"In the Main Line of Attack" by Vasili Grossman A report from Stalingrad Pravda Autumn, 1942

 

The battle of Stalingrad took place between 23 August 1942 and 2 February 1943.

Gurtiev's Siberian Division

 

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.

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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.

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Why? How?


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.