Military history


Across the Ukraine to Odessa

At the beginning of March, Grossman was attached to the headquarters of the 3rd Ukrainian Front. The Germans had held on to the Black Sea coast despite being outflanked by the thrust of the 1st Ukrainian Front to the north.

In the first week of March, Marshal Zhukhov had taken over from Vatutin, mortally wounded on 29 February when ambushed by Ukrainian partisans of the UPA.1 Zhukhov directed a new offensive towards Ternopol. Also in the first week of March, Marshal Konev’s 2nd Ukrainian Front attacked towards Uman, which they seized along with large quantities of military stores just five days later, on 10 March. Two hundred German tanks, six hundred guns and many thousands of vehicles, immobilised in the deep mud and abandoned by their crews, were taken along the way.

Red Army soldiers cursed the spring mud of the rasputitsa, but the Germans suffered far more. Konev’s armoured columns pushed onwards to seize bridgeheads across the southern reaches of the Bug. They were less than a hundred kilometres from the Moldovian border and the River Dnestr, which was first crossed on 17 March, twelve days after the start of the offensive. German divisions, reduced to a fraction of their usual strength, had to fight their way out of encirclements and retreat rapidly, slipping through between Soviet armies. In many cases, parachute supply drops by the Luftwaffe kept them going. But the will to escape was intense. No German wanted to suffer the fate of Paulus’s Sixth Army at Stalingrad.

Meanwhile, in another coordinated offensive, Malinovsky’s 3rd Ukrainian Front had swept forward from the Ingulets, crossing two more rivers and attempting to cut off seven German divisions. The advance, however, was at the mercy of the elements.

Before the attack, the Military Council of the Front had been thinking above all of the weather. They kept looking at the barometer. A professor of meteorology had been summoned, as well as an old man, expert in the local weather, who could forecast it by looking at some indications of which no one else knew. Officers attended lectures on meteorology.

On 6 March, General Rodion I. Malinovsky’s 3rd Ukrainian Front launched an offensive along the Black Sea coast to capture Odessa. The enemy consisted of the German Sixth Army, a recreation of the original army at Stalingrad – this was on Hitler’s orders, as if it would wipe out the defeat – Lieutenant General I.A. Pliev’s cavalry, IV Guards Cavalry Corps and IV Mechanised Corps. Cavalry was of great use in the heavy mud.

The front HQ was in the village of Novaya Odessa, some ninety kilometres from Odessa. Terrible mud. If Rudnyi hadn’t helped, I wouldn’t have managed to drag my suitcase from the airfield to the headquarters.

Advancing in the mud requires an enormous physical effort. Quantities of petrol which would otherwise have been sufficient to go hundreds of kilometres are burned up over a few hundred metres. Mobile groups are cutting off German communications, supplies and liaison. Sometimes Germans retreat chaotically.

The whole steppe is filled with the howling of vehicles and tractors tearing themselves out of the mud. The ‘roads’ are hundreds of metres wide.

Grossman described the advance in great detail for an article in Krasnaya Zvezda.

Finally, the sun is getting hotter and hotter, and light clouds of dust have already appeared flying behind the trucks. A thin, swarthy captain in a greatcoat whose flaps are covered with scales of brown and red earth inhaled this dust with delight: ‘Oh, imagine how dreadful the mud has been if dust – this scourge of the war – now seems nicer than all the spring flowers. For us, the dust smells good today.’

Several days ago, a shrill howling of one-and-a-half-ton trucks, three-tonners, five-ton YAZ, tractors, caterpillar transporters, Dodges and Studebakers hung constantly over this steppe.2 They were howling in an angry effort to break out from the mud’s claws to catch up with the sleepless infantry. Their fierce but powerless wheels only threw out sticky lumps of mud, spinning in the oily, slippery ruts. And thousands of sinewy, thin, sweating people were heaving at the rear ends [of bogged-down vehicles], their teeth clenched, day and night, under the eternal rain and the eternal, three times accursed, wet, melting snow . . .

In the Ukraine, spring 1944: soldiers try to manoeuvre a truck loaded with artillery shells that is stuck in the mud.

Who will recount the great feats of our people? Who will recreate the epic of this unprecedented offensive, this sleepless advance that went on day and night? Infantrymen were marching, loaded with one and a half issues of ammunition,3 and their greatcoats wet and as heavy as lead. A severe north wind sprang upon them, their greatcoats froze and became rigid like sheet iron. Cushions of mud, weighing a pood apiece, stuck to the boots. Sometimes, people only managed a kilometre an hour, so hard was this road. For many kilometres around, there wasn’t a dry patch of land. Soldiers had to sit down in the mud to have some rest or take off their boots to rewrap their foot cloths. Mortar men were moving forward beside the riflemen, and each of them was carrying half a dozen bombs hanging on loops of rope on their backs and chests.

‘That’s all right,’ they said. ‘It’s even harder for the Germans. It’s death for Germans now . . .’

No work was more terrible than building a bridge over the Southern Bug. The sappers only had a tiny bridgehead on the west bank, the enemy was pressing hard, and the sappers were building the bridge not just under German fire, but right in the midst of the firing itself. The marsh seemed bottomless: a test pile went in eleven metres deep, as if into pastry.4

Once Malinovsky’s armies had captured the city of Nikolayev at the mouth of the Bug, the way to Odessa lay open before them. Marshal Konev was ordered to swing some of his formations southwards to trap the German Sixth and Eighth Armies as well as the hapless Romanian Third Army between his forces and Malinovsky’s armies.

The German military authorities have sent the commander of the 16th Motorised Division5 for trial by court martial. His explanation: ‘Without their vehicles, my men are weaker than an infantry division.’

The enemy fear being encircled. They don’t believe that their defence lines are strong, because their commanders keep deceiving them the whole time.

Characteristics of our officers during this new phase: (1) Will; (2) Confidence; (3) Scorn towards the enemy; (4) Ability to fight using the force of tanks and artillery, the infantry being small in number; (5) Ability to save, to keep account of every cartridge and shell – a big war with poor reserves; (6) They have learned to hurry, but it isn’t their motto, it is just in everyone’s blood. They hurry to cross the rivers, because it is much quicker to use a branch than to wait for days on end for pontoons. The speed of pursuit matches the speed of the enemy’s retreat.

Odessa was finally secured on 10 April. It had been garrisoned mainly by the Third Romanian Army. The Romanian occupation of the southwestern Ukraine was almost gentle in comparison to the German treatment of the population. Grossman entered with the liberators and looked around Peresyp, a district in Odessa.

The day of the capture of Odessa. The port [is] empty. Puffs of smoke. Thunder of military vehicles and equipment pouring into the city. Crowds of people. Scorched corpses carried out of the Gestapo building. The charred corpse of a girl, with beautiful golden hair intact.

Signs over Romanian canteens: ‘Entrance forbidden to Germans.’

The first meeting of the Odessa OBKOM. The OBKOM Secretary has invited me to participate. This is the first time that I, not a member of the Party, have attended such a meeting.

There is a lot of food – sugar, cakes, flour. The locals are cursing Romanians reluctantly, as if out of politeness.

The prospect of the end of the war hastened the optimism of many civilians as well as Red Army soldiers. With the defeat of fascism, they told themselves, Stalin could disband the NKVD secret police and the Gulag camps. Grossman had already heard such talk in the trenches of Stalingrad, and it appears that he shared their hopes. But he now seems to have sensed that Stalinism would not change its spots.

Odessa’s old men in the boulevard. Their fantastic talk about a complete reorganisation of Soviet government after the war.

A poet, who had published under the Romanians a book of poetry [entitled] I Sing Today. Our conversation. He is an extremely unpleasant person. Suddenly I see his mother standing under the window outside. In her eyes there is a terrible fear for her son.

Aisenshtadt Simon, the son of a famous rabbi from the little town of Ostrovets.7 A Russian girl had saved his life. She had been sheltering him in her room for more than a year. His story. Ghetto in Warsaw. The uprising. Poles had brought in the weapons. Polish Jews had to wear a white armband. Belgian and French Jews – a yellow one. Treblinka near Warsaw. The extermination camp for Jews. There was a chamber with moving knives, it was in a basement, under a banya. The bodies were cut into pieces and then burned. There were mountains of ashes, twenty to twenty-five metres high. In one place Jews had been chased into a pond full of acid. Their screams were so terrible that local peasants abandoned their homes. Fifty-eight thousand Odessa Jews were burned alive in Berezovka.8 Some of them were burned to death in railway carriages. Others were taken to a clearing where Germans poured petrol over them and them set them on fire.

The account of OBKOM Secretary Ryasentsev. Domanevka was the place where Jews had been executed.9 The executions were carried out by the Ukrainian police. The chief of police in Domanevka had killed 12,000 people himself.

In November 1942, Antonescu issued a law giving rights to Jews.10 Mass executions, which had gone on throughout 1942, halted. The chief of police in Domanevka and eight of his closest associates were arrested by Romanians, taken to Tiraspol11 and sent for trial. The court sentenced them to three months forced labour for their unlawful deeds towards the Jews.

Outrage was caused by the public prosecutor [from Domanevka], a Russian lawyer from Odessa, who killed eight or nine people a day for amusement. This was called ‘going shooting’. They used to kill people in separate lots. Children were thrown alive into dry moats with straw burning on the bottom.

Grossman having his boots cleaned in the streets of Odessa, April 1944. The bootblack was cut out of the shot for political reasons.

By the time Antonescu’s order was published, there were about 380 Odessa Jews left in Domanevka and forty children in a nursery. They are still alive, have no clothes or shoes. The total number of Odessa Jews executed in Domanevka was about 90,000. Those who survived received aid from the Jewish committee in Romania. Romanian Jews were executed, too, along with Jews from Odessa. They had been tricked into going to Domanevka. This was how one of the richest Romanian millionaires was executed. He was brought to Domanevka under the pretext of organising the excavation and exploitation of the local ceramic clay. There were three Jews who participated in the torture and executions. They have been arrested.

In Odessa, they had rounded up Jews and let them go home. Then, on 10 January 1942, they herded them into a ghetto in Slobodka. It was very cold, and when they were being driven from the ghetto to the trains, there remained hundreds of corpses of old people, children and women lying around in the streets.

Having discovered that so many people he had known were now dead, Grossman had a contrary experience that spring, not far from Berdichev. He visited a tank brigade of the 1st Ukrainian Front, which was refitting at Vinnitsa, where Hitler’s headquarters, code-named Wehrwolf, had been based. He had dinner with the brigade commander, ‘a short, calm and good-natured man’, as Ortenberg described him in this account. ‘During dinner, when talking of dates and places of battles, Grossman realised that this was the very same Babadzhanyan who had commanded the 395th Regiment, and whom he had made the hero of his novel [The People Immortal]. “Yes, I was there,” confirmed Babadzhanyan. “But you killed me.”

“I killed you,” Grossman answered, “but I can resurrect you, too.”’

With the tank commander Colonel Babadzhanyan, Grossman’s hero who later crushed the Hungarian rising in 1956.

1 The UPA was the Ukrainska povstanska armiia, or Ukrainian Insurgent Army, an extreme nationalist and anti-communist organisation which had collaborated with the Germans, but also fought them when the Ukraine was treated as ruthlessly by the Nazis as were other areas of the occupied territories.

2 The YAZ 210G was the Red Army’s workhorse truck, a five-ton, canopied six-wheeler. Soviet drivers preferred American Lend-Lease vehicles. Red Army tank drivers, on the other hand, hated the American Grant which, being petrol-driven, was more likely to catch fire when hit than the diesel-engined T-34.

3 A standard issue of ammunition was increased by 50 per cent during an advance because resupply became far more unpredictable than when stationary in defence.

4 On 11 March 1944, detachments of Bogdanov’s 2nd Tank Army and Kravchenko’s 6th Tank Army had seized bridgeheads across the southern Bug.

5 This was the 16th Panzergrenadier Division commanded by Major-General Günther von Manteuffel, and reconstituted as the 116th Panzer Division later.

7 A town about 270 kilometres north of Odessa.

8 Berezovka (or Berozovka) is about eighty kilometres north of Odessa on the railway line to Cherkassy and Nikolayev.

9 Domanevka is another forty kilometres north-north-east of Berezovka.

10 Marshal Ion Antonescu, the anti-communist military dictator of Romania, did not share his ally’s anti-Semitism. The Romanian authorities were granted a semi-autonomous military command of the Odessa region by the Nazi government.

11 Tiraspol is a large town on the River Dnestr inside Moldovia, which the Romanians had reclaimed after losing it to Stalin in 1940. It was reintegrated into the Soviet Union as soon as the Red Army reoccupied it.

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