May 1, 2015

1944. Retaking the Russian Railways

American Transport on the Leningrad Front

Bill Downs

CBS New York

January 23, 1944

DOUG EDWARDS: Moscow dispatches report that Red Army troops are moving southwest and southeast of Leningrad today in an encircling move around German forces south of the city, and are threatening to cut off their last escape routes by rail. The enemy is concentrated in the area north of the Maghach-Krasnodar-Bataysk railroad, which cuts across all six lines radiating from Leningrad.

Columbia correspondent Bill Downs has just returned to this country after a year in the Soviet Union, and he's here in the studio with us today. How does the present battle of Russia look to you, Bill?

BILL DOWNS: Well, second-guessing the Red Army is dangerous business, even when you're in Moscow, Doug. Right now, of course, the battle in the north is a big story.

EDWARDS: Well, reports from Russia stress the importance of railroads leading into Leningrad. For example, the capture of the rail junction of Maghach. We are told that the main trunkline into the city has been freed for traffic.

DOWNS: Undoubtedly the freeing of this trunkline between Moscow and Leningrad is of primary importance, but for the past six months there has been rail connection between the two cities. It was a roundabout route which entered Leningrad through the Russian-held corridor northeast of the city. Civilians, with necessary permission, have been riding sleeping cars between Moscow and Leningrad all fall and winter.

This line was under Finnish and German artillery fire, but scores of trains got through. It was this rail line that carried much of the heavy equipment into Leningrad which has made the present offensive possible. Building of this auxiliary line under fire is a great tribute to Red Army engineers.

EDWARDS: How long do you think it'll take for the Russians to restore the main Leningrad to Moscow trunkline?

DOWNS: Well, that depends. When the Germans tear up a railroad they do the job completely, uprooting ties and even putting special explosives under each individual rail to blow chunks out of them. But right now, the Russian offensive is rolling on American wheels.

EDWARDS: What do you mean by that, Bill?

DOWNS: There are probably more American trucks and jeeps and weapon carriers in Russia than any other country outside the United States. Supplies for the Stalingrad victory were largely carried on American ten-wheelers which can negotiate the deep Russian snow. It was the same at Oryol and Belgorod last summer, and again at Kiev where these American trucks were able to cope with Ukrainian mud.

Now they are doing another winter job around Leningrad. Tens of thousands of American trucks form the last vital link between the supply centers and the front line. The Russians love them, and they're using them well.

EDWARDS: But how do the Russian drivers keep this transport rolling in the subzero weather there?

DOWNS: Well, you'd have to see it to believe it. Russian drivers don't waste time with radiator alcohol or antifreeze mixtures. Every time they start a truck they drain the radiator. When they want to start it up again, they build a fire.

EDWARDS: What do you mean, "build a fire?"

DOWNS: Well, they take some wood and paper and crawl under the truck and build a bonfire under the motor. Why they don't burn up half their transport, I don't know, but it works. When the fire heats up the engine they start it up and keep it running. Then they put water in the radiator and drive until they have to stop again.

It might not be the best way of handling a truck, but that's the way American trucks are carrying the stuff to the Red Army today outside Leningrad. It's a perfect example of two guys getting together to lick Hitler—Joe Doakes in Detroit is doing one grand job building those trucks, and Joe Doakesky, the Russian truck driver on the Leningrad front, is putting this labor to good use. That's the kind of war it is.