17. Juli 1943
Soviet Summer Offensive 1943
|Barabaschewka or Garaschewka|
17 July 43, 3 am. A rolling thunder suddenly starts at the front. I prick up my ears, because it sounds different from the usual artillery raids. It goes all along the front and is a continuous rumbling growl. This is not a fire raid or a local artillery duel. This is massive fire of all calibres on a broad front. This is the prelude to a large-scale attack.
The great Soviet Donets Offensive, the great Russian summer offensive of 1943 has begun. Hence the forced position building by a whole battalion. So the offensive was expected. Just now, three Russian close support planes are rushing overhead.
It doesn’t take two hours before we get the order to deploy. We are to be hurriedly thrown to the front east of Petrovskaya with lorries. Here the Russian has crossed the Donez and broken into our positions. I have quickly packed up my few belongings. Now we are waiting for the lorries. The battalion commander has already driven ahead and I am to follow up with the companies. Around noon the lorries rattle up to us. The soldiers climb onto the vehicles in groups, I climb into the cab next to the driver, and then the convoy of vehicles rolls off in the direction of Petrovskaya in dispersed (air raid) formation.
There is silence in the village. We have pulled up a little closer, our driver in front pulls up closer to the side of the road. Suddenly the fully loaded vehicle slides with its front wheels into the roadside ditch, slowly leans to one side and overturns. The convoy stops. I run to the overturned car. The men escaped with a fright. Only one is lying on the ground, groaning. I have him taken to the military hospital while the men start to get the truck afloat again.
Meanwhile, I chat with an artillery officer whose battery is not far from our accident site in the gardens. He reports that the artillery on both sides is taking a break in fire. Here at our front section the Russian has not yet had any successes. He confirms my suspicion that it is a large-scale offensive that the Soviets have launched on the entire Donets front. However, the offensive plans had been known. For example, our air reconnaissance had detected seven underwater bridges in the Donez bend near Isjum, which the Russians had built within a single night. These boardwalks for infantrymen lie just below the surface of the water and are almost invisible from land. A masterpiece of Soviet combat engineers!
In the meantime, with the help of the artillerymen, we have pulled our truck out of the ditch, get back on and continue the ride. In a wide arc we bypass the open plain eastwards of Petrovskaya and then reach the place from the south where our divisional headquarters is located (Gruschewacha or Bolshaja Kamishewacha). We drive through the place and then carefully roll up to the village exit so that we are not seen by the Russian. Here I wait for further orders. In the meantime it is afternoon. Then an officer appears and tells me to drive on to the next village. There we would be marshalled. Now the motorcade dashes off along the road, which leads through open countryside, towards the front. Welikaja Kamischewacha appears in front of us. I sit in the front of the first vehicle. When we reached the entrance to the town, I was met by an officer standing on the road, waving. I make the column stop, get out and greet the captain, who introduces himself as a guide. He gives me a brief description of the situation: Under the bell cover of his gunfire, the Russian has crossed the Donez, penetrated our front line and formed a small bridgehead. The breach is about two kilometres wide and one kilometre deep. Now our battalion is to throw the Russian back across the Donez in a counterattack.
I drive with the convoy into the village, where we have to stop again. The village is swarming with soldiers. On the road are long columns of vehicles, echelons of ammunition and supplies of all kinds. Drivers fiddle with the harnesses of their sturdy draft horses, motorbike messengers weave through the throng, soldiers run back and forth, others stand around waiting, and over all there is the noise of a startled war crowd gearing up for battle. The Russian civilians stand in their front doors and watch this hustle and bustle uneasily. Once again, the war fury threatens to overrun their village.
I have received new orders and get the motorcade moving again. In the late afternoon hours we reach our destination (Barasshewka?) This is where the battalion commander had gone ahead. The small village lies behind a huge, wide, vaulted ridge that separates us from the front. Like a huge, elongated hump, it lies protectively in front of the village. Behind this ridge the battle is raging.
I report the arrival of the motorcade to the battalion commander and then go into one of the houses where we all lay down our rucksacks. I sit down to eat something first, because I haven’t had anything in my stomach since this morning. As I chew, I hear the thunder of the guns outside. Through the window I can see the heights where black fountains of smoke and earth are spraying up. The heights are under harassing fire.
I am called to the briefing. We gather in the battalion commander’s house and listen to the battalion’s combat mission. Then the orders for the companies are issued. I take over the mortar platoon. At nightfall, the battalion is to cross the ridge and deploy beyond it. At dawn, it will then start the counterattack.
It is getting dark. The first day of the battle comes to an end. But once again the rumble of the cannons swells. The enemy wants to smash the supplies they know are now rolling to the front. I walk in front of the house and look up at the heights. In the pale darkness, this mighty ridge lies before me, and on its back dances an inferno of fire and smoke. The dark sky twitches and flames from the glowing red flashes of the bursting shells. The rolling impacts vibrate the air. Black clouds of smoke billow up as high as a house and threaten to completely eclipse the dark sky. 12-cm mortars cover the whole wide expanse of the broad ridge. It is at least a regiment of mortars, if not a whole division, that hurls its shells onto the heights. Fire, smoke and splattering earth swirl in the air, and the earth trembles under this gigantic conflagration. Anxiety settles on our hearts. No one can get through this fire alive. And up there we must go! Through a wall of fire and black smoke! There’s already the command: “Battalion, prepare to move out!” It’s time. We step up, and then the companies move slowly up the slope. Lord, they can’t go on drumming like that all the time. Let them stop!
And we are really lucky. As we climb the heights, the fire dies down, and by the time we reach the top, the Russian has stopped firing. Only a burning house flares up to the sky as a beacon, illuminating the night-black surroundings with flaming red light. A figure suddenly emerges from the darkness in front of us. It is a captain who is supposed to lead us into the positions. He quickly gives us a report on the situation: the Russian has brought four tanks across the Donez during the day. It is possible that he will ferry over even more during the night, so that we will have to expect a tank attack tomorrow. The situation is somewhat unclear. The course of the front is also not exactly known at the moment. So we have to cautiously stalk up to the front line until we encounter our own people.
The battalion deploys and now moves forward in a broad front groping through the darkness. We have already descended the front slope and reached the foot of the slope. Now we continue on flat terrain, and then we come across the first positions of our thin defensive line, torn apart in places. I stand at the top of the trench while a couple of combat engineers squat below, welcoming us with a gasp of relief. Replacement! With seven men they have held - as they say - the whole company section. We occupy the same section with 40 men. In addition, I take up position a hundred metres behind this line with my mortars. Meanwhile, up on the heights, our Pak is moving in, setting up a third defensive block there. Ivan will meet tough defence tomorrow. We are even supposed to throw him back across the river.
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- Photo: S. Fridlyand
- Bolschaja Kamishewacha cannot be found on either old or new maps. Since the name means the same as Welikaja Kamischewacha, with which it cannot be identical, there is a possibility of confusion, or a local customary name
- Baraschewka, rightly assigned a question mark by the author, does not exist, but there is a Barabaschewka and a Garaschewka.