Real World War II (Part 2)

Part I

Here is another short installment of the war memoirs written by Nikolai Nikulin. I really wanted to translate this chapter because it’s one of the most graphic and honest descriptions of what was the life like for a Soviet soldier during the World War II. The idea of the needless sacrifice of the human life keeps coming up throughout the narrative. Even the Germans who were on the occupied territories were well-protected, well-fed, well-rested and well-supplied. The author contrasts his own memories with the ones of a German veteran to underline the negligence of the Soviet military brass.

The translation is turning out to be time-consuming but I hope to post the last piece on the 9th. I know these are lengthy and I am not very good at it, but I’d like to thank everyone who took time to read and comment. If you notice some grammar/spelling/general errors please let me know.


Those who forget their history are doomed to repeat it.
Ancient philosopher

To the south-east of Mga, in the midst of forests and wetlands there is a tiny train stop named Pohost. Several houses were situated on the shore of the black from the peat river, bushes, and thickets of birch, alder and endless marshes. Passengers on the passing trains don’t even bother looking out of the window going through this forgotten by God place. Didn’t know about it before the war, don’t know about it now. And yet it’s the site of one of the bloodiest battles of the Leningrad front. In the War Diary of the German Army Chief of Staff is the place constantly referred to in the period from December 1941 to May 1942, and later, until January 1944; referred to as a “hot spot”, where the military situation was dangerous. In fact, the Pohost station was the starting point of the Soviet attempt to lift the siege of Leningrad. That’s where the so-called Luban operation had begun. Our troops (the 54th Army) were to break through the front, move to the station Luban on the railway Leningrad – Moscow and connect it with the 2nd Strike Army, advancing from the Myasnoi Bor onto the Volkhov. Thus, the German group at Leningrad was to be broken up and destroyed with the subsequent removal of the blockade. We know how this plan has turned out. 2nd Army was itself surrounded and partly destroyed, partly captured  together with its commander  General Vlasov (*general Vlasov collaborated with Germany), and the 54th Army, after three months of fierce fighting flooded the area with blood, and managed to move only  twenty kilometers ahead. Its regiments did not reach Luban, losing almost all of its manpower and got stuck in the wild forests and swamps for a long time.

This operation is now forgotten as “unsuccessful” and even General Fedyuninsky, commander of the 54th Army, was shamefully silent about it in his memoirs recalling, however, that it was “the hardest, most difficult time in his military career”.

We arrived at a Pohost at the beginning of January 1942, early in the morning.  The swamps were snow-covered with sickly-looking trees sticking out. Along the road here and there fresh graves were visible – mounds with wooden posts at the head. Clouds of the frosty mist swirled in the gray twilight. The temperature was about thirty degrees below zero (-22F). Amidst the rumbling sounds of explosions, stray bullets were flying past us. I could see a lot of cars, some boxes and miscellaneous equipment, some disguised with branches. Scattered groups of soldiers and some bent figure slowly crept in different directions.

Winter 1942 near Pohost. Photo from the book.

A wounded man told us that our last attack in a churchyard choked and that the firing points of the Germans dug into the embankment, sweep anything alive with the barrage of the machine gun fire. The approaches to the station were under intense artillery and mortar fire. It was impossible to raise one’s head. He also told us that our troops allegedly took over the station Pohost on the move in late December, when he first approached this area. But inside the station buildings they discovered stored alcohol got dead-drunk and were slaughtered by the Germans who came to the rescue. Since then all attempts to take the Pohost back ended with failure. This story was so typical! Many times after that I heard it at different times and in different parts of the front!

Meanwhile our guns took up positions and opened fire. We began to settle in the forest. Frozen ground could only be chipped only to the depth of forty or fifty centimeters (1.5 ft); underneath there was ground water, so our shelters were shallow. To get in one could crawl through a special hole which was covered with a cape and stay there only in horizontal position but inside was a burning stove made from an old bucket creating humid steamy heat. The heat turned snow into water, water into steam. Three days later everything dried up and became quite comfortable; at least we slept in the warmth and considered ourselves lucky.  Sometimes we burned telephone cable for light like candles. It burned with a smelly resinous flame, spreading the stench and soot which settled on our faces. In the morning when crawling out of their holes, soldiers coughed and hacked black tarry clumps of soot onto the white snow. I remember one morning I poked my swollen dirty face out of the dugout. After the thick underground darkness the sun’s rays dazzled and I blinked for a long time looking around. It turned out that I was being watched by a sergeant, who was standing nearby. He said with a grin:

– I do not if that’s your face or your ass I am seeing

He’s usually greeted me, wanting to stress my utter exhaustion, the following kind words:

– Well, are you still peeing on your shoe?

Yet the life in dugouts near Pohost was considered a luxury and a privilege, as most of the soldiers, especially infantry, camped on the snow. Starting afire was not always possible because of the enemy flyovers, and a lot of people got frostbitten noses, fingers and toes, and sometimes froze to death. The soldiers looked terrible: dirty-black, with red swollen eyes, dressed in coats and boots damaged by burns. It was especially difficult to protect the wounded from the frost injuries. They were usually dragged through the snow on special light wooden sleds and to preserve the heat were covered with chemical warmers. They looked like small green canvas pillows; pouring a little water inside started a chemical reaction and the heat held on for two or three hours. Sometimes the sled was pulled by dogs – cute, intelligent creatures. Usually medic sent the alpha-dog into the crossfire in the neutral zone, where a person couldn’t get through. The dog looked for the wounded and then came back for the rest of the pack. The dogs managed to pull the sled to the healthy side of the wounded, helped him roll inside and crawled back out of the danger zone.

The fate of the seriously wounded was tragic. Most of them were impossible to pull out of the fire. But even for those who managed to get out of the neutral zone, the suffering did not end. Getting to the medical took many hours. Upon reaching the hospital tents, they had to wait because the doctors, despite the dedication, and working around the clock for many weeks, had no time to process everyone. A long line of bloody stretchers with groaning, tossing in a fever or frozen in shock people was waiting for them. Wounded in the stomach could not withstand such a wait. Many others died as well. However, in later years, the situation improved significantly.

However, as I’ve learned later, the situation for the wounded in the winter of 1942 in some of the other sections of the front was even worse. One episode was described to me my roommate at the hospital: “In 1941 our division was thrown under Murmansk for reinforcement. We moved on foot through the tundra to the west. Soon our division came under the enemy fire and a huge snowstorm. I was wounded in the arm before reaching the front line and started walking back.  Freezing wind, howling blizzard, snow storm knocked people down off their feet. With great difficulty I managed to walk a few miles; exhausted, I reached the dugout, made into a shelter with some heat. Entering it was almost impossible. The wounded men were packed close to each other, filling the room. Still, I managed to squeeze inside, where I slept standing up until the morning. In the morning the medics got there and yelled: “Is there anybody in there? Come out!” Three or four men crawled out of the dugout, the rest were frozen to death and near the entrance covered with snow was a stack of corpses. These were the wounded brought to the heating shelter the night before who froze there … As it turned out most of that division froze to death that night on the open mountain roads. The snowstorm was very strong. I escaped only with frostbitten face and fingers …».

Meanwhile our location near Pohost (about half a kilometer from the front) was becoming crowded. A whole town grew in birch woods: tents, huts, dugouts, headquarters, warehouses, kitchens. Smoke was in the air, people were moving about, and the German spotter plane nicknamed the “rabble” (something crooked was in its contours) immediately noticed us. An occasional mortar fire lasted almost continuously for many days, sometimes harder, sometimes weaker. We got used to it, although every day there were several killed and wounded. But that was nothing compared with the hundreds dying in the front! Here I parted with a colleague who came with me from the Leningrad radio school, someone named Neelov. A shell splinter pierced his throat, as it seemed without hitting vital points. He could even speak in a whisper. After wrapping his throat with a bandage, I took him on a passing car to the medical unit, positioned about five kilometers from us in the tents.

Strange, surreal pictures could be seen on the road to the front. Lively as a prospect, it had a two-way traffic. Recruits, weapons, food, and tanks were moving to the front. The wounded slowly walked in the opposite direction. There was a lot of bustling activity on the sides of the road. Soldiers sitting on the cape spread on the snow were sharing bread; it could not be cut, and soldiers were sawing a frozen loaf with a two-handed saw. Then the pieces and crumbs were divided into equal parts and one of the soldiers turned away, another shouted:” Who? “The sharing was done without resentment and in fairness. That bread could be sucked as hard candy until it thawed. The cold was terrible: the soup froze in the pot, and spit turned into an icicle before it reached the ground, making a loud noise when it fell on the  solid dirt … Down the road a corpse is being buried in the snow, probably someone who didn’t make it the hospital, and either froze, or bled to death. Little further someone is trading vodka for bread. Next, a cook is making soup, mixing it in a huge pot with a spoon. Steam rushes out of the pot, and under the boiler fire crackles merrily … At the edge of the woods I came across the empty huts built out of spruce. Around them were scattered dozens of black marine uniform jackets, caps with ribbons and a lot of parade black shoes. This is where the marines, who came from Leningrad, were changing into warm army clothes yesterday. Sailors are gone, never to return, and their stuff, unneeded, is covered by a dusting of snow … Further down the road, the soldiers are receiving white (!) bread. (I am so hungry!) These soldiers belong to a detachment of political instructors. They are being fed before the next attack. They are the great hope of the commanders, but he Marines who died the day before were a great hope as well … Next to the road there are carriages and artillery transporters. The artillery itself is already in the battle. Junk, obviously, is not owned by anyone, and deft suppliers scouring this convoy in search of food. I’m still lacking “front training” to do things like that … Once again someone is being buried, and more wandering the wounded … With a deafening noise a truck-mounted gun is shooting at the aircraft. Ta-Tah! Ta-Tah! Tetah! …Missed!

Suddenly, a series of explosions. Closer, closer.  On the ground, writhing in blood, there is a guard who was just standing at the headquarters dugout. A soldier who was just walking down the road is clutching his leg. Beside him is a girl-nurse. She is crying and the tears are cutting tracks through the dirt on her face, which hasn’t seen soap for a long time. Her hands trembling, she is confused. A pitiful sight! The soldier calmly removes his pants, bandages bleeding hole in his thigh and still finds the strength to console and to persuade the girl: “Look, do not be afraid, do not cry !»… War is not a female thing. No doubt there were many heroines, which could sever as examples to men. But it’s too cruel to force the women to experience the pain of the front. And if only that! It was hard for the women to be constantly surrounded by the men. Hungry soldiers were not interested in women, but the commanders achieved their attention by any means necessary from arm-twisting to the most sophisticated courtship. There were candidates for every taste: singers and dancer, masters of conversation and for the educated – read Block or Lermontov (*Russian poets) …and the girl went home with the addition to the family. I think it was called the language of military offices “to leave on the order 009. In our regiment out of the fifty who arrived in 1942 only two female soldiers finished the war. But “leaving on the order 009” – was the best way out. Sometimes it was worse. I was told how a certain Colonel Volkov lined up a female recruits and walking down the line picked the beauties he liked. These became his FW (*Field Wife), any resistance was punished in the lock –up, a cold dugout with only bread and water to eat. Then he passed his lover down to his subordinates. In the best of Asian traditions!

The military life near Pohost formed some kind of a rhythm. At night we received 500 – 1000 – 3000 new people. Sometimes these were sailors, or reinforcements from Siberia, or the citizens of Leningrad which was still surrounded by the Germans (they were transported across the frozen Lake Ladoga). In the morning after a weak shelling, they attacked and remained lying in front of the railway embankment. They moved at a snail’s pace during the attack, making way through the deep snow; they were exhausted especially the ones from Leningrad. The snow was above the belt, and the dead did not fall, stuck in snowdrifts. The bodies were covered with a fresh snow, and the next day there was a new attack, new bodies, and the layers of the dead were formed during the winter, which were exposed only in the spring – twisted, mangled, broken, crushed bodies. Whole stacks.

The failure at Pohost, its reasons, absence of common strategy, confusion, poor planning, poor intelligence, lack of interaction of parts and types of troops was mentioned in press, in memoirs and special articles. Pohost battles were in some measure representative of the Russian-German front in 1942. Everywhere there was something like that, everywhere – in the North and the South, and under  Rzhev, and under  Staraya Russa – had its Pohost …

At the beginning of the war the German army entered our territory like a hot knife in butter. To slow down their motion we could not come up with anything better than to cover this blade with our blood. Gradually it began to rust, became dull and slowed down. And the blood flowed and flowed. It burned Leningrad militia. Two hundred thousand of the best, the pride of the city. But there the knife stopped. It was, however, still strong, and moving it back was almost impossible.  During the whole 1942 the blood was flowing non-stop, gradually undermining this terrible blade. Thus was forged our future victory.

The regular army was destroyed on the border. In the new formations of weapons were in short supply, and even less ammunition; only few experienced commanders. Untrained recruits marched into the battle …

– Attack! – The commander-in-chief calls from the Kremlin.

– Attack! – Telephones a general from a warm office.

– Attack! – Orders a colonel from a shell-proof dugout.

And a hundred of Ivans stands up, and wanders through the deep snow in the cross-hairs of the German machine guns. The Germans are sitting in their warm bunkers, stomachs full and drunk, insolent, everything is planned, everything is calculated, guns are sighted and shoot, shoot, just like at the range. However, even the enemy soldiers didn’t have it so easy. Recently, a German veteran told me that among the gunners of their regiment there were cases of insanity: it’s not so easy to kill people, row after row – and they keep coming and coming, with no end in sight.

The colonel knows that the attack is useless, that there will be only more dead bodies. Some divisions retained only headquarters and three or four dozen people. There were cases when a division started the battle with 6-7 thousand men, and at the end of the operation its losses amounted to 10-12 thousand – due to constant replenishing! And there were always shortages of people! Operational map was dotted with the numbers of regiments with no soldiers in them. But the colonel has to follow orders and sends people into attack. If it burdens his soul and a conscience, he participates in the battle and dies. There is a kind of natural selection. Weak-minded and sensitive do not survive. Those who remain are hardcore, strong personalities, capable of fighting under the circumstances. They know the only one way to win the war- to choke the enemy with the mass of bodies. Someone will kill a German. And slowly but surely the German divisions melt.

Part III