July 31, 2017

1944. American Foreign Correspondents on Stalingrad and Leningrad

Bill Downs Looks Back on Russia
A woman walks past the wreckage of a German Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighter plane in Stalingrad in the summer of 1943 (source)
From Newsweek, February 21, 1944, pp. 30-31:
A Departing Correspondent Looks Back on Russia

What does Russia look like to a correspondent who has just completed a long assignment there? Bill Downs, Newsweek and CBS correspondent, recently returned from the Soviet, Newsweek asked him to sum up his impressions of Russia. The story below tells how it seemed to Downs as viewed from the vantage point of New York.

Russia is a place that gets into your skin—despite wartime irritations of crowded subways, lack of taxicabs, of overworked and understaffed offices; despite the overly strict and self-conscious censorship; despite the grimness of the Moscow scene and the war weariness that makes people short-tempered; despite the pitiful sorrow of a people who have withstood terrible carnage.

After spending a year and two weeks in the Soviet, I find that already I miss the place. It's that kind of country and they're that kind of people.

And coming back to America after an absence of more than three years, I ached to show all the wonderful things that are America to the friends I made in Britain and Russia. For example, the young, good-looking cook in the headquarters dugout at Stalingrad. Her name was Vera. She handed me a drink of water, saying: "This is good water. Volga water. It has Russian blood in it."

The New Era: When I entered Russia on Christmas Day, 1942, the country was in the midst of the Battle of Stalingrad. The strain was evident in Moscow. Tired, red-eyed officers from the southern front who were reporting to headquarters could be seen in Moscow hotels trying to snatch a few hours' sleep before rushing back to the battle.

But the victory, although its cost was scores of thousands of Russian men, was the turning point of the United Nations war against the Axis.

This victory was also a turning point for the Soviet. It marked the end of one era inside Russia and the beginning of another. Only today are we beginning to see manifestations of a new era.

Our Questions: People have asked me: "Can we trust Russia? Will she make a separate peace?"

I found that when I left the Russian people were asking something of the same thing. They are tremendously appreciative of American and British aid to their country. But to a nation sacrificing millions of lives on the battlefields in the west, trucks and sugar and planes and meat seem pitifully small contributions to the victory. That is the basis for the insistent and sometimes bitter demands for the "second front." It is an understandable reaction.

Since the Moscow and Tehran conferences, however, the position of Russia's allies has been made more clear to the people. Our war in the Pacific and the bombings of the Continent have been more fully explained and their value more truly appreciated. But the Russian soldiers still call the cans of American meat they like so well "Second Front." It is a standard joke for a Red Army man to say: "Hand me a can of that Second Front, Ivan."

Total Russian casualties in the Soviet-German war today are estimated at between 10,000,000 and 15,000,000 men, women, and children. No one probably will ever know how many Russians have died and will die in this most terrible of all wars. Estimates of damage to Russian cities and towns and villages defy the imagination.

After what I have seen of the hatred in the faces of the people, after seeing areas so devastated that a house still intact startles the eye, and particularly after staring into mass graves where thousands of people died, it is not difficult for me to answer the question: "Will Russia make a separate peace with the Germans?"

Stalingrad: I left Moscow last Jan. 3. Our plane was grounded at Stalingrad for two days and nights by weather. As we flew over the city, there already were two thin streams of smoke from patched-up chimneys of the flattened tractor plant and the Red Barricades factory.

I had seen Stalingrad six days after the defeat of the German armies. Then the city was still stunned from the impact of battle. It was as if you had stepped into a giant bell shortly after it had been struck. There probably has never been such complete demolition over such a wide area. Bombing alone cannot reduce rubble to such small bits. Artillery is needed to break up the big chunks of masonry. And that was what Stalingrad was mostly, just a lot of little chunks of brick, mortar, wood—and bodies.

In flying over Stalingrad now, you could see the beginnings of streets and roads and of a new and better housing. And engineers, workers, and men, women, and children from all over Russia are walking along the downtown streets helping reconstruct the hero city of the Soviet Union. Part of this reconstruction was being engineered in the still-ruined factory buildings.

But the most startling thing in the city I found at the new airport. For two years I'd been looking for a central heating system outside the United States that worked. Warm radiators had become an obsession with me. I'd felt radiators in Lisbon, London, Dublin, Belfast, Manchester, Baku, and Moscow. All were more like ice-box coils than heating units. Until I got to Stalingrad.

My search ended in the waiting room of the new airport building. The heat in that room was enough to knock you over. It's one of the most pleasant memories of Russia that I have. And there are going to be a lot more of them when the rebuilding is finished.
Saint Isaac's Square in besieged Leningrad. The monument to Czar Nicholas I is camouflaged from German aircraft. March 1943 (source)
A Newcomer Takes a Trip to Battered Leningrad

. . . What does Russia look like to a correspondent just arriving there from the Western world? James Fleming, Newsweek and CBS correspondent, who recently replaced Downs in Russia, last week was permitted to visit the battle city of Leningrad and its long-besieged environs. Here is the story he cabled on his reactions.

Leningrad—the world's most shelled city today presents a tidy fa├žade to a visitor. There are few leveled buildings in the London-Rotterdam style, though the interiors were burned out of perhaps every fifth structure. Indeed, Leningrad's chief architect Nicolai Baranoff, says there is no building in the city that has not suffered some damage, either by bombs or shells. But the work of restoration has been continuing all through the blockade.

The Winter Palace, which received only six bomb hits, stands nearly intact save for boarded windows, yet the adjoining Hermitage Galleries suffered a serious shell gutting. None of several bridges crossing the many-figured Neva River was hit, although they were constant German targets.

No estimate is available as to how many of Leningrad's original 3,000,000 are now in the city, but a good guess is perhaps one-fourth of that number. The normal routines of daily life are completely reestablished, and mornings and evenings the streetcars are crowded with factory workers and school children.

The work of cleaning up the city's wrecked buildings is largely performed by women and girls. Plans for rebuilding, which were begun at the height of the blockade in the winter of 1941-42, envisage no exact reconstruction of destroyed buildings, but instead a project of more modern structures and a series of great parks to break up the crowded center of the city. Today the famous Kirov Works, which cover 5 square kilometers, are working at high speed. Workers tell how the factories suffered 5,000 shell hits and reminisce of the grimmest days of January and February 1942, when the ration was down to 250 grams of bread and one bowl of soup for each worker daily. Then, they say it was not an uncommon sight to see a worker slump over in a factory, dead of hunger.

The Battleground: South and west of Leningrad stretches a broad plain where the recent battles which liberated the city took place. I stood at the spot on the road to Peterhof, scarcely a mile and a half from the city's center, where the Germans approached closest. If ever Hitler suffered carpet-chewing frustration, it must have been here. The city was literally within his grasp, and outlying buildings were within range of a .22 rifle. This was the spot where citizens threw up barricades across the roads and where women joined in the work of digging up trenches and tank traps.

It would be an exaggeration to call Leningrad's physical defenses around its suburbs impressive. Looking at them, you realize that it must have been the sheer spirit of defiance on the part of the citizens that saved Leningrad. There's a gold medal on bright blue ribbon which ever soldier and civilian who participated in the city's defense proudly wears. For example, the elderly woman who tidies my hotel room is never without that emblem pinned to her dress.

In contrast to their own light ground defense works, Leningrad's defenders were ringed by an extensive series of German fortifications no less powerful than those of the Maginot Line.

The battlefield a fortnight ago after the extermination of the Germans was still strewn with big German tanks and heavy artillery, as well as immense quantities of machine guns, anti-aircraft guns, and ammunition.

The Silent: Here and there a sprawled German body lies in the snow until sappers are able to clear the minefields and arrange for burial. Strewn around the German dugouts are empty bottles of Bordeaux wine and Hennessey cognac. Everywhere one sees German gas masks and felt boots in the Russian Valenki style which one Russian colonel scornfully called "ersatz Valenki."

The amount of booty left behind indicates an unplanned retreat and the fact that the Russian break-through came as a complete surprise.

Right in the midst of the battlefield are the ancient and magnificent palaces of Peterhof and Gatchina, while at nearby Pushkin is the palace of Catherine the Great. The Germans had used barracks and on retreating set fire to them. The third floor of the Pavel Palace at Gatchina was used as a brothel for the German Air Corps. The tremendous grounds of the Peterhof Palace, resembling those at Versailles, were plowed over with tank traps and the palace proper on the Gulf of Finland was used as an artillery station.

Special movies shown to correspondents in Leningrad revealed many new details of the "Summer Road" across Lake Ladoga, which was used at the height of the blockade when melting ice destroyed the winter route. Oil-carrying railway cars, half-filled in order to maintain buoyancy, were floated across the lake tied to boats, while strings of barges also brought vital supplies.

In the lobby of the Hotel Astoria is a big siren used to give artillery warnings—now not needed in view of the fact that the Finns have withdrawn their big guns and the Germans are a hundred miles away. But the custodian pats it affectionately and insists it must be ranked as an honored trophy.