Military history

TWENTY

The Battle of Kursk

On 1 May 1943, Grossman returned with great anticipation to see once more those whom he had come to know so well in Chuikov’s army, now in reserve, forming part of the Steppe Front behind the Kursk salient. The reunion, however, was to prove a shock to him.

I’ve arrived at the 62nd Stalingrad Army. It is now stationed among gardens that are beginning to blossom – a wonderful place with violets and bright green grass. It is peaceful. Larks are singing. I was excited on the way here, I so wanted to see the people of whom I have so many memories.

Meeting and dinner with Chuikov on the terrace of a dacha. Garden. Chuikov, Krylov, Vasilyev, two colonels – members of the military council.

The meeting was a cold one, but they were all boiling. Dissatisfaction, ambition, insufficient awards, hatred of anyone who had received greater awards, hatred of the press. They spoke of the film Stalingrad and cursed.1 Great people producing a heavy, bad impression. Not a single word about the fallen men, about memorials, about immortalising the memory of those who never came back. Everyone is only talking about themselves and their accomplishments.

Morning with Gurtyev. The same picture.

There’s no modesty. ‘I did it, I, I, I, I, I . . .’ They speak about other commanders without any respect, recounting some ridiculous gossip: ‘I was told that Rodimtsev said the following . . .’ The main idea is, in fact: ‘All the credit belongs to us, the 62nd Army. And in the 62nd Army, there’s just me. All the others are unimportant.’ Vanity of vanities.

In a way, Grossman should have been prepared for this. Already in Stalingrad he had encountered senior commanders, especially Yeremenko, who were prepared to belittle their subordinates in conversations with him, a journalist. Yeremenko had made remarks such as: ‘Rodimtsev’s division could have fought better’; ‘I used to reprimand Gurtyev’; ‘I transferred Chuikov into the [Tsaritsa] tunnel’; ‘Red Army soldiers have produced a good impression on me, unlike the officers. There is a lack of power of will in them that comes from ignorance.’

Presumably one of the reasons why Chuikov was so bitter and why he loathed Marshal Zhukov so much – a resentment which surged up again just before the battle of Berlin – was that he had not been told about the plans for Operation Uranus until almost the last moment. It must have appeared to him that he and his 62nd Army, instead of being the principal heroes of Stalingrad, had become little more than the tethered goat while the armies of General Rokossovsky’s Don Front had been the hunters surrounding the tiger.2

Grossman could not have known that his unease at the lack of activity in April and May 1943 reflected an argument right at the top. Stalin wanted to push on with further offensives. He could not entirely accept the idea that the war still had to go through a number of stages and that it could not be ended with a single dramatic push. Marshal Zhukov, Marshal Vasilevsky and General A.I. Antonov, the Stavka chief of operations, had a very hard time convincing him that the Red Army should stay on the defensive, ready to deal with the German onslaught being prepared. While waiting, they would prepare a huge strategic reserve for their own summer offensive immediately afterwards, something which the Red Army had not yet attempted. Stalin, with great reluctance, had accepted their arguments in a crucial Kremlin meeting on 12 April.

The major German summer offensive, Operation Zitadelle, as it was called, probably achieved less surprise than any other offensive in the whole war. The German plan of attack could, logically, take only one form, with armoured spearheads aiming for the base of the Kursk salient, one from the north and the other from the south. Hitler allocated fifty divisions, of which nineteen were armoured with 2,700 tanks and assault guns. The whole operation was supported by more than 2,600 aircraft.

The Battle of Kursk, July 1943

Stalingrad citizens return to the ruined city.

Details of German preparations, and the increasing delays affecting the operation, were passed to the Soviet Union in a veiled version from Ultra intercepts. Information also came from many other sources, including air reconnaissance and partisan intelligence networks inside the occupied territory. As a result, the Stavka was able to concentrate over a million men to the defence of the area (giving them a superiority of more than two to one) and invest in the most effective defence lines ever undertaken on the Eastern Front. In addition, a half-million-strong reserve, to be know as the ‘Steppe Front’, was assembled and deployed in the rear, ready to counter-attack.

Hitler, on the other hand, was convinced that the newly improved Mark VI Tiger tanks would prove invincible. The battle of Kursk was to become famous as the greatest clash of armoured forces in the history of the world, but this tends to divert attention from the importance played by other arms. Soviet sappers laid vast minefields, the Red Army artillery, especially the hundreds of batteries of anti-tank guns, played a major role, as did the Shturmovik ground-attack aircraft, concentrating their cannon and armour-piercing bomblets on German tanks.

Grossman, who reached the front just before the start of the battle, started by interviewing intelligence officers at the headquarters of the Central Front commanded by Marshal Rokossovsky. Notes he jotted down afterwards reflected on the Germans’ obstinacy at attacking such massively well-defended sectors as the north flank of the Kursk salient. This line of attack south from Orel, the lesser of the two assaults, was referred to by the Red Army as the ‘Orel axis’.

A gigantic burden had fastened the Germans to the Orel axis, although pilots kept telling them how strong our defence was. (There’s no freedom of will. Mass dominates over brain.)

Underestimation of the enemy, of the enemy’s strength. This is typical of Germans. It’s due to their successes over the past few years.

Danger of preconceived ideas, due to the controversial character of facts. Concentration of enemy Luftwaffe groups plays an important role in deciphering.3 Reports on the arrival of generals and field marshals.

A [German] sapper was captured during the night of 4 July. He revealed that the attack was beginning and that the order had gone out to clear mines. Thanks to this we were able to lay on a two-hour artillery counter-preparation bombardment at dawn on 5 July.

Usually, operations staff are somewhat conceited and despise reconnaissance [intelligence] men.

We entered the village of Kuban4 in dust and smoke, amid the flow of thousands of vehicles. How can one possibly find one’s friends in this terrible mess? Suddenly I saw a car with luxurious new tyres standing in a shed. I said prophetically: ‘This car with incredible tyres belongs either to the Front Commander Rokossovsky, or to the TASS correspondent Major Lipavsky.’ We entered the house. A soldier was eating borscht at the table. ‘Who’s billeted in this house?’ The soldier replied: ‘Major Lipavsky, TASS correspondent.’ Everyone looked at me. I had that feeling probably experienced by Newton when he discovered the law of gravity.

Knorring and Grossman in their jeep just before the Battle of Kursk, July 1943.

Grossman went to Ponyri to interview anti-tank gunners who had done as much as anyone to break the back of the German onslaught. Ponyri station was about a hundred kilometres north of Kursk. It was here on 6 July, the second day of the battle, that Rokossovsky launched the first desperate counter-attack with the 2nd Tank Army. In less than a week his Central Front had fought the German Ninth Army’s thrust to a standstill.

Visit to Ponyri. Shevernozhuk’s regiment. Stories about 45mm cannons firing at [Tiger] tanks.5 Shells hit them, but bounced off like peas. There have been cases when artillerists went insane after seeing this.

After his visits to the northern sector, he went to the more important southern sector, where the attack also on 5 July was mounted by General Hoth’s Fourth Panzer Army. This formation mustered the elite of Nazi forces, including the Panzergrenadier DivisionGrossdeutschland and the II SS Panzer Corps, with the three SS divisions: Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler, Totenkopf and Das Reich. Using the Tigers as their battering ram, Hoth’s forces broke through into the third line of defence, but then were hit by the counter-attack of Katukov’s 1st Tank Army. The crucial point came after a week of fighting when a large tank force of II SS Panzer broke through to the rail junction of Prokhorovka. General Vatutin, the commander of the Voronezh Front manning that sector, immediately contacted Marshal Zhukov. Zhukov agreed to an immediate counter-offensive with five armies, of whom two came from the Steppe Front reserve. The attack on 12 July was led by the 5th Guards Tank Army, which had played the chief role in the encirclement of the German Sixth Army at Stalingrad the previous November.

The Tiger’s more powerful 88mm gun forced the Soviet tankists into almost suicidal charges across open country in order to close with the enemy before they themselves were knocked out. Some even ended up ramming their German adversaries. At Prokhorovka, a battle involving over 1,200 tanks, Soviet armoured forces suffered a casualty rate of over 50 per cent, but it was enough to smash the last great effort of the Wehrmacht’s panzer arm. The battlefield was covered with burned-out tanks in all directions. Observers compared the sight to an elephant graveyard. Within another six days, the surviving German forces had to carry out a fighting withdrawal. The Anglo-American invasion of Sicily prompted Hitler to withdraw key formations from the battle, to bring them westwards to address the new threat to Southern Europe. Hitler may well have wanted an excuse by this stage to extricate himself from a disastrous battle, in which the Wehrmacht had been decisively outfought. The Red Army had proved once again the dramatic improvement in the professionalism of its commanders, the morale of its soldiers and the effective application of force.6

Grossman had been with an anti-tank gun brigade which guarded the key sector in the battle. As Ortenberg wrote later: ‘The brigade had to confront the Germans who were trying to break through towards Belgorod along the Belgorod–Kursk highway, from south to north. Vasily Grossman saw the battlefield with his own eyes. He saw the destroyed materiel of the enemy and our damaged or burning tanks and self-propelled guns. He had watched our troops retreat and advance.’

Belgorod Axis. Anti-tank Brigade. The commander [was] Nikifor Dmitrievich Chevola. ‘I don’t like working at headquarters,’ [he said]. ‘I was praying to be spared from it. I will run away to fight if there’s a battle.’ Chevola’s four brothers: Aleksandr, an artillerist – killed; Mikhail, commander of a heavy artillery regiment; Vasily, who was a philosophy teacher, is now carrying out political work; Pavel is commander of a machine-gun battalion. His sister Matryona was a teacher before the war. She joined the army, and was demobilised after receiving a serious wound. His niece is learning to be a pilot.

‘The Luftwaffe was bombing us. We were there amid the fire and smoke, yet my men became wild. They kept firing, paying no attention to all this. I was wounded seven times myself. [German] tanks wedged in, and the infantry wavered.

‘Constant thunder, the ground was trembling, there was fire all around, we were shouting. As for radio communications, the Germans tried to trick us. They howled over the radio: “I am Nekrasov, I am Nekrasov.” I shouted back: “Bullshit! you aren’t, get lost.” They jammed our voices with howling. Messers were flying over our heads, Senior Sergeant Urbisupov shot down a Messer with his sub-machine gun as it dived at him. The Messers strafe trenches, first along them and then across them, so as to cover all the curves.

‘We had no sleep for five nights. The quieter it is, the more tense it feels. We feel better when there’s fighting, then one begins to feel sleepy. We ate when we could and never had much time for it. Food would become black at once from the dust, particularly fat. When we were taken out of fighting to have a rest, we went into a barn and fell asleep at once.’

Nikolai Efimovich Plysyuk, commander of the 1st Regiment: ‘There isn’t any infantry in front of our artillery. There’s just us and Death. There was only one Willys [jeep] left on the last day of fighting. I would have awarded it a Gold Star, because on its own it saved the whole regiment. And the men dragged one cannon six kilometres with their hands. They were all wounded, all bandaged up.’

Gun-layer Trofim Karpovich Teplenko: ‘[It was] my first battle. [It was] twilight. We loaded tracer shells, I hit him with the first shell. A tank is no threat to artillery. It’s sub-machine-gunners and infantry who interfere with our work and cause us trouble. Of course, it’s fun when one hits a [Tiger]. My first shell hit the front of it, under the turret . . . and the tank stopped at once. After that I hit it with three shells, one after another. The infantry in front of me were shouting ‘Ura!’ and were throwing up their helmets and pilotkas, jumping out of their trenches.

‘This was a face-to-face battle. It was like a duel, anti-tank gun against tank. Sergeant Smirnov’s head and leg were torn off. We brought the head back, and also the legs, and put them all into a little ditch, and covered them over. After the battle, the corps commander was standing by the road in the dust. He shook hands with the anti-tank men and gave them cigarettes . . . An anti-tank gun after a battle is like a human being who’s alive but who’s suffered. The rubber is torn on the wheels, and its parts have been damaged by shell fragments.’

Teplenko’s account of the 45mm anti-tank gun taking on German Tigers effortlessly appears somewhat optimistic when one reads excerpts which Grossman copied from the brigade war diary.

A gun-layer fired point-blank at a Tiger with a 45mm [anti-tank] gun. The shells bounced off it. The gun-layer lost his head and threw himself at the Tiger.

A lieutenant, wounded in the leg and with a hand torn off, was commanding the battery attacked by tanks. After the enemy attack had been halted, he shot himself, because he didn’t want to live as a cripple.7

Galin, Bukovsky, and Grossman at Kursk.

Grossman was with Chevola’s anti-tank brigade near Ponyri station during at least part of that epic battle.

This battle lasted three days and three nights . . . Black smoke was hanging in the air, people’s faces were completely black. Everyone’s voice became hoarse, because in this rattling and clatter one could hear words only if they were shouted. People snatched moments to eat, and pieces of white pork fat immediately became black from dust and smoke. No one thought of sleep, but if someone did snatch a minute to rest, that was usually during the day, when the thunder of battle was particularly loud, and the ground trembled, as if during an earthquake. At night, the quietness was frightening, the nerves were strained and quietness scared away the sleep. And during the day one felt better in chaos, which had become habitual.

Grossman’s ‘ruthless truth of war’ did not necessarily make things easy for his editor at Krasnaya Zvezda, but Ortenberg certainly respected him, as his own comments show. ‘Grossman remained true to himself. In Stalingrad, Vasily Semyonovich used to spend days and nights with the main characters of his articles, in the very heat of the fighting. He did the same here at the Kursk salient. The following lines are a proof of this: “I happened to visit the units that received the hardest blow from the enemy . . .” “We were lying in a gully listening to the fire from our guns and explosions of German shells . . .” He had seen the wounded and killed Soviet soldiers. He thought it disgraceful to write nothing about them. With great difficulties, we managed to get the following truthful lines from his essay published: “The battery commander, Ketselman, was wounded. He was dying in a pool of dark blood . . .”’ Soviet censorship wanted to suppress such harsh images, but in this case at least, Ortenberg managed to persuade them to leave Grossman’s work untouched. This was the piece in question:

There wasn’t anyone in the whole world at that moment who deserved rest more than these Red Army soldiers sleeping among puddles of rainwater. This gully, where the ground and leaves were trembling from shots and explosions, was to them like a most remote rear area, like Sverdlovsk or Alma-Ata. The sky which was filled with sparkles and white clouds from the fire of anti-aircraft guns, the sky in which twenty-six German dive-bombers banked and dropped into a dive to attack a railway station, was a cloudless, peaceful sky. Here they were, sleeping on the wet grass, among flowers and soft, furry burdock leaves . . .

An officer, whose flank the brigade was covering, had retreated, allowing the brigade to withdraw. But the brigade commander, who could clearly see the consequences of withdrawal, answered: ‘We won’t retreat, we’ll stay here to die!’ And he was permitted to do that.

At dawn, German tanks started to attack. [Enemy] aircraft attacked at the same time and set the village on fire . . .

Battery commander Ketselman was wounded. He was dying in a puddle of black blood; the first artillery piece was broken. A direct hit had torn off an arm and the head of a gun-layer. Senior Corporal Melekhin, the gun commander, the cheerful, quick virtuoso of this death struggle in which tenths of seconds sometimes determine the outcome of a duel, was lying on the ground with heavy shell-shock, looking at the cannon, his stare heavy and murky. The gun was reminiscent of a ragged, long-suffering man. Strips of rubber were hanging from the wheels, torn by the explosions . . .

Only the amunition bearer, Davydov, was still on his feet. And Germans had already come very close. They were ‘seizing the barrels’, as artillerists say. Then the commander of the neighbouring gun, Mikhail Vasiliev, took control. These were his words: ‘Men, it isn’t a shame to die. Even cleverer heads than ours sometimes happen to die.’ And he ordered them to open fire at the German infantry with canister. Then, having run out of anti-personnel rounds, they began to fire at the German sub-machine-gunners at point-blank range with armour-piercing shells. That was a terrible sight.

Grossman and Baklanov (centre). Celebration with the 13th Guards Rifle Division.

Grossman also caught up with the 13th Guards Rifle Division, which had been commanded at Stalingrad by General Rodimtsev. He took the opportunity to interview its new commander about the fighting.

A meeting with Rodimtsev’s 13th Guards Division at the Kursk salient. It is now commanded by General Baklanov, a young man who started the war as a captain. He had been an athlete in Moscow.

Sovinformburo has been writing ever since the war began that “German pillboxes have been destroyed”, but I’ve never seen a single German pillbox. They’ve only got trenches. The men are now fighting intelligently, without frenzy. They fight as if they were working.

‘Our weaknesses show up in the offensive. Reinforcement units get moved to new locations. They don’t have time to get used to the situation. Some commanders don’t know their calibres and the range of their artillery fire. They don’t know the established quantity of mines per kilometre, the established quantity of wire per kilometre, the rate of fire to suppress enemy defences. “Some fire needed, over there!”’ and he waves his hand.

‘Sometimes regimental commanders give false reports during battles. I usually go out two hours before an attack to check communications, yet the regimental commander goes to his command post ten minutes before the attack and then reports to me: “Everything is ready, I know everything.” The danger of arrogance, of conceit is great.

‘There are many commanders who don’t care about their soldiers’ food and everyday life, they don’t try to study the soldier’s soul. Commanders are sometimes very harsh, but during breaks [in the fighting] they don’t go to their men, talk to them and ask questions. Often this is because commanders are too young. It is sometimes the case that a [junior officer] has soldiers who have sons older than he is.

‘[The cry of] “Forward, forward!” is either the result of stupidity, or of fear of one’s seniors. That’s why so much blood is being shed.’

Grossman found once again, even after all the improvements effected during the course of the previous year, that units continued to suffer from the inability of Red Army commanders and staff officers to think things through.

Colonel Vavilov, Deputy Divisional Commander on Political Work. ‘We were put on alert at midnight on [8/9] July. The order was to have regiments formed up by dawn. We started moving on the 9th during the day. That day was terribly hot. Seventy men went down with sunstroke in one regiment. We were carrying machine guns, mortars, ammunition. During the night of the 9th we had three hours of rest. We arrived in the area of Oboyan, began to organise defensive positions and dug in. And then the order came at once, to carry on another twenty-five kilometres. At dawn on the 12th, we came to the start point, and at once entered the fighting, with two regiments. And didn’t General Zhukov say: “It is better not to begrudge a retreat of five to six kilometres than to send tired men, with no ammunition, into battle!”’

Grossman beside one of the German Tiger tanks destroyed at Kursk.

On the other hand, Grossman was the first to acknowledge that some things had definitely improved.

From the point of view of artillery, the Kursk operation is more sophisticated than the Stalingrad one. In Stalingrad, the beast was beaten in its lair. In Kursk, the artillery shield resisted the enemy’s attack and the artillery sword started crushing them during the [counter-attack].8

Grossman also interviewed some pilots from a regiment of Shturmovik fighter-bombers engaged on ground-attack operations, mainly against tanks.9 Shturmovik regiments claimed the virtual annihilation of the 3rd, 9th and 17th Panzer Divisions during the battle. The Shturmoviks were often flying at less than twenty metres off the ground, as their pilots liked to boast, but their casualties were very heavy.

Shalygin, Nikolai Vladimirovich, [from] Saratov, major in a Shturmovik regiment: ‘Aleksukhin was flying at very low level, attacking vehicles, in fact so low that he returned with the tips of his propeller bent. I made a dive and saw tanks in the barley. The shape of their turret gives them away.

‘Pilot Yuryev came back with blood streaming down his face. “May I report?” He reported and collapsed unconscious. The gunner-signaller had climbed out first, with blood all over him.

‘This excitement of a hunter, I feel as if I were a hawk, not a man. And one does not think about humanity. No, there are no such thoughts. We clear the way. It’s good when the way is clear and everything is on fire.’

The way was about to be made even clearer for the Soviet general offensive. This developed out of the counter-attack at Prokhorovka on 12 July. Operation Kutuzov, launched on the same day on the northern flank, was aimed against the German occupied territory between the Kursk salient and the city of Orel. The Germans had not expected such a rapid reaction. For Grossman, this was a moment of fierce joy. He had a bitter memory of the German capture of the city in the autumn of 1941.

Ortenberg, remembering what Grossman had been through at the time, made sure that he was the correspondent who covered the liberation of Orel. ‘I must say that I had never forgotten this episode. And on the July days when we had no doubts that Orel would be liberated, I said to Grossman: “Vasily Semyonovich! Orel is your trauma. I would like you to be there on the day of its liberation. So that you can remember the day when you left it.” Grossman was in Orel on the day of its liberation and wrote an essay about the frightening, tragic days and hours [of its fall to the Germans in 1941] . . . When I read this essay, I understood what Grossman had gone through during those October days of 1941. I met him a year after the battle of Kursk, when I was already at the front.10During our conversation I reminded him of the unhappy episode and let him understand that I felt guilty about it. He smiled and said with sincerity: “I was not angry with you.” And he added: “There was no time for it.”’

We reached Orel on the afternoon of 5 August by the Moscow highway. We had driven through the cheerful and businesslike Tula, past Plavsk, Chern, and the further we went, the fresher appeared the wounds that the Germans had inflicted on our land.

In Mtsensk, grass was growing in the ruins of houses, the blue sky was looking through the empty eye sockets of windows and torn-off roofs. Almost all villages between Mtsensk and Orel were burned. The ruins of izbas were still smoking. Old people and children were rummaging in the piles of brick looking for the surviving household objects: cast-iron pots, frying pans, metal beds disfigured by fire, sewing machines. How bitter and familiar this sight was!

There was a freshly adzed white board with the word ‘Orel’ nailed up by the railway crossing . . . The smell of burning was hanging in the air, a light blue milky smoke was rising from the dwindling fires . . .

A loud-speaker unit was playing ‘The Internationale’ in the square. Posters and appeals were being glued to the walls, leaflets were being handed out to the population. Red-cheeked girls, traffic controllers, were standing at all the crossroads, smartly waving their red and green little flags. A day or two would pass, and Orel would start coming back to life, to work and to studying . . .

I remembered the Orel which I had seen exactly twenty-two months ago, on that October day of 1941 when German tanks broke into it from the Kromsk highway. I remembered my last night in Orel, the ill, terrible night, the humming of fleeing vehicles, the weeping of women running after the retreating troops, the sorrowful faces of people, and the questions that they were asking me, full of anxiety and suffering. I remembered Orel’s last morning, when it seemed as if the whole city was crying and rushing about, seized with a terrible panic. The city was then still in its full beauty, without a single window broken, but it gave the impression of being doomed, of having been sentenced to death . . .

And listening to the speech of a tank colonel, who was standing on top of a dusty tank overlooking the bodies of soldiers and officers killed in the battle for Orel, hearing his simple, abrupt words of goodbye echoing in the burned-out houses, I understood. This meeting today and that bitter parting on the October morning of 1941 are inseparably linked with one another.

Grossman on the Belgorod Axis after the battle of Kursk.

Oleg Knorring, Ilya Ehrenburg, and Grossman.

A similar operation on the southern side of the Kursk salient led to the recapture of Belgorod, and eventually Kharkov on 28 August. The Germans refer to this extended engagement as the Fourth Battle of Kharkov. As might be imagined, little of the city was left standing. During this fighting on either side of the Kursk salient, Grossman wrote to his father on 28 July.

Dear Papa, I’ve been driving along lots of roads for three weeks, like a Gypsy. It is much nicer to travel in summer than in winter. One does not need to worry about finding a place to spend the night, the sun is shining, rains are warm, meadows are in brighter blossom than ever. But often these meadows don’t smell of flowers; they have another, frightening smell.

Grossman began to realise that there was also another frightening smell in the Soviet Union – a renascent anti-Semitism. Ilya Ehrenburg, with his acute political nose, had sensed this well before the idealistic Grossman. Early in the war Ehrenburg had noted the Kremlin reaction to Henry Shapiro, the Reuters bureau chief in Moscow. Ehrenburg had known Shapiro since before the war, talking to him for hours in the Metropol and Moskva hotels about their shared love of Paris. Shapiro commented to Ehrenburg at one point that while Stalin was prepared to talk to Henry Cassidy of Associated Press, he never received him. ‘With your name,’ Ehrenburg answered, ‘you’ll never get an answer.’

In November 1941, Ehrenburg had heard anti-Semitic remarks from Mikhail Sholokhov, the author of And Quiet Flows the Don.11You are fighting,’ Sholokhov told him, ‘but Abram is doing business in Tashkent.’ Ehrenburg exploded, calling him a ‘pogrom-monger’. Grossman, hearing of this, wrote to Ehrenburg about all the Jewish soldiers he had met at the front.

I think about Sholokov’s anti-Semitic slander with pain and contempt. Here on the South-Western Front, there are thousands, tens of thousands of Jews. They are walking with machine guns into the snowstorms, breaking into towns held by the Germans, falling in battle. I saw all of this. I saw the illustrious commander of the 1st Guards Division, Kogan, tank officers and reconnaissance men. If Sholokhov is in Kuibyshev, be sure to let him know that comrades at the front know what he is saying. Let him be ashamed.

But clearly Grossman regarded Sholokhov as an aberration at that stage.

By early 1943, Ehrenburg found that his references to Jewish suffering were being censored. He complained to Aleksandr Shcherbakov, the chief of the Red Army Political Department, but Shcherbakov retorted: ‘The soldiers want to hear about Suvorov, but you quote Heine.’

Ehrenburg and Grossman, having furiously disagreed with each other in the past on literary matters, now became much closer. ‘Vasily Semyonovich Grossman came to Moscow for a short stay,’ wrote Ehrenburg, ‘and we sat together till three in the morning. He told me about the front, and we made guesses about how life would go after victory. Grossman said: “I have a lot of doubts now. But I don’t doubt the victory. This is probably the most important thing.”’

At Ehrenburg’s urging, Grossman joined the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee. One of the leading members of it was the actor Solomon Mikhoels.12 Towards the end of 1942, Albert Einstein and other members of the American Committee of Jewish Writers, Artists and Scientists contacted the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee in the Soviet Union to suggest that they assemble a record of Nazi crimes. Mikhoels was enthusiastic and once official Soviet permission was obtained, Ehrenburg began to organise a group of writers. In the autumn of 1943 he recruited Grossman. Grossman, who saw more of the territories just liberated from the Nazis than anyone, was to prove one of the most important contributors. By the end of 1944, Ehrenburg rightly sensed that the Stalinist authorities would suppress their work and despaired. He fell out with the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee. Grossman, who witnessed at first-hand Majdanek and Treblinka, refused to be thwarted and took over much of the work.

1 This film, based on newsreel taken of re-enactments just after the events, was eagerly watched by audiences in the Soviet Union, but few realised quite how staged it was. Film archives contain numerous examples of discarded footage of soldiers getting up after being shot and going through the motions again.

2 Marshal Konstantin Kostantinovich Rokossovsky (1896–1968), the son of a Polish cavalry officer, was always suspect in the eyes of Stalin. He was arrested in 1937 during the purge of the Red Army and tortured by the NKVD. He was released after the Russo-Finnish war and commanded IX Mechanised Corps during the German invasion in 1941. He played an important role during the battle of Moscow when commanding the 16th Army. In 1942, he commanded the Don Front in the key phase of the Stalingrad campaign. He was the main commander for the battle of Kursk in 1943 and later commanded the 1st Belorussian Front in Operation Bagration and the advance to Warsaw. In late 1944, Stalin moved him to command of the 2nd Belorussian Front, because he did not want a Pole to have the glory of taking Berlin. That honour was given to his friend and rival, Marshal Zhukov. After the war, he was made the Defence Minister of Poland.

3 It is not entirely clear what Grossman means by this. Considering the Red Army mania for secrecy, it seems surprising that even a correspondent from Krasnaya Zvezda would have been told anything about deciphering, and yet his remark appears to reflect the experience of British signals intercepts, that the Luftwaffe’s slack attitude to signals security greatly helped the cracking of their codes.

4 Just under 100 kilometres south-east of Orel and about 130 kilometres north-north-east of Kursk.

5 Grossman, like most Red Army men, often talks of a ‘T-6’ tank in the Soviet style of designating armoured vehicles, when actually referring to the Mark VI Tiger. For simplicity, we have put ‘Tiger’ in square brackets whenever the phrase T-6 is mentioned in the original text. Some of his interviewees also use the name ‘Tiger’, and that remains unchanged.

6 Some historians have even been tempted to cite Kursk as the turning point of the war, but as has been indicated, the defence of Moscow was the geopolitical turning point, and Stalingrad the psychological one.

7 The prospect of being mutilated or becoming a cripple always represented a far greater fear for Soviet soldiers than being killed. There was of course the unshakeable belief that a woman would never want to look at them again. This may have been a misleading male nightmare, but the true awfulness of their fate did not become apparent until after the war when maimed and crippled Red Army soldiers were treated with unbelievable callousness by the Soviet authorities. Those reduced to a trunk with stumps were known as samovars. After the war they were rounded up and sent to towns in the Arctic circle so that the Soviet capital would not be made unsightly with limbless veterans.

8 Grossman in fact wrote ‘the advance’, but the Red Army often used this term when Western armies would refer to the attack or the offensive, or, as in this case, ‘the advance’ was the great counter-attack.

9 The Ilyushin-2M ‘Shturmovik’, a robust fighter-bomber, well armoured against ground fire, was one of the few effective Soviet aircraft of the Second World War. It was armed with two 23mm cannon and either rockets or anti-tank bombs. The crew consisted of a pilot and a rear-gunner who was also the radio operator.

10 Ortenberg left Krasnaya Zvezda to become a ‘member of the Military Council’, or chief commissar, of an army. It has been suggested that Ortenberg, also a Jew, was moved from such an influential post at a time of rising anti-Semitism within the Stalinist hierarchy.

11 Sholokhov, Mikhail Aleksandrovich (1905–1984), winner of the Stalin Prize in 1941 and the Nobel Prize in 1965. He was accused by Solzhenitsyn among others of plagiarising the work of the anti-Bolshevik cossack, Fyodor Krukov, but subsequent studies have tended to confirm that Sholokhov’s prose was his own.

12 Mikhoels, Solomon (born Solomon Vovsi, 1890–1948), founder of Moscow State Jewish Theatre, chairman of Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, murdered by the KGB in Minsk.

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