December 17, 2014

1943. Tragedy on the Steppe Front

The Steppe Front
Red Army scouts in the main control room of the Voronezh Power Plant in 1942 (source)
Parentheses indicate text did not pass Soviet censors for military security or propaganda reasons. Downs expanded on this account in his September 20 Newsweek article "Harvest of Death: Behind the Lines in Russia's Reconquered Villages."

(For more, see the complete 1943 Moscow reports.)
Bill Downs

CBS Moscow

September 4, 1943

I have just returned from the Steppe Front, southwest of Kharkov, where Red Army troops are fighting their way forward toward the Dnieper river line.

Last night at midnight, after the foreign correspondents were brought back to a staff headquarters near the front, a supply officer grinned at us and said, "Congratulations. The Allies have landed in Italy." Later at dinner, there were toasts to the success of this operation. The landings in Italy were not toasted as a second front—yet.

(After dinner, when we went to our billets, we told the good news to the orderly assigned to us. She was a buxom young girl named Katya. We said, "Katya, the Americans and British have landed in Italy.")

(Katya thought a minute and replied, "Is it a land front?" We assured her it was. Then she grinned and came back with a present of four bottles of water—mineral water, which is just about the most valuable thing in Ukraine today. The Germans are doing a thorough job of earth burning, blowing up public services and contaminating wells with dead bodies.)

(So with Katya we toasted the first operations of the Allies on the continent of Europe and to the day when the Red Army joins the Allied forces in Berlin.)

(The officers and men I talked to on the Kharkov sector yesterday and today are happy at the news. But they are anxiously awaiting developments to see how this new front in Europe will help their drive to the west.)

But this good news was preceded by a personal tragedy to the entire foreign press corps. The assistant chief of the foreign office press department, Mikhail Vasiev, and an officer representing the Red Army general staff, were killed. These three men have accompanied us to the front on several occasions.

We were flown to Voronezh Wednesday where eight American jeeps picked us up. We drove over supply roads toward Belgorod for five hours through army traffic. When night came, we were warned against bombings by Nazi planes, so we formed a closed line and inched forward with only dim lights that couldn't be seen over a dozen feet or so. We were also warned that the road had been de-mined, but that the sides of the road had not.

I was in a jeep with David Nichol of the Chicago Daily News. We agreed that driving across the Ukrainian steppe at night was much like riding across the Atlantic in convoy. There's that same eerie feeling.

Occasionally one of the jeeps would wander out of line and the driver would switch on his lights. Twice when this happened, Red Army sentries fired warning shots. No one takes any chances.

We came to a little farm railroad called Maslova Pristan. Our convoy of jeeps stopped. An air raid had started someplace on the horizon. The ack-ack and bomb flashes lit up the skyline so brightly that it didn't seem real. If you saw it in the movies you would say it was too Hollywood; too overdone.

Mr. Vasiev, who was in charge of the party, walked along the line of cars and again warned of the danger. He was in the second car in the line. My jeep was the second car behind him. We started off again in the dark when there was a muffled explosion. The concussion blew the brim of my hat up. Then a few seconds later things started to drop around us.

The second jeep had run over an anti-tank mine. It was blown almost in two. The major, the censor, and Mr. Vasiev died shortly afterward.

We spent the night on the road awaiting instructions. At dawn a Red Army colonel took charge of the party.  We had been ordered to go to (General Ivan Konev's) the Steppe Front to do a job. That's where we went.

Three men died taking us to the front. At this front we saw battlefields where thousands of men died defeating the Axis. This and subsequent broadcasts were made at this cost. I hope my reports of what I heard and saw there will be worthy.