Military history


The Shock of Invasion 1941


Baptism of Fire

Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union began in the early hours of 22 June 1941. Stalin, refusing to believe that he could be tricked, had rejected more than eighty warnings. Although the Soviet dictator did not collapse until later, he was so disorientated on discovering the truth that the announcement on the wireless at midday was made by his foreign minister, Vyacheslav Molotov, in a wooden voice. The people of the Soviet Union proved rather more robust than their leaders. They queued to volunteer for the front.

Vasily Grossman, bespectacled, overweight and leaning on a walking stick, was dejected when the recruiting station turned him down. He should not have been surprised, considering his unimpressive physical state. Grossman was only in his mid-thirties, yet the girls in the next-door apartment called him ‘uncle’.

Over the next few weeks he tried to get any form of employment he could which was connected with the war. The Soviet authorities, meanwhile, gave little accurate information on what was happening at the front. Nothing was said of the German forces, more than three million strong, dividing the Red Army with armoured thrusts, then capturing hundreds of thousands of prisoners in encirclements. Only the names of towns mentioned in official bulletins revealed how rapidly the enemy was advancing.

Grossman had put off urging his mother to abandon the town of Berdichev in the Ukraine. His second wife, Olga Mikhailovna Guber, convinced him that they had no room for her. Then, before Grossman realised fully what was happening, the German Sixth Army seized Berdichev on 7 July. The enemy had advanced over 350 kilometres in just over two weeks. Grossman’s failure to save his mother burdened him for the rest of his life, even after he discovered that she had refused to leave because there was nobody else to look after a niece. Grossman was also extremely concerned about the fate of Ekaterina, or Katya, his daughter by his first wife. He did not know that she had been sent away from Berdichev for the summer.

Soviet citizens listen to Molotov’s announcement of the German invasion, 22 June 1941

Desperate to be of some help to the war effort, Grossman badgered the Main Political Department of the Red Army, known by the acronym GLAVPUR, even though he was not a member of the Communist Party. His future editor, David Ortenberg, a commissar with the rank of general, recounted later how he came to work for Krasnaya Zvezda, the newspaper of the Soviet armed forces which was far more attentively read during the war than any other paper.1

I remember how Grossman turned up for the first time at the editorial office. This was in late July. I had dropped in at the Main Political Department and heard that Vasily Grossman had been asking them to send him to the front. All that I knew about this writer was that he had written the novel Stepan Kolchugin about the Donbass.

‘Vasily Grossman?’ I said. ‘I’ve never met him, but I know Stepan Kolchugin. Please send him to Krasnaya Zvezda.’

‘Yes, but he has never served in the army. He knows nothing about it. Would he fit in at Krasnaya Zvezda?’

‘That’s all right,’ I said, trying to persuade them. ‘He knows about people’s souls.’

I did not leave them in peace until the People’s Commissar signed the order to conscript Vasily Grossman into the Red Army and appoint him to our newspaper. There was one problem. He was given the rank of private, or, as Ilya Ehrenburg liked to joke about both himself and Grossman, ‘untrained private’. It was impossible to give him an officer’s rank or that of a commissar because he was not a Party member. It was equally impossible to make him wear a private’s uniform, as he would have had to spend half his time saluting his seniors. All that we could do was to give him the rank of quartermaster. Some of our writers, such as Lev Slavin, Boris Lapin and even, for some time, Konstantin Simonov, were in the same situation. Their green tabs used to cause them a lot of trouble, as the same tabs were worn by medics, and they were always being mistaken for them. Anyway, on 28 July 1941 I signed the order: ‘Quartermaster of the second rank Vasily Grossman is appointed a special correspondent of Krasnaya Zvezda with a salary of 1,200 roubles per month.’

The next day Grossman reported at the editorial office. He told me that although this appointment was unexpected, he was happy about it. He returned a few days later fully equipped and in an officer’s uniform. [His tunic was all wrinkled, his spectacles kept sliding down his nose, and his pistol hung on his unfastened belt like an axe.]

‘I am ready to depart for the front today,’ he said.

‘Today?’ I asked. ‘But can you fire that thing?’ I pointed to the pistol hanging at his side.


‘And a rifle?’

‘No, I can’t, either.’

‘So how can I allow you to go to the front? Anything can happen there. No, you will have to live at the editorial office for a couple of weeks.’

Colonel Ivan Khitrov, our tactical expert and a former army officer, became Grossman’s coach. He would take him to one of the shooting ranges of the Moscow garrison and teach him how to shoot.

On 5 August, Ortenberg allowed Grossman to set off for the front. He arranged for him to be accompanied by Pavel Troyanovsky, a correspondent of great experience, and Oleg Knorring, a photographer. Grossman described their departure in some detail.

We are leaving for the Central Front. Political Officer Troyanovsky, camera reporter Knorring, and I are going to Gomel. Troyanovsky, with his thin dark face and big nose, has received the medal ‘For Achievements in Battle’. He has seen a lot although he isn’t old, in fact he is some ten years younger than me. I had at first thought that Troyanovsky was a real soldier, a born fighter, but it turned out that he had started his career in journalism not long ago as a correspondent of Pionerskaya Pravda [the Communist Youth Movement newspaper]. I was told that Knorring is a good photojournalist. He is tall, a year younger than me. I am older than the other two, but alongside them I am a mere baby in matters of war. They take a perfectly justified pleasure in regaling me with the forthcoming horrors.

We leave tomorrow by train. We will travel in a ‘soft’ railway carriage all the way to Bryansk, and from there by whatever transport God sends our way. We were briefed before our departure by Brigade Commissar Ortenberg. He told us that an advance was about to take place. Our first meeting was at GLAVPUR. Ortenberg had a conversation with me and finally told me that he thought I was an author of children’s books. This was a big surprise for me, I had no idea that I had written any books for children. When we were saying goodbye I said to him: ‘Goodbye, Comrade Boev.’ He burst out laughing. ‘I am not Boev, I am Ortenberg.’ Well, I paid him back. I had mistaken him for the chief of the publications department of GLAVPUR.

I have been drinking all day, just as a recruit should. Papa turned up, as well as Kugel, Vadya, Zhenya and Veronichka. Veronichka was looking at me with very sad eyes, as if I were Gastello.2 I was very touched. The whole family sang songs and had sad conversations. The atmosphere was melancholy and concentrated. I lay alone that night, thinking. I had a lot of things, as well as people, to think about.

The day of our departure is a lovely one, it’s hot and rainy. Sunshine and rain alternate suddenly. Pavements and sidewalks are wet. Sometimes they shine and sometimes are slate grey. The air is filled with hot, stifling moisture. A beautiful girl, Marusya, has come to see Troyanovsky off. She works at the editorial offices [of Krasnaya Zvezda], but apparently she is seeing him off on her own initiative, not at the editor’s request. Knorring and I are tactful. We avoid looking in their direction.

Then the three of us [go to the platform]. I have so many memories of the Bryansky railway station. It’s the station I arrived at when I first came to Moscow. Perhaps my departure from it today is my last. We drink lemonade and eat disgusting cakes in the cafeteria.

Our train pulls out of the station. All the names of stations along the line are familiar. I passed them so many times as a student, going back to Mama, to Berdichev, for my holidays. For the first time in a long while I can catch up on sleep in this ‘soft’ compartment, after all the air raids on Moscow.

[After reaching Bryansk] we spend a night at the railway station. Every corner is filled with Red Army soldiers. Many of them are badly dressed, in rags. They have already been ‘there’. Abkhazians look the worst. Many of them are barefoot.

We have to sit up all night. German aircraft appear above the station, the sky is humming, there are searchlights everywhere. We all rush to some wasteland as far as possible from the station. Fortunately, the Germans don’t bomb us here, they only frighten us. In the morning we listen to a broadcast from Moscow. It is a press conference given by Lozovsky [the head of the Soviet Information Bureau]. Sound was bad, we were listening hungrily. He used a lot of proverbs as usual, but they didn’t make our hearts feel any lighter.

We go to the freight station to look for a train. They put us on a hospital train going to Unecha [midway between Bryansk and Gomel]. We board the train, but then suddenly there is panic. Everyone starts running, and firing. It turns out that a German aircraft is machine-gunning the railway station. I myself was caught up in this considerable commotion.

After Unecha, we travelled in a freight car. The weather was wonderful, but my travel companions said this was bad, and I realised this myself. There were black holes and craters from bombs everywhere along the railway. One could see trees broken by explosions. In the fields there were thousands of peasants, men and women, digging anti-tank ditches.

We watch the sky nervously and decided to jump off the train if the worst came to the worst. It was moving quite slowly. The moment we arrived in Novozybkov there was an air raid. A bomb fell by the station forecourt. This train wasn’t going any further. We lay on the green grass, waiting and enjoying the warmth and grass around us, but we still kept glancing up at the sky. What if a German [aircraft] turned up all of a sudden?

We jump to our feet in the middle of the night. There is a hospital train going to Gomel. We take hold of the handrails when the train is already moving. We hang on the steps, knock at the door, pleading with them to let us at least on to the platform of the freight car. Suddenly a woman looks out and shouts: ‘Jump off this second! It is forbidden to travel on hospital trains!’ The woman is a doctor whose calling is to relieve people’s suffering. ‘Excuse us, but the train is moving at full speed, how are we to jump off?’ There are five of us holding on to the handrails, we are all officers and all we are asking for is to be allowed to stand on the covered platform. She starts kicking us with her great boot, silently and with extraordinary force. She punches us on the hands with her fist, trying to make us let go of the handrails. Things are looking bad: if one lets go, that would be the end. Fortunately, it dawns on us that we aren’t on a Moscow tram, and switch from the defensive to the attack. A few seconds later, the covered platform is ours, and the bitch with the rank of doctor is screaming in a frightened way and disappears very quickly. This is our first taste of fighting.

We arrive in Gomel. The train stops very far from the railway station, so we have a painful walk along the track in the dark. One has to crawl under the carriages to cross railways. I bang my forehead on them and stumble; my damned suitcase turns out to be extremely heavy.

Finally we reach the station building. It is completely destroyed. We utter ‘Ahs’ and ‘Ohs’ looking at the ruins. A railway worker who is passing reassures us by saying that the station had been demolished just before the invasion in order to build a bigger and better one.

Gomel! What sadness there is in this quiet green town, in these sweet public gardens, in its old people sitting on the benches, in sweet girls walking along the streets. Children are playing in the piles of sand brought here to extinguish incendiary bombs . . . Any minute a huge cloud may cover the sun, a storm may whip up sand and dust, and whirl them about. The Germans are less than fifty kilometres away.

Gomel welcomes us with an air-raid warning. Locals say that the custom here is to sound the alarm when there are no German aircraft around and, on the contrary, to sound the all-clear as soon as bombing starts.

Bombing of Gomel. A cow, howling bombs, fire, women . . . The strong smell of perfume – from a pharmacy hit in the bombardment – blocked out the stench of burning, just for a moment.

The picture of burning Gomel in the eyes of a wounded cow.

The colours of smoke. Typesetters had to set their newspaper by the light of burning buildings.

We stay the night with a tyro journalist. His articles aren’t going to join a Golden Treasury of Literature. I’ve seen them in the Front newspaper. They are complete rubbish, with stories such as ‘Ivan Pupkin has killed five Germans with a spoon’.

We went to meet the editor, regimental commissar Nosov, who kept us waiting for a good two hours. We had to sit in a dark corridor, and when finally we saw this tsar-like person and spoke with him for a couple minutes, I realised that this comrade was, to put it mildly, not particularly bright and that his conversation wasn’t worth even a two-minute wait.

Gomel and the Central Front, August 1941

The headquarters of the Central Front was the first port of call for Grossman, Troyanovsky and Knorring. The Central Front, commanded by General Andrei Yeremenko, had been set up hurriedly following the collapse of the Western Front at the end of June.3The Western Front’s unfortunate commander, General D.G. Pavlov, was made the chief scapegoat for Stalin’s refusal to prepare for war. In characteristic Stalinist fashion, Pavlov, the commander of Soviet tank forces during the Spanish Civil War, was accused of treason and executed.

The headquarters has been set up in the Paskevich Palace. There is a wonderful park, and a lake with swans. Lots of slit trenches have been dug everywhere. Chief of the political department of the front, Brigade Commissar Kozlov, receives us. He tells us that the Military Council is very alarmed by the news that arrived yesterday. The Germans have taken Roslavl and assembled a great tank force there.4 Their commander is Guderian, author of the book Achtung! Panzer!5

We leafed through a series of the Front newspaper. I came across the following phrase in a leading article: ‘The much-battered enemy continued his cowardly advance.’

We sleep on the floor in the library of the ‘Komintern’ club, keeping our boots on, and using gas masks and field pouches as pillows. We have dinner at the canteen of the headquarters. It is situated in the park, in an amusing multicoloured pavilion. They feed us well, as if we were in a dom otdykha [Soviet house of rest] before the war. There’s sour cream, curds, and even ice-cream as a dessert.

Grossman became increasingly horrified and disillusioned the more he discovered about the Red Army’s lack of preparation. He began to suspect, despite the official silence on the subject, that the person most responsible for the catastrophe was Stalin himself.

On the outbreak of war, a lot of senior commanders and generals were on holiday in Sochi. Many armoured units were having new engines installed in their tanks, many artillery units had no shells, many aviation regiments had no fuel. When telephone calls began to come in from the frontier to the higher headquarters with reports that war had begun, some of them received the following answer: ‘Don’t give in to provocation.’ This produced surprise in the most frightful and most severe sense of the word.

The disaster right along the front from the Black Sea to the Baltic was of great personal importance to Grossman, as a letter to his father on 8 August reveals.

My dear [Father], I arrived at my destination on 7 [August] . . . I so regret that I haven’t got a blanket with me, it’s no good sleeping under a raincoat. I am constantly worried about Mama’s fate. Where is she, what’s happened to her? Please let me know immediately if you have some news of her.

Grossman made visits to the front lines and jotted down these observations.

I was told how, after Minsk began to burn, blind men from the invalid home there walked along the motorway in a long file, tied to one another with towels.

A photographer remarks: ‘I saw some very good refugees yesterday.’

A Red Army soldier is lying on the grass after the battle, talking to himself: ‘Animals and plants fight for existence. Human beings fight for supremacy.’

The dialectics of war – the skill of hiding, of saving one’s life, and the skill of fighting, of giving one’s life.

Stories about being cut off. Everyone who has escaped back can’t stop telling stories about being encircled, and all the stories are terrifying.

A pilot escaped back through enemy lines wearing only his underwear, but he had held on to his revolver.

Specially trained dogs with Molotov cocktails strapped to them are sent in to attack tanks and burst into flames.6

Bombs are exploding. The battalion commander is lying on the grass and doesn’t want to go to the shelter. A comrade shouts to him: ‘You’ve become a complete sloth. Why don’t you at least go and take cover in those little bushes?’

A headquarters in a forest. Aircraft are swanning about overhead above the canopy. [Officers] remove their caps because the peaks shine, and they cover up papers. In the morning typewriters chatter everywhere. When aircraft appear, soldiers put greatcoats on the typists because they wear coloured dresses. Hidden in the bushes, clerks continue their quarrels about files.

A chicken belonging to the headquarters staff is taking a walk between earth dugouts, with ink on its wings.

There are many boletus mushrooms in the forest – it’s sad to look at them.7

[Political] instructors have been ordered to the front. Those who want to go, and those who do not can be spotted easily. Some simply obey the order, others dodge. Everyone is sitting around and everyone can see all this, and those who dodge know that everyone can see through their tricks.

A long road. Wagons, pedestrians, strings of carts. A yellow dust cloud above the road. Faces of old people and women. Driver Ivan Kuptsov was sitting on the back of his horse a hundred metres away from the position. When a retreat started and there was one cannon left, German batteries rained shells on them, but instead of galloping to the rear he rode to the field gun and rescued it from a swamp. When the political officer asked how he had found the courage to commit this feat of bravery in the face of death, he answered: ‘I’ve got a simple soul, as simple as a balalaika. It isn’t afraid of death. It’s those with precious souls who fear death.’

A tractor driver loaded all the wounded men on to his vehicle and took them to the rear. Even the heavily wounded men kept their weapons.

[According to] Lieutenant Yakovlev, a battalion commander, the Germans attacking him were completely drunk. Those they captured stank of alcohol, and their eyes were bloodshot. All the attacks were fought off. Soldiers wanted to carry Yakovlev, who was heavily wounded, to the rear, on a groundsheet. He shouted: ‘I’ve still got my voice and I am able to give orders. I am a communist and I can’t leave the battlefield.’

Sultry morning. Calm air. The village is full of peace – nice, calm village life – with children playing, and old people and women sitting on benches. We hardly had arrived when three Junkers appeared. Bombs exploded. Screams. Red flames with white and black smoke. We pass the same village again in the evening. The people are wild-eyed, worn out. Women are carrying belongings. Chimneys have grown very tall, they are standing tall amid the ruins. And flowers – cornflowers and peonies – are flaunting themselves so peacefully.

We came under fire near a cemetery. We hid beneath a tree. A truck was standing there, and in it was a dead rifleman-signaller, covered with a tarpaulin. Red Army soldiers were digging a grave for him nearby. When there’s a raid of Messers, the soldiers try to hide in ditches. The lieutenant shouts: ‘Carry on digging, otherwise we won’t finish until the evening.’ Korol hides in the new grave, while everyone runs in different directions. Only the dead signaller is lying full length, and machine guns are chattering above him.

Grossman and Knorring visited the 103rd Red Army Aviation Fighter Regiment stationed near Gomel. Grossman soon discovered that the Red Army on the ground had mixed feelings about their own air force, which rapidly acquired a reputation for attacking anything which moved, whether friend or foe. ‘Ours, ours?’ ran the universal joke. ‘Then where’s my helmet?’

I went with Knorring to the Zyabrovsky airfield near Gomel. Commissar Chikurin of Red Army Aviation, a big, slow fellow, had lent us his ZIS staff car. He was cursing German [fighter pilots]: ‘They chase vehicles, individual trucks, cars. It’s hooliganism, an outrage!’

At the same regiment, there are two comrades, who had both been decorated. Once they shot down one of our planes and were punished. After receiving their sentences, they started to work better. It was proposed to have them acquitted.

Notes from an interview with a pilot:
‘Comrade Lieutenant Colonel, I’ve shot down a Junkers-88 for the Soviet motherland.’

About Germans:

‘There are pilots who aren’t bad, but the majority are crap. They avoid fighting. They don’t fight till the bitter end.’

Grossman takes his first flight at Zyabrovsky airfield, near Gomel, August 1941.

‘There’s no anxiety – anger, fury. And when you see he’s on fire, light comes into your soul.’

‘Who is going to turn away? Him or me? I am not going to. I have become a single whole with the plane and don’t feel anything any longer.’

A young Red Army soldier set off a rocket at the [airfield] command post and hit the Chief of Staff in the behind.

The headquarters are in a building which had been a Young Pioneers’ palace. A huge pilot festooned with pouches, a pistol, and so on, emerges from a door on which is written ‘For young girls’.

Buildings at the airfield have been destroyed by bombing, the field ploughed up by explosions. Ilyushin and MiG aircraft are concealed under camouflage nets. Vehicles go round the airfield delivering fuel to the aeroplanes. There is also a truck with cakes and a truck carrying vacuum flasks of food. Girls in white overalls fuel the pilots with dinner. The pilots eat capriciously, reluctantly. The girls are coaxing them to eat. Some aircraft are hidden in the forest.

It was remarkably interesting when Nemtsevich [commander of the aviation regiment] told us about the first night of the war, about the terrible, swift retreat. He drove around day and night in a truck picking up officers’ wives and children. In one house he found officers who had been stabbed to death. Apparently, they had been killed in their sleep by saboteurs. This was close to the frontier. He said that on that night of the German invasion he had to make a telephone call on some unimportant business and it turned out that communications weren’t working . . . He was annoyed, but didn’t pay much attention to this.

Nemtsevich said to me that German aircraft haven’t appeared over his airfield for ten days. He was categorical about his conclusion: the Germans have no fuel, the Germans have no aircraft, they have all been shot down. I’ve never heard such a speech – what optimism! This trait of character is both good and harmful at the same time, but at any rate he’ll never make a strategist.

We had lunch in a cosy little canteen. There was a pretty waitress and Nemtsevich moaned with desire when he looked at her. He spoke to her in a fawning, shy, pleading voice. She was ironically indulgent. This was that brief triumph of a woman over a man in the days, or maybe even hours, preceding the ‘surrender’ of her heart. It is strange to see in this handsome and masculine commander of a fighter regiment this timid submissiveness to the power of a woman. Evidently, he is a great skirt-chaser.

We spent the night in a huge, multi-storeyed building. It was deserted, dark, frightening, and sad. Hundreds of women and children were living here a short time ago, families of pilots. At night we were woken by a frightening low humming and went out into the street. Squadrons of German bombers were flying eastwards over our heads, evidently, those very ones Nemtsevich spoke about during the day, the ones he said had no fuel and were destroyed.

There was the roar of engines starting up, dust, and wind – that very special aircraft wind, flattened against the ground. Aircraft went up into the sky one after another, circled and flew away. And immediately the airfield became empty and silent, like a classroom when the pupils have skipped away. It’s like poker: the regimental commander threw his whole fortune into the air. The playing field is empty. He is standing there alone looking into the sky, and the skies above him are empty. He’ll either be left a pauper, or will get everything back with interest. That’s a game, where stakes are life and death, victory or defeat. I am forever feeling as if I am on a cinema screen, not just watching it. Major events are coming thick and fast.

Finally, after a successful attack on a German column, the fighters returned and landed. The lead aircraft had human flesh stuck in the radiator. That’s because the supporting aircraft had hit a truck with ammunition that blew up right at the moment when the leader was flying over it. Poppe, the leader, is picking the meat out with a file. They summon a doctor who examines the bloody mass attentively and pronounces [it] ‘Aryan meat!’ Everyone laughs. Yes, a pitiless time – a time of iron – has come!

1 Ortenberg, David I. (took the non-Jewish name of Vadimov in Krasnaya Zvezda).

2 Captain Gastello, a famous hero who had fought as a pilot in the Spanish Civil War, was a squadron commander with the the 207th Regiment of the 42nd Aviation Division. A German anti-aircraft gun damaged the fuel tank of his aircraft on 26 June 1941 in the area of Molodechno. The aircraft began to burn, and Gastello drove the burning aircraft at a column of German vehicles on the road. The explosion and fire that followed was said to have destroyed dozens of vehicles, enemy soldiers and tanks. Gastello was made a Hero of the Soviet Union, posthumously.

3 General A.I. Yeremenko (1892–1970) took part in the partition of Poland in 1939. After the fighting round Gomel in August 1941, he took command of the Bryansk Front, and that autumn he was badly wounded in the leg and nearly captured when Guderian’s panzers outflanked his forces. He was later the commander-in-chief of the Stalingrad Front, where Grossman interviewed him.

4 Roslavl was some two hundred kilometres to their north-west, so the area around Gomel was left dangerously exposed. It soon became known as the Gomel salient.

5 General Heinz Guderian (1888–1953) was the commander of the Second Panzer Group (later the Second Panzer Army). Grossman was almost captured by his forces on two occasions.

6 These dogs were trained on Pavlovian principles. Their food was always given to them under a tank so that they would run under armoured vehicles as soon as they saw one. The explosive was strapped to their backs with a long trigger arm, which would detonate the charge as soon as it touched the underside of the target vehicle.

7 This entry presumably inspired the passage in his novel The People Immortal: ‘Bogaryov saw a family of boletus mushrooms in the grass. They were standing there on their fat white stems, and he remembered with what passion he and his wife had been picking mushrooms the year before. They would have been mad with joy had they found so many boletus. But he was never so lucky in peacetime.’

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