Tuesday 27 December 2011

The Demjansk Pocket (1942)

I covered the history of this pivotal WWII battle in an earlier entry (see link at the bottom of this narrative). So, I'm assuming that if you are reading this you have some familiarity with the monumental struggle that took place in and around Demjansk from Feb to April 1942.

German Cemetery - Korpova, Demjansk

Nowadays Demjansk is something of a back water. Located as it is, on the only piece of high ground in an area where the topography is one of swampy waterlogged forest crossed by the odd causeway - now metalled roads, in 1941/2 mainly tracks constructed out of lumber by military engineers. We travelled through what in 1942 was known as the Rumeshevo corridor hitting the high ground at Tsemenia which is 20 km North of Demjansk town. It is on this road that one can find the newly built Korpova German cemetery along with a much smaller original battlefield cemetery containing a handful of early casualties.

Memorial to the 1st Shock Army - Tsemena, Demjansk

We stayed at the only hotel in town - called, rather unimaginatively, 'the hotel'. I managed to secure the penthouse suite - a glorious cacophony of kitch furnishings and faulty utilities. Meals were available - one choice no matter whether breakfast, lunch or supper. There is no bar so myself and a couple of mates ventured into the only liquor store in town - the owner who had evidently only dealt with locals before was astonished.

Mural from Pupovo PoW Camp, Demjansk

Stepping out of the hotel one can cover some interesting sites in a couple of hours walking. Head South, turn right at the intersection and in a few minutes it is possible to see the vast memorial on the site of the Pupovo Boloto PoW camp. A depressing place where thousands of PoWs and local people were left to fend for themselves within a wire enclosed compound. The road North from this site leads past the town square with its' huge statue of Lenin to the town bridge where there is a small memorial in the form of an anti-tank gun.

The Hotel, Demjansk
The Bridge Memorial, Demjansk

Pre - war, two churches stood either side of the river. Both were destroyed during the conflict. Continuing East over the river leads out to the airfield and the Demjansk lake. In the winter, during the encirclement, the latter acted as a second runway. Around the airfield site the ground is pitted with fox holes and dugouts.

We'd arranged to spend time with some friends from Moscow - guys who have a fascination with the history of the area and a real interest in excavating the main battle areas. The purpose being primarily to locate and rebury the war dead but also to retrieve artifacts. We spent a day in the field - a day which saw the retrieval of c30 fallen Russian soldiers along with tons of equipment.

Recovered remains at Kamennaya Gora, Demjansk
Battlefield relics - Mikhaltzovo, Demjansk

We later attended the reburial of these and other soldiers at an officially constituted Russian military cemetery. A well attended event with a good mix of local civilians, Russian officialdom and 'diggers' from as far away as Siberia.

Whilst in Demjansk we undertook three serious battlefield walks. The first at Tsemena at the end of the Rumshevo Corridor, the second in the town itself and the third along the line held by the infamous SS Totenkopf Division on the escarpment to the East of Luzhno village. We parked in the centre of the village and walked along the edge of the escarpment. It was one of the best preserved sites I've visited on the Eastern Front. MG 42 gun positions, linking trenches and mortar pits in support. Live mortars lay all around along with other less dangerous vestiges of the conflict.

Our party arrives at Luzhno, Demjansk
MG 42 position - Luzhno, Demjansk

As with so many of our trips to Russia, it's the people we find the most fascinating. Not just the veterans but others - from all walks of life. Whilst in Demjansk we spent an afternoon with the local media and two long articles about our visit were subsequently published.

The premier of 'Pilot Hero of the Soviet Union' - Demjansk

Also, we attended a film premier of the film 'Pilot Hero of the Soviet Union'. A story about the recent discovery of a Russian pilot following the excavation of a fighter plane in the Demjansk area. The pilot died over the Pocket in 1942 and was originally from the city of Stalingrad ... but that's another story.

Related links
Besieged - Cholm (1942)
The Volkhov Front (1942 - 44)
Pre Trip 'Taster' - Demjansk (1942)