Monday, December 28, 2009

Denis Bazuev - At Pogostye, January 1942

Pogostye, Volkhov Front, January 1942 (2004)

1942 I. D. Yelokhovskiy, 59th Independent Rifle Brigade

Such a hell I never witnessed again.....
I. D. Yelokhovskiy
Former platoon commander - Independent 76-mm Artillery Battalion, 59th Independent Rifle Brigade

I entered the 59th Brigade as a 19-year-old graduate of an artillery school in the town of Engel's. The brigade had been organized in November 1941, in the village of Dergachi, in Saratov province, and consisted mainly of inhabitants from the towns of Saratov and Penza. All the equipment was horse-drawn, making use of untrained horses from the collective farms, ignoring the fact that horses must know commands and not be afraid of gunfire.

In December, we set out by train from Altata Station to the front. On New Year's Eve, we detrained outside of Budogoshchi and were immediately sent on the attack. The attack, however, had not been prepared, and there not enough shells even for the 'forty-fives' [45-mm guns - skoblin]

I had been a senior sergeant in the artillery school and was appointed an assistant platoon commander. I was first given command of one gun, followed later by a platoon of 45-mm guns. While at school, we had practiced on 152-mm guns, but this was not a matter of discussion at the front.

We attacked from the Selizh Barracks in the middle of January. Each gun had been provided 15 to 20 rounds, whereas the standard complement during an attack was 200 rounds. Our battery commander was Lieutenant Gusak.

The infantry crossed the Volkhov under continuous mortar fire. On the other side of the river, the Germans employed tanks. Lieutenant Gusak ordered: “Yelokhovskiy! Forward with the platoon!". Our second gun tarried behind, while the first gun went about “hell bent for leather” and tore along at a quick pace. The Germans, however, let loose with bombs and shellfire. One shell exploded directly in front of the horses and the first gun took a running dive into an ice-hole. Both the horses and all six crew men went with it... I managed to swing the gun around and bring it to the opposite bank. The bank on that side was steep, not like at Selizh, and there was a lot snow. The infantry, however, noticed that the gun had come up and stretch out their hands to my 'forty-five' – their saviour.

We managed to knock out two tanks, but the third drove on our gun at full speed. The crew was crushed. I was sitting on the trail of the gun, which flipped over, and I flew almost 6 meters – which saved me. I was, however, wounded in both hands by splinters.

The wounds were generally a trifling matter. I was wounded three times during the war and also suffered one concussion. But still – they were my hands...and one is only human after all... Try to get around with bandaged hands – and in -30 degree weather... I headed off for the hospital in Malaya Vishera, making my way partially on foot and partially driven.

The hospital was set up in a school, whose windows had been covered over with tents and tarps. In the middle of the gymnasium stood a burning stove, and around it were placed the seriously wounded. The doctors worked day and night but still did not reach us. Finally, during the night of the third day I could could not contain myself and I begged: “Nurse, please re-bandage me, I can't stand it any longer!”. She undid the bandage and gasped – underneath were lice and blackened skin. She ran to the surgeons' quarters and found a major of the medical services sleeping on a chair. He started yelling at me: “How did you let this happen?!”. With that, I understood my condition had become worse...

Two weeks later I returned to the brigade and found myself in the 76-mm gun battalion. Lieutenant Gusak, meanwhile, had been killed near Spasskaya Polist'.

The offensive continued - through Zamoshskoe swamp and past Finev Lug. The infantry were in the front and we followed behind. The snow was up to a meter deep. The guns were swallowed up. Trees were cut down and wedges placed under the wheels. The horses, let them be praised, pulled the guns out.

During battle, we would dig a hole in the snow to protect the gun and the crew. Firing from mostly open positions had led the crew to naming the gun “Farewell, Motherland!”. But in firing from a covered position only two or three shells would hit their target, while firing direct it was more like three out of thirty-five – and there was a lack of shells during the entire operation.

It wasn't only shells that were lacking. The supply situation from January right up to the very end was deplorable. Food was in scant supply. Pea soup mash in a common pot for ten men – that was it. We were saved by the fact that the artillery was horse-drawn. Anyway, there was no way to feed the horses. How many horses could survive on birch branches alone? The horses died and we ate them. This occurred around once a week...

At the end of March, the roads turned to water. Shells had to be dragged the 5 km from the brigade's supply depot at Dubovka. And how many could a hungry man carry? - Two shells at most, with each shell for a 76-mm gun weighing 7.5 kg....

In the spring it became clear, that our matériel could no longer be withdrawn – which was indeed the case. We were almost continuously encircled. By my own calculations, the Germans closed the corridor at Myasniy Bor around eight times. The food situation became quite bad. The horses, which had died during the winter, could still be eaten while frozen. But with the warm weather the corpses swelled up and maggots appeared... For the last days of April and all of May supplies were generally non-existent. supplies. Kukuruzniks [Polikarpov Po-2 aircraft – skoblin] would drop dry rations, but to what purpose? A sack would either fall into the swamp or strike a stump and break into dust. Some would glean the meager pieces from the mud but there would be little at all to be found...

We fed ourselves at the expense of the Germans. Defensive fighting was a daily occurrence – the Germans would attack and we would repel them. There were mountains of dead. At night, we would crawl along the ridge to no man's land and grope through the German dead, in order to find something to live on. Then the Germans guessed what we were up to and started to send their men into battle without food satchels – only guns.

Worse still was having to go without tobacco. I myself managed to buy some makhorka off a soldier at 100 roubles a smoke and was immeasurably glad. To this day, I smoke a cigarette right down to the dregs – a habit I picked up from the war.

The Germans scattered leaflets all over, promising a comfortable life in captivity. But here is the interesting thing - no matter how desperate things got, none of the lads thought about captivity. Every one of them believed that we were to certain to make it out of the ring. Since we had no paper and newspapers rarely reached us, we took to using leaflets to roll cigarettes. No makhorka was supplied in the spring and we took to smoking moss and dead leaves.

An unpleasant occurrence took place one day. I had a gun-layer named Lukin – a simple-hearted fellow from Novgorod. Not being very clever, he had torn a leaflet and hid the paper in his pocket to use later. Unfortunately, part of it stuck out of his pocket and he was promptly arrested.

Our battalion commander was Captain Belov – a splendid man who was formerly the chairman of a collective farm. I went to him and told him: the SMERSH have arrested the Lukin, the gun-layer and that Lukin was a good man although irresponsible. Belov spoke with the Special Section but with no success: “It's none of our business!”

Belov, however, was an experienced and energetic commander and was afraid of no one. As battalion commander he ordered the man to be released and that was it! The officer of the Special Section wrote a report on him but no one paid the fool any more attention.

In May, the withdrawal was announced. We were located at the most westerly point and would be the last ordered to withdraw. We blew up the guns and the men became infantry.

The month of June was especially difficult. There was little ammunition and no bread. We ate leaves, roots and frogs. I had experienced hunger as a child and knew which grasses were edible. Our northern weather also vexed us as the nights were still bright at midnight. The Germans would bomb and strafe us in a frightening manner. Our lieutenant was killed and I was ordered to take over the company. Only eighteen men remained from the original eighty in the company.

On 23 June we assembled for the break out to Myasniy Bor. I went to the medical battalion to visit a friend – Valya Fomchenko, a gunner from Leningrad. He had lost his leg in May but had still not been evacuated. The medical battalion was overflowing. The wounded lay about on stretchers without cover. The situation was wretched for us, but for them it doubly so, being hungry, wounded and ill. At least we had the hope of escaping, but what of them – those missing arms and legs? What was to happen with them?

Valka pleaded: “Don't abandon me, Igorek!”. I grabbed a stick and put his hand on my shoulder. How could I refuse?

The withdrawal began on the 24th at 0100 hours. Cries were heard: “If we perish, we perish, lads! Forward!!!”. A throng surged forth along the narrow-gauge railway. Valka hopped beside me on one leg. He stumbled and fell but I was pushed forward by the mass of men. I only heard his dwindling cry: “”. I still hear this faint cry for help at night...and I awake in a cold sweat...not having helped him.

This unrestrained crowd of men braved many things. I know that small rivers crossed our path – the Glushitsa and the Polist'. I do not remember the water, however, as a slippery train of human bodies lay under our feet. I went through the entire war, but never witnessed such carnage anywhere. There was no open “corridor” - the Germans were everywhere...on all sides. One could run, but there was no place to hide from the shooting. Few remained alive...

From the 59th Brigade, only 32 men escaped that day. Our appearance was frightful: covered in mud, in scorched winter jackets and torn up felt boots – or – generally – barefoot. Some were skeletons while others were so swollen their eyes were not visible. We had not been able to eat for a long time. They would give us a bucket of porridge for ten men and we would clean it right to the bottom.

We were sent to a medical battalion on the eastern bank of the Volkhov. There we rested for ten days. Suddenly, a major-general from the political section arrived from headquarters: “Comrades, the Germans have broken through to the Volkhov! And the Volkhov is just a stone's throw away.” We all stood up as one and headed off for battle. From our thirty two men, only six would return...

Others also made their way out of the encirclement later, but those who escaped with their units between the 24th and the 26th were not questioned. Those who escaped later, singly, underwent interrogation. Many were released, but others... The screening was vigilant. I remained in the brigade until it was reformed in April 1943. I then served in the 20th Rifle Division until the end of the war.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Deutsche Wochenschau Nr. 618 - Battle of the Volkhov

Die Deutsche Wochenschau No. 618. July 8, 1942. The destruction of General Vlasov's 2nd Striking Army in the swamps of the Volkhov river. 1. During the winter the Soviets employed a vast amount of men and material in order to break through the main German line on the Volkhov river and then from there to advance upon Leningrad. The German defense managed to heroically hold off the Soviet forces, cut them off and then surround them.Despite attempts to break out, the Soviets were forced into an ever smaller area, broken into smaller groups and destroyed. 2.German troops had to make their way through the meter deep mud of the Volkhov. Superhuman efforts on the part of the battle groups was needed during the ice and snow storms of the previous winter. 3. Food and supplies were brought to the forward line by small-gauge railway. In these swamps engineers were required to build countless bridges and log roads without which the forward troop would be lacking required supplies to operate. A strong point on the front line. Knight's Cross holder Oberst Harry Hoppe. 4. A company of the Waffen SS advance. The ring around the Soviet striking army grows ever tighter. The Soviet have holed themselves up in bunkers in these thick woodlands. They are driven out and destroyed. 5. Under the leadership of General of the Cavalry Lindemann (Commander in Chief of the 16th Army)German army troops and members of the Waffen SS fight shoulder to shoulder with Spanish, Dutch and Flemish volunteer units ever deeper into the enemy positions.Engineers defuse a mine. In a few areas in the front panzers have been allowed to operate. 6.Volunteers of the Nederland SS Legion advance to take a Soviet-held village.Panzers, covering the advance of the infantry, break through the woods. Under the cover of tank fire, the attack moves forward. Incoming enemy artillery.This village has been taken after a bitter fight. 7.A battery of heavy howitzers receives firing instructions: prepare for an attack against the Soviets.A small break for lunch. 8. The air-fleet, commanded by General Keller, goes into action. HE-111 bombers attack the strongpoints,bunkers and artillery positions of the surrounded Soviets.Below us the Volkhov river.Bomb after bomb hits its target. Stukas attack and turn to rubble a line of bunkers sitting in the way of the infantry. 9. The advance now continues further. Every section of woods must be combed through for hidden Soviets.They start coming out.The surrounded Soviet Striking army is destroyed: 32,000 prisoners taken, and 649 guns, 171 tanks 2,900 vehicles, and numerous mortars either captured or destroyed. 10.Such is the end of the Soviet Volkhov army and its attempt to free Leningrad.

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!

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

1942 German 291st Infantry Division - Photogallery II

Photographs taken by war correspondent Georg Gundlach with the 291st German Infantry Division - Spring thaw 1942

A column moves slowly down one of the swamp roads.

Further movement of supplies can only be done on horseback.

Stuck in the mud!

Supplies can be brought in only by horse teams.

The horses require assistance to bring in ammunition and provisions.

A log road made in the swamp.

An overturned locomotive stuck in the swamp.

Pack horses stuck up to their shoulders.

A torment for man and horse alike.

The motor road to Chudovo.

A patrol makes their way into an enemy-held forest.

An command post in the swampy forest.

1942 A. Gütte, German 90th Motorised Regiment

On the northern flank of the Eastern Front...
A. Gütte, Former Sergeant-Major, 5th Company, 90th Motorised Regiment, 20th Infantry (Motorised) Division.

Translated from Der Landser Nr. 1073

It was the middle of January, 1942. With Private Jansen as my driver, I went from Chudovo to Podberez'e, in order to fetch some urgently needed items. Driving along the road southwards, it was quiet and owing to the snow-cover, the visibility was quite good despite the darkness.

A few kilometers north of Spasskaya Polist', there were several lifeless bodies laying along the roadside. We kept our weapons at the ready as we approached the village. The driver kept the engine running. What we found were the bodies of seven dead Red Army soldiers, yet there was no one to be seen anywhere. It was a riddle as to how the Russians had come to be here so far behind the front. The whole thing was quite unsettling and we quickly resumed our drive. Even in the small villages which we passed through there was no one in sight. The reason for this, however, would become clear the following day.

Our stay in Podberez'e lasted a day longer, as we were notified that some replacements were to come with us to the front. We began our journey back early the following morning. Ten soldiers, wrapped in uniforms and blankets, were loaded onto the truck. The temperature was beastly 50 below zero and a strong wind had thrown up snow drifts during the night. Time and again, the men had to get out and pitch a hand in helping the lorry through a snowbank or shovel the wheels free from snow. Matters only improved when we reached the Shimsk-Novgorod road.

We reached Novgorod around noontime. On the northern outskirts of the town, on the road to Chudovo, a barrier had been erected. Military police were stopping all vehicles and ordering them back.
“Where are you heading?”
“To Chudovo, to our unit!”
“The road is closed. Two villages in the area have been captured by the enemy. A counter-attack is underway and I don't know when the road will be opened.”
“Is there a posted bypass route?”
“No. You must look for one yourself”
The police sergeant then turned towards another vehicle.
Jansen drove onto a side road and stopped the truck. The troops, frozen through to their the bones, immediately sprang from the back of the lorry and began hopping wildly.
“What are we to do, Herr Sergeant-Major?”
“I don't know yet. We will have to see.”

Studying the map, there were a number of possibilities: one was straight west over the Luga, north through Gatchina and then south-east via Pushkin. All were significant detours, costing a tremendous amount of time. There was a shorter way, however: through the Volkhov forests to the north-east. After a thorough examination of all the advantages and disadvantages, we chose the shorter route.

After driving some 20 kilometers, we reached a small village, in which a Luftwaffe supply unit was located. It was a welcome opportunity to take a break. With a warm meal and a hot drink, we felt ourselves refreshed. Jansen even managed to fill up the gas tank and received two more petrol canisters in reserve. Our comrades could not provide us any information regarding the road conditions, however, and the maps available to us were of poor quality.

Our lorry embarked once more upon its lonely journey through the vast wooded region. After the Pripet Marshes, this was the largest marsh and forested area in Europe, intersected by small clearings, cuttings and pathways. It was easy to lose one's way among the numerous side roads, forks and intersections, which were barely visible in the snow due to the absence of tracks.

With the onset of dusk, a small hut suddenly came into view. Somewhat in the distance stood the houses and villages of a small village, located in a clearing. We pulled over and entered.
An old woman met us halfway and said: Woijna plokho! (The war is bad!)
Da, da, Babushka...Woijna plokho...Germanski soldat khorosho! (Yes, Grandmother...the war is bad...but the German soldiers are good!).

Jansen looked after the truck and placed it on brushwood blocks to prevent the tires from freezing. The soldiers, meanwhile, gathered straw and hay from a nearby stack and packed it into the lorry. The engine coolant was enriched with thermal oil, obtained from a damaged field kitchen, and was not allowed to drain out. This oil had originally been used to surround the cauldron in a damaged field kitchen to prevent the food from burning. Now, this glycerin-infused oil was being used to prevent the engine coolant from freezing. The Babushka was given the task of making some hot water so that the canteens of frozen coffee could be thawed out. The bread rations were likewise thawed out and toasted. After the sentry arrangements were determined, we turned in for a rest. The Babushka waited on us hand and foot, while we barely spoke.

Our journey already continued before daybreak. We gave the old woman a half-loaf of bread and a roll of candy. We had nothing more to give. It quickly grew light out. The deep snow-covered forest, crackling from the frost, presented an uncanny and sinister appearance. Coming around a corner, Jansen pressed hard on the brakes and brought the truck to a standstill: on the wayside stood a German truck convoy.
“Everyone out and weapons at the ready!”

There were twelve vehicles. They had been abandoned and ransacked, with no trace of either the drivers or the passengers. The column carried no tactical signs and the lorries were entirely covered over with white paint. What had happened? The Russians, who had broken through, must have attacked the column while it was halted. We had been told that the enemy had only captured two villages and that a counter-attack was underway. It seemed, though, much more was going on here. Caution was advised. Despite reservations, our journey continued. Turning around was not an option.

We finally reached the end of great forest around midday. A town and usable airfield became visible. We had reached Lyuban'. Soon we would be driving into Chudovo. Our joy was great, especially among the reinforcements. Indeed, the soldiers had to proceed directly to the Field Hospital for the treatment of frostbite, which they had picked up along the way. The 180 kilometer journey back had taken place under very difficult conditions and without being aware of it, we had witnessed the beginning of the battle of the Volkhov. But what had happened actually?

The enemy had attacked across the Volkhov without any artillery preparation, right at the junction point between the 126th and 215th Infantry Divisions. It then established a bridgehead north-west of Novgorod and broke into the main defensive line. Colonel Hopped barred the way with part of his regiment, but was unable to restore the old defensive line. The next day already saw the Russians in the villages of Yamno and Arefino. The breakthrough was now several kilometers wide and the enemy was throwing strong forces into the gap. The Novgorod-Chudovo motor road was reached and severed. The villages of Lyubtsy, Myasniy Bor, Mostki and Spasskaya Polist' were surrounded. The villages were bitterly defended by the soldiers of the 126th Infantry Division and held out for weeks in the rear of the Soviet forces which had broken through the front.

On January 24th, the Soviets launched a thrust into the deep woods of the Volkhov. The Soviet assault, aimed first at Leningrad and then towards the Estonian border, created a narrow corridor to the north-west in which a great many troops were enclosed. The corridor, however, was too narrow and the flanks much too long. The Russians were unable to provide sufficient cover and protection for it and all attempts to widen the corridor led to heavy losses. Thousands of Red Army soldiers were left laying in the woods and forests of the Volkhov.

General of the Cavalry Lindemann, Commander-in-Chief of of the 18th Army, showed himself to be a true master of improvisation. He defied the enemy, making use of all available forces. The 5th Company remained in its positions along the railway embankment, and was then sent into action against the corridor. The new company command post was easily reached by panje sled. Nearby stood a defective Soviet command snow-sled. First lieutenant Piener would have loved to have had it in operation, but the company mechanic was unable to get it running. The troops were bivouacked in some partially destroyed, Soviet-built wooden bunkers. The earthen bunkers were not much to think of. The existing bunkers – or what was left of them – were reinforced with tree trunks. The defensive position lay around a small clearing and extended somewhat along a fire-break. One morning, the company's defensive positions were attacked by three Soviet aircraft. They flew in a shortly-spaced line along the fire-break. The first aircraft released its bombs. The second aircraft also succeeded in doing so, but the the third one flew straight into the fountain of snow and mud that had been thrown up. It banked steeply and crashed. “Those stupid Ivans, something's not all there with them. They've blown themselves up,” came from the mouths of the troopers.

With the beginning of the spring thaw, all the paths and lanes became quagmires. The time for panje wagons and sleds was over. Columns led by pack animals were organized to maintain the delivery of supplies. The main burden was placed on the Volkhov Express. This narrow-gauge railway had to haul soldiers, munitions, provisions and many other items. Narrow corduroy roads radiated outwards from the station halts to the field positions. Everything had to be carried from these halts. The roads became transformed into waterways. Every step had to be tested beforehand with a stick to escape the danger of falling into bomb craters or shell holes. This was the origin of the legendary “Volkhov mallet”.

General Vlasov took over command of the enemy forces in the Volkhov area. Despite energetic efforts, however, he was unable to improve the situation and avert the impending disaster. The Shock army found itself encircled in the woods. After heavy fighting, the Soviets succeeded in opening up a corridor to the pocket once more. It was dangerously narrow, however, and was only a few kilometers wide. Despite severe hardships, the Russians were able to build two narrow-gauge rail lines to supply and reinforce the pocket. Desperate attempts to widen the corridor failed. German combat groups smashed the Soviet efforts through vigorously led attacks. On May 31st, the pocket was closed for a second and final time. The enemy's fate was now sealed.

The forests grew green and storm clouds darkened the skies. Mosquitoes swarmed over the swamps, tormenting the long-suffering soldiers, and neither gloves nor netting provided relief. With this plague came the almost unbearable nausea occasioned by the decaying flesh of the fallen, laying in the swamps and woods. A last desperate attempt to break out of the encirclement was beaten back by dive-bombers. The pocket was then split in half and the end point arrived. The Russian troops emerged from their hiding places in the hundreds and thousands. Many were wounded. Most of them were half-starving and barely retained the semblance of human beings. On June 27th, it was all over. 21 enemy formations had been smashed. The front newspaper reported on Tuesday, June 30th, 1942: “The Leningrad relief attempt has failed. The Volkhov battle has ended. 33,000 prisoners have been taken, 649 guns and 171 tanks have been captured or destroyed!”

Despite intensive efforts, General Vlasov could not be found. A few weeks later, however, following a lead, he was tracked down to a peasant's hut and taken prisoner. During the frightful time in the pocket he had become a mortal enemy of Stalin's and now offered his services to the Germans. He became the organizer and commander of the so-called Vlasov Army, which fought on the side of the Wehrmacht. Stalins vengeance would come after the war. Vlasov was condemned to death and hanged in Moscow.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

1942 T. I. Obukhova, Soviet 120th Medical Battalion

All our warmth and kindness was given to the wounded...
T. I. Obukhova
Former nurse, 120th Medical Battalion, 111th Rifle Division

On a March morning in 1942, twenty of us Komsomol members – doctors and nurses of the 120th Medical Battalion, received orders to make our way the through marshy swamps and bogs west of the Volkhov to the encircled positions of our division, where hundreds of wounded had accumulated.

Loaded to capacity with medicine and field dressings, wrapped in warm clothes with gas masks at our sides, we set off on our way. The column included the komsomol organizer Anya Petushkova, nurses Shura Koroleva, Tosya Grigorieva, Vera Balabina, Katya Vasilieva, Katya Korneyeva and myself (at that time Tanya Vysotskaya), doctors Nikolai Afonin, Marukanyan, Vartanyan, and two orderlies.

Near Myasniy Bor, we entered a forest and stumbled upon a frightful scene: the bodies of dead civilians – women, children and the elderly, apparently strafed from the air by the German vultures. My heart sank with anguish. But Anya Petushkova reassured us, saying "Do not weep, girls! Our boys will avenge these people. But we must move forward as quick as possible, the wounded are waiting for us".

Soon after, we approached a large swamp, periodically shelled by the Germans. Our path lay through this marshy bog. We divided up into groups of five and waded into the cold water. The first two groups managed to proceed unnoticed, but when the third group reached the middle of the swamp, where the water stood waist-deep, Katya Korneyeva caught herself on a snag, and crying out, fell. The enemy immediately opened up with automatic weapons. Katya Vasilieva was wounded, though not seriously.

Having covered several kilometers, exhausted and covered with mud and slime, we sat down for a rest. The sun peeped out at us and we wrung out our wet clothes. Having dried ourselves out a little, we continued and reached our appointed destination by the evening.

Tents had been set up for our arrival along with a log-built enclosure with two-story plank beds. The wounded lay around wherever possible. The night drew cold and we began gathering moss to insulate the tents and little huts.

Our work began. Operations went on day and night as did bandaging and dressing the wounded. Blood and groans were a continual presence. It is frightening to recall that horror in which we found ourselves. Constantly looking upon bloodied and helpless men, squeezing their fingers as they grew cold, looking into their fading eyes and trying to reassure them: “Hang on, just a little longer. You will get better!” And to hear in response: “No, nurse, I'm not long for this world.... Here, take this address... my son is there...”.

A man dies and you would weep for a few moments in the corner and then return to the wounded who arrived in a never-ending stream - carried, dragged and delivered. Again, you would force yourself to smile, roll cigarettes for them with trembling hands, soothe and reassure them, while sensing their anguish...

The food situation was very poor. Everything was supplied from the air, by aircraft. Hard biscuits and groats were dropped in meager amounts. If we were fortunate to find a fallen horse, we would make horse-meat soup. The main task, however, was to feed the wounded – by ourselves, if necessary. Indeed, we would be on duty for days on end, falling asleep on our feet, while still donating blood for the wounded. But even starving and staggering from exhaustion, we faithfully carried out our duties, offering the wounded all the warmth and tenderness which we were capable.

The encirclement was hard on everyone, nevertheless, the soldiers managed to build a narrow-gauge railway while under fire, which we used for evacuating the wounded. The troops would push the small wagons and trolleys by hand, while we sat with the wounded and spoke to them, keeping their mind off the pain and distracting them from the gunfire.

Outside the pocket, wondrous news awaited us: our cherished 111th Division had been promoted to the rank of a guards formation. It became the 24th Guards Rifle Division, while our 120th Medical Battalion became the 20th Guards Medical Battalion. I vividly recall the meeting of July 2nd, 1942, in which our guards' banner was solemnly entrusted to our new divisional commander, Colonel P. K. Koshevoi.

Following Myasniy Bor, we found ourselves in the swamps and marshes near Sinyavino. Again there were wounded and again an encirclement, leading to a desperate escape with heavy losses. And again, despite of the difficulties, the medics of our battalion did their utmost to save the wounded.

Once, while under German shelling near Sinyavino, a tent caught fire which had been used for sheltering the wounded who had been prepared for evacuation. Seeing the flames, the commander of the evacuation platoon, Anya Petushkova, cried out: “Quick – remove the wounded!” She began extinguishing the flames herself, with her bare hands, tearing away at the burning canvas. Anya suffered severe burns, but she recovered. She died in 1944, during the liberation of Odessa, and she remains in the memory of all who knew her. She was a wonderful, selfless person