"The Stories that Mark Themselves in the Minds of Ordinary Soldiers"
|Source: "Soviet soldiers advance through the streets of Jelgava; summer 1944"|
Saturday, April 10, 1943
Certain Red Army units have started their own spring offensives in a war of nerves that has had some pretty ridiculous results.
Here's what happened a few weeks ago on one sector of the front. The Red Army unit dug into this sector has been fighting the Germans for a long time. They were fairly familiar with a crack German regiment opposite them. It was a regiment of the Waffen-SS, Hitler's personal troops.
One night a group of soldiers went out on a strategic clearing that formed the no-man's-land between the two trenches and put up two poles. Between these two poles they stretched a canvas cartoon of Hitler -- it was not complimentary to the Fuehrer. Under the cartoon was written in German in large letters, "Shoot at me." Then the unit waited until morning to see what would happen.
When the sun rose, they could hear loud discussions in the German trenches. Staff officers came to the trenches and had a look at the insulting cartoon through binoculars. But the Germans refused to obey the instructions to shoot at their own leader.
Before noon they opened an offensive to capture the cartoon. A detail of German soldiers was ordered to take the canvas down. This detail almost reached the cartoon of Hitler before they were wiped out. Another detail was sent. It too failed to get the cartoon. And then in the evening, German artillery all along the sector opened up on the Fuehrer. All the German guns were concentrated on the spot. It took a fifteen minute concentrated barrage before the cartoon was blasted out of existence -- which is one way of killing a dictator.
Right now the grandstand military experts are having a field day. (You can get a military plan of attack from a score of armchair generals at the drop of a hat.)
(There are plans for a Red Army offensive -- there are people who say Hitler is going to do this and that -- there are others who say Hitler is going to start mass bombing again.)
And any time you want, you can find Russians who will argue that there is not going to be a second front this year and why. Other Russians will argue just as violently that there will be a second front. It's a favorite way of passing the time here.
But the feeling of the ordinary soldier is best expressed in a story from the front that I heard the other day. The Red Army men are getting a lot of American canned meat, and they like it. However, they don't call it canned meat. When they get hungry, they say "Come on Ivan, let's open up a can of that Second Front."
BOGDAN THE ELUSIVE
Thursday night, June 17, 1943
(It won't be until after the war that we will know the full story of the Russian guerrilla fighters now operating behind German lines. However we do know now that these partisans are tying down hundreds -- maybe thousands -- of Axis soldiers trying to keep the invaded country quiet while the German soldiers fight at the front.)
This spring has been a profitable season for the partisans. And today we have the story of a Ukrainian Robin Hood who is now giving the occupation authorities more trouble than any guerrilla leader that has yet appeared in Russia.
He is called "Bogdan the Elusive" -- and he heads one of the biggest partisan armies in Russia. His record of train wreckings, executions of German burgomeisters, and picking off of isolated Rumanian and German garrisons is still being added up. But his reputation is known throughout the Ukraine -- more by the Germans than by the Russians.
German punitive expeditions have tried time and again to capture him. But when Bogdan is reported in one town, the police troops will arrive only to find the German mayor of the town hanging from the nearest beach tree, and a note saying "I'll be back" signed "Bogdan."
Early this year his partisan band even made an attack on the outskirts of Kiev in western Ukraine. It was just a sortie, and nothing came of it except a lot of Germans were killed. But his spies infiltrated into the city and brought back reports of how the Germans were running gambling halls and vice establishments all over Russia's most beautiful city -- and it made Bogdan mad. So he decided to conduct the sortie. Life in Kiev was a lot more sober for several weeks afterward.
(German occupation authorities who hear that "Bogdan the Elusive" is operating in their district have sent emissaries out looking for him to offer safe passage through their provinces -- if only he won't make trouble in their district.)
Once, the Germans thought they had Bogdan. They carefully threw a cordon around his camp. When they finally closed in on the camp they found warm campfires, empty tin cans -- and a goat. Around the neck of the goat was a note saying "A hurried good-bye -- but I'll be back." Since that time several other goats have been found wandering the Ukrainian steppe-land -- all with notes from Bogdan around their necks. Now the goat has become a sign of bad luck among the Germans -- they had the very sight of the animal.
RED ARMY SCOUTS
Wednesday, April 28, 1943
The military spring training on the Russian front seems to be just about over. Nothing of importance happened along the 1,200 mile front last night. There was the usual artillery barrages -- Soviet aircraft made their regular trips to railroad junctions and supply points behind the German lines; snipers on a half-dozen sectors put a few more notches in their guns; and scouts succeeded in slipping through the Axis lines on their hell-raising missions in the enemy rear.
During this spring lull we've heard a lot about the achievements of these Russian scouts. They are the modern Russian counterparts of "Buffalo Bill" Cody and Kit Carson and others who formed the vanguard in America's winning of the west. Except the work of a modern scout in the Soviet Union is a lot more complicated.
For example, take the Red Army scout Yakov Chekarkov, a 30-year-old bachelor who used to be a storekeeper at a tractor station in one of Russia's big collective farms.
Chekarkov knows his stuff. His job is to creep as close to the German lines as possible and find out just what the Nazis are up to. There are thousands of these men who creep out every day and night to gather information. Sometimes they go deep behind the German lines, and sometimes groups of them do commando raids.
Chekarkov has introduced his own methods. For example, he watched the Germans lay a minefield on the approaches to a forest. At night he took his own mines and mined the passages which the Germans left through the field. You can imagine what happened when the Germans attacked. This scout also has become an expert on German uniforms. He spotted tank reinforcements in one sector because he noticed the pink tabs on the collars of some of the men who were designated tank troops.
This winter he sat for days in the frozen carcass of a dead horse just in front of the German lines. Another time he found a hollow stump almost inside the German fortifications. He established his position by burrowing under the snow and cutting his way inside the stump from the bottom.
It takes a lot of courage to be a scout in Russia, and Yakov Chekarkov is a brave man. However, he has one great fear: catching cold. He was scared to death by a cold last fall. He was behind the German lines when he sneezed. He had to run for his life. Now he never does any scouting without a heavy wool shawl wrapped around him like an old woman.
RED ARMY SOLDIERS TRADE BARBS
February 9, 1943
The war that is being fought in Russia tonight (while being the most terrible and devastating conflict in military history) is in many ways like any other war. The viewpoint of the ordinary Russian private towards the fighting around Kursk and Kharkov and Rostov tonight, is much the same as any American soldier.
The soldiers with whom I spoke in Stalingrad (last Sunday had the soldier's avid interest in food, in women, in getting leave, and seeing his side win, as any buck private in the rear ranks of the United States Army. The Russian private doesn't) like the idea of dying any more or less than any other soldier -- and consequentially they don't talk too much about it. (You talk to them about their battle experiences and like all good soldiers they don't say a word about their own exploits.) To hear them talk, the tremendous battle of Stalingrad is merely a collection of little incidents which finally ended up in a German defeat.
For example, one of the crack non-commissioned officers in a Red Army guard's regiment -- (a tough youngster whose friends said he had killed at least three Nazis in a hand-to-hand encounter) -- would only talk about the way German soldiers admired the Red Army's fur caps. (This soldier was fighting in a factory building in the Red October plant that formed the Russian line in this part of Stalingrad. The German trenches were in front of another building only twelve yards away. I stood atop these German positions and you could throw a stone between two lines.)
At one point in the Stalingrad line, the German and Russian soldiers used to amuse themselves by shouting insults back and forth to each other. My Russian friend said that one German soldier shouted across the lines and offered to exchange his automatic rifle for a Red Army fur cap.
I asked the Russian soldier what his answer was.
"Oh, I answered all right," he said. "I told them to bring along a tank and I would bargain with them."
Then there was the time near the end of the Stalingrad fighting when the Germans were very, very hungry. Only a month before, the Germans had been razzing the Soviet forces saying the end of the Red Army was in sight. Now the situation was reversed and the Russian soldiers devised their own fun. To show starving German troops how well Soviet kitchens were working, they put whole loaves of bread on the ends of their bayonets and stuck them above the trenches. The German answer was to riddle those loaves of bread with Tommy gun bullets.
These are the stories which will mark themselves in the minds of ordinary soldiers.