Military history

TWENTY-SIX

Into the Lair of the Fascist Beast

During this part of the advance, Grossman remained attached to the headquarters of General Chuikov’s 8th Guards Army. Chuikov was furious when Marshal Zhukov, whom he detested for having claimed so much of the glory over Stalingrad, ordered his army to reduce the fortress city of Pozna, while the other armies rushed on towards the River Oder. Fighting in Pozna was the toughest street-fighting battle which the Red Army had faced since Stalingrad.

The regimental commander complains: ‘Well, we broke into a street, and civilians rushed up to us shouting: “Our liberators! Our saviours!” At this moment, the Germans counter-attacked and pushed us back. Their self-propelled gun appeared. And I saw the same civilians rush out and start hugging Germans. Well, I gave the order to fire at them with canister.’

Street fighting is going on. The quieter streets are filled with people. Ladies wearing fashionable hats, carrying bright handbags, are cutting pieces of meat off dead horses lying on the pavement.

Chuikov is organising the street fighting in Pozna. After Stalingrad, he is considered the top expert in street fighting. Theory: the essence of the battle of Stalingrad is that our infantry created a wedge between the force of German mechanical power and the weakness of German infantry. And now, circumstances have driven Academician1 Chuikov into a situation which he cannot avoid, into the same situation as at Stalingrad, but here in Pozna, it’s vice versa. He is furiously attacking the Germans in the streets of Pozna, with a huge mechanised force and little infantry. And the more numerous German infantry is stubbornly fighting its hopeless battle.

Chuikov is sitting in a cold, brightly lit room on the first floor of a two-storey villa. A telephone is ringing on the table. Commanders of units report on the street fighting in Pozna. In the pauses between telephone calls and reports, Chuikov tells me about breaking the Germans defences in the area of Warsaw.

‘We had been studying the Germans’ daily timetable for a month. During the day, they left the first line of trenches, and returned to it at night. Before we began to advance, we kept sending messages on the radio the whole night, we were broadcasting music and dances, and made use of confusion, bringing all our forces up into front-line positions.

‘At eight thirty, the time when they usually left the first line, we fired a salvo from 250 guns. On the first day, we breached the first line. We heard on the radio how the commander of the Ninth Army was calling his divisions, getting no bloody answer. At the same time, we destroyed two panzer divisions which they had pulled up from the rear. On the whole, we did it the following way: an air raid, a barrage of fire, and then we advanced. There was a milky fog on that morning. We stopped them on the anvil of the first line and hit them with the hammer of our artillery. If we were an hour late, we would have been hitting an empty spot. And the Germans thought that we had been strategically exhausted. There were Landwehr and Volkssturm there.’2

Chuikov listens to the telephone, reaches to look at the map and says: ‘Just a minute, I’ll put on my glasses.’ He reads the report, laughs happily and taps his orderly on the nose with his pencil. He says: ‘Marchenko’s right flank can already feel Glebov’s fire. There’s a fire overlap, soon there will be live communications, too.’ He shouts into the telephone: ‘If they try to break through to the west, let them into the open, and then squash them like mites, damn them.’

Chuikov then continued his conversation with Grossman.

‘Soldiers are tired of being on the defensive. They are dying to finish the war. They limbered up for two or three days, and then began to advance thirty to fifty kilometres every day.

‘There’s a certain amount of looting going on: a tank is moving, and a piglet is sitting on its track guard. We’ve stopped feeding our men. Our food isn’t tasty enough for them any longer. Transport drivers are driving around in carriages, playing accordions, like in Makhno’s army.3

‘The fortress in Pozna . . . Our men were walking around on top of it, and Germans were shooting up at them [from inside]. Then sappers poured in one and a half barrels of kerosene, set it on fire, and the Germans sprang out like rats. And you know, what is the most surprising thing, with all our experience of war and our wonderful reconnaissance, we overlooked one trifle. We didn’t know that Pozna was a first-class fortress, one of the strongest in Europe. We thought it was just another town and wanted to take it off the march, and here we are.’

Pozna did not finally fall until Chuikov gave orders to storm the fortress on 18 February, following nine days of heavy bombardment. By this time the beleaguered garrison was over two hundred kilometres from their own lines. Holes in the walls were blasted at point-blank range with 203mm howitzers, and flame-throwers and grenades were used to clear one room after another. On the night of 22 February, Major-General Ernst Gomell, the German commander, lay down on a swastika flag in his room and shot himself. The garrison surrendered.

Grossman did not wait for the end of the siege. He appears to have followed forward units of the 8th Guards Army on their route into the German Reich. Despite his urge to idealise the ordinary Red Army soldier, he was forced to admit the horrors resulting from their compulsion to get drunk.

The absurd death of Hero of the Soviet Union Colonel Gorelov, commander of a Guards tank brigade. At the beginning of February, he was sorting out a traffic standstill on the road a few kilometres from the German border, and was killed by drunken Red Army soldiers. Katukov4 had been very fond of Gorelov; when giving orders to him and Babadzhanyan, he called them by their first names: Volodya and Arno. This wasn’t the only example of bloody, drunken outrage.

All Soviet citizens, soldiers and civilians alike, were struck by the change, the moment they crossed the German border. A number wondered at the perfect order and prosperity of the place and wondered why any of the inhabitants would have wanted to go off to invade Russia.

Twilight. It is foggy and rainy. A smell of forest mould. Puddles on the road. Dark pine woods, fields, farmsteads, barns, houses with pointed roofs. A huge poster: ‘Soldier, here it is! The Lair of the Fascist Beast.’

There is great charm in this landscape. Its small but very thick woods are beautiful, as well as the bluish-grey asphalt and clinker roads leading into them. And our artillery, self-propelled guns, and shabby staff trucks full of looted things, are moving on from Pozna.

Grossman in Schwerin as it was sacked by the 8th Guards Army.

A liberated [Russian] girl, Galya, telling me about the gallant characteristics of different representatives of the captured male international: ‘There are different rules for Frenchmen.’

From  across the pre-1939 German border, the road to Küstrin and Berlin, took them through the town of Schwerin. When Grossman arrived, he found the 8th Guards Army, which he had so admired at Stalingrad, looting and raping. After the war, Grossman admitted to his daughter that the Red Army ‘changed for the worse as soon as it crossed the [Soviet] border’.

Everything is on fire. Looting is in full swing. Gekhman and I are given a house which has survived. Everything is untouched, the stove is still warm, there’s a kettle with warm water on it, the owners must have fled a very short time ago. The cupboards are full of stuff. I categorically forbid [those with me] to touch them. The [town] commandant turns up asking my permission to billet a colonel from the general staff here who has just arrived. Of course, I agree. The colonel is majestic. A good Russian face. All night, we hear noises coming from the room where the tired colonel is staying. He leaves in the morning without saying goodbye. We go to his room: chaos, the colonel has emptied the cupboards like a real looter.

An old woman has thrown herself from a window of a burning building.

We enter a house, there’s a puddle of blood on the floor and in it an old man, shot by the looters. There are cages with rabbits and pigeons in the empty yards. We open their doors to save them from the fire. Two dead parrots in their cage.

Horror in the eyes of women and girls.

At the [town] commandant’s office. A group of French prisoners of war complain that some Red Army soldiers have seized their watches, giving them one rouble for each watch.

A German woman dressed in black, with dead lips, is speaking in a barely audible rustling voice. She has brought with her a teenage girl with black, velvety bruises on her neck and face, a swollen eye, with terrible bruises on her hands. This girl was raped by a soldier from the signals company with army headquarters. He is also here, pink-cheeked, fat-faced, sleepy. The commandant is interrogating him without much enthusiasm.

Horrifying things are happening to German women. An educated German whose wife has received ‘new visitors’ – Red Army soldiers – is explaining with expressive gestures and broken Russian words, that she has already been raped by ten men today. The lady is present.

Women’s screams are heard from open windows. A Jewish officer, whose whole family was killed by Germans, is billeted in the apartment of a Gestapo man who has escaped. The women and girls [left behind] are safe while he is there. When he leaves, they all cry and plead with him to stay.

Soviet girls liberated from the camps are suffering a lot now. Tonight, some of them are hiding in our correspondents’ room. During the night, we are woken up by screams: one of the correspondents couldn’t resist the temptation. A noisy discussion ensues, then order is re-established.

A story about a breast-feeding mother who was being raped in a barn. Her relatives came to the barn and asked her attackers to let her have a break, because the hungry baby was crying the whole time.

It is light during the night, everything is ablaze.

When Colonel Mamaev entered a German house, children of four and five stood up in silence and raised their hands.

The liberation of German territory produced dramatic reversals of fortune. The prisoners and the slave labourers now looted from their former masters. Many young women sent back to Germany from the occupied territories of the Soviet Union had worked on farms and in domestic service, as well as in factories. Red Army soldiers had suffered far more in their prison camps than even the slave labourers.

Huge crowds on the roads. Prisoners of war of all nationalities: French, Belgian, Dutch, all loaded with looted things. Only Americans are walking light, without even hats. They don’t need anything except alcohol. Some of them greet us waving bottles. The Civilian International of Europe is moving on other roads. Women wearing pants, all pushing thousands of prams full of loot. It is a mad chaos, full of joy. Where’s East, where’s West?

Liberated cripples – former Red Army soldiers. One of them, mournful, dying, says: ‘I will never make it back to my home.’ When Germans wanted to kill them, the cripples cut the wire, got hold of a sub-machine gun and one rifle, and decided to fight.

A Russian girl leaving German slavery says: ‘To hell with the Frau. I am sorry only to abandon her six-year-old boy.’

After Schwerin, Grossman reached Landsberg, further down the River Warthe, which flowed into the Oder at Küstrin. In a measure close to Stalin’s heart, each large Soviet formation had a commission attached to confiscate German valuables to compensate for the war damage inflicted on the Soviet Union. The members were civilian accountants dressed up rather unconvincingly as Red Army colonels. Germans obediently opened the safes for them. The real problem came with Red Army soldiers who tried to open safes on their own account. They used captured Panzerfaust rockets, which destroyed the safe and everything in it.

A safe-deposit box in Landsberg. Our commission is opening safes. There’s gold, jewellery, and a lot of photographs of children, women and old people. A member of the removal commission says to me: ‘What the fuck did they keep these photos here for?’

The divisional commander says to his deputy who has come to get more exact instructions on signal flares: ‘I shit on your flares. Sit down and have dinner with me.’

In a stationery shop belonging to a fat Nazi man, on the day of his ruin. A tiny girl came in in the morning and asked him to show her postcards. The fat, gloomy, heavily breathing old man put a dozen postcards on the table in front of her. The girl was choosing, seriously, for a long time, and chose one of a girl in a beautiful dress standing by a broken egg, a chicken climbing out from the egg. The old man received twenty-five pfennig from her and put it into the cash register. That evening, the old man was lying dead in his bed. He had poisoned himself. The shop was closed, yet cheerful, noisy men were carrying boxes of goods and bundles of belongings out of his apartment.

As soon as Grossman caught up with old friends and acquaintances, he pumped them for their stories. Babadzhanyan, now commanding the XI Guards Tank Corps in Katukov’s 1st Guards Tank Army, was the brave commander he had thought had been killed in 1941.

Babadzhanyan’s story: ‘We started on the Vistula on the evening of 15 January, by entering a breach on Chuikov’s sector. We reached the Oder on 28 January. One German captain was going to  to get cigarettes and we captured him right on the border. There was one day when we made 120 kilometres. All the main operations were carried out during the night. Tanks are safe at night. Our tanks are a terrifying force at night. They would break through sixty kilometres, even though we didn’t have local guides (who are very important), as we did in Poland. Although one night an old man, a German, took our tanks through very well.

‘A German general would peacefully take off his trousers and go to bed, having marked on the map that the enemy was sixty kilometres away, and we would attack this general at midnight.’

Grossman also came across Gusakovsky again, an officer clearly not handicapped by modesty.

Gusakovsky’s brigade had a stunning success. There was, among all these destroyed bridges and tank traps, an absolutely intact road, which [the Germans] had been planning to use for a powerful counter-attack. Gusakovsky rushed along this road and got round all the enemy’s defences. [His brigade] was rambling around in the enemy’s rear on its own for two days while other brigades advanced by a roundabout route, or attacked the enemy head-on.

Colonel Gusakovsky, twice Hero of the Soviet Union, commander of a tank brigade: ‘The town [presumably Landsberg] has been captured by one colonel, but the order of the commander-in-chief [Marshal Zhukov] mentions ten generals.’

As the Red Army approached Berlin, officers and soldiers alike dreamed of capturing Hitler alive. They were certain that they would be awarded the Gold Star of Hero of the Soviet Union and would be famous until the end of their days. Intelligence officers in headquarters, meanwhile, pored over captured documents which might have come from the Reich Chancellery in the hope of discovering more about the Nazi leader. ‘At the intelligence department. I was shown an order with Hitler’s signature, which was signed underneath: “Identical with original, Captain Sirkis.”’

In early February, Grossman reached the Oder, the last river before Berlin. The Red Army had counted each river in its advance westwards from the Volga at Stalingrad, and so had Grossman.

We reached the Oder on a sunny morning, at the place where it ran most closely to Berlin. It seemed so bizzare that this slushy country road, these low prickly bushes, small trees, few and far between, low hills sloping towards the river, small houses scattered here and there among the fields covered with the bright greenery of winter crop – all this, so ordinary for my eyes, seen so many times, was just eighty kilometres from Berlin.

And suddenly on this spring morning by the Oder, I remembered how in that iron winter of 1942, in a severe January snowstorm, on a night which was crimson from the flames of a village which Germans had set on fire, a horse driver muffled in a sheepskin coat shouted suddenly: ‘Hey, comrades, where’s the road to Berlin?’ Drivers of vehicles and carts answered with a roar of laughter. I wonder if this joker, who had asked the way to Berlin near Balakleya, is still alive? And what about those who laughed at his question three years ago? And I wanted to shout, to call to all our brothers, our soldiers, who are lying in the Russian, Ukrainian, Belorussian and Polish earth, who sleep for ever on the fields of our battles: ‘Comrades, can you hear us? We’ve done it!’

On the second day after the Red Army invaded Germany, we saw eight hundred Soviet children walking eastwards on the road, the column stretching for many kilometres. Some soldiers and officers were standing by the road, peering into their faces intently and silently. They were fathers looking for their children who had been taken to Germany. One colonel had been standing there for several hours, upright, stern, with a dark, gloomy face. He went back to his car in the dusk: he hadn’t found his son.

I looked through the notebooks of pupils at school. From the first form, almost all the exercises, compositions and presentations, written in unsteady children’s handwriting, were on war themes and Nazi affairs. Portraits, placards, slogans on the classroom walls, all that pursued only one goal – glorifying Hitler and Nazism . . .

German civilians are trying to deny any guilt for the enormous destructions and suffering that fascist Germany and its troops brought to the Soviet Union.

1 He refers to Chuikov as ‘Academician’ using an old joke. It was Chuikov who claimed to have founded the academy of street fighting in Stalingrad.

2 There were no Landwehr, as they were the territorial reserves of the First World War. The Volkssturm was its Nazi equivalent. Regular officers referred to this force of elderly men and young boys as the ‘stew’, as it was a mixture of tough old meat and green vegetables.

3 Nestor Makhno led a large guerrilla force of anarchists in the Ukraine during the civil war, fighting both the Whites and the Reds. They moved rapidly with small horse-drawn carts, some of which had machine guns mounted on them.

4 Colonel-General M.I. Katukov, the commander of the 1st Guards Tank Army, which fought in tandem with the 8th Guards Army more or less from the Vistula all the way to the final assault on Berlin.

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