Sunday, August 04, 2013

Sample Sunday — An excerpt from Army of Worn Soles: Battle at Poltava

Here is a sample from my work-in-progress, Army of Worn Soles, based on the true story of my father-in-law, who was drafted into the Red Army in 1941, just before the Germans invaded. He fought across Ukraine, was captured, escaped a POW camp and made his way home.

This chapter, "Battle at Poltava," is based on his descriptions of fighting as well as historical research. 

Let me know what you think.

Kyiv was gone.

The rumours arrived well before the official news. On September 17, 1941, Stalin finally gave the permission to General Kirponov that he had denied Marshall Budenny: to withdraw from Kyiv. Once the orders went out to withdraw behind the Dnipro River, the Germans pounced and took control of the city in less than 24 hours.

The withdrawal order had come too late. “Hurrying Heinz” Guderian, the great Panzer general, had already crossed the Dnipro in Belorussia in late August and had penetrated far east of the Ukrainian capital, to the area around Romny. General Ewald von Kleist blasted past the Dnipro south of Kyiv by September 10, and on the 14, the two generals shook hands 100 miles east of Kyiv—having trapped five Soviet armies, nearly a million men, in the huge pocket between their forces.

It had not been the first time, nor would it be the last: the Soviet 6th and 12th armies had been encircled and trapped in the “Uman Pocket” in mid-August; and after the wehrmacht’s capture of Minsk in July, they had captured another five Soviet armies.

There were many reasons for the Soviets’ collapse; they continued to reel from the shock of Nazi Germany’s surprise attack on June 22; the Red Army was unprepared for modern war; and Stalin refused, over and over again, to allow strategic withdrawals that would have allowed the Red Army to shore up defences further back from the invaders. Stalin instead ordered every man to fight to the death, to not give in to the enemy. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers died, were trapped and taken prisoner, or, despairing, surrendered, guns and tanks an armour intact.

Gereral Kirponos, head of the Soviet 5th Army, had fought hard to break out of the encirclement in September, but was killed by a land mine. A few in his army managed to break out.

Part of the 38th Army under newly-appointed Major-General Vladimir Tsiganov managed to escape the Kyiv encirclement, and Maurice and his men joined it, heading south-east to defend the bridgeheads between Cherkassy and Kremenchuk. The Germans send more panzer divisions, and in October, the remnants of the army pulled back another 100 kilometres and dug into the eastern banks of the shallow Psyol river to protect Poltava, where Marshall Timoshenko had his headquarters.

Maurice’s unit took shelter in trenches that had been built by the locals, but there were no bunkers this time. Food delivery became sporadic and the men griped continually about the autumn rain, the way the soft soil of the trench walls crumble, the bad and inadequate food. But they could not indulge in this long—the Panzers kept coming.

They stayed awake all night, squinting west across the Psyol River to the invisible, continuous rumble of heavy vehicles. Some of the men prayed. Commissars and officers moved up and down the lines, inspecting and admonishing the soldiers to vigilance and readiness. “At the first sign of the Germans, we counter-attack,” they said.

Maurice doubted it.

That first sign came at dawn. As the sky greyed behind the Soviets, the early light picked out German tanks advancing along the roads, cautious yet swift.

Fear spread from Maurice’s heart through his body and along his arms and legs. His fingers tingled as the rising sun revealed columns of armoured vehicles and marching men, of officers’ staff cars and motorized cannons, lines that stretched for miles. The German army moved in unison, fast and alert like a single predator, fearless.

Two Panzers ventured onto a small wooden bridge. They weren’t even fazed when the bridge collapsed under their weight. The water didn’t reach over the tops of their treads, and they just down-shifted and continued.

An officer shouted to Maurice’s right and anti-tank guns fired. Shells burst on the lead Panzer and flames erupted around the turret, but didn’t damage the tank. Its machine gun fired and then its cannon barked. Maurice saw Red soldiers’s bodies fling up out of the destroyed trenches.

“Fire!” he ordered and Orest pulled the trigger, but the shell went wide. “Reload!” Machine guns fired from behind and then a German armoured car carrying dozens of soldiers exploded. Bodies hit the ground and bobbed in the water.

Maurice’s men fired again, and this time they hit a tank front-on. The shell stuck, burned into the metal plate and burst, but did not penetrate the armour. The tank reversed gears and drew back from the riverbank.

The Panzers halted on the west bank, waiting for something. Then shells fell behind the Soviet lines, bursting and burning among the men. The Germans, prepared for everything, were firing heavy guns at the resistance.

Down, boys!” Maurice said, pulling his helmet as low as he could. It’s hopeless, he thought. If a shell doesn’t land in this trench and kill us all, it’ll only be sheer luck.

Soviet guns answered, sporadic and uncoordinated. They were only aimed generally westward, in contrast to the German shells, which seemed demonically guided to Red Army targets.

When the heavy fire let up after what felt like hours, Maurice chanced a look over the trench. The German tanks were advancing again. Somewhere, an anti-tank gun fired, hitting the lead Panzer square on. The explosion blew its treads off and it lurched sideways into the river, crippled, smoke pouring from its front plate.

More Panzers kept coming, splashing through the river; behind them came soldiers, running from cover to cover, firing their fast submachine guns. As they climbed onto the near bank, some hit land mines and fell, crippled, but more Panzers drove around them.

Pull back!” Maurice yelled, and the boys picked up the gun and ammunition and ran, crouching low as they could to the next trench, where they joined several other odalenje. Maurice’s boys hurriedly set up the gun and aimed at the Panzers.

They were too late: the Panzers swept past them, crushing wounded men under their treads. The boys swung the gun around. “Aim at its back!” Maurice ordered. “FIRE!”

The gun barked and the shell hit the Panzer’s cylindrical tuel tank, oddly exposed on its rear deck behind the turret. They explosion Maurice continued to ring in Maurice’s ears for minutes. The tank’s rear end lifted high and Maurice thought it would flip over. Shards of metal flew in every direction and the tank’s hull split and burned.

The Panzers halted and Maurice saw the Soviet infantry charge, advancing in a line, running fast and shooting their rifles. A hundred must have been cut down by German machine guns.

By now, the battlefield was full of smoke from explosions and gunfire, from burning tanks, cars and trucks, from burning trees and grass. Behind the black clouds, the sun rose, red.

Rifles ready, boys,” Maurice ordered, but he wouldn’t order them to charge before he absolutely had to. Let the commissar threaten me with a pistol, first, he thought. Another wave of Red soldiers charged forward and were cut down in turn. A third wave came forward, tripping over the corpses of their comrades. Time after time, the Red Army charged, sending men with obsolete rifles against the unmatched German machine guns that fired rounds at triple the rate of the few Soviet machine guns. Soldiers fell like wheat before invisible scythes. But they kept charging. A few stopped for a moment to fling grenades or molotov cocktails, which burst and flamed on the Panzers. It didn’t look like much, but gasoline burns too hot for the men inside the tanks to tolerate. The crews threw open the hatches and tried to escape, dying as Maurice’s men emptied their rifle magazines.

Panzer machine guns strafed the Soviet lines, and then the German infantry arrived, charging across the Psyol River on foot or on speedy armoured cars. The soldiers hid behind anything they could find for cover, gradually creeping up on their tanks. They jumped behind any cover they could find, fired to cover their comrades ahead or behind them, leapfrogging toward the Soviet lines. They jumped into the first line of trenches the Soviets had abandoned minutes earlier and set up machine guns that added to the fire.

That was when the Colonel ordered the cavalry to charge. It was like something out of a movie: men on horses, capes flapping behind them, swinging curved sabres or firing machine guns. They fell on the German infantry, hacking at the men. They tumbled over their horses’ necks as the enemy shot the horses dead, or were blown out of their saddles by bullets and explosives.

Load the high-explosive shells,” Maurice ordered his men. They fired at the advancing Germans and the explosions ripped them apart. Maurice’s boys fired round after round, and then ducked low as the German machine gun fire came toward them.

A commissar appeared among them and ordered the unit to their right to charge the Germans. Maurice saw the fear on the faces of the soldiers. None of them were even 20 years old. They cradled their rifles and stared wide-eyed at the carnage on the fields. An officer ordered “Charge!” and they scrambled over the lip of the trench. Maurice watched as boy after boy was hit by bullets and shrapnel. Raw recruits with little or no training, they clustered together, firing sporadically at anything that moved. A shell — German or Soviet was impossible to say — burst in their midst, killing at least six at once.
Beyond them, Maurice could see a group of German soldiers creeping through the smoke. They lay on the ground, crawling on their bellies, until they stopped in a line, guns aimed at the odalenje that had climbed out of the trench.

Another German group crept closer just beyond the first, aiming their submachine guns, then halted until the first group crept past them. Alternately, the came closer and closer to the Soviet lines.

Aim your rifles at Fritz over there,” Maurice ordered. The Red unit that had been ordered to charge were between them and the enemy. They crouched, stupidly, in the middle of the field, exposed to fire from all sides. While some fired their rifles occasionally, they appeared frozen. They just didn’t know what to do. They didn’t even see the enemy crawling toward them.

Someone shouted behind Maurice: a sergeant at a machine gun behind him was trying to communicate with the young soldiers. “Get down! Get out of the way! You’re blocking my fire, you idiots!” But the boys didn’t hear him over the roar of battle, and even if they had, Maurice doubled whether they’d have known where to go without their commander. “Get down!” the soldier yelled again; it was futile.
Maurice tried: “Tet back to the trench!” But they remained where they were, shooting occasionally, frozen with fear. One by one, they caught bullets and fell, sometimes screaming.

The Germans kept coming and then Maurice could see their objective: a heavy anti-tank gun that was firing as fast as its crew could reload. It had been placed too close to the front line, and as the infantry had fallen back from the first trench to the second, it had been stranded. Still, it was taking a toll on the Panzers and armoured car, and that was why this group of German soldiers had been ordered to take it out. As they moved closer to the gun, the stranded group of Russian boys was ever more directly between them and the Soviet guns.

The sergeant behind Maurice screamed frantically at the boys to get out of the way. Maurice and all his boys yelled, too, but it was no use. Then two of the Germans raised themselves just enough to throw grenades.

Pop-pop-pop-pop! The machine gun behind Maurice fired. Bullets ripped up the grass between him and the crawling Germans, and one with a grenade in his hand fell forward. Seconds later, the grenade went off in his hand and he disappeared in a cloud of smoke and soil. The other grenadier flattened himself on the ground, then twisted as the machine gun tore into his body.

The other Germans turned their fire toward the machine gun, and incidentally on the company of young soldiers between them. Sick to his stomach, Maurice could only watch as the unit was torn to pieces by fire from both sides. He knew that the machine gun sergeant could not wait anymore — saving the anti-tank gun meant saving a lot more lives than one odalenje that, exposed to fire from all sides, was fated to be cut down sooner or later.

In moments, the whole platoon lay dead, scattered on the ground like broken sticks. The battle raged around their bodies.

Without their comrades in the way, Maurice’s boys starting shooting at the remaining Germany company. Orest and Bogdan fired an antipersonnel shell that ripped the survivors to pieces. For a moment, Maurice let himself fantasize that they might win this battle. Then he heard another roar and he realized the Panzers were moving again.

A commissar dropped into the trench, followed by two NKVD men in their distinctive green caps. “Fall back, comrade,” he said. “Regroup in the village.” He moved along the trench to the next platoonn, ordering them to stay behind as a rear guard. He and the men ordered knew it was a death sentence. The NKVD men were there to ensure that they didn’t break and run. But it was a death sentence for them, too.

The boys took the gun apart, picked up the ammunition and scurried along a connect trench to the next set of fortifications, and from there farther from the battle. Eventually, they reached the half-destroyed village, most of whose building were burning. “Don’t leave anything behind,” said an officer. He ordered Maurice’s platoon to load their weapons onto a horse-drawn wagon. By noon, Maurice and his boys trudged behind the wagon through fields of high grain. Behind them, smoke billowed into the sky as the last Soviets defenders fought to the death to cover their comrades’ retreat. 

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