Military history


The Terrible Retreat

A general impression of the first few months of the Nazi-Soviet war is one of constant movement, of rapid advances and sweeping panzer encirclements. But on the Soviet side there were also many brief periods of inaction, to say nothing of confusion, rumours and waiting as orders failed to get through or were countermanded. Grossman, Troyanovsky and Knorring were taken back to the front. Grossman once again jotted everything down which caught his eye or his imagination, using one of his tiny notepads, with squared pages similar to a schoolboy’s maths exercise book.

Reaching the front. The humming of artillery is becoming increasingly loud. Anxiety and tension are growing. Artillery, ammunition and horse-drawn carts are moving on a wide, white, sandy road, in the golden dust of sunset, among the red pines. Infantry is on the march. A young officer covered in dust and sweat, with a huge yellow dahlia lit by the setting sun. They are heading towards the west.

At the front, when there’s trench warfare, Germans shout every morning: ‘Zhuchkov, surrender.’ Zhuchkov answers sullenly: ‘Fuck you.’

A Red Army soldier with a beard. Officer: ‘Why don’t you shave?’ Soldier: ‘I haven’t a razor.’ Officer: ‘Very well, you’ll go on a reconnaissance mission, with your beard.’ Soldier: ‘I’ll shave today, comrade commander.’

Ganakovich – a wonderful man – puffing on his pipe, radiating waves of calmness and common sense. He is sad sometimes, and likes to sit alone. He sits thinking for a long, long time. He uses colourful language. ‘Well, I remember the cavalry from 1914. They steal chickens and fuck women even as far as two hundred kilometres behind the front.’

Battle at night. Cannonade. Field guns bang, shells howl, first in a shrill tone, then humming like wind. Barking of mines. A lot of rapid, white fire. The tap dance of machine guns and rifles is the most disturbing. Green and white German rockets. Their light is mean, dishonest, not like daylight. A ripple of shots. People are neither seen nor heard. It is like a riot of machines.

Morning. A battlefield. Shell craters, flat like saucers, with earth spilt around them. Gas masks. Flasks. Little holes dug by soldiers during the attack for machine-gun and mortar nests. They did themselves no good when they dug the holes so close to one another. One can see how they huddled together, two holes – two friends, five holes – soldier comrades from the same region. Blood. A man killed behind a haystack, his fist clenched, leaning back like a frightening sculpture – Death on the Field of Battle. There is a little pouch with makhorka [black tobacco] and a box of matches.

The bottom of a German trench is covered with straw. The straw has kept the shapes of human bodies. By the trenches there are empty cans, lemon peel, wine and brandy bottles, newspapers, magazines. There are no traces of food by the machine-gun nests, only a lot of cigarette butts and multicoloured cigarette boxes. One wants to wash one’s hands carefully after touching anything German – newspapers, photographs, letters.

The divisional commander, the tall, embittered Colonel Meleshko, wore a soldier’s padded jacket. To a correspondent’s sugary remark about how happy and excited are the faces of wounded soldiers when they return from the battle, he remarked, with a sardonic grin: ‘Especially the faces of those wounded in the left hand.’

Soldiers frequently shot themselves through the left hand in a naive attempt to escape battle. In fact, such a wound, whatever the circumstances, was automatically deemed to have been self-inflicted and thus an attempt to evade battle. The soldier faced summary execution at the hands of the NKVD Special Departments (later SMERSh counter-intelligence). A few Red Army surgeons dared to save a boy’s life by amputating the hand entirely before the Special Department checked the wounds of every new patient.

A German PoW on the edge of a forest – a miserable dark-haired boy. He is wearing a white-and-red neckerchief. He is being searched. The main feeling of soldiers towards him is surprise, as he is a stranger, a total stranger to these aspens, pines and the sad harvested fields.

The shifting sense of danger. A place seems frightening at first, but afterwards you will remember it being as safe as your Moscow apartment.

A cemetery. Fighting is going on below in the valley, the village is burned out. Twelve German bombers are diving over to the left. The cemetery is quiet, [but] chickens are cackling in the smoking village. They are laying, and our driver Petlyura says with an arch smile: ‘I’m going to fetch some eggs for you in a second.’ At this very moment, a Messerschmitt attacks with a howling roar and Petlyura scurries into a gap between graves, forgetting the eggs.

Grossman then heard that Utkin, a famous poet, had been wounded nearby.1

Morning. We went to the field hospital to see Utkin, whose fingers had been torn off by shrapnel. It was overcast, raining. There were about nine hundred wounded men in a little clearing among young aspens. There were bloodstained rags, scraps of flesh, moans, subdued howling, hundreds of dismal, suffering eyes. The young red-haired ‘doctoress’ had lost her voice – she had been operating all night. Her face was white – as if she might faint at any minute. Utkin had already been taken away in a staff car. She smiled. ‘While I was making incisions, he recited poetry for me.’ One could barely hear her voice, she was helping herself speak with gestures. Wounded men kept arriving, they were all wet with blood and rain.

Like all Russians, Grossman was touched by stories of the war orphans, the countless innocents whose lives had been destroyed.

When this lieutenant colonel was walking from Volkovysk, he found a three-year-old boy in a forest. He carried the boy in his arms for hundreds of kilometres though marshes and forests. I saw them at the headquarters. The blond boy was asleep hugging the lieutenant colonel’s neck. The lieutenant colonel was red-haired and his clothes were all rags.2

A joke about how to catch a German. One simply needs to tie a goose by the leg and a German would come out for it. Real life: Red Army soldiers have tied chickens by the leg and let them out into a clearing in the woods, and hid in the bushes. And Germans really did appear when they heard the chickens clucking. They fell right into the trap.

In the third week of August, part of General Heinz Guderian’s Second Panzer Group swung southwards to outflank the Soviet forces in the Gomel salient. The German advance forced the Red Army to abandon the city, and soon the last part of Belorussian territory fell to the enemy. Grossman encountered the leaders of the Belorussian Communist Party at an outdoor meeting of its Central Committee with senior military officers.3 Grossman developed the scene in his novel the following year.

Who can describe the austerity of this session held on the last free patch of the Belorussian forest? The wind coming from Belorussia sounded melancholy and solemn, and it seemed as if millions of voices were whispering in the leaves of oaks. People’s Commissars [government ministers] and members of the Central Committee, men in military tunics with tanned and tired faces, were brief in what they said . . . It became dark. The artillery opened fire. Long flashes lit the dark skies in the west.

In the original notebook, he wrote:

Session of the Central Committee of Belorussian Communist Party – on the last piece of Belorussian soil . . . Severe matters are being resolved, not a single unnecessary word is spoken . . . Ponomarenko – speaking to a Red Army commander: ‘You can’t use foul language about a member of the Central Committee.’ The General was frightened: ‘I didn’t curse him, I was cursing in general.’4

The order was received during the night to bombard Novo-Belitsa and Gomel. The sky was burning. A subdued conversation in the commander’s hut. Voice of the commander: ‘If you remember, in Travel to Arzrum.’ Another voice: ‘Karaims aren’t Jews, they descend from Khazars.’5

Dogs rush over the bridge from the burning city of Gomel alongside cars.

During the bombing, an old man climbed out of the trench to retrieve his hat, and his head was chopped off together with all of the neck.

News of the growing military disaster spread among the civilian population. Grossman, Troyanovsky and Knorring were a part of the flight south to avoid Guderian’s panzer columns. This took them into the north-eastern tip of the Ukraine. The companions escaped south along the main road to Kiev as far as Chernigov, then eastwards to Mena. In both places, Red Army staff officers did not take the danger seriously, as Grossman discovered.

Stalin in the Kremlin also refused to face the reality of the threat. Guderian’s panzers, striking south from Gomel, could cut off the Ukrainian capital Kiev from the north, but by the time the Soviet leader recognised the danger, it was too late. This was to be the biggest single military defeat in Soviet history. In the ‘Kiev concentration’, the Red Army lost more than half a million men captured and killed. Grossman and his companions only just escaped the trap as the 3rd, 4th and 17th Panzer Divisions drove south from Gomel into eastern Ukraine. The 3rd Panzer Division captured the crucial bridge over the River Desna near Novgorod-Seversky on 25 August.

Troyanovsky described their route. ‘We were driving and driving past smouldering ruins. The ruins of Chernigov, Borzna, Baturin were smouldering . . . Whenever there was an air raid, P.I. Kolomeitsev would organise small arms fire at the fascist aircraft. Even such utterly civilian men as Oleg Knorring and Vasily Grossman would fire at the aircraft with their rifles.’ Grossman, however, was equally concerned with the human tragedy about them.

Civilians. They are crying. Whether they are riding somewhere, or standing by their fences, they begin to cry as soon as they begin to speak, and one feels an involuntary desire to cry too. There’s so much grief!

An empty house. The family moved out the day before, the owner is leaving too. The neighbour, an old man, has come to see him off: ‘And the doggy will stay?’

‘He didn’t want to go.’

And the house remains where it has always stood. Green tomatoes are ripening on the roof, flowers amuse themselves in the garden. In the room there are little cups and jars, fig trees in flowerpots, a lemon tree, a palm tree. Everywhere, in everything, one can feel the owner’s hands.

Dust. White, yellow, red dust. It is stirred up by the feet of sheep, pigs, horses, cows, and by the carts of refugees, Red Army soldiers, trucks, staff cars, tanks, guns and artillery tractors. Dust is hanging, swirling, whirling over the Ukraine.

Heinkels and Junkers are flying at night. They spread among the stars like lice. The blackness of air is filled with their humming. Bombs are crashing down. Villages are burning all around. The dark August sky becomes lighter. When a star falls down, or when there is thunder during the day, everyone gets scared, but then they laugh: ‘That’s from the sky, from the real sky.’

In the terrible retreats of 1941, Red Army soldiers walked for hundreds of kilometres.

An old woman thought she might see her son in the column that was trudging through the dust. She stood there until evening and then came up to us. ‘Soldiers, take some cucumbers, eat, you are welcome.’ ‘Soldiers, drink this milk.’ ‘Soldiers, apples.’ ‘Soldiers, curds.’ ‘Soldiers, please take this.’ And they cry, [these women], they cry, looking at the men walking past them.

The girl Orinka in the village Dugovaya – the grief itself, the very black-eyed poetry of the people. Black legs, torn dress. We offered her apples from the garden of her collective farm. Well, this garden is hers. The old guardian of the orchard watches in silence as we pick the apples.

A massive gun is moving along the road in the black-yellow cloud of dust. Two Red Army soldiers are sitting on its barrel, their faces black with dust. They are drinking water from a helmet.

Grossman, leaving Ukraine only a step ahead of Guderian’s panzers, was no doubt thinking of his mother, trapped in Berdichev, nearly five hundred kilometres behind him to the south-west. From Shchors (named after a Bolshevik hero of the civil war), Grossman, Troyanovsky and Knorring travelled to Glukhov and then took the main road north eastwards to Orel.

To think of the towns now occupied which one had visited before is like remembering friends who have died. It is infinitely sad. They seem terribly remote and close at the same time, and life in them seems like the ‘other world’.

Talk in villages. All sorts: angry, sincere. Today a loud-voiced young woman shouted: ‘How can we possibly take orders from the Germans? How can we allow such a disgrace to happen?’

Cucumbers. Four men from the fruit and vegetable store load cucumbers at the station, during a bombing raid. They are crying with fear, get drunk, and in the evenings they recount, with Ukrainian humour, how scared they were and laugh at one another, eating honey, salo [pork lard], garlic and tomatoes. One of them imitates wonderfully the howling and explosion of a bomb.

B. Korol is teaching them how to use a hand grenade. He thinks they’ll become partisans under German occupation, while I sense from their conversation that they are ready to work for the Germans. One of them, who wants to be an agronomist for this area, looks at Korol as if he were an imbecile.

Face and soul of the people. In three days we went through Belorussia, Ukraine, and arrived in the Orel area. Hard times reveal the best side of people. They are kind and noble. There are similar traits in the three nations, and also some deeply different aspects. Russians are the strongest and most enduring. The face of a Ukrainian is sad and gentle, they are sly and a little disloyal. The grief of Belorussians is quiet and black.

Orel. Driving in the dark. The brakes of our vehicle are not working. We stop hard in front of a group of refugees. A woman screams. Jewish refugees.

Arrival in Orel. The city is blacked out. Before the war one could see the murky shine of the city even from the remote countryside. Now, it’s dark. Hotel. Bed! We sleep without our boots or clothes on for the first time on this journey. A telephone conversation with Moscow. This ability to communicate freely with the city of my friends, my family and my work leaves a melancholy aftertaste.

1 The poet Iosif Pavlovich Utkin (1903–1944) volunteered for the Red Army in June 1941, and was wounded. After these wounds healed, he returned to the front as a military correspondent. Many of his wartime poems were used in songs. He died in a plane crash in 1944 when returning to Moscow from the front.

2 Grossman used this episode in his novel The People Immortal, when the commissar’s son is rescued in a similar manner.

3 Ortenberg wrote later: ‘The next day [21 September] we were able to offer more to the readers: Vasily Grossman and Pavel Troyanovsky had sent a selection of various materials from Gomel. It contained an interview with the Secretary of the Communist Party of Belorussia about the feats of partisans.’

4 Ponomarenko, Panteleimon Kondratyevich (1902–1984), First Secretary of the Belorussian Communist Party, 1938–1947, in exile in Moscow during German occupation 1941–44 where he supervised the organisation of partisan resistance. Ponomarenko, a Stalinist stalwart, was an improbable jazz fan who set up the Belorussian National Jazz Orchestra in Minsk in 1940. After the war he served as Soviet ambassador in a number of posts and was closely connected with the KGB.

5 ‘Two military journalists and a photojournalist were sitting on the trunk of a fallen tree near the shack made of branches where the Military Council was accommodated . . . They heard the commander’s voice from the shack: ‘If you remember, in Travel to Arzrum . . .’ Travel to Arzrum was a travelogue parody written by Pushkin in 1836, the year before his death in a duel.

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