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Drawing Strength from Victory
Eyewitnesses have said and written a lot about the events of the Great Patriotic War, about the ordeals suffered by the people. Every family has at least one story from this tragic period in our country’s life. On the threshold of Victory Day, let us look through the memories of those who led the military operations, and read the Marshals’ memoirs.
Forty-Five by Ivan Konev
According to contemporaries, out of all the major commanders in chief Konev was the most democratic one: he had informal conversations with the soldiers without ceremonies, spent a lot of time on the front line, was hot-tempered but fair.
In his memoirs, Ivan Konev gave many examples of the heroic resistance of the Soviet troops. Neither the enemy’s superior power nor harsh weather presented a challenge to them. Impassible roads, fog, low clouds, or freezing temperatures were the reason for the fascist troops to postpone important military operations. Our troops, on the contrary, tried to use the rough weather for attacks or sabotage operations and looked for ways to proceed with military activities. Ivan Konev wrote that even the Allies "made the opening of the second front conditional on the weather." But we could not delay: if there is no way to use aviation, use artillery!
“I would like to note that the experience of the Great Patriotic War gives many examples where major operations were conducted on bad days and weeks, in particular, during spring muddy season. In some cases, bad weather even helped us. By the way, there is one interesting statement by Hitler on this topic. It can be found in the verbatim transcripts of conversations that took place in his headquarters; they were published in West Germany. In December 1942, during one of the reports on the situation in the southern sector of the eastern front and on the danger of our assault force landing in the Crimea, Hitler asked whether the landing was possible. Jodl said that it was absolutely impossible to land in such weather. However, Hitler had second thoughts. "But the Russians can, they will pass," he objected to Jodl. "We could not have landed with snowfall and other things, I agree. But we can expect that from the Russians."
Ivan Konev. Photo credit: nesnilos.com
Ivan Stepanovich recalled not only the feats of arms but also that during the Great Patriotic War Soviet soldiers yearning for peaceful labor made their contribution to feed those starving on the home front.
At the end of the summer of 1943, Kharkov and Belgorod were liberated by the troops of the Steppe Front under the command of General Konev. The bread cereals were ripe, but there was no one to harvest them. In Notes of the Front Commander, the marshal recalled: “The harvest in Kharkov, Poltava, Dnepropetrovsk regions was extremely rich. Retreating Nazis had not had time to destroy it completely, but the local population was unable to harvest it. Therefore, the Military Council of the Front resolved to engage troops and transport of rear units and institutions in the harvesting.
The one should have seen the zealous enthusiasm that our soldiers worked with in the fields. Most of the bread cereals were sent to Moscow and Leningrad. Our Soviet soldier can be proud of the fact that he was not only a liberator; he continued to be a mindful keeper of the country who cared about the fate of the starving population.”
This is How Our Victory was Forged by Vasily Sokolovsky
Vasily Sokolovsky. Photo credit: commanders.mil.ru
In his memoirs, the Marshal also paid tribute to the feat of Soviet soldiers who had happened to be in the midst of battles in the first months of the war and endured. Moreover, they found the strength to counterattack and did it successfully. Recalling the events of fall and winter of 1941, Vasily Sokolovsky spoke about the crucial significance of the battle for Moscow: “Our Motherland faced the imminent danger, and it was immense. We were able to thwart the plans of the invaders because the whole Soviet nation rose against them, including the population behind enemy lines. The fascist Typhoon was humbled. Thus, the German general Blumentritt admitted, “When we came close to Moscow, the mood of our commanders and troops suddenly changed dramatically. With surprise and disappointment, in October and early November, we discovered that the defeated Russians did not cease to exist as a military force at all."
Despite the fact that back then the Soviet troops experienced an acute shortage of weapons and ammunition, and the material and technical support of the first counteroffensive was at the lowest level in all the years of the war, moral ascendancy over the Nazi troops was the advantage. Strength was given by confidence in the justice of their cause and strong will to win. Ultimately, this very factor became the key one in the fight against the fascists on the outskirts of the capital.
Vasily Sokolovsky recalls, “The unexpected attack of the Soviet troops in the north-west and south-west from Moscow made a stunning impression on the fascist command. On December 7, General Halder wrote in his diary: "The events of this day are again terrifying and disgraceful... The army group is not able to hold back a major offensive in any sector of the front."
It was close to Moscow that a fundamental shift in the course of the war took place for the good of the Soviet Union and all freedom-loving peoples of the world. On January 1, 1942, a declaration was signed by 26 states; its members pledged to use all their resources to fight the aggressors and not to cut a separate peace with them. Somewhat later, the Anglo-Soviet Treaty of Alliance against Hitlerite Germany and the Agreement with the United States "On Principles Applicable to Mutual Assistance in Waging the War against Aggression" were signed. Thus, the anti-fascist coalition was finally formed, which played an important role in the victory over fascist Germany."
Artillerymen in Battles Near Moscow by Vasily Kazakov
Vasily Kazakov. Photo credit: kino.1tv.ru
In his memoirs, the Marshal of Artillery described many episodes of military feats of both various detachments and individuals who distinguished themselves with courage and valor. Experienced commanders and young cadets, professional artillerymen and signal operators, everyone who was able to confront the enemy fought shoulder to shoulder:
“When a group of staff officers and I arrived at the anti-tank battery of the 316th division under the command of Lieutenant B.P. Vladimirov, we saw that all the guns were set at point-blank range, and the tank wrecks appeared black on the field. And on the next day, the Vladimirov’s battery and the heavy artillery battalion of the Moscow Artillery School used their fire to help the cadet regiment to repulse the fierce attacks of the enemy...
Enemy tank crewmen were confident in the superiority of their forces and launched the attack rather recklessly. But as soon as they saw that their machines were emitting smoke, their battle formations wavered. Soon about 10 tanks were blazing on the battlefield. The enemy thought it good to leave the battlefield. The first attack was repulsed.
At 5 pm, the Nazis again launched an offensive throwing 50 medium and heavy tanks and a regiment of motorized infantry into battle. 30 armored vehicles surrounded the 5th Rifle Company with its five anti-tank guns. The company arranged a perimeter defense and joined an unequal battle. Before dark, 8 more tanks were knocked out and set on fire. Having seen the failure of their attacks in this direction, the Nazis withdrew for the second time..."
The Marshal recalled the heroic struggles of our artillerymen despite the unequal forces. As an example, he described an episode when about 100 Nazi tanks moved to the anti-tank battery of the 525th artillery regiment, which had four guns at its disposal. 25 of those tanks took in the rear. Four guns had to resist in all directions. The artillerymen knocked out several tanks, but "fire was brought down upon a handful of daredevils from all directions - both enemy tanks and aircraft were aiming at them." Artillery crews retreated with one survived gun. They overcame incredible difficulties, lost 19 soldiers and officers, but by the end of the day, they were still able to escape from the fire trap.
Vasily Kazakov described many examples of selfless behavior and heroic deeds of Soviet soldiers. One of these episodes tells how a signal operator had to become an artilleryman in a matter of minutes. The battle was at its height. The battery knocked out 17 tanks, and suddenly, at a critical moment, one gun ceased fire. The battery commander sent a signal operator to check what the matter was. The junior sergeant rushed there and found that the gun carriage was covered with soil, and only the gunner and the tractor driver survived from the gun crew. The three of them dug out the gun and saw that enemy tanks were moving towards them. The artillery signal operator who had never fired before made a successful test shot and started firing on the tanks. In a short time, three daredevils knocked out several tanks and managed to fight off the enemy group that had taken to the rear. They also took the gun out of the danger zone and picked up several wounded soldiers along the way. The brave signal operator was awarded the title of Hero of the Soviet Union.
This is How the War Began by Ivan Bagramyan
Recalling the events of the Great Patriotic War, Marshal Ivan Bagramyan shared various experiences that left an imprint on his soul and thoughts, including challenges of staff work when the lives of thousands of people depended on your decision, the precarious life of advanced units, and sceneries of abandoned cities that engendered despair, “While driving along the streets of Kharkov, with deep sadness I was looking at its beautiful buildings, at the world-famous industrial enterprises that were sullenly quiet as if they had been deprived of their souls. The factory chimneys did not emit smoke anymore; there was a dead silence behind the factory gates. Everything that could be lifted off the ground was taken away. For the first time I saw our largest industrial city that had been doomed in advance. I knew exactly the day when fascist tanks would rumble along the pavements of Kharkov streets."
The Marshal also recalled how our border guards had confronted the enemy: “According to our most optimistic assumptions, the border guards could endure for up to two days. But many outposts fought much longer. And the Lopatin’s outpost fought for eleven days! The heroes fought to the end. They died under the ruins of the building, but did not lay down their arms."
Talking about the outpost area located near the San River near Przemyśl where soldiers bravely fought under the burst of artillery and mortar fire, the Marshal shared the testimony of a captured Nazi who had taken part in the attack. The sergeant-major said that the Germans had come close to the Soviet border and heard our border guards singing. They could not imagine that people who "sang so dreamily, drawlingly, melodiously" were able to defend their land so fiercely: "Their fire was terrible! We left many corpses on the bridge but were unable to occupy it right away. Your border guards had firing points here and there along the coastline. They sat there and fired literally to the last bullet. We had to call in bomb technicians. They crawled to the fortifications and dynamited them. But even after the roar of the explosions, the border guards resisted to the last. They preferred death to escape." “I have nothing to add to this frank confession of the German sergeant-major,” wrote Bagramyan. “This is what our border guards experienced on the first day of the war.”
This grim resistance did not diminish over time. Marshal Ivan Bagramyan wrote about the battles in the Baltic direction in his book On the Roads to the Great Victory. He recalled that in the summer of 1944 the troops had launched an all-out attack to liberate Belarus, but faced the enemy’s resistance. One of our divisions was boxed in but continued to heroically persevere thwarting attempts to destroy it and constraining the enemy’s activities. “Mikhail Lyamin, a national writer of Udmurtia who fought in the ranks of this division, says: “I will never forget those five days and nights at the beginning of August 1944. They were hard, sleepless, starving, filled with incessant battles. We were put pressure on from all sides, pressed brutally, in revenge for our yesterday's strikes. Berlin radio even reported that our division had been destroyed. But we were not destroyed. We defended ourselves with a lion's fortitude. We had many wounded, there was nothing to bandage them with, and the medical battalion remained in the rear. The wounded soldiers fought along with the healthy ones."
A Soldier's Duty by Konstantin Rokossovsky
In his book, the Marshal described how large-scale operations had been planned and carried out, how complicated the relationship between the Headquarters and the front used to be. Rokossovsky began his memoirs from the pre-war years and ended with chapters about the defeat of Nazi Germany.
In the chapter “The End of the Enemy Group” the Marshal addressed the issue of treatment of prisoners of war. There were many of them after the crushing defeat at Stalingrad, and it was required to find a competent and humane solution, “The prisoners of war gave us a lot of trouble. The matter was greatly complicated by frosts, harsh conditions in the area devoid of forests, lack of housing — most of the settlements were destroyed during the battles, and we arranged hospitals in those that had survived.
First of all, it was necessary to organize the dispersion of a huge crowd of prisoners, arranged controllable columns, pull them out of the city ruins, take measures to prevent epidemics, provide food, water, and warmth to tens of thousands of people. This task was accomplished through the incredible efforts of frontline and army rear workers, political workers, and medical professionals. Their intense, frankly speaking, selfless work in those circumstances saved the lives of many prisoners of war.
Endless columns of German soldiers moved along the roads. They were led by German officers who were entrusted with the responsibility of maintaining military order along the way and at stops. Fuel, hot food, and boiling water were brought to the halting places. I must note that the prisoners turned out to be quite prudent: each of them had a spoon, a mug, and a cooking tin."
Konstantin Rokossovsky pointed out that the attitude towards prisoners of war on the part of the soldiers and commanders of the Red Army was not only humane but even noble, despite the fact that "everyone knew how inhumanly the Nazis treated our people captured by them."
When it became clear that the war was coming to an end and the Soviet troops had preponderance, the mood in the army shifted. Having endured horrible hardships, people finally experienced enthusiastic drive. Rokossovsky recalled: “An unprecedented inspiration possessed everyone. Troops began to prepare for the offensive from the march. It was hard to believe that people had just completed tedious campaigns where they rested during short random halts, slept in the open air on damp ground. Nothing could cloud their joyful spirits. Everyone understood the importance of the task and strove to complete it to the best of their abilities." Despite the fact that there were still many trials ahead, that shift became another pledge of coming victory.
However, the German command did not want to believe in their defeat and, even at the end of the war, assumed that the victories of the Soviet army were caused not by the military art of its commanders, but by simple accidents and carelessness of some German military officials.
The Cause of My Whole Life by Aleksandr Vasilevsky
Marshal Aleksandr Vasilevsky described an episode related to the events in the Vitebsk Poket, “The boxed-in fascist troops were given an ultimatum to surrender. They asked for a few hours to consider it. In front of our soldiers, they organized meetings in their units, but they never took a decision. When the time was up and there was no response regarding surrendering, the Soviet troops launched an attack. And only then did the fascists begin to surrender offering almost no resistance.
There were four generals among prisoners. They were interrogated. Before that, they had been kept separately and did not know about other generals being captured. The commander of the 53rd Army Corps, Gollwitzer, considered the captivity an accident and the result of personal negligence; he believed that the troops of his corps were still fighting near Vitebsk. He asked, if possible, to inform him about the progress of the battles for Vitebsk and was shocked when we suggested him to address these inquiries to his subordinates and ordered to bring in Lieutenant General Hitter, the commander of the 206th Infantry Division, Colonel Schmidt, the chief of staff of his corps, and others…”
Memories and Reflections by Georgy Zhukov
G. K. Zhukov
Georgy Zhukov often reveals his complex and vivid nature in the memoirs. This large-scale work tells about the intricacies of politics and military affairs. The Marshal also paid tribute to the heroism of those whose work and dedication in the rear had made victory possible. He spoke with gratitude about the people who had erected defensive fortifications on the outskirts of the capital, about the workers who had made incredible efforts to produce weapons and ammunition.
Georgy Zhukov indicated impressive figures: “Hundreds of thousands of Moscow residents worked around the clock to build the defensive lines that encircled the capital. In October and November alone, up to 250 thousand people worked on making the internal defense line. Three-quarters of those people were women and adolescents. They built 72 thousand linear meters of anti-tank ditches, about 80 thousand meters of escarps and counter-escarps, and many other obstacles, they dug almost 128 thousand linear meters of emplacement and communication trenches. These people took out more than 3 million cubic meters of land with their own hands!"
Georgy Zhukov pays tribute to the efforts of workers and engineers of defense enterprises. In one month, production volumes increased 35 times! “Vehicle fleets repaired combat vehicles. The Rot-Front confectionery factory produced food concentrates. Small enterprises that previously used to supply the population with haberdashery were now sending anti-tank grenades and ammunition fuses to the front,” he wrote
The Marshal also emphasized the female population’s contribution to the victory over the Nazis: be it a field army, the labor front, or the fight against invaders in the occupied territory, women became a great force opposing the enemy.
“During the war, I repeatedly visited the frontline medical stations - medical battalions and evacuation hospitals,” wrote Zhukov. “Heroism and stamina of nurses, sick attendants, and doctors are unforgettable. They carried soldiers and officers out of the battlefield and nursed them. Female snipers, telephone and telegraph operators stood out for their fearlessness and courage. Many of them were then no more than 18–20 years old. Defying the danger, they bravely fought against the hated enemy, they went into attacks along with men. Hundreds of thousands of warriors owe to the heroism and mercy of women."
Georgy Zhukov rightly pointed out that the women’s devotion during the Great Patriotic War deserved to be treated in a special way, “I think … our women with their heroic military and labor feats in the war against Nazi Germany deserved a monument equal to the Monument to the Unknown soldier erected at the Kremlin wall in Moscow.”
Georgy Zhukov's reflections on preserving the memory of the hardships of wartime became prophetic. Year by year, there are fewer and fewer of those who took part in these tragic yet great events; and it is increasingly difficult to explain to new generations why this war should not be forgotten. In the epilogue to his memoirs, Zhukov wrote: “I am convinced that time has no power over the greatness of everything that we experienced during the war. It was an extraordinarily challenging, but also a very glorious time. A person who once experienced great trials and won will draw strength from this victory for life."