Vasili Grossman: A report from Stalingrad, 1942

During the Great Patriotic War, Vasili Grossman was a correspondent for the army newspaperKrasnaya 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 aniron 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. 

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