Tuesday, December 15, 2009

1942 I. Kh. Venets, 59th Independent Rifle Brigade

The 2nd Shock Army did not surrender!
I. Kh. Venets,
Colonel (ret.), former Commissar, 59th Independent Rifle Brigade

More than 50 years have passed since the tragic conclusion of the Lyuban' Operation.

I was the military commissar for the 59th Independent Rifle Brigade from October 1941 to June 25th, 1942 – until the very end of the fighting in the pocket.

Formation of the brigade began at the end of 1941 in the village of Dergach' in Saratov province. Responsibility for organizing the brigade fell upon me, since both the commander and the chief of staff of the brigade did not arrive until the last ten days of December 1941, one or two days before heading off for the front.

Lieutenant-Colonel Chernik was appointed as the brigade commander. Prior to this, he had been employed in the office of the Soviet military attache in China and – as events turned out – was incapable of commanding forces in the field, especially in conditions involving swampy and forested terrain. His lack of combat experience coupled with his overweening pride led to excessive losses during our very first engagement along the Volkhov river, near the villages of Bor, Kostylevo and Arefino. This was especially the case around the Myasniy Bor, where Chernik lost all control over combat operations and was removed from his post. .

As for the chief of staff, Major Startsev, there is little to say, as he was wounded in the fighting for Myasniy Bor and Spasskaya Polist' and our paths soon diverged. On the other hand, the staff commissar, Senior Political Instructor Pyotr Yesyutkin, comported himself very well and for a long time successfully managed both the duties of commissar and chief of staff.

Battalion Commissar I. A. Kanashchenko, a conscientious and responsible party worker, was appointed head of the political section. As for the staff of the political section, I only remember the brilliant propagandist, I. P. Pandora.

I found myself on the last train as the brigade departed from Altata station for the front. During a halt in the city of Saratov, another car was attached to the train. This car serve as quarters for the military prosecutor's office and the military tribunal, headed by chairman Abramov, as well as the Special Section, under A. N. Sinev. While en route, I managed to become acquainted with the “passengers” in our new wagon during one of our halts. I remember well the intelligent and erudite military jurist Abramov and his investigator, Zinoviev. I would learn later that they were both tragically killed on the night of June 21st , 1942. I also remember being put on my guard by the haughty and cavalier attitude of the Chief of the Special Section, Sinev, while his deputy, I. I. Dmitrokhin, impressed by his kindness, modesty, and – if one may say – his reticence. Unlike his superior, Ivan Ivanovich possessed an exceptional work-ethic and courage. He would often be seen visiting the the troops in the forward positions.

Among others, I also recall the commander and commissar of the medical company, Lysenko and Tordin, the pharmacy director, Telnova, the doctors Ye. A. Kuz'mina, Kopaigorodksaya, Lyubov' Semenova Feldzher, and the nurses Seraya and Piletskaya.

Unfortunately, both the brigade command staff, from the regimental level down to the platoons, as well as the political administration consisted primarily of men called up from the reserves. They lacked combat experience and there was no time to provide them any training. Only during the last days prior to our departure was an attempt made to conduct an exercise on the open steppe involving “march and engagement”. However, we were unable to complete the exercise as a sudden snow storm whipped up and many of the men ended up suffering frost-bite. It turned out that the troops were poorly equipped for winter weather and lacked even warm undergarments.

While organizing the brigade, there were problems with obtaining weapons and matériel. Thus, artillery guns and mortars, part of the required number of rifles and several automatics were not received until we were in Yaroslavl, during the last ten days of December 1941, when we became part of the 2nd Shock Army. We also received warm undergarments and quilted jackets and pants at the same time.

The trains pushed on very slowly and the first cars arrived at the station halt of Nebolchi in the early morning hours of December 31st. Here we received our first baptism of fire: three German fighter aircraft strafed us and dropped small bombs. Fortunately, no one was hurt. Proceeding on foot through deep snow drifts and clearing a path for the supply and combat vehicles, the units advanced along the Mety river towards Malaya Vishera. From there, they followed along the advance route for the forward units of the 2nd Shock Army.

On 11 January 1941, I believe, brigade commander Chernik and I met with a representative of the operations group of the 2nd Shock Army and were invited into the one of the surviving houses to give a report to the commander. Entering the house, the first introduced ourselves to G. G. Sokolov. Sokolov, however, pointed to another general who was also in the house – Lieutenant-General N. K. Klykov. Klykov was the new army commander and it was to him that we reported the brigade's strength, complement and current location. We then received instructions regarding the brigade's subsequent marching route and deployment area. The latter turned out to be a deep, forested ravine, which was open to the wind all directions, which made the already severe frost even worse.

After strenuous night marches, part of the brigade received its orders and immediately took up its starting positions in the army's rear echelon without having any rest. The following morning, it was to take part in the breakthrough which had been prepared. On January 13th, 1942, the offensive began. On January 14th, our brigade was given the task of entering the breakthrough zone through the positions of the 327th Rifle Division up to a line marked by the villages of Bor, Kostylevo and Arefino. Operating in the German rear, we were to come upon the Germans second line of defense along the line Myasniy Bor-Spasskaya Polist', cut the Novgorod – Chudovo railway, and capture these populated centers along the way (meaning Myasniy Bor and Spasskaya Polist' - skoblin).

It should be noted that neither the commander nor the staff had any daylight time to conduct reconnaissance, assign concrete tasks to the unit commanders, determine the course for carrying out such a complicated military operation, or to effect coordination.

At dawn, January 14th, the brigade began moving from its deployed positions along the river. Ahead lay the Volkhov river and its wide valley. The villages on the opposite bank were engulfed in flames. Moving across the frozen river, the units of the brigade were subjected heavy enemy fire – especially artillery. From our observation post on the steep side of Volkhov we watched with bitterness how each explosive burst left dead and wounded across the snow. The commander of the first battalion, Karavitskiy was killed. Despite the losses, the brigade had reached the German defense line on the Volkhov by the middle of the day and, having entered the breakthrough zone, had captured the villages of Kostylevo, Arefino and Bor.

Late in the evening, the combat formations turned about and began moving in columns along the intended route, having arranged reconnaissance and taken measures to ensure field security. They had to proceed along trackless terrain, through deep snow drifts and generally under cover of night. And apart from two raids on the part of enemy aircraft, we encountered no resistance up to the line of Myasniy Bor. This was understandable as there were thick woods all around and the Germans tended not to set up defenses in such terrain.

I can no longer recall the exact date when the units of our brigade reached the outskirts of Myasniy Bor and began assembling in the dense forest outside the town. It was night and the temperature stood at -40. Despite the cold, campfires were not set in order to avoid detection by the enemy. If, as a last resort, I fire were to be set, it had to be carefully concealed by placing branches or tenting overhead. Men had reached the limit of their endurance. Many dropped to the ground and fell asleep on the spot. As a result, around ten men froze to death during the night.

Operating in the darkness and lacking intelligence regarding the enemy - its fire system, front line defenses and overall defensive depth - Brigade Commander Chenik hastily surveyed the situation with his unit commanders and assigned tasks to the various units. Search parties conducted reconnaissance in force along the front-line sector.

At dawn, the units of the brigade moved forward. The brigade's advance however was detected enemy aircraft after it entered the breakthrough zone and the surprise maneuver miscarried. The Germans met us with strong and - I must say - skillfully-organized fire. Having correctly determined that the strength of the attacking force was not great (indeed at first only the 59th Independent Rifle Brigade had entered the line and gone on the attack) the enemy became emboldened and took advantage of our exposed flanks by dispatching teams of sub-machine gunners into our rear.

In this difficult situation, brigade commander Chernik lost control as communications worked poorly and were often interrupted. In became necessary to send out officers from among the headquarters staff and the political section. The situation managed to be restored but at significant cost in men killed, including the chief of the operations section, Nosev - an experienced and energetic officer, the chief of the reconnaissance section, and commissar Barsukov. The wounded included the commissar of the mortar battalion and others. I had been wounded as well, having had my leg hit with mortar fragments, but the wound seemed minor to me and I remained in the line.

Somehow, our brigade managed to push the enemy back but we were unable to cross the railway line or capture Myasniy Bor, as the forces at our disposal were clearly insufficient for the task.

Subsequent efforts on the part of our brigade and other arriving units led to a breakthrough of the German defenses and the capture of a number of strong-points, including Myasniy Bor, as well as cutting the Novgorod-Chudovo rail line. Our forces, however, proved inadequate to the task of capturing the strongly-entrenched German position at Spasskaya Polist' - either during the immediate effort or during subsequent ones.

After this, our brigade was sent to the rear in order to regroup. Brigade commander Chernik, who had lost his head during the fighting, was removed from his post by order of the Military Council. He was replaced the same day by Colonel I. F. Glazunov.

The brigade spent little more than a day in the rear, not having had time to rest from the previous marches and intensive fighting as new combat orders arrived. The brigade was to enter the breakthrough zone and take up new positions. Having taken up its assignment, the brigade found itself among the vanguard of the attacking units and fought successfully, advancing in the direction of Finev Lug, Ol'khovka, Gorka and Dubovik. The 13th Cavalry Corps was also sent threw the breach in the German lines and was given operational control over our brigade.

During the first days of February, the brigade captured the town of Dubovik through a flanking maneuver. A punitive company of Estonian irregulars was routed and destroyed. Its commander was captured and executed.

Our brigade then entered a large forested expense and advanced along the only dirt track, emerging on the edge of the forest before the villages of Bol'shoe and Maloe Yeglino. Here, it was halted by strong enemy artillery fire. The brigade was spread out, with the artillery lagging behind. It clearly lacked the means and manpower to capture such an entrenched position by a coup de main. We went on the defensive.

In Dubovik, by this time, the brigade command had become thoroughly integrated with the headquarters of the 13th Cavalry Corps. We sensed the solid and skillful leadership of an energetic and intelligent man in the person of corps commander, General N. I. Gusev. Recalling the tragic fate of the 2nd Shock Army, one can only regret the fact that both the corps and its insightful commander had been withdrawn in May. His experience and wisdom would have been beneficial, and decisions undertaken by him could have influenced the outcome of the operation concerning the army's withdrawal.

We were given several days to prepare and organize an assault upon the positions at Bol'shoe and Maloe Yeglino and the railway halt at Yeglinka. By this time we had been reinforced by the 169th, 170th and 171st Ski Battalions, which had been formed in the Urals. Unfortunately, they had arrived the day before the attack, and although their supplies were replenished at the brigade supply depot, there was very little time to prepare for the attack.

A meeting was held in the woods, near the combat operations post, in which I addressed the skiers. Together with brigade commander Colonel Glazunov, a joint meeting was held with the commanders and political officers of the ski battalions. I also assembled the platoon commander separately and called their attention to the tasks and circumstances at hand. Serious preparations for the impending attack were carried out by the headquarters staff of the brigade, led by staff commissar Yesyutkin, who also performed the functions of chief of staff, in place of the wounded Major Startsev.

Our attack began on the 8th or 9th of February. On our right, located some 500 meters to the right of the rail line, was one of the cavalry divisions. I no longer remember who was on our left; probably the 22nd Independent Rifle Brigade under Colonel Pugachyov. Our brigade had been assigned the task of capturing the enemy strong-points in the villages of Bol'shoe and Maloe Yeglino, the rail halt at Yeglinka and a railway bridge and viaduct, which proved an especially hard nut to crack.

The fighting along this position had been particularly stubborn. The enemy understood that if we were to capture this line we would advance quite close to the towns of Tosno and Lyuban'. As a result, the enemy had strongly reinforced both Bol'shoe and Maloe Yeglino. A stretch of open country lay before us, which placed us at a serious disadvantage. Surmounting this open expanse would inevitably lead to heavy casualties. In order to reduce these losses to a minimum, we decided to combine the remnants of the rifle battalions into one force, arm them with automatic weapons, and send them through the woods to make a flanking attack from the left. The ski battalions would attack along the entire front.

The plan paid off in full. Emerging in the rear of the enemy strong-point at the village of Bol'shoe Yeglino, our battalion cut of the Germans' sole line of retreat to the town of Kamenka. The enemy faltered and fled in panic, leaving behind a mass of booty, including a staff bus, food stores and other materiel. Having captured Bol'shoe Yeglino, we created a serious threat to the enemy forces which were still defending the village of Maloe Yeglino and the railway halt. Here, too, the Germans fled in panic. Seizing the railway halt, we cut the lateral rail line and penetrated deep into the enemy's defenses, but we were unable to capture the viaduct. Corps commander N. I. Gusev thereupon ordered the viaduct be destroyed by a Polikarpov U-2
bomber during the night.

Parts of the brigade, especially the ski battalions, which had attacked frontally, incurred significant losses. They began pursuing the withdrawing enemy but were halted at a second line of defense at the village of Kamenka. Here, the Germans had set up their defenses behind a railway embankment. We succeeded in capturing individual firing points but unfortunately lacked the means and resources to proceed further. If the corps command – or better still, the army – had thrown in its reserves, success would have been undoubted.

The Germans regrouped and counter-attacked, sending a company of men and three Renault tanks down the Kamenka-Yeglino road. The infantry were blocked, but the tanks managed to break into Bol'shoe Yeglino. A duel broke out between the tanks and one of our 45-mm anti-tank guns, which was commanded by Senior Sergeant Zhukov. The tanks, it turned out, had been equipped additional armour and the shells simply bounced off them. The duel continued until one of the tanks crushed the gun along with its crew. The brave soldiers did not flinch, even at the last moment. We recommended the entire crew for posthumous decorations, and the gun commander to the title of Hero of the Soviet Union. From what I remember, however, the front command awarded him with the Order of Lenin. One of the tanks was knocked out by one of the ski troops, V. K. Mikhailov, while the other two turned back. The Germans made repeated attacks throughout the day, but all of them were repulsed by our troops at a heavy cost for the enemy. A mound of corpses, stacked with German efficiency into piles in the cellars or outside in the courtyards, attested to their losses. The Germans did not have time to either bury them or ship them back to Germany.

Several commanders and political officers displayed courage and valour during the fighting at Maloe and Bol'shoe Yeglino, including I. Pan'kov, Deputy Chief of the Special Section – I. I. Dmitrokhin, and the Chief of the Political Section – I. A. Kanashchenko. The brigade had suffered heavy losses both during the initial attack and during the German counter-attacks. Unable to overcome the German second line of defense along the lateral railway, units of the brigade dug in and went over to the defensive. They held onto this position until 25 May 1942, when the 2nd Shock Army began its withdrawal. We were only 13 – 15 kilometers from Lyuban' – our main target.

The brigade conducted a lengthy and active defense. Snipers were widely employed. Dozens were killed on account of individual marksmen. I recall one episode, a fierce duel between our sniper, a Siberian hunter, with a German sniper, who had concealed himself under cover of the railway bridge and viaduct. The bridge was located before the battalion on our right flank, separated by some 500m of absolutely open terrain. The German sniper tormented the battalion from his well-camouflaged position. It was impossible to either distribute food to the troops or to have anyone make their way to the battalion OP during the daytime without the risk of being killed. This is how we lost one of the officials from the political section. I then entrusted the commissar for one of the ski battalions to find among the Siberians a good hunter and marksman. Soon after, he presented me with short, frail lad, no more than 20 years old. I explained to him the risky assignment and asked if he was prepared to carry it out. The soldier stated that from a young age his father would take him hunting squirrels and he learned how to aim directly for the eyes, in order not to damage the pelts. He gave his voluntary consent to the assignment and selected a partner for himself. Both were supplied with optical sights.

An exhausting hunt ensued in which the two snipers sought each other. They concealed changes in their positions through the use of dummies and other clever tricks. In the end, however, our modest Siberian killed the German sniper, striking down at the same time a girl-traitor, who had often come out with a megaphone urging us to cross over to the enemy. Our sniper and his partner were awarded for their endeavor and when I. V. Zuyev, a member of the military council, made one of his visits to the brigade, he had a fatherly talk with both of them.

Speaking of I. V. Zuyev, he arrived at our brigade several days after his appointment to the 2nd Shock Army (together with General P. F. Alfer'ev), in order to acquaintance himself with the troops and to inquire about the conditions and circumstances of the brigade. He also visited the command posts of the several units and looked in on some of the artillery and mortar positions. I accompanied him on these visits.

Returning to the brigade headquarters, we continued our discussion over dinner along with General P. F. Alfer'ev and the brigade commander, Colonel I. F. Glazunov. Suddenly, I. V. Zuyev turned to the brigade commander, saying, “It seems Venets is hiding something. I don't like how he looks”. I had to admit that I had been suffering from jaundice for an already lengthy period. I was immediately ordered to go to the hospital, which I refused, agreeing instead to seek treatment at brigade's medical company. There, I received an unexpected parcel from Zuyev – several jars of cranberry jam. I also recall his second visit. Leaving General P. F. Alfer'ev behind to discuss matters with the brigade commander, I. V. Zuyev desired strongly to visit the foremost positions. We made the rounds of all the trenches and dug-outs, almost along our entire front line. We returned to the brigade headquarters only in the evening, hungry and tired. How much of that day was spent in good, instructive meetings with the soldiers and commanders!

A week later I received congratulations on my promotion to the rank of Senior Battalion Commissar.

At the end of February, K. Ye. Voroshilov and K. A. Meretskov arrived at the corps headquarters in Dubovik. N. I Gusev invited invited me and I. F. Glazunov to present to them a report. Naturally, we were concerned, finding ourselves in the presence of such important military officials. Having listened to the brigade commander's report, K. Ye. Voroshilov addressed us with the following words: “Are you aware, comrades, whether your soldiers understand how far you have gone and how close you have come to Leningrad, in order to help its citizens, who are dying from enemy shellfire and still more from cold and hunger?” The conversation then turned on how important it was to achieve success. Here and then, K. Ye. Voroshilov instructed that I. F. Glazunov and myself be awarded with the Order of Lenin. Alas, the circumstances regarding regarding such had become more complicated in the meantime, and they had apparently forgotten that army fronts did not have the right to award commanders and commissars.

K. Ye. Voroshilov was in Dubovik for some time. This, obviously, became known to the Germans and they launched an air raid which hit both our own brigade as well as rear units. The deputy commander of our brigade's rear services died from serious wounds.

The fact that we were unable to meet up with the Leningrad Front was not our fault (meaning by this our brigade and corps). We had done everything everything possible and even more so. We were not the cause. We maintained our defenses, conducted reconnaissance and did not allow the enemy to remove his forces and transfer them to another sector. I stated that we “conducted reconnaissance,” although this became more and more difficult due to losses among the men during the course of combat operations. Still, the corps, its restless commander, N. I. Gusev, and the staff of the 2nd Shock Army – all demanded that prisoners be taken for information. This we did and what a success we had – a liaison officer of the German General Staff! This occurred either in late March or early April 1942 – I do not remember exactly. I had summoned the commander of the independent sapper company, Tikhonov, probably to discuss matters pertaining to supply and evacuation. In the course of our discussion, I lamented the fact that we has been unable acquire any prisoners for a long time. He suggested that I organize a search party from among the best communists and komsomol members in the company. I agreed and was presented with Sergeant Chushkin and Corporal Vanyushin. A plan was worked out, surveillance conducted, and a security detachment formed, which was sent through the front line into the German rear. The brave troops hid themselves near a German trail and sat out the day. When night fell, they moved the trail itself and lay in wait. Then, they saw two figures coming down the path, one of them bawling out a song. Their clothing identified them as an officer being escorted by a soldier. They made a bold rush, dispatched the German escort with a knife, and gagged the officer, dragging him back to our own lines.

The chief of intelligence, who was at our front line, alerted us at once by phone about the “catch”. I immediately ordered a horse team sent off to get him. I sat with I. F Glazuonv and waited anxiously. Suddenly, our scouts made their way into the dugout, looking tired but happy, bringing with them a German oberleutnant wearing the splendid uniform of a general staff officer. The officer, who had been conveying decorations, documents and orders, had decided to drop in on a friend. Their meeting involved a fair number of drinks, leading eventually to the rather ignominious end for the visitor.

Brigade commander I. F. Glazunov, the chief of intelligence, a translator and myself began questioning the prisoner. He was insolent at first, claiming that Germany would still be victorious, while lounging casually in his chair. The insignia showing both the brigade commander's rank as well as my own were hidden under our coats. Having a poor command of the German language, I ordered him to stand and – pointing to I. F. Glazunov – I stated that he was standing before a colonel. The German immediately stood at attention, as if transformed. Glazunov then pointed in my direction and stated - “and this is a commissar”. The German, still standing, immediately turned pale and asked in a trembling voice - “are you going to shoot me?” I reassured him, telling him first that we do not shoot prisoners, and then that he would even be sent to Moscow. When I returned his photographs, which included those of his wife and two chubby little children, he immediately changed for the better and became more talkative. Among the numerous photographs was one of a general standing beside a splendid-looking automobile. In front of the general were a number of officers standing at attention and our oberleutnant, smiling in a relaxed pose. Asked who was this general, he replied - “that is my father”.

Both the corps and the army headquarters immediately demanded that the prisoner be sent to them. At the end of his interrogation, Lindemann – even now I remember his name – asked for a piece of paper and drew the precise boundaries of the 2nd Shock Army. He then marked it with a red cross and stated that he had brought the orders for us to be surrounded, adding to this by saying – kaput. In support of his claim, he pulled a copy of the orders from his jacket cuff and handed it over to us. These plans were added to the other documents from the interrogation. I notified corps commissar Tkachenko about the enemy's intentions by telephone, and he responded: “Don't worry...we'll be able to deal with the Germans!” This required no response on my part!

A member of the Military Council of the Volkhov Front then took over handling the prisoner.

In the middle of April, I. V. Zuyev and N. I. Gusev made another visit to the brigade. The snow had already begun to melt. Together, we visited many firing positions along the front line. Later, while enjoying a modest dinner at the command post (the lack of food was already making itself felt) I. V. Zuyev suddenly announced the decision that our brigade commander, I. F. Glazuov, had been appointed deputy chief of staff of the 2nd Shock Army. I naturally expressed my sincere regret over this. I really did not wish to part company with this intelligent and kindly man and capable commander, with whom I had fought and served in such a pleasant and easy manner. I. F. Zuyev responded by saying the decision was final, and immediately inquired how I would feel if the brigade were offered to me.

Expressing gratitude for his confidence, I nevertheless refused, explaining that I had defined my role in the brigade and understood it well, and wanted to remain a commissar. I requested that he find another person to appoint as commander, especially since the brigade had not had a chief of staff for a long time. And so, we parted ways with I. F. Glazunov – forever, as it turned out. He never made it out of the encirclement.

Lieutenant-Colonel S. A. Pisarenko was appointed the new commander of the brigade. He had previously served as commander of a rifle regiment in one of the armies of the Volkhov Front and showed his worth from the very first days after his arrival. Assuming command of the brigade, he expressed his respect to its former commander and to us - its veterans. We immediately established a good, working relationship.

S. A. Pisarenko took over command at a very difficult time for the brigade. The Germans had succeeded in closing off the breakthrough in their lines and we received almost no deliveries of food or ammunition. Hunger began to make itself felt among the troops. Horses were often slaughtered for food. The situation improved somewhat at the end of March, once a corridor had been opened up through the German lines. Still, with the advent of the spring thaw, the generally road-less conditions, and the significant distance separating the brigade from the army stores, the supply situation rapidly deteriorated. Daily ration levels were not maintained and the troops were subject to malnutrition and starvation once more.

It became necessary to send large teams of men with loaded horses to deliver food and ammunition. As the weather grew warmer, the streams and rivers overflowed their banks, making crossings more difficult and complicating the supply routes. Hunger spread. I spent most of the time with unit commanders on the front line, visiting the troops and the firing positions. A restless and energetic commander, N. I. Gusev had studied the flood patterns of the rivers, streams, lakes and swamps by conversing with the local inhabitants. There was no talk of withdrawal. Everyone understood that there was no time to think about the approach of spring and focused their efforts on fortifications and conducting an active defense. Even the withdrawal of units of the cavalry corps from the 2nd Shock Army failed to shake our confidence that we were here to stay.

The transformation – and eventual elimination - of the Volkhov Front into an operational group of the Leningrad Front disappointed everyone. Where was the Leningrad Front headquarters and where were we? Time would prove that our fears were not unfounded. This decision placed the 2nd Shock Army in exceptionally difficult circumstances.

In the middle of May, brigade commander S. A. Pisarenko and myself were summoned to army headquarters, which was in the woods near the village of Ol'khovka. As it turned out, the commanders and commissars of all units and formations had been invited to a meeting of the Military Council. Here, it was announced that the 2nd Shock Army would be pulling back behind the Volkhov and a withdrawal plan was presented designating times, stages and positions. Signals were arranged to mark the beginning of the withdrawal.

After the meeting, we were invited to dinner, which was a constrained affair – everyone was despondent over the impending withdrawal of the entire army, the units of which were spread out over a wide area. Our brigade was in an especially difficult situation, being located at the furthest point of the defensive line. I. V. Zuyev approached me and S. A. Pisarenko and commiserated with us, wishing us success.

Returning to the brigade and having notified a small circle of persons about the decision of the Military Council, we began making our preparations. Pisarenko and I then set off for the brigade's rear units and services at Dubovik and then to the medical company in the village of Gorka in order to resolve issued related to the impending withdrawal. We proceeded on foot during this long journey together with our orderlies - all armed with submachine guns.

We reached the medical company late in the evening, discussed basic the major issues with the commander and commissar, and were then invited to make use of a wonderful Russian bath-house. The silence of the night was suddenly broken by the sound of machine gun and rifle fire. Having found our bearings, we determined that the gunfire was not coming from the direction of the front line, but significantly closer – somewhere in the vicinity of our command post. Attempts to contact the command post by telephone were unsuccessful and we hurried over there as best as fast as we could. After some time, the firing started to diminish and then ceased altogether. Having reached the command post, we learned the details of what had occurred from the staff commissar – Yesyutkin.

As night had approached, Yesyutkin and the commander of the security platoon had secured the command post and decided to go to bed early. It was an unusually quiet evening – no sound was heard and no fires to be seen. Around 2400 hours, the commander of the security platoon rushed into Yesyutkin's dugout in a nervous state and reported that one of the sentries had picked up the sound of a some conversation in the woods in a foreign language and heard suspicious sounds. A reconnaissance detachment was hurriedly organized to verify the information. It was determined that a large group of Germans had assembled some 200-300 meters from the brigade's command post. On Yesyutkin's instructions and without any orders shouted out, all units located in the vicinity of the command post were put in complete combat readiness. Yesyutkin himself led the reconnaissance company. When they approached as close as possible to the German location, he gave the command - “fire!”. Moans and screams of wounded men could be heard in the utter darkness of the woods. The fascists fled, tossing aside their submachine guns. They left 16 of their fellow tribesmen behind, laying dead in the forest. The German wounded recounted that two platoons of their company had received orders to penetrate our rear, discover our command post in the woods, approach it secretly and seize prisoners. They walked along a marshy swamp, wet and shivering, and decided to rest in order to ensure the success of their attack. Events, however, turned out otherwise. For us, this was a lesson to pay attention to the junction points with adjacent units, through which this German group had penetrated. But all's well that ends well. Private S. A. Ryabykin, who took part in this battle at the command post, remains alive and resides in Kalinin (Tver').

According to the plan of withdrawal, our brigade – having received the signals – was to leave behind a covering force and organize a combat group for conducting rearguard operations. The brigade was to march through the first intermediate line and then take up positions on the second line at Ol'khovka. In this sector, we were charged with allowing other withdrawing units to pass through and through rearguard actions make our way to the main position in the vicinity of Finev Lug. After this, the brigade was to withdraw through the corridor in the vicinity of Myasniy Bor. This was the plan, but events would turn out otherwise....

We failed to receive the departure signal by radio, but were able to discern the signal files of the neighbouring unit to the right. We discovered their departure not so much because of the fires, but because German troops began pressing upon this flank, threatening to cut off our sole line of retreat – through Dubovik. We gave the order to withdraw. Having surmounted an open expanse in the vicinity of Dubovik, the brigade deployed took up combat positions while under German rifle, machine gun and automatic weapons fire as they attempted to surround us from two sides. We were fortunate that we had began our withdrawal with the onset of darkness and behind Dubovik we entered a large forested expanse which halted the enemy.

We made our way to the intermediate position in the vicinity of Ol'khovka, but not as intended. We did not have time to arrange our combat orders as drunken Fritzes, with machine guns and automatics leveled, fell upon us, shouting and whooping. This is where our machine gunners had their fun! Having successfully repulsed all attacks, we awaited the onset of darkness, and conducted an orderly withdrawal through the main defensive position in the vicinity of Finev Lug to the assembly points near the command post of the 305th Rifle Division along the Glushitsa river.

As I recall, we were to finish our departure through the “corridor” during the night of 31 May. With joyful anticipation, we Pisarenko and I headed off for a meeting of the commanders and commissars of those units, which were in readiness to leave through this narrow passageway. We understood the difficulties involved as it had to be done within a limited period of time while under enemy fire.

General P. F. Alfer'ev, however, informed us that the corridor had been closed. Some of the attending officers suggested that we attack immediately, since the troops of the various units were already disposed to set out. All of our guns would be placed for direct fire. We would tell the men that rest awaited us beyond the Volkhov and that we would not only open the corridor, but widen it. Everyone supported the proposal, but we were told in response that the command had decided to prepare for a breakthrough operation. Such a decision only worked in the Germans' favour. On the morning of the following day, the brigade received orders to head off through a marshy swamp to the area near Lubino Pole', assemble in the woods and await for further instructions. Through enormous efforts and despite the intense hunger among the men, we achieved this incredibly difficulty maneuver. We announced our arrival and received orders to return to our previous positions. The purpose of this maneuver remains enigmatic.

Having returned to our previous position, we received orders the next day to take up a defensive posture on the front line, to the right of the corduroy road and the narrow-gauge railway. This we did.

Unfortunately, contact with the Volkhov Front was not restored. We were prepared, but the Germans had strengthened their positions and had good supply routes from Novogord and Chudovo. Our attempts to restore the corridor were doomed to failure and were overwhelmed by heavy fire each time. Regrouping was just a waste of time, and gave the advantage to the Germans, who increased the pressure on the encircled forces along the entire front. The supply of shells and cartridges ran out. Food supplies dwindled and were partially compensated by horse meat, but soon the last horses were eaten as well. Hunger set in and men starved.

Especially tormenting were the persistent, large-scale air raids. We cursed the bright nights that allowed the Germans the possibility to continue bombing with an interval of only 1 ½ to 2 hours. Flying in line astern, the enemy pilots sought out targets and dropped their deadly cargo on us with impunity. Our salvation lay in the swamp, and many bombs exploded within the depths of the sodden ground. Still, direct hits were not an uncommon occurrence.

At some time in the middle of June, the headquarters of the 2nd Shock Army moved into the sector of the our brigade and the 205th Rifle Division, near the Glushitsa river. From this moment on, I met almost daily with I. V. Zuyev, who was constantly found among the troops. Vlasov did not appear, but remained constantly in his little hovel. Nor did he appear among the ranks when everyone – from soldiers to generals – except those covering the flanks, stormed the corridor during the night of 23-24 June.

Unfortunately, among this group were found the remnants of our brigade as well as the regiments of the 305th Rifle Division, with whom we worked closely until parting at the final moment. At a heavy cost among the assaulting units, who plunged forth under a hurricane of fire, a narrow corridor some 600 meters across was punched through. A flood of men surged through it. By the time our brigade, together with the remnants of the staff, which had been conducting the defense on the right flank, reached the “corridor,” it had been sealed once more – this time for good. We remained in the encirclement along with the staff of the 305th Rifle Division and its regiments, which had been covering the withdrawal. I. V. Zuyev was reportedly wounded, but his location was not known. A. G. Shashkov – Chief of the Special Section – and Garus – Head of the Army Political Department – were both seriously wounded and committed suicide.

The 24th of June was spent with the brigade repelling German attacks, along with the command of the 305th Rifle Division, and those from the staff units who had managed to save themselves. Our path was impeded by the numerous army staff service troops of the 2nd Shock Army's rear units, who were now leaderless. Having decided to maintain our position until nightfall, we made use of the 305th Division's radio to contact the commander of the 52nd Army, Lieutenant-General Yakovlev, and requested support for our attempt to break through in the direction of Podberez'e.

Unfortunately, men and weapons were in short supply, while the enemy – for his part – had discerned our intentions and this last attempt to break through was stopped by a hurricane of fire from mortars, machine guns and artillery of all calibers.

Withdrawing to the Zamoshskoe swamp, we had our final contact with General Yakovlev. He conveyed orders that we were to cease organized fighting and to make our way out of the encirclement in small groups. The ring around was was tightening dramatically and we could already hear the barking of German dogs in the forest. There remained only one means of escape and rescue – through our winter minefields in the Bol'shoe Zamoshskoe swamp.

It is impossible to forget the wounded machine-gunners of the 305th Rifle Division, who manned their guns in open positions, covering our retreat to the swamp at the cost of their own lives. With mines exploding under our feet, we departed through the Bol'shoe Zamoshskoe swamp, now overgrown with thick bush. For an hour we could still hear the sounds of the unequal battle waged by our courageous troops, whose names remain unknown and whose heroism cannot be forgotten. Only a few of them, already seriously wounded, managed to escape.

We sat in the swamp until nightfall, when we set off for the woods near the village
of Bol'shoe Zamosh'e. There, our group of some twenty men ran into a company of Germans who were combing the woods. We hastily retreated, but not until suffering new losses.

Our group consisted of Brigade Commander Pisarenko and his orderly - Nikolai Baranov, Staff Commissar Yesyutkin, Sinev – the head of SMERSH - and his security platoon commander, and both myself and my orderly – Volodya Chuprakov. All of us, with the exception of Sinev and his subordinate, passed a long way through the German rear with all of our documents, weapons and insignia. We crossed the front line over to our side across the Lovat' river, near the village of Kukovo, to the right of Staraya Russa.

After going through the formalities at the Special Section, we were placed at the disposal of the Volkhov Front. After a month of treatment at a clinic in Kulotino, I was appointed commissar of the newly-formed 38th Ski Brigade. From this moment, Pisarenko, Yesyutkin and I would go our separate ways.

We had all hoped that we would be received by the leadership of the Volkhov Front, and waited for interviews and questions, but only met with the Deputy Chief of the Political Administration, F. I. Shamanin. We had already been included in the lists of missing persons and our families had been sent the requisite notification. Many such groups and even individuals made their way out of the encirclement after the battle, but – unfortunately – no one has taken them into account.

A detailed analysis of the reasons why the Lyuban' Operation was a failure is a matter for military researchers, but I would state the following:

The operation took place during a severe winter and within the confines of a extremely problematic forested area. The command had not provided sufficient time for preparing the forces involved and simply threw them into battle.

Throughout the entire course of the battle, the forces operated within an absolutely road-less territory, under extremely poor logistical conditions and with insufficient material and manpower.

The decision of Stavka to eliminate the Volkhov Front was a tragic mistake, which expressed an indifference to the fate of the 2nd Shock Army and to the entire Volkhov sector and its commander, General M. S. Khosin. Also telling was the cowardice and mediocrity of Vlasov – the commander of the 2nd Shock Army.

Another mistake was that the flanks of the breakthrough zone were defended from the very beginning by elements from two separate armies – the 59th on the right and and the 52nd on the left.

Both the rank and file and the officers of the 2nd Shock Army had performed their duty honourably and with courage, displaying resolute firmness and mass heroism.

I am certain, that history will continue to speak of their exploits!

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