Harvest of Death: Behind the Lines in Russia's Reconquered Villages
From Newsweek, September 20, 1943, p. 35-38:
HARVEST OF DEATH: BEHIND THE LINES IN RUSSIA'S RECONQUERED VILLAGES
The almost incredible grimness of the war in Russia was never better illustrated than in this notable dispatch from Bill Downs, Newsweek and CBS correspondent in Moscow, telling of his second trip to the front.
The big twin-engined Douglas transport took off from the Moscow airdrome with thirteen British and American correspondents and four escorting Russian officials. We were flying back into the summer toward the Ukraine—welcome enough after the first chilly fall breezes now turning the leaves of Moscow's trees. We stopped for a brief landing in the ruined city of Voronezh, where Russian and German troops had sat and looked at each other for more than a year until the Nazis were finally kicked out last January. Then we picked up four Yaks as an escort for the rest of the journey. These four fighters, piloted by Russian women, didn't make the men in the party feel any more masculine.
While we were sitting in the hot sun waiting for our transportation, there was an ominous roar. Eight jeeps stormed over a hill, running in line like baby partridges. Bringing up the rear was a ¾-ton Dodge ammunition carrier that followed us thereafter.
In the late afternoon we headed into the setting sun. Each jeep had a driver with a Tommy gun at his side. Dave Nichol of The Chicago Daily News shared my car. We called our driver Junior because when we pronounced his real name, it didn't come out so good. We soon found out that Junior was a frustrated fighter pilot. That would have been all right if only he hadn't tried to loop the damn thing.
Driving along a dusty Ukrainian road over the rolling steppe past white-washed, thatch-roofed Ukrainian villages was one of the most beautifully peaceful experiences I have ever had. The war was a million miles away as we went through mile after mile of wheat and rye plantings and fields of sunflowers as yellow as butter. We stopped and picked the ripened heads of these flowers and for the rest of the trip everyone ate sunflower seeds in the best Ukrainian manner.
But as we drove into the sun, we also drove back into the war. By nightfall the villages had become more and more damaged, with army traffic heavier and army control points more frequent. As night fell, we turned on the convoy lights—dull slits visible only a dozen feet away. We had been warned we were driving through mined fields—that the roads had been de-mined but that the fields had not. Once in a while Junior, wandering off the road, would turn on the driving lights. Twice when this happened sentries fired warning shots into the air.
At a farm near a crossroads where the railroad cut the highway, the cars stopped for butter and eggs. Mikhail Vasseff, assistant chief of the foreign-press department, walked down the line and warned the drivers of danger. Meanwhile, there was a roar of German bombers overhead, but they couldn't be seen against the starry sky.
The jeeps started out again. Vasseff was in the second jeep, and the United Press correspondent Henry Shapiro was in the third accompanied by two British correspondents. Nichol and I were in the fourth. Just as the cars went over the railroad right-of-way, there was a muffled explosion. On the road ahead a deep orange and red flash bloomed like a giant poppy and shot about 20 feet into the air. The concussion flattened the brim of my hat. The cars stopped, and everything was silent for a few seconds while parts of a jeep began falling to the ground.
Then there were a few groans—deep shuddering ones. Vasseff's jeep somehow had run over an anti-tank mine. The groans came from Maj. A. A. Volkoff, the representative of the Soviet General Staff, and Viktor Kozhemiako, the chief censor of the press department. Volkoff's legs had been blown off, and Kozhemiako's legs and back were lacerated. Vasseff's body was not found until the next morning because it had been blown 60 feet away. The major and the censor died shortly after being taken to a nearby base hospital.
The jeep was blown a dozen feet off the road, turned over, and was almost torn in two. The driver escaped miraculously with only a wound in the back of his head. It was a freak mine that somehow hadn't gone off although hundreds of cars had driven over the spot on the road throughout the day.
The next day at dawn there was some question as to whether or not to continue to the front—the explosions and deaths had shaken us all. Our surviving escort, Lt. Col. Studyonoff of Moscow, got in touch with headquarters in the capital, and it was decided that since the Steppe Front headquarters were expecting us, we would continue. All night long we tried to wrap ourselves around the jeeps in such a way as to get a few hours' sleep, but our efforts were mostly a failure because of the German and Russian planes flying overhead.
On the approaches to Belgorod we came to a village in the region where the Red Army made its initial break-through. Every house in these villages was burned or blown up. The trees were shattered and blasted. In the fields and alongside the road were the hulks of tanks—both Russian and German—which were burned, blown up, and filled with holes.
The battlefield had been pretty well cleaned up, and the people were beginning to come back. Every peasant stove had a small group of women around it digging in the ruins for salvage. In some places there had been attempts at reconstruction, but for the most part the people were now sleeping in haystacks, dugouts, or on top of the ground.
Right now there was a big rush to get in as much of the crops as possible. The lack of labor, machinery, and sometimes even scythes made this a primitive job. The method mostly used was that of the old scythe and cradle, dating back to the times when women flailed the grain and gathered the wheat by winnowing the chaff in the wind, although some of the women were even picking the wheat by hand. This scene, with the kerchiefed and barefooted women using these ancient methods of harvest, made this part of the Ukraine appear almost biblical—except for those ruined villages and the blasted tanks of the new Philistines.
Belgorod, which had changed hands four times, looked much as could be expected. Not a single major building was intact. I have seen so much damage in so many ruined cities, towns, and villages here in Russia that only the strongest adjectives could be used to describe this ruin.
We drove to the town of Liptzy, 15 miles north of Kharkov, where Gen. Ivan Konneff's staff had established our headquarters in the peasant cottages. The first thing the army did was to take us to a portable shower tent in a field near a small stream. It was the army version of the famous Russian baths. The tent was about 50 feet square, and inside there were a dozen shower taps of steaming, running water, which was heated in a portable boiler on a truck. That hot shower was worth all the bumps I had suffered in the jeep.
Then we were taken to breakfast which included steak, vodka, tomatoes, sardines, potatoes, rice, and more vodka. There was not a single reference throughout the trip to the tragedy that befell the second jeep. It was strictly the army attitude toward death at the front. That evening Col. Ivan Vorobieff came to our headquarters and outlined the situation at the front.
The following day I still felt dead even after a night's sleep on a comfortable mattress stuffed with straw. However, no one can remain sleepy after a breakfast of sardines and tomatoes washed down with vodka followed by a hamburger steak and potatoes.
A colonel from an engineers corps who had fought in the battle for Kharkov took us for a tour of the city's circular defenses. Their basis was a huge anti-tank ditch extending 30 kilometers around the vital sectors of the city. However, the Germans depended mostly on a system of trenches emanating like ganglions from deep pillboxes and shelters. Over them timber was laid and then the wood was covered with earth.
There was bitter fighting on the northern approaches to the city, where you could see that Russian mortars had covered every foot of the ground. As in the last war, mortars are still the best weapon against trench defenses. On the southern defense sector the Germans had built their defenses through a canning factory by barricading the basement windows.
Our colonel also turned out to be an expert on German mines. He said there were some ten different types of German anti-personnel mines and about five different anti-tank types. He showed us the newest type of each category.
The new German anti-personnel mine looks like an oversized potato masher and is made of concrete. Painted green and stuck upright in clumps of bushes or high grass, it is hard to detect. It is discharged by a trip wire.
The Nazi anti-tank mine must have been devised by someone with a personality as nasty as Hitler's. It is made of steel about a foot in diameter and 4 inches thick. Besides an ordinary detonator on top, it also includes one on the side and bottom. Thus the detecting sapper must handle it like a cracked egg; he can't shift it or lift it without having it go to pieces in his hands.
Next, we loaded up the jeeps again and headed southwest over the muddiest road in Russia. Ukrainian gumbo is a special kind of mud which looks like tar and glue. This was in the Udi River valley with low rolling hills on each side. It was typical of the Russian collective-farm country, but it was nearly all uncultivated.
There was a definite change in the atmosphere. We saw more soldiers, more transport, and greater alertness. The village ruins looked fresher, and we passed an occasional loaded ambulance. We drove between mine and bomb craters for 10 miles on this road, which was remarkably solid considering its condition.
Then we began to see an occasional wrecked tank. Alongside an orchard we could see dozens of them off to the left among the young apple trees. They looked like broken toys. But a gust of wind put reality into the scene. It was putrid with the smell of death, and from then on we breathed through our mouths. This tank battle had been fought three days before. Not all the bodies had been buried.
We turned off the road directly southward and came to what had once been a collective farm in the village of Korotich. There were only a dozen houses with fifteen or twenty outbuildings, but it was completely dead. The sole inhabitants were two women, two chickens, and one German who had died after crawling some 25 feet from his tank.
Korotich was surrounded by a large truck garden with several acres of fully grown cabbages, tomatoes, beets, and potatoes. Most of this garden had been ruined by a battle between more than 100 Russian tanks and a similar number of German ones. The Russians knocked out 60 Nazi machines in this engagement, and forced the Germans, who were concentrated for a large-scale assault aimed at recapturing Kharkov, into retreating.
There is not much use in trying to describe a tank battle unless one sees it personally, but this one must have been terrific. The Germans used Tigers as well as medium types. They also employed oversized Ferdinand mobile guns. Down in the cabbage patch there was on wrecked Ferdinand and one Tiger almost side by side. Their crews were buried among the cabbages. The smell of rotting bodies turned a few of us pale, but no one lost his breakfast—although there were a few bad moments when we had to chase away two chickens pecking at a German's body.
Until I started to examine details, Kharkov looked about the same as when I saw it five months ago. Last March sometimes at least one floor remained in some buildings, while there was occasionally even a building intact. When the Germans worked over it the second time, they missed nothing. The entire city will have to be rebuilt. Sixty per cent of the residences have been destroyed. There is an atrocity commission now investigating the Nazi war crimes of the second occupation. The civilians told us the usual stories: 300 wounded of the Red Army were burned to death in the local hospital and another 400 by the occupying SS troops.
That is what history looks like when you are shown it firsthand here in Russia. This war and this front will cover many chapters. Every paragraph will reflect the skill and courage of this 1943 Red Army and people who are defeating the 1939 Nazi Germans.