Tuesday, July 24, 2012


The battles that took place in Western Russia and the Ukraine during 1941 and 1942 are easy to summarize but difficult to comprehend. On June 22, 1941, Germany broke its treaty with the Soviet Union and, in the largest attack ever made by one country on another, began a blitzkrieg on the entire western border from the Baltic to the Black Sea. Soviet intelligence knew that the attack would come but Stalin refused to believe his own (excellent) sources as to its timing. As a result the Soviet command did not concentrate its forces so as to delay and possibly arrest the lightening advance. By the time he came to realize the speed, extent, and targets of the German attack, huge amounts of Soviet military hardware and more than a million military personnel had been killed, wounded, or captured.[1]

It's believed that Stalin made a second major blunder at this time in issuing orders that essentially said soldiers must fight to the death without giving ground and this policy increased the Germans' ability to cut off and surround Soviet armies.

Nonetheless, by the time the Germans reached Moscow the thick and sticky mud of the Russian autumn slowed their advance to a halt and, learning from intelligences sources that the Japanese did not plan to attack from the east, Soviet military leaders were able to move armies from places like Siberia to the front lines in the west.

In the summer of 1942 Stalin made yet another mistake, not realizing that the Panzer strikes in the south were aimed at obtaining the oil fields in the Caucasus near Stalingrad. At this point Hitler committed the same sort of ego-driven error that Stalin had been making. German armies could have by-passed Stalingrad and pushed on into the Caucasus, but, when a bottleneck developed slowing movement southward, he directed that the 4th Panzer Army be diverted to attack Stalingrad.

The result of this pair of mistakes was the Battle of Stalingrad. Hitler ordered that the city be taken and Stalin ordered that it be held at all costs. In this fight to the death the Soviet side prevailed. The Germans had great advantage in armor, air coverage, and field discipline, but these were of little value in the house-to-house, floor-to-floor, room-to-room fighting in the city. In that environment, the superior numbers of the Soviet forces, their skill in face-to-face combat, their endurance under impossible conditions, and the determination of great numbers of them to defend to the death gave them a superiority they'd previously lacked.

The battle was horrific, devastating in the most literal sense. One author calls it "the greatest and most hideous ... conflict in history." And many consider it to be decisive. The failure of the Germans to take Moscow had been a symbolic victory that did not lead to the repulse of attacks elsewhere, but the fanatic struggle for Stalingrad led to the first Soviet victories in counter attacks that cut off the 4th Panzer Army and eliminated it as a fighting force.[2]

That's my summary, but it's not my main topic.

I'm currently reading Vasily Grossman's A Writer at War: A Soviet Journalist with the Red Army, 1941-1945 (Pantheon, 2007)

Grossman was a novelist who volunteered to serve as a war correspondent. In that role he covered action throughout the Soviet defeats and withdrawals up to and including the Battle for Moscow and then covered all of the fighting in Stalingrad and the subsequent crushing of German forces from the Caucasus to Berlin between 1943 and 1945.

A Moscow intellectual, non-Party member and Jew, he was an unlikely battle journalist, but his work was superb and he became one of the best known and most highly regarded of all the newsmen covering the war.

He knew that all news accounts must serve the interests of the Party and its leader, Stalin. And he knew the lines that must not be crossed on pain of imprisonment or death. He could not write anything that expressed or suggested inconvenient truths. No Soviet citizen or soldier could be shown as anything but resolute in defending the motherland. No officer could be seen to falter in judgement. No soldier could be shown to criticize a superior or question the authority of any part of the governmental apparatus.

Yet, against regulations and what we would think to be common sense, he kept notebooks in which he put what were in fact treasonous statements that he heard in interviews and informal discussions with all sorts of people, military and civilian alike.

He recorded forbidden topics: desertion, self-mutilation to avoid combat, support willingly given the enemy (or, just as bad, coerced support). He wrote about the battalions behind Soviet lines whose job it was to arrest (or sometimes just shoot) anyone who refused to fight, malingered, or showed unwillingness to face the enemy and die fighting.

He wrote about Soviet snipers who were ordered to shoot Russians whom the Germans had forced to act as water carriers, even children who ran errands in return for the promise of a crust of bread.

He quoted men who believed their officers to be fools. And he wrote about hardships which were not to be made public — lack of ammunition, lack of food.

He recorded petty rivalries among high-ranking officers and incidents in which these rivalries affected tactics. And, rarely, he found commanders who were willing to speak of their own mistakes and to criticize not rival officers but (treasonous speech) the high-command in Moscow.

And he kept his notebooks secret. While listening to an interviewee or simply engaging in informal discussion, he generally wrote nothing down. Although he clearly recorded some details at the time (names particularly), only later did he write up what he'd heard, privately and in detail.

But he was not a dissident in the usual sense of the word. The notebooks were source material for his novels and the novels were not overtly anti-Stalin, anti-Party, anti-totalitarian state. He had no trouble getting them published (except for the very last) and they were widely admired. In 1942 Grossman was sure winner of the Stalin Prize in literature but Stalin crossed his name off the list. It was understood that his transgression was not anti-communism but too little Stalinism: he gave more than lip service to internationalism.

A Writer at War is based on the notebooks, his letters, and other writings. It's full of fragments rather than extended prose and jottings rather than well-composed sentences. But it also has quoted statements from people Grossman interviewed.

One set of these narratives comes from women who served in the Army as nurses, clerks, medics, signalers and the like. There were also women who were fighter pilots, snipers, and infantry soldiers.[3] And there were women who served out of uniform as partisans, spies, and the like. These, by contrast, were uniformed non-combatants.

Here are excerpts from Grossman's notebooks on non-combatant women in the Battle of Stalingrad. He is with a division of Siberian troops led by Colonel Lieontiy Nikolaïevitch Gurtiev. The division is at the heart of the fiercest fighting of the Battle of Stalingrad in which virtually all participants were killed, wounded, or captured. The location is a factory building. After the battle, Grossman quoted from his notebooks in writing up the ferocious defense put up by the Siberians.[4]

The editor of the book and source of text labeled "editor" in these excerpts is the respected historian Antony Beevor.
[Editor:] Grossman observed life at Gurtiev's command post.
[Grossman:] Reports [written] on forms, scraps of sheets from plant, party papers, etc. The return of Zoya Kalganova. She had been wounded twice. The divisional commander [greeted her]: 'Hello, my dear girl.'
[Editor:] The courage of the young women medical orderlies was respected by everyone. Most of those in the 62nd Army's Sanitary Company were Stalingrad high school students or graduates, but the 308th Rifle Division had brought some of their own female medics, clerks and signalers all the way from Siberia. The medical orderlies went out under heavy fire to collect the wounded and carry or drag them to safety. They would also take rations forward.
[Grossman, quoting Gurtiev:] Our girls, with thermos flasks on their shoulders, bring us breakfast. Soldiers speak of them with so much love. These girls have not dug themselves any slit-trenches.
[Editor:] One of the young women later provided an improvised casualty list for him of those who had come with her from Siberia.
[Grossman, quoting the casualty list:]
Lyolya Novikova, a cheerful nurse afraid of nothing, was hit by two bullets in the head. Lysorchuk, Nina, wounded. Borodina, Katya, her right hand was smashed. Yegorova, Antonina, she was killed. She went into an attack with her platoon. She was a junior nurse. A sub­machine-gunner shot her through both legs and she died from loss of blood. Arkanova, Tonya, accompanied wounded soldiers and was posted missing. Kanysheva, Galya, killed by a direct hit from a bomb. And there are just two of us left: Zoya and I ... I was wounded by a mortar-bomb fragment near the bunker, and then by a shell splinter near the Volga crossing.

We studied at School No. 13 in Tobolsk. Mothers were crying: "How come you're going [to the front]? There are only men there." We imagined war very differently to how it's turned out. Our battalion was in the advance guard of the regiment. It went into battle at ten in the morning. Although it was frightening, it was very interesting for us. Thirteen girls survived out of eighteen.

I had long been afraid of dead men, but one night, I had to hide behind a corpse when a sub-machine-gunner blazed away. And I lay behind this corpse. I was so afraid of blood on that first day that I didn't want to eat anything, and I saw blood when I closed my eyes.

We had marched for eight days, 120 kilometres, without sleep and without food. I had been imagining what war was like — everything on fire, children crying, cats running about, and when we got to Stalingrad it really turned out to be like that, only more terrible.

I was peeling potatoes with the cook. We were engrossed in a conversation about soldiers. Suddenly, smoke covered everything, and the cook was killed, and a few minutes later, when the lieutenant came, a mortar bomb exploded and we were both wounded.

It's particularly frightening to move during the night when Germans are shouting not far away, and everything is burning all around. It's very hard to carry the wounded. We made soldiers carry them.

I cried when I was wounded. We didn't collect the wounded in the daytime. Only once, when Kazantseva was carrying Kanysheva, but a sub-machine-gunner shot her in the head. In the daytime, we put them into a shelter, and collected them in the evenings, helped by soldiers.

There were moments sometimes when I regretted having volunteered, but I consoled myself saying to myself that I was not the first one, and not the last. And Klava said: "Such wonderful people get killed, what difference would my death make?" We received letters from our teachers. They were proud of having brought up such daughters. Our friends are jealous of us, that we have the chance to bandage wounds. Papa writes: "Serve with honesty. Come back home with victory." And Mama writes ... Well, when I read what she writes to me, tears start streaming.
[Grossman:] Klava Kopylova, clerk: 'I was buried in the bunker while I was typing an order. The lieutenant shouted to us: "Are you alive?" They dug me out. I moved to a bunker next door, and was buried there once again. They dug me out again, and I started typing again, and typed the document to the end. I will never forget it if I manage to stay alive. There was a bombardment that night. Everything was on fire. They woke me up. All were Party members in the bunker. They congratulated me so warmly, so nicely. On 7 November, I was given my Party card. They tried to photograph me several times for the Party identity card, but shells and mortar bombs were falling all the time. On quiet days, we tap dance and sing "The Little Blue Shawl". I read Anna Karenina and Resurrection.'*

[Grossman:] Lyolya Novikova, junior nurse: 'Galya Titova's friends told me that once when she was bandaging someone, there was heavy firing, the soldier was killed, and she was wounded. She stood up straight and said: "Goodbye, girls," and fell. We buried her ... The wounded soldiers write mostly to their commissars,** ... Although I speak German, I never speak to the prisoners, I don't want even to speak to them.

'My favourite subject was algebra. I had wanted to study at the Machine Manufacturing Institute ... There are just three of us left, out of eighteen girls ... We buried Tonya Yegorova. After the first battle, we lost two girls. We saw the corporal who said that Tonya had died in his arms. She had said to him: "Ay, I am dying. I am in such pain, I don't know whether these legs are mine, or nor." He said: "They are yours." It was impossible to get close to the tank for two days. When we finally got there, we found her lying in the trench. We dressed her, put a handkerchief there, covered her face with a blouse. We were crying. There was myself, Galya Kanysheva and Klava Vasilyeva. They are both dead now. In reserve, we didn't get on well with the soldiers. We checked them for lice and quarrelled with them all the time. And now the soldiers are saying: "We are very grateful to our girls."

'We have gone into the attack with our platoon, and crawled side by side with them. We have fed soldiers, given them water, bandaged them under fire. We turned out to be more resilient than the soldiers, we even used to urge them on. Sometimes, trembling at night, we would think: "Oh, if I were at home right now.

Editor's notes in the text:
* 'The Little Blue Shawl' had such a powerful influence that some soldiers even added the song title to the official battle cry so that it became: 'Za Rodinu, za Stalina, za Siny Platochek!' - 'For the Motherland, for Stalin, for the Blue Shawl!'

** A good soldier when wounded feared, with justification, that he would never be allowed to return to his comrades. The authorities in the rear would just make up a batch of those deemed to be battleworthy again and send them off to any regiment. This was why they were writing to their political officers.

These images do not come from the book, but from other sources. I'm sorry to say I didn't remember to collect source information as I usually do.

Vasily Grossman in Stalingrad, September 1942

Female medic tending wounded soldier outside Stalingrad

These both were taken at the Battle of Stalingrad


Some sources:

Soviet photos from the battle for Stalingrad 1942


Fatal Beauty: Women In Russia'S Military

two Soviet snipers

VASSILY GROSSMAN, excerpt from In the Line of the Main Attack

Moscow--Stalingrad, 1941-1942, recollections, stories, reports by A. Vassilevsky et. al.; compiled by Vladimir Sevruk; translated from the Russian; edited by Bryan Bean (Moscow, Progress Publishers, 1970)

Vasily Grossman in wikipedia

Women's roles in the World Wars in wikipedia

Battle of Stalingrad in wikipedia

Operation Barbarossa in wikipedia Extract: "The death toll may never be established with any degree of certainty. A recent estimate of Soviet military deaths is 8.7 million that lost their lives either in combat or in Axis captivity . . . The Red Army had suffered losses of 259% of their initial strength in 1941."

Stalingrad (book)



[1] Both Hitler and Stalin pursued "total war." For the Germans this meant that millions Soviet prisoners were allowed to die of starvation, disease, and brutal forced labor. For the Soviets it meant the death of German prisoners in corresponding numbers. But for the Soviets it also meant a willingness to sacrifice the lives of Soviet citizens — soldiers and civilians alike — brutally and without compunction.

[2] The wikipedia article on the Battle of Stalingrad gives an exensive bibliography and list of sources for further reading. You can find it here. Despite its length, it omits an important source — the first two volumes of the trilogy by David M. Glantz: To the Gates of Stalingrad and Armageddon in Stalingrad: September-November 1942 (University Press of Kansas, 2009).

[3] The quote comes from Absolute War: Soviet Russia in the Second World War by Chris Bellamy (Knopf, 2007))
Both Hitler and Stalin pursued "total war." For the Germans this meant that millions Soviet prisoners were allowed to die of starvation, disease, and brutal forced labor. For the Soviets it meant the death of German prisoners in corresponding numbers. But for the Soviets it also meant a willingness to sacrifice the lives of Soviet citizens — soldiers and civilians alike — brutally and without compunction. The authors of the wikipedia article on the battle summarize it thus: "The Battle of Stalingrad was a major and decisive battle of World War II in which Nazi Germany and its allies fought the Soviet Union for control of the city of Stalingrad (now Volgograd) in southwestern Russia. The battle took place between 23 August 1942 to 2 February 1943 and was marked by brutality and disregard for military and civilian casualties. It is among the bloodiest battles in the history of warfare, with the higher estimates of combined casualties amounting to nearly two million. The heavy losses inflicted on the German army made it a significant turning point in the whole war. After the Battle of Stalingrad, German forces never recovered their earlier strength, and attained no further strategic victories in the East."

[3] I've written previously about two Soviet snipers.

[4] "This battle, unequalled in its cruelty and ferocity, lasted for several days and nights uninterrupted. It was fought for every step of a staircase, for every corner in a dark passage, for every machine and the space between them, for every gas pipe. No one took a step back in this battle. And if the Germans gained some ground it meant that there was nobody left alive to defend it. Everyone fought like the giant red-haired tankman, whose name Chamov was never to learn; like the sapper Kosichenko, who, his left arm broken, took to removing the pin of his grenades with his teeth. It was as if the fallen were giving added strength to the living, and there were moments when ten men held a line that had been defended by a whole battalion. The workshops changed hands many times in the course of the battle. The Germans succeeded in occupying several buildings and workshops. It was in this battle that the German offensive reached its climax. This was the highwater mark of their main attack. As if they had lifted a weight that was too heavy for them, they overstrained some inner spring that had set their battering-ram in motion." - VASSILY GROSSMAN, excerpt from In the Line of the Main Attack