February 21, 2017

1943. Red Army Sappers

Engineers Build a Bridge to German-Held Territory
Red Army sappers in liberated Smolensk, September 1943 (source)
The parentheses indicate portions that did not pass Soviet censors for military or propaganda reasons.

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

CBS Moscow

March 7, 1943

For some reason, the engineers are the forgotten men of every army. It's the same here in Russia, where they call them sappers as it is (?) America.

Still, this is the most technical of any war ever fought, and never have the engineers been so important. Particularly is this true in the Soviet Union, where the troops have to fight in weather and conditions ranging from the subtropical and mountainous Black Sea regions to the steppe and swamp lands of the north.

Here's the story of a bridge built last week somewhere along Russia's 1,200-mile front. This bridge had to be built right under the noses of German troops holding an important height on the opposite bank of the river. (The Axis forces had held these heights for many months, during which time they constructed concrete pillboxes and laid mines and barbed wire and made the whole position a minor sort of Verdun fortification.)

The Red Army engineers were ordered to build a bridge across this river so that tanks could be thrown into the battle when the final assault got underway.

There was ice on the river but it was beginning to melt. Water on top of the ice was several inches deep. First the engineers brought up a large amount of supplies at a position a quarter of a mile up river.

The Germans thought this was the site of the new bridge and began to blow these supplies sky high. Meanwhile, that night the engineers started to work opposite the main German positions. They crawled out on the ice and cut holes for the piling—then the supports were brought out. It was quiet at night and no nails could be pounded, so the engineers used screws instead. As dawn approached, the sappers had to cover up their work with snow so that the Germans wouldn't know what was going on.

This went on for four nights. The engineers got soaking wet—so wet that their clothing froze and many men lost their coats because the coats literally cracked off them.

This bridge had to be strong enough to hold tanks and artillery. Therefore it became necessary to do some pounding and make some noise in putting the final supports in. The artillery obliged one night by sending over a heavy barrage which made enough noise to keep the Germans listening for shells (and not hear the engineers at work on the river below them). The next night the air force did some bombing to keep the Jerries busy.

At dawn on the day of the attack, the engineers blew the bank of the river forming a road down to the bridge. The infantry fought its way across the ice. The tanks and guns rolled across the bridge.

The positions was taken. Soviet pilots did victory rolls over the battlefield.

And the engineers—well, the engineers just picked up their tools and then went to look for replacements of their clothing.