The Battle for the Kuban Bridgehead
|Red Army lieutenant handing out cigarettes to captured German soldiers in July 1943 (source)|
(For more, see the complete 1943 Moscow reports)
Bitter Hand-to-Hand Fighting in the TrenchesApril 17, 1943
April 17, 1943
This morning's communiqué again said there were "no essential changes" on the 1,200 mile Russian battle-line (where seven million men are waiting for the opportunity to be at each others' throats.)
But from the Kuban today comes a story that graphically illustrates just what "no essential changes" means to the men in the front line.
To the men in the Kuban, this statement also means that there has been "no change" in the deep mud, the heavy spring rains (and the almost impossible roads) that have bogged their offensive. It means that there has been "no change" in the enemy's determination to hold on to their Kuban bridgehead.
And it also means that there is "no change" in the Russian determination to blast the Germans across the Kerch Strait as soon as possible.
That process is already underway.
Yesterday on the lower Kuban valley, Russian artillery and aircraft opened a dawn bombardment on strong German positions. At daylight, Soviet infantry started their advance (through ravines and brush and over hillocks.) They were forced to ground by a counter-barrage from the Germans. It took forty minutes of inching forward through the mud on their stomachs before the Russian soldiers reached the first German lines. Then there was a period of furious and bitter hand-to-hand fighting before all the Germans were bayonetted out of their trenches.
But this was an important height. And before the Red Army could dig in, the Germans counterattacked. Fresh Nazi forces were brought in from neighboring units. At about noon, a group of fifty tanks—and that was the size of the average tank attack at Stalingrad—were thrown into the battle. German Tommy gunners followed behind.
The Russian command immediately sandwiched antitank gun and rifle troops into the infantry. Troops were issued with the deadly antitank fire bottles.
But the tank force was a heavy one and succeeded in gaining some ground. However, in doing so the tanks became separated from their Tommy gunners. Their position was exceedingly vulnerable, and the German tanks were ordered to retire.
The Russians again advanced.
In all, the Germans made ten unsuccessful counterattacks yesterday on one narrow sector. In some places, hand-to-hand trench battles lasted for an hour and a half—which means an hour and a half of stabbing, shooting, gouging, throttling, kicking, and kneeling. These German bodies were counted on the battlefield after the battle was over.
As I said, the communiqué announced "there were no essential changes on the front."
German Reinforcements ArriveApril 20, 1943
April 20, 1943
The battle for Hitler's half-acre in the Northern Caucasus still rages in the lower Kuban today. Last night the Germans tried something new in the way of attacks. They threw in tanks during a night battle. This is, of course, a very dangerous maneuver—a fact which the German command found out. Although the Nazi forces were greatly superior in numbers in this attack, the Germans failed to make any progress. They created a wedge in the Russian lines but couldn't hold it. A Red Army counterattack pushed the Germans back to their original positions, and four of those tanks were knocked out before morning.
The past few days of fighting in the Kuban has revealed some interesting facts. It is now evident that the German command has succeeded in getting big reinforcements into their foothold in the Northern Caucasus. It also is evident that Hitler intends to defend his "half-acre" of the Kuban to the last man.
This last-ditch defense of the Kuban bridgehead is no accident of German strategy. The Nazis are putting a lot of men and planes and equipment into this front. They know that, if they lose control of the Kerch Strait, the entire Nazi position south of the Donets River will be threatened by an assault on the Crimea.
The German attacks in the Kuban during the past few days have been exceedingly strong. According to the Russian communiqués, the Germans have spent 6,300 men in "killed" alone during the fighting Saturday, Sunday, and Monday. There has been no indication here as to which direction the Germans are attacking, but one thing is for sure: these attacks cannot be considered an offensive. The German and Romanian troops now fighting in the Kuban have no goal before them. This is no march to Baku or Maykop.
It is a case of "hit them before they hit you." You must remember that the Soviet command has not been idle during the spring bog-down in the Kuban. Russian reinforcements have also been thrown into this sector.
Now it only remains for the full weight of these opposing reinforced armies to clash. This clash, which appears to be imminent, should finally decide the fate of the Kuban.
The Nazi OnslaughtApril 21, 1943
April 21, 1943
German and Romanian troops are still pounding away at the Russian positions in the Kuban this morning. Various Red Army units on this front report that the Nazi troops launch as many as ten attacks a day on a single sector. When they fail to gain their objective, they keep up attacks throughout the night.
It was that way last night. The final German attacks were beaten off towards dawn. This morning's communiqué says the Russians are still trying to add up enemy losses, but according to preliminary data, one infantry battalion was wiped out and six tanks destroyed.
This morning's communiqué also revealed an interesting detail about this fighting in the Kuban. There has been no indication as to the exact sector where the main battles are now taking place. However, the communiqué said that two enemy torpedo boats were sunk by Red Army fire. Since Hitler's march into the Caucasus last summer, the port of Novorossiysk has been used as an Axis naval base. The Red Army has always held positions near Novorossiysk, and was last reported to hold the southern and eastern outskirts of the city.
"Let the Hitlerians Cheer"May 2, 1943
May 2, 1943
Bitter fighting has broken out again in the Kuban. It is not clear who is doing the attacking or which army is on the move. The communiqué last night said Soviet forces warded off German counterattacks, which could mean that the Red Army has taken the initiative and is attacking. (Last night six German tanks, some guns and mortars, and one infantry battalion were wiped out.)
This morning's Pravda echoes the good will expressed in Joseph Stalin's Order of the Day. The newspaper says "Let the Hitlerians cheer the German fools about the invincibility of the European fortress. The Hitlerian command fears like fire operations of our allies on the European continent." It adds that the heavy bombing of Germany and Italy by the Anglo-American air forces is "the threshold of a new stage in the course of the war."
(These sort of comments make good reading to the Americans here in Russia.)
Rough Terrain Near the Kuban BridgeheadMay 5, 1943
May 5, 1943
There as yet has been no official Soviet reaction to the news that former Ambassador Joseph Davies is coming to Moscow as a personal representative of President Roosevelt. However, Davies probably rates more personal esteem from the Russians than any other American who has served in this country. His contacts with high government officials are known to be the best. And if he brings a message from President Roosevelt inviting Joseph Stalin to a personal conference, you can be sure that such a request would get utmost consideration in Davies' hands.
The first full-scale spring fighting of 1943 appears to be underway in the Kuban. Up to now, the Russians have referred to this battle as "very serious." The Soviet high command is making no premature claims. And here's some of the reasons why this Kuban warfare is being treated so conservatively.
In the first place, the Germans have built up a strong system of fortifications around the Kuban bridgehead and have had all winter to reinforce them. The terrain in this section of Russia is particularly adaptable to defensive action. The battlefield is composed of low hills and heights alternating with swamps and valleys. Around these swamps in particular grow bushes and groves of trees. And most difficult of all are the ravines and small streams.
Russian soldiers say that it is almost impossible to walk 150 yards through this wooded, hilly battlefield without running on to two or three small streams or a ravine or two. And the Germans are using every advantage that the lay of the land gives them.
On one height captured by the Red Army, they found eighteen antitank guns, thirty-seven machine guns, three mortar batteries, as well as rifle opposition. The Germans are usually dug in deeply, and many times the only way to oust them from such positions is to literally cut them out with bayonets. There is a lot of hand-to-hand fighting going on in the Kuban.
The fighting is just as bitter in the air. For the past several weeks, the German air force has been attempting to paralyze the Russian ground forces so that the Axis troops could further improve their positions. That is the reason that the Luftwaffe a couple of weeks ago switched its attack from rear bases to the Russian front line.
But to do this, the Germans had to bring Focke-Wulf 190s and Stuka dive bombers from other sectors of the Russian front. These reinforcements weren't very effective against the Soviet air defenses. Fifty-five German planes were shot down on this front yesterday. The Russians lost eleven. Such tremendous German losses have enabled the Soviet air forces to take the initiative, and that's what's happening now. Russian fighters, Stormoviks, and some American storming planes are now concentrating on blasting the enemy clear out of the North Caucasus.
The Red Army Offensive Push
May 7, 1943
May 7, 1943
Fighting in the Kuban slackened off a little bit last night. This morning's communiqué says that the battles are still underway, and that the Red Army is still moving. (Last night, Soviet artillery destroyed two German tanks and smashed twenty artillery batteries, as well as some thirty machine gun points.) The Germans still continue to absorb heavy losses in manpower.
The front reporter for the army newspaper, Red Star, this morning sent a cheering and optimistic survey of the Kuban fighting. He says that the big Russian attack of the past few days has cost the Germans their main defensive link between the Axis forces at Novorossiysk and those trying to hold northward to the Kuban river. Red Star says that, in addition, the Russian troops have also destroyed the coordination of these German forces (with other Axis points of support) north of the Kuban river.
However, no one here is claiming that the Germans are defeated on the Kuban bridgehead. The Germans are now rushing in reinforcements and reserves to the threatened battlefields. But the Red Army still has the initiative here, and it looks like the Russians are going to keep it for a long time.
Uprooting the Nazi Fortifications
May 9, 1943
May 9, 1943
Fighting in the Kuban is increasing in intensity with every passing day. Front dispatches say that the Red Army continues to widen the gap in German defenses that were smashed northeast of Novorossiysk. However, the Russian troops have run on to a new line of Nazi fortifications. (They are fortifications built this winter and are the most permanent type, with reinforced concrete pillboxes dug into the sides of mountains and deep trenches and gun positions established in the foothills of the northern Caucasian Mountains.)
The Germans have a defense in depth established here, and they have built a system of defenses which in may ways resembles the Mannerheim Line on the Karelian Peninsula—but the Red Army, you remember, knows something about this type of defense. And today down in the Kuban, the Red Army is still on the move forward.
(Both the Russians and the Germans are rushing reinforcements into this front, and right now the battle hinges on which side succeeds in getting there first with the most.)
The Russian press today continues to eulogize the Allied victory in North Africa. But the newspapers also take occasion to strike a sober note about the battles this summer. The ousting of the Germans and Italians from Africa is everywhere accepted as the last step before an Anglo-American invasion of Western Europe.
But today's Pravda has something to say about the coming battles in Russia, which makes sense also when applied to the fighting that British and American troops will have to do when this second front is opened.
Pravda says: "The Soviet people, from the bottom of their hearts, wish the Allies further fighting successes against our common enemy. Hitlerian Germany is shaken and passing through a crisis—but still is not crushed. We have to face hard and heavy fighting which will require not a few victims and enormous willpower and iron tenacity."
Continuing on the same tone, Pravda warns that it "is possible in some sectors our units will have to go on the defensive. But whatever might be the situation on this or that sector, we must not for a minute lose our willpower to victory."
With the Red Army reinforced for the summer fighting and with both the Germans and Russians waiting for the command to go over the top, this kind of talk is not only reasonable, but necessary.
The price of victory is going to be heavy—heavier than any price the Russians have paid in their two year fighting against the Germans. And far heavier than America's initial losses in North Africa.
Continued Axis ResistanceMay 12, 1943
May 12, 1943
The Red Army is still slugging away at the Kuban at the second German defense line northeast of Novorossiysk. The Russians admit that the Axis forces in this sector are putting up a phenomenal fight, even though they are outgunned and their aircraft have not been able to stop the Soviet bombers and Stormoviks from blasting at their positions.
However, as usual, it's the Red Army infantry that has to do the dirty work. And today there is the usual job of clearing minefields, blasting barbed wire, and scouting that precedes every attack in this war.
Then the attack units go in with grenades and bayonets to take just one more pillbox or blindage.
The Russian drive northeast of Novorossiysk has been slowed, but it has not stalled. The Red Army is still moving forward, but it is almost literally a foot-by-foot advance.
. . .
Amphibious InfantryMay 14, 1943
May 14, 1943
The Red Army again made local gains in the Kuban last night. Northeast of Novorossiysk, Soviet artillery continued blasting away at the German defenses and the infantry moved in to take one more advantageous height. However, there has been no breakthrough.
We have some new details of the fighting in the Kuban river delta area this morning. This fighting is practically a miniature naval action carried on by land troops. Both the Germans and the Russians have to move their artillery and supplies by boats through the swamps and around small islands. Ambushes established in the high cattails and reeds are common. (A rowboat is liable to carry a machine gun and a skiff an artillery piece. Scouting is done by expert swimmers.) Yesterday the amphibious Red Army infantry sank four cutters and four motorboats carrying Germans and munitions.
The Red Army god another strong warning this morning that they must be ready for major fighting at any moment. The warning came in the army newspaper, Red Star. Remember, Red Star is more than a newspaper, it is the link between the Soviet high command and the ordinary Russian soldier.
This morning's editorial is worth considering, if only for this reason. The newspaper says "the time is near when again battles on a big scale will develop with participation of big masses of troops" and calls on the army to be ready for this activity.
This is the latest of a series of warnings which have appeared regularly in the Russian press for the past two weeks.
Red Star says "it must not be forgotten that the Germans are still able to throw into action strong armored fists." It points out that the German generals still rely on tanks and air forces to carry the weight of their offensives but that every battle as it progresses involves all troops. On the defense, particularly, the newspaper says, does the infantry play a vital role.
Then the editorial went on in the tone of a locker room pep talk just before the big game. "Therefore in the certitude of the victorious issue of future decisive battles we must correlate our forces most carefully in full preparation for these battles. We must prepare to repulse the possible massive blows of enemy tanks and mechanized troops supported by all other kinds of troops."
But Red Star is not spreading gloom. It continues: "Our units possess at the present time all means not only to stop the Fascist tank divisions, but also to deal them a decisive defeat."
The newspaper does not say that the Red Army is going on the defensive. It takes care to declare that, during the winter campaign, the Russian officers and men learned not only how to repulse massive blows, but also how to win victories through the offensive.
The question in balance right now is whether it will be offensive or defensive fighting that Red Star talks about when it speaks of the big-scale battles here in Russia.
We won't have long to wait before finding out.
More Nazi CounterattacksMay 18, 1943
May 18, 1943
The Soviet-German front was comparatively quiet again last night. Down in the Kuban, the Nazi forces have attempted a series of counterattacks but thus far have failed to pull off anything that even looks like an offensive.
Front dispatches say that these German counterattacks, however, are being made with ever increasing forces—both on the sector northeast of Novorossiysk and in the Lower Kuban river area. At Lysychansk, at the eastern end of the Donets river line, the Red Army is digging in after crossing the river and capturing important defensive positions.
(The Germans failed to push the Russians back even though they threw in substantial numbers of tanks and infantry.) Now the fighting as settled down to a 24-hour exchange of artillery, rifle, and machine gun fire. (This sector appears to be the most volatile of any front north of the Kuban. It is likely that we'll be hearing of more fighting in this area.)
. . .
The Air War Over KubanMay 27, 1943
|Soviet soldiers celebrate the liberation of Sevastopol in May 1943 (source)|
May 27, 1943
Heavy air fighting has again broken out in the Kuban. Northeast of Novorossiysk, the German air command sent masses of fighters, dive bombers, and heavy bombers to strike at the Red Army troops, supplies, and communications. However, the Red Army pilots got over three German planes for every Russian ship lost. At the end of the day's fighting the score was sixty-seven Nazi planes shot down for the loss of twenty Soviet planes.
I talked with a Red Army officer yesterday who had just returned from this Kuban front. He said that, during the heavy air battles over Hitler's Kuban bridgehead a few weeks or so ago, the Germans were making as many as 1,200 sorties a day against one Soviet position on the Novorossiysk salient. The Germans were trying relay bombing from their bases in the Crimea. This officer said that the Germans would concentrate on one or another height held by the Red Army and literally attempt to cover it with bomb craters.
However, he pointed out, bomb craters make pretty good cover for troops undergoing concentrated aerial attack. So in addition to giving the Red Army a pretty bad time, the Germans also compensated by giving the Russian soldiers a certain amount of cover and protection.
At any rate, the Soviet troops still hold that height.
The Battle of the Caucasus Nears an EndMay 28, 1943
May 28, 1943
Active fighting has resumed in the Kuban. With characteristic reticence, the Soviet high command is not saying much about it. We don't even know for sure whether it is the Red Army or Hitler's forces on the attack. Neither last night's nor this morning's communiqué have given us any details of the battle.
Resumption of the Kuban fighting means that the opposing forces have caught their breath, and that the period of reinforcement and resupply that caused the lull on this front has now ended.
In a sense, this battle for the Kuban bridgehead is almost entirely one of supply. And on this front, Hitler has the more difficult position. He must keep his Kuban troops armed and fed by hosts and planes.
The past several days we have heard about the sinking of troops, transports, and landing barges in the Black Sea. The Russian command has placed a large aerial patrol over Hitler's supply points on the Black Sea coast, as well as the Sea of Azov. Russia's Black Sea Fleet, manned by the kind of seamen who fought in the heroic defense of Sebastopol, are also on patrol. Last night, two more of Hitler's landing barges loaded with troops were sunk. Yesterday Soviet planes sank another landing barge and damaged two transports and two other barges.
All in all, during the past three days the Russian Black Sea Fleet and air force has sunk or damaged eight German supply boats attempting to aid the Germans and Romanians in the Kuban sack. In addition, German planes, including some carrying vital supplies to the front, were shot down into the Black Sea and over the battle line yesterday. This makes a total of 131 German planes destroyed in the past two days.
This morning's newspapers also report that the front west of Rostov is livening up. A front dispatch describes the activity as "furious fighting of local significance" where the Red Army, in improving its positions, "deals sensitive blows to the enemy." However, there is no indication that either side has made a serious attempt to capture the initiative on this front.
We are anxiously waiting over here for the first big blow to be struck. I wish I could tell you how and where and when this blow will come. But anything I would say would be pure guesswork.
For the past two weeks I have talked with every Russian and American and British official that I know, trying to get a hint of what's in the air so that I could pass it along to you.
The only thing that I'm told is to expect some of the heaviest fighting that has yet taken place in Russia this summer. And that's all I know about any possible Russian or German offensive.
Former Ambassador Joseph Davies said yesterday that during his talks with Stalin they discussed the military situation. He said he detected a note of confidence, adding that it was not "overconfidence."
I'm afraid that I won't be of much help to anyone who wants to do a little dinner table staff work or work out some subway strategy. We'll simply have to wait and see.