Authors: Vasily Grossman
We arrive in Gomel. The train stops very far from the railway station, so we have a painful walk along the track in the dark. One has to crawl under the carriages to cross railways. I bang my forehead on them and stumble; my damned suitcase turns out to be extremely heavy.
Finally we reach the station building. It is completely destroyed. We utter ‘Ahs’ and ‘Ohs’ looking at the ruins. A railway worker who is passing reassures us by saying that the station had been demolished just before the invasion in order to build a bigger and better one.
Gomel! What sadness there is in this quiet green town, in these sweet public gardens, in its old people sitting on the benches, in sweet girls walking along the streets. Children are playing in the piles of sand brought here to extinguish incendiary bombs . . . Any minute a huge cloud may cover the sun, a storm may whip up sand and dust, and whirl them about. The Germans are less than fifty kilometres away.
Gomel welcomes us with an air-raid warning. Locals say that the custom here is to sound the alarm when there are no German aircraft around and, on the contrary, to sound the all-clear as soon as bombing starts.
Bombing of Gomel. A cow, howling bombs, fire, women . . . The strong smell of perfume – from a pharmacy hit in the bombardment – blocked out the stench of burning, just for a moment.
The picture of burning Gomel in the eyes of a wounded cow.
The colours of smoke. Typesetters had to set their newspaper by the light of burning buildings.
We stay the night with a tyro journalist. His articles aren’t going to join a Golden Treasury of Literature. I’ve seen them in the Front newspaper. They are complete rubbish, with stories such as ‘Ivan Pupkin has killed five Germans with a spoon’.
We went to meet the editor, regimental commissar Nosov, who kept us waiting for a good two hours. We had to sit in a dark corridor, and when finally we saw this tsar-like person and spoke with him for a couple minutes, I realised that this comrade was, to put it mildly, not particularly bright and that his conversation wasn’t worth even a two-minute wait.
Gomel and the Central Front, August 1941
The headquarters of the Central Front was the first port of call for Grossman, Troyanovsky and Knorring. The Central Front, commanded by General Andrei Yeremenko, had been set up hurriedly following the collapse of the Western Front at the end of June.
The Western Front’s unfortunate commander, General D.G. Pavlov, was made the chief scapegoat for Stalin’s refusal to prepare for war. In characteristic Stalinist fashion, Pavlov, the commander of Soviet tank forces during the Spanish Civil War, was accused of treason and executed.
The headquarters has been set up in the Paskevich Palace. There is a wonderful park, and a lake with swans. Lots of slit trenches have been dug everywhere. Chief of the political department of the front, Brigade Commissar Kozlov, receives us. He tells us that the Military Council is very alarmed by the news that arrived yesterday. The Germans have taken Roslavl and assembled a great tank force there.
Their commander is Guderian, author of the book
We leafed through a series of the Front newspaper. I came across the following phrase in a leading article: ‘The much-battered enemy continued his cowardly advance.’
We sleep on the floor in the library of the ‘Komintern’ club, keeping our boots on, and using gas masks and field pouches as pillows. We have dinner at the canteen of the headquarters. It is situated in the park, in an amusing multicoloured pavilion. They feed us well, as if we were in a
[Soviet house of rest] before the war. There’s sour cream, curds, and even ice-cream as a dessert.
Grossman became increasingly horrified and disillusioned the more he discovered about the Red Army’s lack of preparation. He began to suspect, despite the official silence on the subject, that the person most responsible for the catastrophe was Stalin himself.
On the outbreak of war
, a lot of senior commanders and generals were on holiday in Sochi. Many armoured units were having new engines installed in their tanks, many artillery units had no shells, many aviation regiments had no fuel. When telephone calls began to come in from the frontier to the higher headquarters with reports that war had begun, some of them received the following answer: ‘Don’t give in to provocation.’ This produced surprise in the most frightful and most severe sense of the word.
The disaster right along the front from the Black Sea to the Baltic was of great personal importance to Grossman, as a letter to his father on 8 August reveals.
My dear [Father], I arrived at my destination
on 7 [August] . . . I so regret that I haven’t got a blanket with me, it’s no good sleeping under a raincoat. I am constantly worried about Mama’s fate. Where is she, what’s happened to her? Please let me know immediately if you have some news of her.
Grossman made visits to the front lines and jotted down these observations.
I was told how, after Minsk began to burn, blind men from the invalid home there walked along the motorway in a long file, tied to one another with towels.
A photographer remarks: ‘I saw some very good refugees yesterday.’
A Red Army soldier is lying on the grass after the battle, talking to himself: ‘Animals and plants fight for existence. Human beings fight for supremacy.’
The dialectics of war – the skill of hiding, of saving one’s life, and the skill of fighting, of giving one’s life.
Stories about being cut off. Everyone who has escaped back can’t stop telling stories about being encircled, and all the stories are terrifying.
A pilot escaped back through enemy lines wearing only his underwear, but he had held on to his revolver.
Specially trained dogs with Molotov cocktails strapped to them are sent in to attack tanks and burst into flames.
Bombs are exploding. The battalion commander is lying on the grass and doesn’t want to go to the shelter. A comrade shouts to him: ‘You’ve become a complete sloth. Why don’t you at least go and take cover in those little bushes?’
A headquarters in a forest. Aircraft are swanning about overhead above the canopy. [Officers] remove their caps because the peaks shine, and they cover up papers. In the morning typewriters chatter everywhere. When aircraft appear, soldiers put greatcoats on the typists because they wear coloured dresses. Hidden in the bushes, clerks continue their quarrels about files.
A chicken belonging to the headquarters staff is taking a walk between earth dugouts, with ink on its wings.
There are many boletus mushrooms in the forest – it’s sad to look at them.
[Political] instructors have been ordered to the front. Those who want to go, and those who do not can be spotted easily. Some simply obey the order, others dodge. Everyone is sitting around and everyone can see all this, and those who dodge know that everyone can see through their tricks.
A long road. Wagons, pedestrians, strings of carts. A yellow dust cloud above the road. Faces of old people and women. Driver Ivan Kuptsov was sitting on the back of his horse a hundred metres away from the position. When a retreat started and there was one cannon left, German batteries rained shells on them, but instead of galloping
to the rear he rode to the field gun and rescued it from a swamp. When the political officer asked how he had found the courage to commit this feat of bravery in the face of death, he answered: ‘I’ve got a simple soul, as simple as a balalaika. It isn’t afraid of death. It’s those with precious souls who fear death.’
A tractor driver loaded all the wounded men on to his vehicle and took them to the rear. Even the heavily wounded men kept their weapons.
[According to] Lieutenant Yakovlev, a battalion commander, the Germans attacking him were completely drunk. Those they captured stank of alcohol, and their eyes were bloodshot. All the attacks were fought off. Soldiers wanted to carry Yakovlev, who was heavily wounded, to the rear, on a groundsheet. He shouted: ‘I’ve still got my voice and I am able to give orders. I am a communist and I can’t leave the battlefield.’
Sultry morning. Calm air. The village is full of peace – nice, calm village life – with children playing, and old people and women sitting on benches. We hardly had arrived when three Junkers appeared. Bombs exploded. Screams. Red flames with white and black smoke. We pass the same village again in the evening. The people are wild-eyed, worn out. Women are carrying belongings. Chimneys have grown very tall, they are standing tall amid the ruins. And flowers – cornflowers and peonies – are flaunting themselves so peacefully.
We came under fire near a cemetery. We hid beneath a tree. A truck was standing there, and in it was a dead rifleman-signaller, covered with a tarpaulin. Red Army soldiers were digging a grave for him nearby. When there’s a raid of Messers, the soldiers try to hide in ditches. The lieutenant shouts: ‘Carry on digging, otherwise we won’t finish until the evening.’ Korol hides in the new grave, while everyone runs in different directions. Only the dead signaller is lying full length, and machine guns are chattering above him.
Grossman and Knorring visited the 103rd Red Army Aviation Fighter Regiment stationed near Gomel. Grossman soon discovered that the Red Army on the ground had mixed feelings about their own air force, which rapidly acquired a reputation for attacking anything which moved, whether
friend or foe. ‘
’ ran the universal joke. ‘Then where’s my helmet?’
I went with Knorring to the Zyabrovsky airfield near Gomel. Commissar Chikurin of Red Army Aviation, a big, slow fellow, had lent us his ZIS staff car. He was cursing German [fighter pilots]: ‘They chase vehicles, individual trucks, cars. It’s hooliganism, an outrage!’
At the same regiment, there are two comrades, who had both been decorated. Once they shot down one of our planes and were punished. After receiving their sentences, they started to work better. It was proposed to have them acquitted.
Notes from an interview with a pilot:
‘Comrade Lieutenant Colonel, I’ve shot down a Junkers-88 for the Soviet motherland.’
‘There are pilots who aren’t bad, but the majority are crap. They avoid fighting. They don’t fight till the bitter end.’
Grossman takes his first flight at Zyabrovsky airfield, near Gomel, August 1941.
‘There’s no anxiety – anger, fury. And when you see he’s on fire, light comes into your soul.’
‘Who is going to turn away? Him or me? I am not going to. I have become a single whole with the plane and don’t feel anything any longer.’
A young Red Army soldier set off a rocket at the [airfield] command post and hit the Chief of Staff in the behind.
The headquarters are in a building which had been a Young Pioneers’ palace. A huge pilot festooned with pouches, a pistol, and so on, emerges from a door on which is written ‘For young girls’.
Buildings at the airfield have been destroyed by bombing, the field ploughed up by explosions. Ilyushin and MiG aircraft are concealed under camouflage nets. Vehicles go round the airfield delivering fuel to the aeroplanes. There is also a truck with cakes and a truck carrying vacuum flasks of food. Girls in white overalls fuel the pilots with dinner. The pilots eat capriciously, reluctantly. The girls are coaxing them to eat. Some aircraft are hidden in the forest.
It was remarkably interesting when Nemtsevich [commander of the aviation regiment] told us about the first night of the war, about the terrible, swift retreat. He drove around day and night in a truck picking up officers’ wives and children. In one house he found officers who had been stabbed to death. Apparently, they had been killed in their sleep by saboteurs. This was close to the frontier. He said that on that night of the German invasion he had to make a telephone call on some unimportant business and it turned out that communications weren’t working . . . He was annoyed, but didn’t pay much attention to this.
Nemtsevich said to me that German aircraft haven’t appeared over his airfield for ten days. He was categorical about his conclusion: the Germans have no fuel, the Germans have no aircraft, they have all been shot down. I’ve never heard such a speech – what optimism! This trait of character is both good and harmful at the same time, but at any rate he’ll never make a strategist.