March 11, 2019

1942. Bill Downs Prepares for Moscow Trip

CBS Sends Downs to Russia
Bill Downs' Soviet ID: "The People's Commissariat for Foreign Affairs certifies that [Bill Downs] registered as a correspondent."
Bill Downs wrote these letters home to his family in Kansas City, Kansas shortly after being hired by Edward R. Murrow to take over for Larry LeSueur as the CBS correspondent in Moscow.
September 28, 1942

Dear Folks,

Well, I'm now with CBS and waiting to do my first broadcast which should come off some time next week. The trip to Russia is all set and I should be ready to leave sometime "before Xmas." I think I'll be traveling by the northern route by way of Murmansk although this is uncertain. The trip to Moscow should not be very dangerous now with winter coming on so there really is nothing to worry about. As I get it I'll be broadcasting about five times a week.

On the whole the job looks pretty good. It's surprising to be out from under the pressure of agency work. You don't have all the deadlines to meet. You actually only work a few minutes a day although it might take a full sixteen hours to gather the material for a broadcast. I have a lot to learn about technique—and hope to get that lined out before I get to Moscow. I also start some Russian lessons here in London next week. It seems a hopeless language to try to learn but they tell me it's really not as difficult as it appears at first.

All in all I'm pretty thrilled about the whole thing. My salary will be deposited in New York for me until I return. I'm buying heavy underwear, fur coats and gloves like mad. CBS pays for all the special kit I need and I'm picking up plenty of it. How I'm going to carry everything I need I don't know—but I'll manage somehow, I guess. The boys in Moscow already are cabling me to bring them such things as extra pipes, socks and neckties. Larry LeSueur, who I'm replacing out there, said he's leaving me a well-trained secretary—whatever that means. I'll probably stay at the Hotel Metropol where all the other correspondents stay. It's not going to be comfortable but it sure should be interesting.

I'm already trying to line up some British newspapers so that I can pick up some extra dough by writing articles for them. I also am negotiating with Newsweek magazine to do a weekly piece for them. I'm lining up an agent in New York to handle whatever articles I can write from there. All in all the assignment is shaping into something big and I am determined to make a success of it.

I'm sure busy and haven't had much time to write. In fact, I'm squeezing this letter in between appointments so I will have to keep it short. Meanwhile drop me a line and give everyone my regards.



November 25, 1942

(Somewhere on the Atlantic)

Dear Mom, Dad and Bonnie Lee,

I don't know just where this will be mailed from or when you will get it. But I have now been aboard ship for almost three weeks and we're still going strong. It has been a pleasant trip so far with very little rough weather and now that we are getting into the tropics, I am picking up a sunburn that should look very funny if and when I get to Moscow. However, with the developments in North Africa, God knows where the company will send me. There is some possibility that I will be diverted to the North African theater of war—however I still want to get to Russia.

In many ways this has been a funny trip. There are over 200 passengers, all of them going on some kind of governmental and military missions. Consequentially everyone walks around with that knowing air of secrecy common to minor government officials and everyone gossips and guesses about everyone else. Our ship is an old one that should have been retired to the scrap heap shortly after the last war. However she is not too uncomfortable although the accommodations are a little on the Chic Sale side. I am traveling first class which means that I share a cabin with four other fellows—a British journalist, a Free French sailor and a photographic expert. We have gotten along fine so far with only occasional outbursts of "cabin fever."

But the biggest shortage is women. There are about a dozen women aboard of which only about four are worth consideration. You can imagine the time they are having with the extremely large plurality of men. However the boat is so crowded that immorality is next to impossible—but there have been several demonstrations that where there is a will there sure is a way.

The liquor aboard is extremely cheap and extremely good. For example, first class French champagne (impossible to get in London) sells here for about $2.50. And there are still some Rhenish and Moselle wines left such as Liebfraumilch and still some German Hock.

The funniest thing about the whole trip, however, is the way you have to line up for everything. You line up for food, for baths, for drink and it is a grand sight in the morning to see an Earl standing in his place behind a dock-worker waiting for a seat on the toilet. There is something grandiloquent and almost Episcopal about the slow moving of the bowels in the post-breakfast ceremony on the ship's only bathroom.

But the worst thing about the whole trip is the feeling of being completely isolated and cut off from the world. The day we left port the Americans marched into North Africa. I knew something like that was coming off but I didn't expect it so soon. At first the news was easy to pick up and the ship's radio gave us regular news broadcasts which everyone crowded around to hear. However news reception was not always so good and there have been periods of two full days when we have had no hint of what is going on. That's enough to drive a newspaperman nuts.

But the trip has been a grand rest. I have picked up a few pounds in weight and have been sleeping 10 hours a day. I hope to be in Moscow for Christmas but it is very uncertain. If I make good plane connections and the Russians don't get too mixed up in protocol and red tape about letting me pass right into their country, I should just about make it.

I am asking the CBS headquarters in New York to relay news of my movements through KMBC. Or else they will do it direct by telegram. You might get in touch with the manager of KMBC whoever he is—I understand Claude Dorsey is still with them—and make some kind of arrangements with him about the time of my broadcasts etc. I also have a proposition with Newsweek magazine when I get to Russia and you might keep an eye on that sheet for some of my stuff if I can get any printable stuff out. You have to remember that censorship is very stiff in the USSR.

This is about all for the present. I'll drop you another line from Cairo or Teheran and let you know what I've seen and where I've been. Although we've had boat drills every day there has been no occasion for any alarm. About the only thing we've seen was a whale. We should see some sharks soon which is definitely not a pleasant thought in case we have to take a sudden swim. You can expect to hear from me shortly.



March 7, 2019

1951. Anatomy of a Korean War Correspondent

What Makes War Correspondents Run
Korean War correspondent Marguerite Higgins reviewing maps in October 1950 (Photo by Carl Mydanssource)
Article by Bob Considine in the June 1951 edition of Esquire, pp. 18-26:


What makes war correspondents run, covering Wars I through II½, and especially Miss Higgins

A war correspondent is a foreign correspondent without a black Homburg. Other than that they strike no average, seldom shape up into a type, except when they are created by Hollywood or the stage. They all wear Abercrombie & Fitch trench coats, talk in a manner vaguely reminiscent of Jimmy Cagney with lockjaw, and advise the living hell out of generals.

Foreign correspondents are smoother and duller than war correspondents. And slicker. A war correspondent who is hard-pressed for something to write will interview another war correspondent. A foreign correspondent quickly learns to eliminate one-half of that assembly. He interviews himself, in moments of great stress, and only his inherent modesty (and a lively terror of the New York office) keeps him from revealing that he, in truth, is the "anonymous but unimpeachable source close to the heart of the tinderbox situation in the Balkans."

But let us take quick leave of the foreign correspondent. We'll concern ourselves here with overseas reporters who get a war on their hands. What they do about that problem is pretty much up to each one individually. And no three are alike.

War correspondents come short and tall, fat and lean, good and worse, brave and gutless, just like other tradesmen. They come sentimental and they come case-hardened. The ones who have learned (or knew all along) how to pour the sweet syrup get the most readers—because war, for all its savage nature, arouses torrents of sentiment and sentimentality where most of the reading is done, on the home front.

One vaguely recognizable type of war correspondent (loosely grouped in that he seldom wears his uniform except to the general's parties) is the fellow who must stay so far behind the actual fighting that, well, he sees a lot of the general. This sometimes sedentary hack is the headquarters man. Usually he is a fellow sprung loose from the rewrite desk back home and sent abroad because he knows exactly how to meld the scattered mercury droplets of news—news from the ground, air and sea correspondents—and wrap up the stuff in a compact lead fit for Page One, Column Eight.

Big-verb man, this fellow. Especially if he is covering for a wire service. When he makes that fast hard decision as to which of the droplets to feature in his lead, he then must come up with that living, breathing, spitting verb that is going to guarantee his lead a better reception and play, back home, than the similar leads of his part-time pals from the other wire services.

For him, our side just can't be dismissed with the notation that it "won" from the enemy. Our side must "barrel" through to victory; or "sledge-hammer," "mash," "annihilate," "exterminate" or "wreak utter destruction."

Why? Well, Virginia, there is no Santa Claus behind the various telegraph editors' desks in the newspaper shops of the land. Instead, it's a thin Joe with a permanent furrow in his brow and a case of ulcers à la mode, which is an ulcer on an ulcer. He barely survives the tidal wave of wire-service copy that floods his desk by keeping one flaring nostril above the surging hyperbole. This posture adds nothing to the sweetness of his disposition. Besides, his best man on the copy desk is drunk and so he must select, from the wire-service leads concerning the war, the one story which practically will write its own head. That's where the value of the arresting verb comes in.

The headquarters man tends to develop a curvature of the spine if his war lasts long enough. That comes from looking down on short, wind-broken briefing officers, who supply him with the Old Man's concept of what the hell's happening way up front, or from looking up at maps which are pinned too high on the briefing-room walls to make much sense. Except on those rare occasions when the headquarters city is bombed, as was London when it was possessed with headquarters of E.T.O., the only raids to which he is exposed are the occasional M.P. sorties against some parlor of debauchery to which our man has repaired to escape a "rocket" from the home office. A "rocket" is a message which says:



Because he is generally a little older than the brave bulls in the field, and his feet are beginning to feel better in slippers, our headquarters man gravitates toward domesticity. A well housebroken man, he begins to miss the wife and kids with something akin to the sad yearning for his old Buick, which had a nice pickup. This sometimes drives him into leasing an apartment or house, which in turn drives him back to such literary circles as his favorite bar. When this palls on him, and the weather turns brisk, he sometimes tries to relieve the bad-housing situation by inviting a courageous native patriot to share his bed and board. Simultaneously he discovers that nearly every courageous native patriot is a girl.

In a majority of these rare cases, the courageous native patriot eventually learns that there is more loneliness than lechery in her patron. So, with high resolve and determination to mend her life, she moves on to some worthier calling, like living with a colonel. She gives the correspondent custody of his "rockets."

Then there's the correspondent who lives with the Infantry or the Marines, dropping back now and then to the crudely fashioned field PIO (it's that red brick schoolhouse over there, Mac; where the hell did you think it would be) to lick his wounds or write his pieces—if that ain't redundant. As soon as he has seen action he regards the headquarters man as a copeless fuddy who doesn't know his brass from a foxhole. Too, he regards the correspondents who picked or were assigned to the Navy and Air Force in the same light that he regards the well-uniformed Hollywood U.S.O. hambones who carry there own mimeograph machines with them.

The front-line Joe lives like a hybrid of a private and a general. He shares the dirt and dangers of the private when out on a patrol or when his face is in the mud of a pinned-down command post. But he has the mobility of a general: that is, he usually has his own jeep, more dough in his pocket, and he doesn't have to ask anybody's permission to get the blue blazes out of there when he's had enough.

Some get fed up, or have enough, quicker than others. But the trend is toward more and more bravery on the part of these correspondents. They did things in World War II½, in Korea, that far outshone anything their colleagues did in W.W. II. They ventured into spots where angels and Richard Harding Davis would not have dared to tread. In doing so they diluted what used to be one of the more arresting war stories: the death or blood-letting of a correspondent. For a time in Korea they were getting knocked off at a rate calculated to place the misfortunes of successors in the agate type of the soldier casualties.

The model of some of them in Korea seemed to be Ernie Pyle. In 1945, at a flea-bitten place named Ie Jima, Ernie had graphically shown his predecessors exactly how close a fellow must get to get it. Ernie left the latter-day front-line correspondents a stern heritage which weighed heavily on them in Korea: the acceptance of death as well as life with troops, and the onerous need for getting names and hometowns. To wit:
With a 2-Man Patrol Near Poontang, Oct. 13 (Friday)—"Blub" said Pfc. Herman J. Mickolajczyk, of 3974 Quagmire Terrace, Oswatomie, Kansas, today when an enemy mortar made a direct hit on his plastic helmet.

Corp. Manny "Killer" Goldfarb, of 23613 Grand Concourse, The Bronx, New York, nodded knowingly.
The Korean War, whose front-line correspondents sometimes bitterly referred to themselves as police reporters, produced two additions to the now involved array of war historians.

The first was the young ex-serviceman turned correspondent, often a former Marine who had seen grueling action in the Pacific as a slightly younger man before picking up a newspaper or radio job during the five quick years of peace that led to the following war. This lad had a contempt of fear that made some holdover correspondents from the other war avoid him like the plague. He knew how to use the gun which was thrust into the hands of correspondents working out of Taegu, Masan and such places. He was in much better physical condition than other correspondents and knew more about fighting than did a vast majority of the troops he wrote about. Some of them seemed to revel in the hot fights in which they found themselves engaged—like kids getting back to a favorite game which had been barred to them for five years. These are the forerunners of the front-line correspondents of World War III and the wars beyond that. They're just better at that sort of work, and somebody in the accounting offices on the papers or wire services back home will make the happy discovery that these fellows will work for less dough than will the front-line stars of World War II.

Up front, correspondents get along well together, despite the temperature of their competition. They swap stories more often than the writers and speakers of the rear areas, and have been known to share perilously won scoops. What they will not tolerate is a colleague who fakes a dangerous date line . . . that is, if he begins his story with a heading that goes something like, "Inside Wingding with the First Cavalry," when, as a matter of fact, he is not inside the city.

But breaks like that are seldom made. For the sake of a single beat (which might find a wastebasket after it gets to the office) few reporters will risk alienating the affectations and co-operation of men with whom they must continue working.

Korea's second contribution to the realm of war correspondence was the arrival of The Ladies. Sure, they had skirted the edges of World War II, and a few of them like Lee Carson and Inez Robb had done more than skirt. But in Korea they landed with both feet, and if they aren't in war to stay, I'm a monkey's aunt.

Their presence on the front in Korea shocked many a male reporter but probably none of the shockees was given more of a jolt than the veteran Australian war correspondent, Jack Percival. With his mind filled with the impending reunion with such masculine pen pals from the last war as Frank Conniff, Hal Boyle, Don Whitehead, Homer Bigart, Bill Downs, Jimmy Cannon and Bill Lawrence, Percival stumbled into the blacked-out press camp at Taegu one blistering night and, finding the camp asleep, lay down on his blanket for a little shuteye. But there was no chance. The body next to him was snoring sonorously, and answering with an alto snore. Jack pondered this for a time, then remembered an article he had read years before in Coronet. It had contained a suggestion that snoring could be stopped by turning the body of the snorer over on the stomach.

Jack reached out in the darkness to a lay a hand on the snorer, and something akin to lightning or a reasonable facsimile shot up his arm. His quivering arm stayed in the same position for a full minute, while he tried to make his astonished mind realize that somehow, as preposterously incredible as it seemed, he was holding a breast, Jack leaped up and fled for fresh air, to revive his sanity. And outside he confided to an incoming correspondent his unbelievable experience. The correspondent yawned.

"We're getting lousy with them," he said, and turned in.

Lest one suspects from the above that the Korean front at times resembled a bacchanal, let him promptly dismiss the thought. If anything, the girls were resented by their male counterparts. Their bravery was annoying or embarrassing, especially the abundance of that commonly possessed by Marguerite Higgins of the New York Herald Tribune. From the beginning of the fighting, she made men correspondents solemnly agree that it's damned unnerving to be huddling in a hole, frightened, and look up long enough to see a good-looking babe moving up closer to the fighting.

One day while out on a dangerous patrol action, Miss Higgins and the handful of troops she was following were pinned down by a heavy mortar attack. She and the young G.I. hit a ditch simultaneously and lay there close together as the enemy moved closer. Soon it was apparent that the little group would be wiped out.

In this awful moment, Miss Higgins is reputed to have said, "Well, I've had a full and interesting life. I don't mind dying."

The young G.I. at her side yelled, "Maybe so, lady, but goddammit don't go including me!"

Apocryphal or not, there doesn't seem to be any other way of ending this, except to tip my hat respectfully to the current crop of war correspondents, and to repair to the nearest public house to bestir the memories of the dead ones with Scotch on the Rocks. One gets himself a mess of grave misgivings every time a newspaper or radio pal has himself blown to kingdom come while attending to the dirty legwork of war. I don't know one dead one from W.W. II or Korea who is remembered with anything except great tenderness. There weren't any better soldiers, living or dead, than the dead who recorded the plight of the accredited fighters. They gave their lives for much more than love or fear of the gruff bastards in editorial chairs back home. They gave their lives in the great cause of translating the tedium and horror of war into words that enabled the people at home to understand and weigh. They fought throttling brass-hat censorship with a vehemence worthy of that menacing foe.

At the headquarters of the Overseas Press Club of America, in the old New York Times building, we have a gallery of pictures of dead correspondents. It gets larger. If we get into a toe-to-toe brawl with Russia that gallery will fill a wall, and the free world will be poorer for the number of pictures it holds. War correspondents have little knack for phrasing nice plaques to go with pictures of the dead. They fear the element of corn more than they fear almost anything else. So . . . if all goes well . . . we hope someday to tack a neat little bronze over those pictures at our club. And it will be inscribed: SEE YOU LATER.

March 1, 2019

1943. The Kuban Bridgehead

The Battle for the Kuban Bridgehead
Soviet soldiers stage a counterattack in the Kuban region, June 1943 (source)
The text in parentheses did not pass Soviet censors for military security or propaganda reasons.

(For more, see the complete 1943 Moscow reports.)
Bitter Hand-to-Hand Fighting in the Trenches
April 17, 1943

Bill Downs

CBS Moscow

April 17, 1943

This morning's communiqué again said there were "no essential changes" on the 1,200 mile Russian battle-line (where seven million men are waiting for the opportunity to be at each other's throats.)

But from the Kuban today comes a story that graphically illustrates just what "no essential changes" means to the men in the front line.

To the men in the Kuban, this statement also means that there has been "no change" in the deep mud, the heavy spring rains (and the almost impossible roads) that have bogged their offensive. It means that there has been "no change" in the enemy's determination to hold on to their Kuban bridgehead.

And it also means that there is "no change" in the Russian determination to blast the Germans across the Kerch Strait as soon as possible.

That process is already underway.

Yesterday on the lower Kuban valley, Russian artillery and aircraft opened a dawn bombardment on strong German positions. At daylight, Soviet infantry started their advance (through ravines and brush and over hillocks.) They were forced to ground by a counter-barrage from the Germans. It took forty minutes of inching forward through the mud on their stomachs before the Russian soldiers reached the first German lines. Then there was a period of furious and bitter hand-to-hand fighting before all the Germans were bayonetted out of their trenches.

But this was an important height. And before the Red Army could dig in, the Germans counterattacked. Fresh Nazi forces were brought in from neighboring units. At about noon, a group of fifty tanks—and that was the size of the average tank attack at Stalingrad—were thrown into the battle. German Tommy gunners followed behind.

The Russian command immediately sandwiched antitank gun and rifle troops into the infantry. Troops were issued with the deadly antitank fire bottles.

But the tank force was a heavy one and succeeded in gaining some ground. However, in doing so the tanks became separated from their Tommy gunners. Their position was exceedingly vulnerable, and the German tanks were ordered to retire.

The Russians again advanced.

In all, the Germans made ten unsuccessful counterattacks yesterday on one narrow sector. In some places, hand-to-hand trench battles lasted for an hour and a half—which means an hour and a half of stabbing, shooting, gouging, throttling, kicking, and kneeling. These German bodies were counted on the battlefield after the battle was over.

As I said, the communiqué announced "there were no essential changes on the front."
German Reinforcements Arrive
April 20, 1943

Bill Downs

CBS Moscow

April 20, 1943

The battle for Hitler's half-acre in the Northern Caucasus still rages in the lower Kuban today. Last night the Germans tried something new in the way of attacks. They threw in tanks during a night battle. This is, of course, a very dangerous maneuver—a fact which the German command found out. Although the Nazi forces were greatly superior in numbers in this attack, the Germans failed to make any progress. They created a wedge in the Russian lines but couldn't hold it. A Red Army counterattack pushed the Germans back to their original positions, and four of those tanks were knocked out before morning.

The past few days of fighting in the Kuban has revealed some interesting facts. It is now evident that the German command has succeeded in getting big reinforcements into their foothold in the Northern Caucasus. It also is evident that Hitler intends to defend his "half-acre" of the Kuban to the last man.

This last-ditch defense of the Kuban bridgehead is no accident of German strategy. The Nazis are putting a lot of men and planes and equipment into this front. They know that, if they lose control of the Kerch Strait, the entire Nazi position south of the Donets River will be threatened by an assault on the Crimea.

The German attacks in the Kuban during the past few days have been exceedingly strong. According to the Russian communiqués, the Germans have spent 6,300 men in "killed" alone during the fighting Saturday, Sunday, and Monday. There has been no indication here as to which direction the Germans are attacking, but one thing is for sure: these attacks cannot be considered an offensive. The German and Romanian troops now fighting in the Kuban have no goal before them. This is no march to Baku or Maykop.

It is a case of "hit them before they hit you." You must remember that the Soviet command has not been idle during the spring bog-down in the Kuban. Russian reinforcements have also been thrown into this sector.

Now it only remains for the full weight of these opposing reinforced armies to clash. This clash, which appears to be imminent, should finally decide the fate of the Kuban.
Soviet sailors look at a German poster in liberated Novorossiysk with an inscription saying that every civilian located within the area will be shot, 1943 (Photo by Alexei Mezhuyev – source)
The Nazi Onslaught
April 21, 1943

Bill Downs

CBS Moscow

April 21, 1943

German and Romanian troops are still pounding away at the Russian positions in the Kuban this morning. Various Red Army units on this front report that the Nazi troops launch as many as ten attacks a day on a single sector. When they fail to gain their objective, they keep up attacks throughout the night.

It was that way last night. The final German attacks were beaten off towards dawn. This morning's communiqué says the Russians are still trying to add up enemy losses, but according to preliminary data, one infantry battalion was wiped out and six tanks destroyed.

This morning's communiqué also revealed an interesting detail about this fighting in the Kuban. There has been no indication as to the exact sector where the main battles are now taking place. However, the communiqué said that two enemy torpedo boats were sunk by Red Army fire. Since Hitler's march into the Caucasus last summer, the port of Novorossiysk has been used as an Axis naval base. The Red Army has always held positions near Novorossiysk, and was last reported to hold the southern and eastern outskirts of the city.
"Let the Hitlerians Cheer"
May 2, 1943

Bill Downs

CBS Moscow

May 2, 1943

Bitter fighting has broken out again in the Kuban. It is not clear who is doing the attacking or which army is on the move. The communiqué last night said Soviet forces warded off German counterattacks, which could mean that the Red Army has taken the initiative and is attacking. (Last night six German tanks, some guns and mortars, and one infantry battalion were wiped out.)

This morning's Pravda echoes the good will expressed in Joseph Stalin's Order of the Day. The newspaper says "Let the Hitlerians cheer the German fools about the invincibility of the European fortress. The Hitlerian command fears like fire operations of our allies on the European continent." It adds that the heavy bombing of Germany and Italy by the Anglo-American air forces is "the threshold of a new stage in the course of the war."

(These sort of comments make good reading to the Americans here in Russia.)
Rough Terrain Near the Kuban Bridgehead
May 5, 1943

Bill Downs

CBS Moscow

May 5, 1943

There as yet has been no official Soviet reaction to the news that former Ambassador Joseph Davies is coming to Moscow as a personal representative of President Roosevelt. However, Davies probably rates more personal esteem from the Russians than any other American who has served in this country. His contacts with high government officials are known to be the best. And if he brings a message from President Roosevelt inviting Joseph Stalin to a personal conference, you can be sure that such a request would get utmost consideration in Davies' hands.

The first full-scale spring fighting of 1943 appears to be underway in the Kuban. Up to now, the Russians have referred to this battle as "very serious." The Soviet high command is making no premature claims. And here's some of the reasons why this Kuban warfare is being treated so conservatively.

In the first place, the Germans have built up a strong system of fortifications around the Kuban bridgehead and have had all winter to reinforce them. The terrain in this section of Russia is particularly adaptable to defensive action. The battlefield is composed of low hills and heights alternating with swamps and valleys. Around these swamps in particular grow bushes and groves of trees. And most difficult of all are the ravines and small streams.

Russian soldiers say that it is almost impossible to walk 150 yards through this wooded, hilly battlefield without running on to two or three small streams or a ravine or two. And the Germans are using every advantage that the lay of the land gives them.

On one height captured by the Red Army, they found eighteen antitank guns, thirty-seven machine guns, three mortar batteries, as well as rifle opposition. The Germans are usually dug in deeply, and many times the only way to oust them from such positions is to literally cut them out with bayonets. There is a lot of hand-to-hand fighting going on in the Kuban.

The fighting is just as bitter in the air. For the past several weeks, the German air force has been attempting to paralyze the Russian ground forces so that the Axis troops could further improve their positions. That is the reason that the Luftwaffe a couple of weeks ago switched its attack from rear bases to the Russian front line.

But to do this, the Germans had to bring Focke-Wulf 190s and Stuka dive bombers from other sectors of the Russian front. These reinforcements weren't very effective against the Soviet air defenses. Fifty-five German planes were shot down on this front yesterday. The Russians lost eleven. Such tremendous German losses have enabled the Soviet air forces to take the initiative, and that's what's happening now. Russian fighters, Stormoviks, and some American storming planes are now concentrating on blasting the enemy clear out of the North Caucasus.
Soviet soldiers armed with a PTRD-41 antitank rifle near Novorossiysk, 1943 (Photo by Victor Temin – source)
The Red Army Offensive Push
May 7, 1943
Bill Downs

CBS Moscow

May 7, 1943

Fighting in the Kuban slackened off a little bit last night. This morning's communiqué says that the battles are still underway, and that the Red Army is still moving. (Last night, Soviet artillery destroyed two German tanks and smashed twenty artillery batteries, as well as some thirty machine gun points.) The Germans still continue to absorb heavy losses in manpower.

The front reporter for the army newspaper, Red Star, this morning sent a cheering and optimistic survey of the Kuban fighting. He says that the big Russian attack of the past few days has cost the Germans their main defensive link between the Axis forces at Novorossiysk and those trying to hold northward to the Kuban river. Red Star says that, in addition, the Russian troops have also destroyed the coordination of these German forces (with other Axis points of support) north of the Kuban river.

However, no one here is claiming that the Germans are defeated on the Kuban bridgehead. The Germans are now rushing in reinforcements and reserves to the threatened battlefields. But the Red Army still has the initiative here, and it looks like the Russians are going to keep it for a long time.

Germans Entrenched
May 9, 1943
Bill Downs

CBS Moscow

May 9, 1943

Fighting in the Kuban is increasing in intensity with every passing day. Front dispatches say that the Red Army continues to widen the gap in German defenses that were smashed northeast of Novorossiysk. However, the Russian troops have run on to a new line of Nazi fortifications. (They are fortifications built this winter and are the most permanent type, with reinforced concrete pillboxes dug into the sides of mountains and deep trenches and gun positions established in the foothills of the northern Caucasian Mountains.)

The Germans have a defense in depth established here, and they have built a system of defenses which in may ways resembles the Mannerheim Line on the Karelian Peninsula—but the Red Army, you remember, knows something about this type of defense. And today down in the Kuban, the Red Army is still on the move forward.

(Both the Russians and the Germans are rushing reinforcements into this front, and right now the battle hinges on which side succeeds in getting there first with the most.)

The Russian press today continues to eulogize the Allied victory in North Africa. But the newspapers also take occasion to strike a sober note about the battles this summer. The ousting of the Germans and Italians from Africa is everywhere accepted as the last step before an Anglo-American invasion of Western Europe.

But today's Pravda has something to say about the coming battles in Russia, which makes sense also when applied to the fighting that British and American troops will have to do when this second front is opened.

Pravda says: "The Soviet people, from the bottom of their hearts, wish the Allies further fighting successes against our common enemy. Hitlerian Germany is shaken and passing through a crisis—but still is not crushed. We have to face hard and heavy fighting which will require not a few victims and enormous willpower and iron tenacity."

Continuing on the same tone, Pravda warns that it "is possible in some sectors our units will have to go on the defensive. But whatever might be the situation on this or that sector, we must not for a minute lose our willpower to victory."

With the Red Army reinforced for the summer fighting and with both the Germans and Russians waiting for the command to go over the top, this kind of talk is not only reasonable, but necessary.

The price of victory is going to be heavy—heavier than any price the Russians have paid in their two year fighting against the Germans. And far heavier than America's initial losses in North Africa.
Continued Axis Resistance
May 12, 1943

Bill Downs

CBS Moscow

May 12, 1943

The Red Army is still slugging away at the Kuban at the second German defense line northeast of Novorossiysk. The Russians admit that the Axis forces in this sector are putting up a phenomenal fight, even though they are outgunned and their aircraft have not been able to stop the Soviet bombers and Stormoviks from blasting at their positions.

However, as usual, it's the Red Army infantry that has to do the dirty work. And today there is the usual job of clearing minefields, blasting barbed wire, and scouting that precedes every attack in this war.

Then the attack units go in with grenades and bayonets to take just one more pillbox or blindage.

The Russian drive northeast of Novorossiysk has been slowed, but it has not stalled. The Red Army is still moving forward, but it is almost literally a foot-by-foot advance.

Meanwhile the Russian bombing offensive continues to blast the German railroad and highway communications supporting the Central Russian front. The German bombers have not answered these widespread attacks on this sector. Consequently it is difficult to judge whether the Russian bombing is a "softening up" of the German defenses in preparation for a Red Army attack here—or whether the Soviet command has ordered the destruction of German concentrations to hold off a German attack.

No one knows who's going to attack first—or where—on this Russian front. And neither the German high command nor the Kremlin have let any newspapermen into the secret.
A convoy of the Soviet Black Sea Fleet carrying an amphibious assault force en route to a landing site around Novorossiysk, April 24, 1943 (source)
Amphibious Infantry
May 14, 1943

Bill Downs

CBS Moscow

May 14, 1943

The Red Army again made local gains in the Kuban last night. Northeast of Novorossiysk, Soviet artillery continued blasting away at the German defenses and the infantry moved in to take one more advantageous height. However, there has been no breakthrough.

We have some new details of the fighting in the Kuban river delta area this morning. This fighting is practically a miniature naval action carried on by land troops. Both the Germans and the Russians have to move their artillery and supplies by boats through the swamps and around small islands. Ambushes established in the high cattails and reeds are common. (A rowboat is liable to carry a machine gun and a skiff an artillery piece. Scouting is done by expert swimmers.) Yesterday the amphibious Red Army infantry sank four cutters and four motorboats carrying Germans and munitions.

The Red Army god another strong warning this morning that they must be ready for major fighting at any moment. The warning came in the army newspaper, Red Star. Remember, Red Star is more than a newspaper, it is the link between the Soviet high command and the ordinary Russian soldier.

This morning's editorial is worth considering, if only for this reason. The newspaper says "the time is near when again battles on a big scale will develop with participation of big masses of troops" and calls on the army to be ready for this activity.

This is the latest of a series of warnings which have appeared regularly in the Russian press for the past two weeks.

Red Star says "it must not be forgotten that the Germans are still able to throw into action strong armored fists." It points out that the German generals still rely on tanks and air forces to carry the weight of their offensives but that every battle as it progresses involves all troops. On the defense, particularly, the newspaper says, does the infantry play a vital role.

Then the editorial went on in the tone of a locker room pep talk just before the big game. "Therefore in the certitude of the victorious issue of future decisive battles we must correlate our forces most carefully in full preparation for these battles. We must prepare to repulse the possible massive blows of enemy tanks and mechanized troops supported by all other kinds of troops."

But Red Star is not spreading gloom. It continues: "Our units possess at the present time all means not only to stop the Fascist tank divisions, but also to deal them a decisive defeat."

The newspaper does not say that the Red Army is going on the defensive. It takes care to declare that, during the winter campaign, the Russian officers and men learned not only how to repulse massive blows, but also how to win victories through the offensive.

The question in balance right now is whether it will be offensive or defensive fighting that Red Star talks about when it speaks of the big-scale battles here in Russia.

We won't have long to wait before finding out.
More Nazi Counterattacks
May 18, 1943

Bill Downs

CBS Moscow

May 18, 1943

The Soviet-German front was comparatively quiet again last night. Down in the Kuban, the Nazi forces have attempted a series of counterattacks but thus far have failed to pull off anything that even looks like an offensive.

Front dispatches say that these German counterattacks, however, are being made with ever increasing forces—both on the sector northeast of Novorossiysk and in the Lower Kuban river area. At Lysychansk, at the eastern end of the Donets river line, the Red Army is digging in after crossing the river and capturing important defensive positions.

(The Germans failed to push the Russians back even though they threw in substantial numbers of tanks and infantry.) Now the fighting as settled down to a 24-hour exchange of artillery, rifle, and machine gun fire. (This sector appears to be the most volatile of any front north of the Kuban. It is likely that we'll be hearing of more fighting in this area.) . . .
"A Soviet Marine leads a blindfolded German POW to internment during the Crimean Offensive," April 1944 (Photograph by Yevgeny Khaldeisource)
The Air War Over Kuban
May 27, 1943
Bill Downs

CBS Moscow

May 27, 1943

Heavy air fighting has again broken out in the Kuban. Northeast of Novorossiysk, the German air command sent masses of fighters, dive bombers, and heavy bombers to strike at the Red Army troops, supplies, and communications. However, the Red Army pilots got over three German planes for every Russian ship lost. At the end of the day's fighting the score was sixty-seven Nazi planes shot down for the loss of twenty Soviet planes.

I talked with a Red Army officer yesterday who had just returned from this Kuban front. He said that, during the heavy air battles over Hitler's Kuban bridgehead a few weeks or so ago, the Germans were making as many as 1,200 sorties a day against one Soviet position on the Novorossiysk salient. The Germans were trying relay bombing from their bases in the Crimea. This officer said that the Germans would concentrate on one or another height held by the Red Army and literally attempt to cover it with bomb craters.

However, he pointed out, bomb craters make pretty good cover for troops undergoing concentrated aerial attack. So in addition to giving the Red Army a pretty bad time, the Germans also compensated by giving the Russian soldiers a certain amount of cover and protection.

At any rate, the Soviet troops still hold that height.
The Fighting Continues
May 28, 1943

Bill Downs

CBS Moscow

May 28, 1943

Active fighting has resumed in the Kuban. With characteristic reticence, the Soviet high command is not saying much about it. We don't even know for sure whether it is the Red Army or Hitler's forces on the attack. Neither last night's nor this morning's communiqué have given us any details of the battle.

Resumption of the Kuban fighting means that the opposing forces have caught their breath, and that the period of reinforcement and resupply that caused the lull on this front has now ended.

In a sense, this battle for the Kuban bridgehead is almost entirely one of supply. And on this front, Hitler has the more difficult position. He must keep his Kuban troops armed and fed by hosts and planes.

The past several days we have heard about the sinking of troops, transports, and landing barges in the Black Sea. The Russian command has placed a large aerial patrol over Hitler's supply points on the Black Sea coast, as well as the Sea of Azov. Russia's Black Sea Fleet, manned by the kind of seamen who fought in the heroic defense of Sebastopol, are also on patrol. Last night, two more of Hitler's landing barges loaded with troops were sunk. Yesterday Soviet planes sank another landing barge and damaged two transports and two other barges.

All in all, during the past three days the Russian Black Sea Fleet and air force has sunk or damaged eight German supply boats attempting to aid the Germans and Romanians in the Kuban sack. In addition, German planes, including some carrying vital supplies to the front, were shot down into the Black Sea and over the battle line yesterday. This makes a total of 131 German planes destroyed in the past two days.

This morning's newspapers also report that the front west of Rostov is livening up. A front dispatch describes the activity as "furious fighting of local significance" where the Red Army, in improving its positions, "deals sensitive blows to the enemy." However, there is no indication that either side has made a serious attempt to capture the initiative on this front.

We are anxiously waiting over here for the first big blow to be struck. I wish I could tell you how and where and when this blow will come. But anything I would say would be pure guesswork.

For the past two weeks I have talked with every Russian and American and British official that I know, trying to get a hint of what's in the air so that I could pass it along to you.

The only thing that I'm told is to expect some of the heaviest fighting that has yet taken place in Russia this summer. And that's all I know about any possible Russian or German offensive.

Former Ambassador Joseph Davies said yesterday that during his talks with Stalin they discussed the military situation. He said he detected a note of confidence, adding that it was not "overconfidence."

I'm afraid that I won't be of much help to anyone who wants to do a little dinner table staff work or work out some subway strategy. We'll simply have to wait and see.