Soviet Writers at War!

Vasili Grossman
A report from Stalingrad, 1942

During the Great Patriotic War, Vasili Grossman was a correspondent for the army newspaper Krasnaya Zvezda. As such, he was an eye-witness to and participant in the historic Battle of Stalingrad. Years later, in his novels For A Just Cause and Life and Fate, Grossman would present a somewhat controversial view of that battle. But in 1942, his views were less ambiguous, celebrating the unquestionable courage of Soviet troops and highlighting the horrors of this hideous war.

In the Main Line of Attack describes life and death in a division of Siberian troops who had to bear the brunt of the most frenzied period of Nazi attacks on Stalingrad, withstanding 80 straight hours of bombardment, and more.


In the night, Colonel Gurtiev's Siberian troops took up defensive positions. A factory always looks rather stark and gloomy, but one could surely find no scene in the world more gloomy than the one these men saw on that October morning in 1942: the dark mass of the workshops, the wet, gleaming rails, already rusted here and there, the wrecked goods wagons, the piles of steel tubes scattered around the vast yard, as large as a city square, the brown slag heaps and mounds of coal, the great factory pipes, damaged in many places by enemy shells. The asphalted yard was pock-marked with bomb craters and scattered everywhere were steel splinters torn off by explosions, like thin shreds of material. The Division was to take up positions in front of the plant and stand to the death. Behind was the cold, dark Volga.

During the night the sappers broke up the asphalt and dug trenches with picks in the hard, stony ground, cut firing-holes in the strong walls of the workshops, and made shelters in the cellars of the ruined buildings. The Barricades Plant was to be defended by Markelov's and Mikhalyev's regiments. One of the command posts was set up in a concrete-lined canal that passed beneath the main workshops. Sergeyenko's regiment was defending the deep ravine which ran down to the Volga through the Barricades Garden City. The officers and men of the regiment called it the Ravine of Death. Yes, behind was the dark, icy-cold Volga, behind was the fate of Russia. The Division was to make a stand and fight to the death.

The First World War was a terrible ordeal for Russia, but then the fiendish foe had had to divide his forces between the Eastern and the Western fronts. In this war the whole crushing weight of the German invasion had fallen on Russia. In January 1941 the German armies were advancing along the entire front stretching from sea to sea. This year, 1942, the Germans were concentrating their attack in the south-eastern direction. What in the First World War had been spread over two fronts manned by several great powers, what last year struck Russia alone along a two-thousand-mile front, crashed down this summer and autumn on Stalingrad and the Caucasus. Moreover, here in Stalingrad the Germans had renewed their onslaught on the northern and central districts of the city. The Germans showered the murderous fire of countless mortars and thousands of guns on the northern part of the city, on the industrial area in the center of which stood the Barricades Plant. The Germans reckoned that no human being could stand up to such punishment, that no hearts or nerves in the world could fail to crack up in that inferno of fire, screaming metal, quaking earth and seething air. The whole fiendish arsenal of German militarism was concentrated here--tanks and flame-throwers, six-barrel mortars, armadas of dive-bombers with wailing sirens, and personnel and demolition bombs. The tommy-gunners were supplied with explosive bullets, the artillery and mortar teams with incendiary shells. Every kind of German artillery was concentrated here from small-caliber anti-tank guns to heavy, long-range pieces. They fired mortar shells that looked like harmless green and red balls, and air torpedoes, that made craters the size of a two-story house. Here the night was as bright as day from the glow of fires and rockets, while in the day-time it was dark as night with the smoke from burning houses and the German smoke-screens. The din was as solid as the earth itself, and the brief moments of silence seemed more terrible and threatening than the din of battle. And if the whole world bows its head to the heroism of the Russian armies, if the Russian armies speak in pious tones of the defenders of Stalingrad, here in Stalingrad itself, Shumilov's men say with deep respect:

"It's not us. The lads who are holding the plants, they're the ones. It's an awesome sight: there's a solid cloud of fire and smoke and German dive-bombers above them day and night, but Chuikov's still holding out."

These are grim words for a soldier; "the line of the main attack" are grave, terrible words. There are no more terrible words in war, and it was naturally no accident that the men of Gurtiev's Siberian Division were sent on that dismal autumn day to defend the plant. The Siberians are tough, sturdy people, used to cold and privation, fond of discipline and order, reticent and gruff. The Siberians are solid .and reliable. In tight-lipped silence they struck at the stony ground with their picks, cutting firing-holes in the workshop walls, making dugouts, entrenchments and communication trenches, preparing for the fight to the death.

Colonel Gurtiev is a lean man of fifty. When the First World War broke out in 1914 he left the St. Petersburg Polytechnic where he was studying in his second year to volunteer for the army, and fought as a gunner at Warsaw, Baranovichi and Chartoriisk.

Gurtiev has been in the army for twenty-eight years, seeing active service and training officers. His two sons went off to the front as lieutenants. He has left his wife and daughter behind in far-away Omsk. On this terrible and solemn day he thought of his lieutenant sons, his daughter and his wife, and the many young officers he had trained, and his whole long, hard, Spartan life. The time has come when all the principles of military science, morale and duty which he taught his sons, his pupils and fellow soldiers will be put to the test, and he looked anxiously at the faces of the Siberians--the men from Omsk, Novosibirsk, Krasnoyarsk and Barnaul--the men with whom it was his destiny to repel the enemy onslaught.

The Siberians came to the Volga well-prepared. The Division had been well-trained before being sent to the front. Colonel Gurtiev had trained his men thoroughly and wisely, had never stood for any nonsense and if anything had been over-exacting. He knew that however hard military training might be--the night practice raids, the lying in trenches and slits being "ironed" by tanks, the long forced marches--the real thing was far grimmer. He had faith in the fortitude and stamina of his Siberians. He had tested it on the way to the front, when throughout the whole long journey there had been only one incident: one of the soldiers had dropped his rifle from the moving train, and had leapt down, picked it up and run three kilometers to the next station to rejoin his regiment. He had tested their stamina in the Stalingrad steppes, where his men had had their baptism of fire and calmly repelled a surprise attack of thirty German tanks. He had tested their endurance during the last leg of the march to Stalingrad, when they had covered two hundred kilometers in forty-eight hours. Yet he still looked anxiously at the faces of the men, now that they were there on the front line, where they would be bearing the brunt of the main attack.

Gurtiev had great faith in his officers. His young Chief of Staff, Tarasov, did not know what tiredness was: he could sit for days and nights in a dugout that was constantly being shaken by explosions, poring over maps, planning the complicated battle ahead. His uncompromising judgment, his habit of looking life straight in the face and getting to the bottom of a situation to know the truth, however bitter, were based on unflinching faith. There was unshakable strength of mind and spirit hidden in that thin youth with the face, speech and hands of a peasant. The Colonel's political instructor Lieutenant Svirin was possessed of an iron will, a sharp mind, and a tremendous capacity for self-denial. He could remain calm, cheerful and smiling, where even the calmest and most cheerful would lose their smile. Markelov, Mikhalyev and Chamov, the regimental commanders, were the Colonel's pride and joy. He had as much faith in them as in himself. The whole Division spoke with love and admiration of Chamov's silent courage, Markelov's grit, and the fine qualities of Mikhalyev, the darling of his regiment, who was like a father to his subordinates, a gentle, good-natured soul, and completely fearless. Even so. Colonel Gurtiev now looked anxiously at the faces of his regimental commanders, for he knew what bearing the brunt of the main attack meant, what it meant to hold the line in Stalingrad. "Will they stand up to it?" he wondered.

Hardly had the division had time to entrench itself in the stony ground of Stalingrad, hardly had the command post moved into a deep gallery cut in the sandy escarpment above the Volga, the communications lines been laid and the transmitters begun to tap out their messages to the artillery positions on the other side of the river, hardly had the first pale light of dawn pierced the darkness, than the Germans opened fire. For eight hours solid the German Junkers dive-bombed the Division's positions, for eight hours, without a moment's pause, wave after wave of German planes passed over, for eight hours the sirens wailed, the bombs whistled through the air, the earth trembled and what was left of the brick buildings crashed to the ground. For eight hours the air was dark with smoke and dust and deadly splinters zipped everywhere. Anyone who has heard the whine of the air rent by falling bomb, anyone who has experienced an intense ten-minute bombing raid by the Luftwaffe will understand what eight hours of solid aerial bombardment by dive-bombers means. For eight hours the Siberians kept up a constant barrage of fire at the enemy aircraft, and the Germans doubtless felt something like despair as the whole area of the plant, burning and shrouded in a black cloud of dust and smoke, crackled with rifle shots, rattled with machine-gun fire, the short thuds of anti-tank rifles and the regular, angry fire of ack-ack guns. It would seem that everything living must be broken, annihilated; yet there were the Siberian Division, dug into the ground, uncowed and unbroken, keeping up a continuous deadly barrage of fire. The Germans had thrown in their heavy mortars and artillery. The monotonous hiss of mines and the crash of shells merged with the whine of sirens and the roar of exploding bombs. So it continued until nightfall. Then in solemn silence the Red Army men buried their dead comrades. That was the first day, the "house-warming". The German mortar-batteries kept up their racket all night, and few of the men got any sleep.

That night at the command post. Colonel Gurtiev met two old friends he had not seen for over twenty years. Men who had parted young bachelors now met again old and grey. Two of them were divisional commanders, and the third commanded a tank brigade. They embraced, and all those present--the HQ chiefs, adjutants and majors of the operations staff--saw tears in the eyes of these grey-haired men.

"Would you believe it! Would you believe it!" they exclaimed over and over. And indeed there was something magnificent and extremely moving in this meeting between friends of youth at this grim hour, amid the burning factory buildings and the ruins of Stalingrad.

The German artillery pounded away all night, and as soon as it was light forty dive-bombers appeared, and again the sirens wailed, again the black cloud of dust and smoke billowed high above the plant, shrouding the ground, the workshops, the wrecked railway wagons, and even the tall factory chimneys. That morning Markelov's regiment emerged from the cover of their trenches, dugouts and shelters, left their stone and concrete burrows and went into the attack. They advanced over slag heaps and ruins, past the granite administrative building of the plant, over rails and across suburban allotments. They went past thousands of jagged bomb craters, with the whole inferno of German air raids overhead. A rain of iron lashed them from ahead, and still they went on. And the enemy once again was seized by a superstitious fear: were those really men advancing to the attack, were they mere mortals?

They were mortals al1 right. Markelov's regiment advanced a thousand yards and occupied new positions, digging themselves in. Only here in Stalingrad do people really know what a thousand yards is. It means three thousand feet, thirty-six thousand inches. At night the enemy attacked the regiment with greatly superior forces. German battalions of infantry advanced supported by heavy tanks, and a thick hail of machine-gun bullets showered down on the regiment's positions. Drunken German soldiers pushed forward with the stubbornness of the insane. The dead bodies of the soldiers, and their comrades who heard how throughout the night and the next day and again the next night Russian machine-guns rattled and Russian hand-grenades exploded will bear witness to how Markelov's regiment fought. The tale of this battle will be told by the burnt-out German tanks, the long rows of crosses with German helmets on them marking the graves of platoons, companies and battalions.

They were indeed mere mortals, and none of them returned.

The third day the German aircraft were in the air over the Division's positions not eight hours but twelve. They were still up there after nightfall, and out of the high dark vault of the night sky came the wailing sirens of the Junkers, and the heavy, frequent thuds of the bombs hammering the ground and exploding in a vast sheet of smoky, red flames. The German guns and mortars showered shells and bombs on the Division from morning till night. The Germans had a hundred artillery regiments in the Battle of Stalingrad. Sometimes they would harass us with short bombardments, and at night-time they would keep up a steady systematic barrage that was a great nuisance. They were supported by mortar batteries. This was the line of the main attack!

Several times a day the German guns and mortars suddenly fell silent and the sky was suddenly empty of dive-bombers. An uncanny silence descended. Then the observers cried: "Action stations," and the men in the forward lines grabbed their incendiary bottles at the ready, the anti-tank riflemen opened their ammunition bags, the tommy-gunners wiped their guns on their palms, and the grenadiers moved their boxes of hand-grenades closer. This short silence did not mean a pause. It meant an attack was imminent.

Soon the clank of caterpillar tracks and the low rumble of engines announced the approaching tanks, and the lieutenant shouted: "Get ready, comrades! Tommy-gunners coming through on the left flank!"

Sometimes the Germans came as close as thirty or forty yards and the Siberians could see their grimy faces and torn greatcoats, and hear the guttural cries, threats, and jibes. And after the Germans had been repulsed, the dive-bombers and the waves of gun and mortar fire pounded the Division with renewed fury.

Our artillery played an invaluable role in repulsing the German attacks. Fugenfirov, the commander of the artillery regiment, and the battalion and battery commanders were up in front with the Siberian Division. They were in direct radio contact with the firing positions, and the crews of dozens of powerful long-range guns across the Volga breathed as one with the infantry, sharing their every joy and sorrow, their every anxiety. The artillery was invaluable in dozens of ways: it covered the infantry positions with a solid shield of fire, mangled the German tanks as if they were made of cardboard, those heavy tanks that the anti-tank units were unable to deal with, mowed down the tommy-gunners advancing under cover of the tanks, pounded now a square, now an enemy troop concentrations, blowing up ammunition dumps and sending mortar batteries sky-high. At no other time in the course of the war had the infantry felt such friendly support from the artillery as at Stalingrad.

In the course of a month the enemy launched one hundred and seventeen attacks against the Siberian Division.

There was one terrible day when the German tanks and infantry attacked twenty-three times. And all twenty-three attacks were repulsed. Every day except three for a month, the Luftwaffe was in the air over the Division's positions for ten to twelve hours--three hundred and twenty hours in the whole month. The operations department counted up the astronomical number of bombs dropped on the Division. It ran into tens of thousands; so did the number of Luftwaffe sorties. All this on a front little over a mile long! The roar of explosions was enough to deafen the whole of mankind, the fire and metal was enough to wipe a whole country off the map. The Germans thought they were breaking the morale of the Siberians. They thought they had exceeded the limits of human endurance, the power of human hearts and nerves to stand up to such punishment. But, amazingly, the men had not crumpled, had not gone insane, had not lost control of their hearts and nerves, but had instead become stronger and calmer. The sturdy, tight-lipped Siberians had become even sterner, even more tight-lipped; their cheeks had become hollow, and their eyes more determined. Here where the brunt of the German attack was borne there was no singing, no accordions, no light conversation in the short lulls in the fighting. Here men were undergoing a super-human strain. There were times when no one slept for three or four days and nights, and talking with his men Gurtiev was pained to hear a soldier say quietly:

"We've got everything, Comrade Colonel; nine hundred grammes of bread, and hot meals in thermoses twice a day without fail--but we're just not hungry."

Gurtiev loved and respected his men, and he knew that when a soldier is "not hungry", he's really finding the going hard. But now Gurtiev's mind was at ease. He realized that there was no power on earth that could shake his Siberians. The soldiers and their officers had learned a lot from their bitter experience in battle. Their defense had become even better and firmer. There was now a vast defense system in front of the factory workshops--dugouts, communication trenches and firing-points; the engineers had taken the defense works well forward in front of the plant. The troops had learned to maneuvre underground in a quick organiszd manner, to concentrate and disperse, pass from the workshops to the forward trenches via the communication trenches or vice versa, depending on where the Luftwaffe was attacking, depending on from which quarter the German tanks and infantry were advancing. Underground "feelers" were dug along which men could reach the heavy German tanks standing only a hundred yards from the workshops. The engineers mined all the approaches to the plant. They had to carry the mines in their hands, two at a time, holding them under their arm-pits like loaves of bread. The route from the river bank to the plant twisted for four or five miles and was constantly under enemy fire. Mining had to be carried out in pitch darkness, before the dawn, often within as little as a hundred feet of the nazi positions. In this manner some two thousand mines were planted under the scattered timbers of wooden houses destroyed by the bombing, under piles of stones, and in bomb and shell craters. The men had learned to defend big buildings by keeping up a solid curtain of fire from the ground to the fifth floor, to build remarkably well-camouflaged observation posts right under ,the Germans' noses, to make good use of large bomb craters and the whole complex system of gas, oil and water mains beneath the plant. Radio contact between the artillery and the infantry was improving daily and it sometimes seemed as if they were no longer separated by the Volga, as if the accurate guns, which instantly reacted to every movement by the enemy, were right there alongside the troops and the command posts.

The men's moral fibre had grown along with their experience. They themselves could not feel, did not understand, could not sense the psychological changes that had taken place in them during their month in hell, on the front line of the great defense of Stalingrad. They thought they were the same as they had always been. In the short lulls they would wash in the underground bath-chambers, eat the hot food brought them in thermoses, and Makarevich and Karnaukhov, with their great growth of beard, like peacetime village postmen, came under fire to the forward lines with their leather bags, carrying newspapers and letters from far-off Siberian villages. The men remembered their peacetime village jobs as carpenters, smiths or farmers. They jokingly referred to the German six-barrel mortar as "goofy" and the dive-bombers with their sirens as "fiddlers" or "musicians". In reply to the threatening cries of the German tommy-gunners from nearby ruins "Hei, Russ, bul-bul, sdauaisa!" (Surrender or you'll be blowing bubbles-i.e., in the Volga), they laughed and said cheerfully to one another: "How come the Germans don't want to drink out of the Volga? Or are they satisfied with putrid water?" They thought they were the same people as before, and only the new arrivals from across the river looked with amazement at these men who knew no fear, for whom the words "life" and "death" no longer existed. Only an outsider could appreciate the iron strength of the Siberians, their calm determination to bear their heavy lot to the end.

Heroism had become a part of everyday life, of the very manner of these men; it had become a prosaic, mundane habit. Heroism was present at all times and in everything. There was heroism in the work of the cooks, peeling potatoes while incendiary shells exploded all around. There was great heroism in the work of the young nurses, the schoolgirls from Tobolsk, who went on bandaging the wounded, and giving them water to drink in the heat of the battle. Yes, to the outsider's eyes there was heroism in every little movement the men of the Division made: in the way the commander of the communications platoon Khamitsky sat calmly in a mound in front of the dugout reading belles-lettres, while the German dive-bombers swooped around; in the way communications officer Batrakov carefully wiped his spectacles, put reports into his field-bag and set off for seven and a half miles through the "Ravine of Death" with perfectly normal calm, as if he were out for a Sunday morning stroll; in the way the tommy-gunner Kolosov, buried up to the neck in earth and splintered boards after an explosion in the dugout, smiled at the deputy commander of the Division, Svirin; in the way the HQ typist, a robust, red-cheeked Siberian woman, Klava Kopylova, began to type a combat order in one dugout, was buried and dug out, went to type on in another, was again buried and dug out, and still finished her typing in a third dugout and took it to the divisional commander to be signed.

These were the kind of people that stood in the line of the main attack.

The Germans know better than anyone how stubbornly they resisted. One night a prisoner was brought to Svirin in his dugout. His hands, and his grey-stubbled face were caked with grime, and the woollen scarf round his neck was like a filthy floorcloth. He served in a special Iron Guard unit, had fought in all the campaigns and was a member of the nazi party. After the routine interrogation, Svirin asked: "What is the Germans' opinion of the resistance in the area of the Plant?" The question was translated for the prisoner, who stood leaning back against the stone wall of the dugout. He was lost for words and burst into tears. Yes, these were real men who bore the brunt of the main attack, and their hearts and nerves did not fail them.

After almost twenty days the Germans launched a "decisive" attack on the plant. Never in history had an assault been preceded by such massive preparation. The Luftwaffe and the heavy mortars and artillery showered the Division with bombs and shells for eighty hours solid: three days and nights that were a chaos of smoke, fire and thunder. The whistle of falling bombs, the scream of mortar shells from the six-barrel "goofies", the thunder of heavy shells and the protracted wail of the sirens was alone enough to deafen people--but they were only the prelude to the thunder of explosions. Jagged tongues of flame spurted up and the air was rent by the howl of tormented metal. For eighty hours it went on, then the preparation finished suddenly at five in the morning and immediately German tanks and infantry advanced to the attack. The Germans managed to penetrate into the plant workshops, their tanks roared at its very walls, they broke through our defenses and cut off the command posts from the forward lines. It would have seemed that deprived of their commanders, further resistance by the troops would have been impossible, and that the command posts, under direct enemy attack, would be wiped out. But an extraordinary thing happened: every trench, every dugout, every firing-point and every fortified ruin became a separate, isolated fortress with its own command, its own communications. Sergeants and rank-and-file soldiers assumed command, and skillfully repulsed all attacks. And in this bitter, critical hour, the commanders and HQ staff turned the command posts into fortified strong-points, and fought like rank-and-file soldiers to repulse the enemy attacks. Chamov beat off ten attacks. A giant, red-haired tank commander defending Chamov's command post used up all his grenades and ammunition and then took to hurling stones at the advancing Germans. Chamov himself manned a mortar. The golden boy of the Division, Mikhalyev, was killed by a direct bomb hit on the command post. "They've killed our father," said the men. Major Kushnaryov, who replaced Mikhalyev, transferred his command post to a concrete pipe that passed beneath the workshops. Along with his Chief-of-Staff, Dyatlenko, and six other staff officers he successfully defended the entrance to the pipe for several hours with a few boxes of grenades, repulsing numerous German attacks.

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 high-water 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.

The German onslaught began to falter. They had three divisions, the 94th, the 305th and the 389th, fighting the Siberians. Their hundred and seventeen infantry attacks cost 5,000 German lives. The Siberians withstood this superhuman pressure. Two thousand tons of scrap metal from enemy tanks littered the ground in front of the plant. Thousands of tons of bombs, mines and shells had fallen on the factory yard and on the workshops, but still the Division held out. The troops faced death, without ever once looking back, for they knew that behind them lay the Volga and the fate of Russia.

One cannot help wondering how this tremendous strength was forged. It was partly the national character, the tremendous sense of responsibility, and that stolid Siberian stubbornness, excellent military and political training and strict discipline. But there was something else I should like to mention as having played no mean role in this great, tragic epic and that was the amazingly fine morale and the strong bond of love that united all the men of the Siberian Division. A spirit of Spartan simplicity was characteristic of the whole staff. It was reflected in ordinary, everyday details, in the refusal to accept the rationed hundred grammes of vodka that was theirs by right throughout the whole long Stalingrad battle, and in their sensible, calm, businesslike manner. I saw the love that united the men of the Division, in the deep distress with which they mourned the loss of their fallen comrades. I saw it in the moving meeting between the grey-haired Colonel Gurtiev and the battalion nurse, Zoya Kalganova, when she returned to duty after her second wound. "Hello, my dear child," Gurtiev said quietly, and quickly went forward with outstretched hands to greet the thin girl with close-cropped hair-just like a father greeting his own daughter.

This love and faith in one another was what helped the soldiers in the heat of battle to take the place of their commander and the commanders and staff to take up machine-guns, hand-grenades, and incendiary bottles to repulse the German tanks approaching the command post.

The wives and children of these men will never forget their husbands and fathers who fell in the great battle on the Volga. They cannot be forgotten, these fine, true men. There is only one worthy way in which our Red Army can honor the sacred memory of the men who bore the brunt of the enemy's main attack-and that is by an unlimited, liberating offensive. We believe that the hour of this offensive is at hand.

November 1942
Translated by: Anonymo