|Ukrainian Christmas Even Paska and candle.|
So my Ukrainian Christmas present to readers, and to Ukrainians around the world, is an excerpt from my upcoming book, still unnamed, the sequel to Army of Worn Soles. This is the story of my late father-in-law, Maurice Bury, and his experience on the eastern front in World War II as a Red Army soldier.
This section is set in the autumn of 1944, when the Red Army was pushing the Germans out of the Baltics, and meeting stiff resistance.
Niemen River (Border between Lithuania and East Prussia)
October 10, 1944
The sun shone into Maurice’s eyes as the sergeant called a halt. He leaned back and let his pack slide off his shoulders, then sat down, grateful for a minute’s rest. The temperature had been dropping all day, and Maurice’s nerves were pulled taught from the sounds of machine-guns and bombs that grew ever closer as they marched. The Germans had retreated, but the boys knew they were marching toward an enemy defensive position.
|Niemen River, Lithuania. Image: Creative Commons|
The flatland of Lithuania continued as far as they could see, but maybe two hundred metres to the south, a shallow, broad river valley across the plain. That was the source of occasional gun- and cannon-fire.
“The Niemen. Across that is East Prussia. Germany," said a young officer, passing by. “Don’t get too comfortable. That’s where we’re heading.”
By sunset, the gunfire died down. The two armies were stalemated, facing each other across the valley of the Nieman River, also known as the Neman and, in local Lithuanian, the Nemaunus. When the sky was dark, the officers quietly ordered the men in Maurice’s troop to move to the fortifications the Red Army had already dug, fifty metres from the bank.
No one knew, no one told them, but Stavka, the Soviet high command, had already tried to penetrate into East Prussia and take the strategic fortress of Konigsberg. The Baltic Offensive had succeeded in driving the Germans out of most of Estonia and Latvia and had finally taken Riga back from the Germans. Soviet General Bagramyan had pushed the Third Panzer Army down the Baltic coast, where they holed up in the town of Klaipeda, which the Germans had renamed Memel in 1939.
With the town surrounded, the Soviets then committed four armies to attack into East Prussia, driving for a line from Gumbinnen to Konigsberg, fifty kilometres further south.
General Erhard Raus’s Third Panzer Army stopped the Red Army, though, and held it at the Neman River. The Stavka decided to hold that position until it could bring in more reinforcements to allow it to use its deep operations strategy. Maurice’s unit was just one part of that strategy.
The soldiers already at the river had dug trenches and made fortifications a few metres back from the banks. Maurice’s unit found a place to set up camp. The next morning, they settled into a new routine: patrolling the fortifications, watching the enemy across the broad river, firing a few shots across just to let the enemy know they were watching. When their watch was over, they went back for food and snatched what sleep they could.
At night, Maurice did not sleep much. He knew he should have made the most of this break in the fighting, but he couldn't relax. Something big is going to happen soon. One day near the end of October, Maurice thought the officers seemed to be stirring more than usual. In the evening, as the sun hit the horizon, the major called the junior officers into a circle; then the lieutenant of Maurice’s unit, Vasilyev, gathered the men. “We’re going to do some reconnaissance across the river,” he said. “Find out where Fritz has his cannons, tanks, and most important, supplies. Get the directions back to our gunners. You'll have to be smart, quiet, and you can't lose your head, or we're all done for. The Major’s looking for four men.”
The sergeant, a tough old communist named Nikolai Nikolaev, stepped in front of the unit. “Okay, with me, it will be Oleh, Maurice and Mykhailo—it’s your turn, comrades." Maurice suddenly felt as though his guts were wide, hollow and empty at the sound of his name. Numbly he followed the sergeant and the other boys to the quartermaster’s wagon. He felt another cold shock when he saw German uniforms lying on the ground.
“Get dressed, boys,” said the quartermaster, leering.