Saturday 28 December 2019

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

Around Christmas time in 2001 I received a phone call from my friend Tony Noyes (now sadly departed). "Do you want to come with me and a few mates to Volgograd next year?" he asked. "Yes" I said in the blink of an eye. Sorting out some papers today, I came across my notes from the trip. I thought I'd transcribe some of them and here is Part 1.

Central Volgograd (Stalingrad) from the River Volga

First evening and time for a beer – which is easier said than done. At first glance the Intourist Hotel – inexplicably - doesn’t seem to have a bar. In the house rules (four pages of tightly written words) it says that guests may immediately move to the front of and queue that forms at the bar. Anyway, it transpires that there is a bar up on the second floor - discreetly positioned so as to discourage non-residents. We are told that the unwanted non-residents are “very friendly ladies”. It’s six in the evening but the bar is closed. 

View from Hotel Room
Undaunted we remember that, earlier in the day, we’d heard music coming from the theatre bar across the road. We venture across, go down some stairs and push through a pair of swing doors. Two men come to greet us. One is in military camouflage and the other has his enormous torso squeezed into a tight-fitting suit. The paramilitary says ‘coats” rather gruffly and we meekly comply. 

Model of 6th Army HQ - NKVD Museum
  In the interior the lights are dim and the place is empty apart from a couple of girls dressed in tight green basques who appear to be bar staff. Thinking about our modest budgets for the trip we extricate ourselves and find a pavement bar outside. Two beautiful girls walk by offering up coy glances, smiles and a friendly “hello”. We deduce that these must be a couple of the ‘very friendly girls’ that we’d been told about earlier. We draw our anoraks closer and busy ourselves with our beers.

The Factory District from Mumayev Kurgan Hill

The next morning we stroll down to the bank of the might River Volga before returning for breakfast and then visiting Fallen Heroes Square and the Railway Station. The latter has fabulous ceiling paintings showing scenes from the revolution and a badly overpainted patch covering a picture of Stalin which was defaced in the Khrushchev era.

Station Ceiling Mural
Then off to Tsaritsa Gorge where we were shown the entrance of a massive bunker – sadly locked up.

Next the Reconciliation Cross, the fireship Gasitel on the bank of the Volga and finally the site of the headquarters bunker of the Soviet 13th Guards Division. This historic site is atop a sewage overflow and is surrounded by fishermen most of whom are periodically swigging from bottles of vodka. After lunch with ‘new Russians’ we go up to the Mameyev Kurgan memorial complex. We meet a veteran with a chest full of medals and talk to him for ages. He tells us that he was one of four machine gun company commanders who spent eleven days fighting on the hill (which is still covered in battlefield debris). He is tearful at times.

Vasily Chuikov told us “we hold – you take the hill – you go to die – and die expensively”.

Steps to the Motherland Statue

Back to the centre of town which is place where people watch. Watchers are everywhere. In the lobby of the hotel – all day, every day. They sit, they stare. They stand, they stare. They are everywhere. They don’t smile they just watch.

To read Part Two click here.