Tuesday, 31 December 2019

The Battle of Stalingrad (Jul 1942 to Feb 1943) - Part Three - Journal Notes From 2002

We pass Gumrak airfield with its distinctive water tower and station. And now, here I sit on the bank of the River Don, up on an escarpment, the river below and, on the other side – the Steppe beyond Kalach leading off into the distance – and eventually Stalingrad. 

Bridge over the Don at Kalach

There is a Joseph Stalin tank and behind me a memorial covered in bits of metal retrieved from the battlefield. We had travelled here from the NKVD Museum in the old prison where we learnt how the men of the NKVD won the battle!

A veteran - Anatoly Kozlov - a Colonel who served with the Soviet 158th Tank Brigade and he tells the story of this place. Anatoly is responsible for the nearby memorial which commemorates his fallen comrades.

On 12th July the Stalingrad Front was formed and three armies from the reserve occupied this point. No. 62 and a number of Rifle Divisions. We were west of the Don and No. 63 was on the east. No. 64 was on the southern front fielding four Tank Brigades, four Marine and two Infantry divisions.

Colonel Anatoly Kozlov
 We needed to regroup and build a defence line. We sent one regiment each to the Chir Defence Line to buy time so that we could stabilize the position on the Don. 

On the 17th July the advance groups on the Chir were engaged and this was the start of the Battle of Stalingrad. They held the Germans for only one week. On the 23rd July the defence line was broken – most of the Chir team were killed. Battalion 33 had 2,000 people but only 20 got back to the main defence line.

Memorial on the West Bank of the Don near Kalach

The advance team had the best equipment. The Germans broke our defence line straight way. The German objective was to surround the Russians at Kalach. On the 24th July the Russian 62nd and 64th Armies were surrounded – many were killed and taken prisoner.

To prevent the Germans crossing the Don No. 1 and No. 4 attacked on the 24th July. I was in the 1st Tank Army and we held our position here on this very spot. Two Russian tank armies broke out - 5,000 from two armies.

The Don - Volga Canal Built by German Prisoners of War

The German 6th Army had 740 tanks and we had the same. 700 tanks were destroyed here – and their crews lost. My Brigade was operating with 75 tanks – three survived with most being ditched in the Don. 1,500 tanks fought here and we bought one months worth of time.

I was liaison officer here on the Don bridge and I had a dream to raise a monument where the Joseph Stalin tank now sits. I built the monument in 1997. We got back across the river on pieces of wood – under fire. We then built a defence line on the east side of the Don. 100,000 died on the Chir / Don in July 1941.

The Germans had total air supremacy. There were so many planes! One flew so low we shot it down with a tank shell. The only time the Russians appeared in the air was during the big August air raid.

Recently Buried Soviet Dead at Rossoshka

Anatoly went on to recount the following story from when he was serving with the 2nd Guards Army holding the line against Manstein’s relief effort.

The Germans used tannoys to tell us that if we were captured carrying Communist papers we would be shot. Some soldiers hid their papers but the NKVD would ask to see them. Some said they had lost them and one lad admitted that he was frightened and that he’s hidden them. He was court martialled and sentenced to death. His commanding officer was asked to carry out the sentence in front of the other soldiers. He used his pistol but shot the lad without killing him. He tried again and his gun misfired – it was broken. He went from man to man trying to pull a rifle from other members of the squad but they were all crying and their fingers were stiff around their rifles. The officer had to find a rifle from another squad to finish the job.

Victory Day March - Fallen Heroes Square, Volgograd

The 9th May 2002. The Victory Day parade in Fallen Heroes Square, Volgograd. A goose-stepping colour party and lots of young soldiers. The commanders in their blue berets demonstrate some self-defence moves.

To read Part Four click here.

Monday, 30 December 2019

The Battle of Stalingrad (Jul 1942 to Feb 1943) - Part Two - Journal Notes From 2002

The following morning we cross the River Don following in the steps of the 60th Motorised Division of the XVI Panzer Army. Across the Steppe to the ‘Field of Soldiers’ breasting the ridge at Orlovka where the attacking German force split into two – north and south. 

Memorial on the Ridge West of Orlovka.

We spot a German helmet out of a car window but shoot pass to quickly to investigate. We follow the German drive of the 23rd August 1942 and reach the Volga just north of Rynok. In the nearby gully a newly constructed house is collapsing into the sand on which it has unwisely been built.

The Red October Factory

Inside the Red October Factory

The Tractor and the Red October factory complexes are huge – gradually decaying with the nearby workers settlement sad and unkept. The ex Intourist guide we are with talks proudly of the history of the factory – the production statistics and workers who have received the accolade of ‘Hero of the Russian Revolution’. Her words peter out as she realises the contrast between her proud memories and the desolation that lies beyond the perimeter fence.

We manage to get inside and make a beeline for a parcelled off area which, we are told, is untouched since 1943. Inside one of the buildings we debate the pros and cons of various sniper positions. Having settled on a likely spot we rummage around in the debris on the floor and find empty shell casings.

Memorial Site - Red October Factory

Gorodishche is a fascinating place. We choose to visit the battlefield relics at the local museum. We see them …. Eventually! We are greeted by the Director, her assistants and a line of very nervous children dressed in the red, white and blue of their national flag. 

Schoolchildren in Goradische

We are held in the foyer and listen to a very long speech and then are shown around – case by case with each exhibit being painstakingly described. After what seems like an hour we are ushered into a small theatre for a lecture on local folklore. “In 1273 our settlement was founded … in 1977 Comrade … won the regional tractor pulling competition". 

Gorodishche Church
Eventually we are shown the relics but only after a full immersion in yet more local folklore.Then tea and cakes – each made by a different village – and more speeches and then more tea. And then more cake.

Gorodishche Church served as a German field hospital during the battle. We heard two versions of what happened to the patients in February 1943 when the German pocket in the north finally surrendered. The first version has Red Army medics extracting the German wounded and interning them as PoWs. The second version has a flamethrower being used to incinerate everything and everyone in the basement. 

Uncle Joe at the Planetarium
 In Volgograd Planetarium there is a fabulous tiled mosaic of ‘Uncle Joe’ Stalin. After Stalin died it was painted over rather than destroyed. Last year it was re-exposed and is now shown off with pride. 

Note: Whilst we were in the city we became aware of a vociferous campaign to restore 'Stalingrad' as the city's name. A veterans organisation led by Colonel Anatoly Kozlov were leading the charge. Sadly Anatoly died a few years back but at the time of writing in 2002 he was very active - more from Anatoly later.

Back at the hotel my phone rings. Ah, perhaps Mo is calling I think. But no, it’s a Russian voice. “Do you want sex” the female caller says in a disconcertingly perfunctory way. There’s a pause. “I am 23” the caller intones. I decline the offer.

To Read Part Three click here.