Ep. 43 When freshmen from Sevastopol carpeted the hills

The most tragic battle on the Mius front occurred in March 1942. Fields and hillsides were already littered with bodies decaying in the sunshine. The first, and most bitter, winter of the war was ending. The frozen ground was thawing and the trenches oozed mud – what wood there was had been burned long ago; planks, fences, trees and bushes, even telegraph poles and ammunition boxes had gone up in smoke. The Germans were situated on Volkhovo mountain a few kilometres to the west. Soviet leaders decided to push the Germans back but the expected tank and artillery equipment had not yet arrived when the order was given to attack.

Freshmen of Sevastopol

The military situation on March 16, 1942. The red arrow shows Nikolaipol, where Gerhard was born.

The spring offensive was about to begin and the 56th Army was to liberate Taganrog by March 8, International Women’s Day. Reinforcements brimming with confidence had streamed into the region and more tanks and guns were supposed to be en route.[1] Antonina Grigorievna Shelkovnikova recalls the arrival of the sailors of the 68th Marine Infantry Brigade: they were beautiful, young, confident, fresh out of the naval academy in Sevastopol. Antonina’s mother looked at them and cried. When they asked why she said: “Oh child, the Germans are armed to the teeth.”[2] Perhaps Antonina’s mother knew more than the Soviet generals; preparations for the supposed surprise attack had been easily visible from the Volkhovo heights.

Soviet infantry crossing the Mius 1943

Soviet soldiers crossing the Mius in 1943 when the Germans were finally uprooted.

The starry night gave way to a chilly dawn, it was minus 18 when the sailors of the 68th and 76th Brigades emerged from the stinking trenches. The Katyushkas rained a fiery warning that the attack was about to begin. A light fog lifted in the morning sun as 15,000 sailors who had never seen battle dashed through the snow across the open plain that led to mount Volkhovo. Volkhovo is as much of a mountain as the Mius is a river. It gently rises about 200 feet above the surrounding fields and provides an efficient vantage point from which to shoot. In the attic of Nadezhda Panchenko’s house Soviet soldiers established an observation post and she watched the attack. Sailors in their black jackets against the white snow rushed at the guns their legs sinking in the snow and the mud. Bullets and shrapnel mowed down entire platoons[3] but by noon the sailors, with nothing more than rifles and hand grenades, had crossed the  razor wire and were fighting ruthless hand-to-hand combat in the trenches. Five hundred Germans lay dead at the top of Volkhovo mountain and it appeared they might break the German defense. But then the main German forces arrived and the counterattack included twelve tanks and an assault rifle company. Desperate sailors fired point blank into the observation slits of the tanks as they were churned into the snow and mud under the tracks. They  fired their last bullets and retreated across the valley littered with the bodies of their comrades who had fought valiantly in their first and only battle. Unknown to the sailors, the Germans’ main force was accommodated in Latonovo, fifteen kilometres to the west, and took until noon to be in position to support the soldiers of the skeleton crew on the mountain. Fighting continued for two more days, and further along the Mius front a few more weeks before the Soviets gave up the river. In the meantime six-year-old Nikolai Bondarenko and a friend recovered corpses from the battlefield in a wheelbarrow earning a ruble per load. They’d load the head end first and then the feet. On a good day they earned enough to buy a quarter loaf of bread. Nikolay Moiseenko Rakhmanov was fifteen  years old; he said at the present site of the memorial to the battle there was a large bomb crater into which bodies were thrown. The bodies would be sprinkled with lime to eliminate the smell and then more bodies thrown in.[4]

Mat-Kurgan anchor monument - Copy - Copy

Anchor monument memorial to the saliors who died on Volkhovo Mountain.

The 68th Marine Infantry Brigade of Sevastopol lost 639 dead and 1839 wounded. All told the battle of Volkhovo mountain claimed approximately 5,000 dead and 10,000 wounded.[5]

On July 22, 1942 Matveyev Kurgan was again occupied. Once again the Germans took the best accommodations while the residents were forced to fend for themselves as best they could and posted warning signs. Raisa Gorbatkova and her family were forced to move into the barn and she slept next to the cow. During the bombing raids they stayed in the trenches.[6]

They set up a field hospital in the school. Next to the hospital 250 German soldiers were buried. All German soldiers here were buried in coffins shipped from Germany. Later, when the Soviets pushed the Germans out, the soldiers’ graves were dug up, the bodies thrown in a pit and the coffins used for kindling.[7]

soviet pows6

Soviet POWs from the battle for Stalingrad, most of them would never return home.

By August endless columns of Soviet prisoners were being driven through Matveyev Kurgan to the west. Katherine Reznichenko saw residents come out and throw food into the mass of prisoners. When they started fighting for the food the Germans fired their guns into the air. A few people escaped. In the evening they found a prisoner in the barn. They fed him, dressed him and he was gone the next morning.[8]

The day to day choices were few and unsavoury. Either work with the Germans or face deportation to Germany and elsewhere for forced labour. Many Russians had already been subjected to forced labour by their own government and did not relish it under the Nazi regime. Korneevna Avdeenko recalls girls who lived with German soldiers as their field-wives to escape deportation were later sentenced to ten years.[9]

mass grave in central square

Mass grave in the central square of Matveyev Kurgan. More than 600 bodies lie at his feet.

Then in 1943 the Soviet offensive drove the Germans out of Matveyev Kurgan and once again before leaving, they burned the villages. They again withdrew to nearby Volkhovo mountain and again shelled Matveyev Kurgan. The Soviet troops were situated on the eastern side of Matveyev Kurgan, headquartered in Valentina Fyodorovna Kovalyov’s house. In the evening trucks covered in dark tarpaulins brought in the dead. Through the night the staff recorded the details and in the morning the dead were buried in a huge hole dug by an excavator. Valentina says there were several such graves, with up to a thousand bodies in each one.[10]

Monument Regulator Maria Matveev Kurgan

The Regulator by V.I. Perfilov. At a fork in the road a young girl named Maria stood day and night for two days to flag military traffic that was liberating the area until she fell unconscious from exhaustion.

Antonina Alekseevna Nicenko said: “Death to us was ordinary. A friend would say I heard so-and-so died, or did you know Vitka was killed. We didn’t grieve for long, if we had grieved all the time, we would not have been able to live.”[11]

These monuments and five other mass graves are within 25 kilometres of Nikolaipol. Gerhard’s home ground is drenched in blood. Matveyev Kurgan archives suggest over 20,000 Soviet soldiers died there on the Mius front and others say an equal number of Germans, Romanians and Cossacks died there also, as well as uncounted civilians.[12]

 

Motherland

Motherland – an 8 metre concrete sculpture of a mother holding a child by V.I. Perfilov. In spring  poppies in the flower bed symbolize blood on the black earth.

 

 

 

Tank T-34

Tank T-34 – Lt. Alexander Eroshin was driving this tank when he broke into the village and began the battle that liberated Matveyev Kurgan in February 1943.

 

Military vehicles drive along road at Russian southern town of Matveev Kurgan

This is the situation today. Military vehicles drive along a road at Matveyev Kurgan, May 24, 2015. The convoy included multiple rocket launchers, military trucks without license plates and armoured personnel carriers, according to a Reuters journalist. REUTERS/Stringer

 

 

 

NOTES

[1] Motyzheva, Elena, “Cruel and Scary Eyes of the First War Years at Primiusie,” Personal report of Matveyev Kurgan field trip of Rostov State University of Economics students and interviews with veterans, April 18, 2008. Accessed at http://17mkurgan.wmsite.ru/files/matveev-kurgan-3 on November 26, 2017. Translation by Google and Microsoft Translate, paraphrasing by the author.

[2] Stolbovskaya, O.I., scientific advisor, We Are in the Waiting Room of Death, the competitive work of pupils of the secondary school № 1 Maxim Stolbovsky and Vasily Khrutsky. Accessed at http://17mkurgan.wmsite.ru/ files/matveev-kurgan-3 on November 26, 2017. Translation by Google and Microsoft Translate, paraphrasing by the author.

[3] Motyzheva, Elena, op. cit.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Stolbovskaya, O.I., op. cit.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

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