Red Army. They were indeed useful to political officers in their propaganda sessions calling for revenge on the violators of the Motherland, but many were arrested by the NKVD or SMERSh as deserters or potential traitors.

Meeting of snipers at corps headquarters.

Solodkikh: ‘Actually, I am from Voroshilovgrad myself, but I’ve become a sniper instead of a collective farmer.’

Belugin: ‘I am from the occupied territory. I used to be nothing, but now, in defence, we aren’t [a waste of rations]. I was sitting, observing. Strizhik said to me: “No nonsense, all right?” The regimental commander, a clever chap, said: “Get a tongue.9 It’s not so good to have to report at divisional headquarters without one.” Even if there were to be a hundred Germans against me, and I’m on my own, I would fight just the same, I’ll get killed anyway. I had been dying in prison for ten months, I jumped from the train which was moving at full speed, in order to get back to our people. My boy was killed because he was called Vladimir Ilich.’10

Khalikov: ‘I’ve killed sixty-seven people. I arrived at the front speaking not a single word of Russian. My friend, Burov, he taught me Russian, I taught him Uzbek. On one occasion, no one wanted to eliminate a machine-gun pillbox. I said, I’ll knock it out. [I found that] there were twelve men around, all pure-bred Germans. I camouflaged myself well and my heart was working well. I took out all the twelve Germans. I never hurry, if my heart is beating fast, like a propeller, I never shoot. When I hold my heart, I shoot. If I shoot badly, it would kill me. I took the binoculars from round a [German] officer’s neck. I reported to the politruk, “I carried out your order, and I’ve brought you a present.”’

Bulatov: ‘I love hunting blackcock. I used to dream about them feverishly day and night.’ (The corps commander presented Bulatov with his sniper’s rifle. Bulatov began to sweat all over and cursed.)

Ivanov, Dmitry Yakovlevich, from Yaroslavl: ‘I was cut off for eighteen days in an enemy encirclement. For about five days we had to live without food, and for about three days we had no water. We swam across the Don, found our people, and they sent us on a reconnaissance mission.’ (He winks at the corps commander and laughs.)

Romanov (small, with a big mouth): ‘I’ve killed 135. Please, put our scores on the table, and I will tell you all about it.’

50th Guards Rifle Division.11 Conversation with soldiers about defence. ‘[Commanders told us] “Get ready, we are going to advance!” And we had wanted to plant some tobacco here.’

Red Army soldier Ostapenko, Dmitry Yakovlevich. He had been captured in the Caucasus, then escaped and walked back to his father’s village near Voroshilovgrad. He suddenly read in the newspaper that he had been made a Hero of the Soviet Union, posthumously, for fighting against German tanks. He didn’t get particularly excited about the newspaper. And his father, immediately after he saw the newspaper, went to see the regiment commander. ‘You know, comrades have taken my barley, by accident.’ Petukhov said to him: ‘Oh, shit, please don’t tell anyone we’ve taken your barley. I’ll give you ten carts of barley.’

Meeting of Red Army soldiers at the regiment. Theme: ‘The Red Army – an army of avengers.’ When Red Army soldier Prokhin spoke about girls who were sent to Germany against their wishes from the station at Millerovo and how they had shouted from the locked wagons: ‘Mama, Mama, save me!’, soldiers started to cry. ‘We have to wipe Hitler’s men off the face of the Earth.’12

Grossman visited Krasnodon, a large mining town of the Donets basin in the most eastern part of the Ukraine.

Conditions of miners’ work under the Germans. Those who were working underground got six hundred grams of ersatz bread, and those above ground, three hundred grams. One day of absence from work meant a concentration camp. ‘Under the Germans, there was a canteen. One could see Berlin at the bottom of a plate of soup.’ (There wasn’t a single gleam of fat in the soup.) They were beaten with lashes while working.

One of the miners he interviewed said: ‘When the Germans entered the city, we were coming out of the mine. I ran home, took a piece of bread, abandoned my family and went away.’ And who would worry about their family? ‘What we do worry about is the mine. If the mine is all right, we’ll be all right too.’

A woman told him: ‘A German was billeted in my house. He received a letter and cried. His wife and children had been killed by a bomb. Another one took a harmonica and started to play: “Volga, Volga, my own mother.”

‘I met eight men, soldiers. “Take off your clothes! Wash!” Each of them gave me his underwear. They said to me: “We’ve come to you like we would come to our mother and father.”’

He carried on to Voroshilovgrad, now called Lugansk, just over one hundred kilometres to the north-west.

Platoon Commander Vasilenko has been killed. The Party commission was giving people Party membership during the approach march to the fighting. Vasilenko became a Party member at the battery during a battle in the snow near Stolskoe.

Grossman was struck by the change in morale during the course of the past few months since the victory at Stalingrad.

An artillery officer recounted his experience: ‘The enemy attacked us two to three times a day with groups of ten to fifteen tanks. We took up all-round defence. We had twenty field guns. We felt calm and were in good spirits.’ (Just imagine what it would have been like in 1941.)

‘The batteries are in the snow all the time. There’s no forest, and no time to dig bunkers. Frost, wind, we’ve gone through so much. There’s only one thing that my men want: to advance.’

People killed. Telephone operator Tupitsin is dead. He used to run with a cable to the forward observation group which moved with the infantry. He would carry a reel in one hand and a grenade in the other hand. He used to say: ‘Though I’m old, my feet are bound to take me to Voroshilovgrad.’ But he never reached it.

Advance through the mud. Its advantages and shortcomings. Germans wrote: ‘Russians didn’t start the attack because the weather was good.’13 It’s not true! Both sides have difficulties moving in the mud.

However, Germans are not so well prepared for the physical hardships, when a ‘naked’ man is facing nature. A Russian man is brought up to hardship, and his victories are hard earned. Germans, on the other hand, are prepared for easy victories that would be based on technological superiority, and they give in to the hardship caused by nature. General Mud and General Cold are helping the Russian side. (But it is true that only those who are strong can make nature work for them, while the weak are at the mercy of nature.)

Grossman was frustrated by the lack of action in the Donbass and by his editor’s failure to allow him time to write. He complained in a letter to his father on 20 March.

They keep promising to give me leave to write a novel, but so far it is only talk. That has been going on for three months. My health is fine. It is true that I have had problems with my heart, but now it is all right.

I see Mama in my dreams. She was right in front of my eyes, and so vivid, the whole night while I was travelling. After this I felt very strange all of the following day. No, I don’t believe she is still alive. I travel all the time around areas that have been liberated, and I see what these accursed monsters have done to old people and children. And Mama was Jewish. A desire to exchange my pen for a rifle is getting stronger and stronger in me.

He wrote again to Ortenberg.

Comrade Editor . . . Under the circumstances, I deem my continued stay on the Bukovskoi sector useless and inexpedient. Therefore I would like to ask you to summon me back.

Grossman’s request did him no good. He was sent off on another assignment in April which exasperated him, as he recounted to his father.

Just as I thought, my trip was useless. There was a complete lull [in the fighting], and with spring thaws, the river flooded the area, and because of this it was impossible to travel anywhere. I still haven’t collected my wits to write for the newspaper again. It is hard for me to write about everyday matters after Stalingrad . . . Take your letter to Captain Tikhomirov at Krasnaya Zvezda and ask him to send it with someone who’ll be travelling in my direction, or, even better, with the secret post.

1 Dzherzhinsky, Feliks (1877–1926), the son of a Polish landowner, became in December 1917 Commissar for Internal Affairs and chief of the Cheka, the All-Russian Extraordinary Committee for Combating Counter-Revolution and Sabotage, which became the GPU (State Political Administration) in 1922.

2 Bazhan, Mykola Platonovich (1904–1983), poet, critic and subsequently member of the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences, he was later forced by the Soviet authorities to refuse his candidature when nominated for a Nobel Prize.

3 Levada, Aleksandr Stepanovich (1909–), Ukrainian writer and poet.

4 No less than eleven generals of the name of Belov served in the Red Army during the Second World War, so it is hard to be certain, but Grossman is probably referring to General (later Colonel-General) P.A. Belov, soon to become the commander of 61st Army.

5 General M.M. Popov’s ‘Front Mobile Group’ was ordered by General Vatutin to keep advancing, towards Stalino and Mariupol even though he had lost most of his tanks and was low on fuel. Meanwhile, XXV Tank Corps, which did run out of fuel, was within fifty miles of Zaporozhe on 19 February, just as Hitler was leaving Manstein’s headquarters there. It was during this meeting that the basic plan for Operation Citadel, the attack on the Kursk salient, was conceived.

6 The Red Army used the term ‘reconnaissance’ to cover both the Western military idea of reconnaissance and also military intelligence as a whole.

7 Belov means since 19 November 1942, when Operation Uranus turned the tables on the Germans.

8 A zemlyanka was a dugout bunker, usually reinforced with beams and earth overhead. It was also the name of one of the favourite songs of the war, about a soldier in a snow-bound zemlyanka thinking of his girlfriend.

9 A ‘tongue’ was slang for an enemy soldier snatched for interrogation.

10 Vladimir Ilich was, of course, Lenin’s first name and patronymic. First names were even invented acronyms, such as Lemar, standing for Lenin and Marx. To give a son a conspicuously political name was a sign of communist devotion and thus a target for Nazi anti-Bolshevik fervour.

11 The 50th Guards Rifle Division had been with the 5th Tank Army in Operation Uranus, the encirclement of the Sixth Army at Stalingrad. From December 1942 until April 1943, it was part of the newly formed 3rd Guards Army.

12 Unfortunate girls like these were not, however, treated with any sympathy by Red Army soldiers when Soviet forces reached Germany. Many of them were raped, as Grossman himself discovered in 1945.

13 German front-line soldiers on the Eastern Front were indeed convinced that the Red Army always waited for the worst weather conditions before attacking. As mentioned above, they referred to it as ‘weather for Russians’.

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