December 19, 2019

1944. "The Battle of Nijmegen Bridge" by Bill Downs

The Battle of Nijmegen
"Cromwell tanks of 2nd Welsh Guards crossing the bridge at Nijmegen, 21 September 1944" (source)
This report by Bill Downs from September 24, 1944 was published in the BBC's The Listener magazine on September 28, 1944. As an eyewitness, Downs described the Nijmegen bridge assault as "a single, isolated battle that ranks in magnificence and courage with Guam, Tarawa, Omaha Beach."

From The Listener, September 28, 1944:
The Battle of Nijmegen Bridge

By BILL DOWNS

The story of the battle of Nijmegen bridge should be told to the blowing of bugles and the beating of drums for the men whose bravery made the capture of this crossing over the Waal River possible. You know about the Nijmegen bridge. It's been called the gateway into northern Germany. It stretches half-a-mile over the wide tidal river and its flood land. And without the bridge intact the Allied airborne and ground operation northward through Holland could only be fifty per cent successful.

The Nijmegen bridge was built so it could be blown, and blown quickly. Its huge arching span is constructed in one piece. Only two strong charges of explosives would drop the whole thing into the river. Special cavities for these dynamite charges were built into the brick by the engineers that designed it. The bridge was the biggest single objective of the airborne invasion and its capture intact is a credit to all the American and British fighting men.

American airborne patrols reached the area at the southern end of the bridge on Sunday night, September 17th, shortly after they landed, but at that time they were not in enough strength to do anything about it. On Monday the paratroops and glider forces were too busy beating off the German counter-attacks to co-ordinate an assault on the bridge. By this time the armour of the British Second Army was on its way northwards from the Escaut Canal. Then on Tuesday the British tanks arrived on the outskirts of Nijmegen and an attack was commenced, but still the Germans held on strongly in the fortification and houses on the south end of the bridge. American airborne infantry and British tanks were only 300 yards from the bridge in the streets of Nijmegen, but they couldn't get to it.

Tuesday night was the strangest. The American troops took machine guns to the top of the houses and sprayed the approaches and the entrance to the bridges with bullets. All night they shot at anything that moved. Perhaps it was this constant fire that kept the Germans from blowing the bridge then. But still the shuddering blast that would signal the end of the bridge did not come. And when morning arrived a new plan was devised. It was dangerous and daring and risky. The commanders who laid it out knew this; and the men who were to carry it out knew it too. Thinking a frontal assault on the bridge from the south was impossible, American infantry were to fight their way westwards down the west bank of the Waal River and cross in broad daylight to fight their way back up the river bank, and attack the bridge from the north.

On Wednesday morning the infantry made their way westward through the town and got to the industrial outskirts along the river bank near the mouth of a big canal. Some British tanks went with them to give them protection in the street fighting and to act as artillery when the crossings were to be made. Accompanying this task force were trucks carrying twenty-six assault boats brought along by the British armoured units in case of such an emergency. Most of the men who were there to make the crossing had never handled an assault boat before. There was a lot of argument as to who would handle the paddles and preference was given to the men who had at least rowed a boat. Everything was going well. The Germans were supposed to be completely surprised by the audacity of the move.

But late in the morning the impossible happened. Two men showed themselves on a river bank and were fired at by the enemy. No Americans were supposed to be in that part of the town. The 88 mm. shells began plastering the area. The gaff was blown. Reconnaissance spotted batches of German troops being transferred to the opposite bank. A few hours later, machine guns were dug into the marshes on the far side—the plan had been discovered. The task force was under shell-fire, and several hundred Germans with machine guns were sitting on the opposite bank waiting for the crossing. This was about noon.

There was a quick conference. It was decided that the original plan would proceed, but this time the men crossing the river would have the help of heavy bombers: Lancasters and Stirlings flying in daylight a few miles from the German border to drop their bombs on the opposite bank in tactical support of the men from the assault boats.

Working under enemy shell-fire, the assault boats were assembled. When they were put into the water, another difficulty arose. The tide was moving out with a downstream current of eight miles an hour. Some of the boats drifted 300 yards down river before they were retrieved and brought back. Meanwhile machine guns spluttered on the opposite bank and German artillery kept smashing the embarkation area regularly.

At last everything was ready. The bombers went in but didn't drop their bombs close enough to knock out the machine guns. Twenty-six assault boats were in the water. They would carry ten men each: 260 men would make the first assault. Waiting for them on the other bank were some 400 to 600 Germans. The shelling continued. Every man took a deep breath and climbed in. Someone made a wisecrack about the airborne navy and someone else said they preferred airborne submarines to this job. And off across the river they started. At the same time behind them, the British tanks fired their heavy guns, and our own heavy machine guns fired into the opposite bank giving the little fleet as much cover as possible.

And over on the other side of the river the enemy tracers shrieked at the boats. The fire at first was erratic, but as the boats approached the northern bank the tracers began to spread on to the boats. Men slumped in their seats—other men could be seen shifting a body to take over the paddling. One man rose up in his seat and fell overboard. There was no thought of turning back. The paddling continued clumsily and erratically, but it continued. One of the boats had so many holes in it that the men were baling out with their tin helmets—it was almost splintered when it reached the other side.

The fighting, though, had only just begun. The hundred or so men who had arrived on the opposite side fought their way forward with bayonet and grenade, going from one machine gun nest to the other until they had established a bridgehead only a few yards deep and several hundred feet wide. The thirteen boats had hardly left for the return trip for the reinforcements, when the men on the north bank saw specks in the water. The men on the opposite bank, seeing the casualties suffered in the landing under fire, were not waiting for the boats. Some of them had stripped off their equipment, and taking a bandolier of ammunition, were swimming the river with their rifles on their backs. And thus it went—the thirteen little boats going time after time across the river under fire; the men on the bridgehead digging in and firing as rapidly as possible, routing out the German machine gun nests by hand while British tanks fired for all they were worth. After an hour and a half of concentrated hell, the infantry were over. They held a bridgehead several hundred yards wide and one hundred yards deep. At that time, one officer counted 138 Germans dead in a space of sixty yards of that bloody beachhead.

There was a welcome pause as the men consolidated and rested in their foxholes. Some had thrown the German bodies out of the Nazi machine gun nests and were using these to stiffen their defences. The plan was to turn eastwards and assault the northern end of the bridge. But on the left flank of that minute bridgehead was another menace—for there on the high ground overlooking the bridge and firing at us with some 88 mm. guns, was an ancient fort. It is called Hatz van Holland and was supposed to have been used centuries ago by Charlemagne as a fortress. The Germans had been using the fort as an anti-aircraft gun position to defend Nijmegen, and now they turned the ack-ack guns downward to bear on the bridge and the airborne bridgehead across the Waal. While these guns were firing at the back, the troops could not fight their way to the northern end of the bridge. A detail was formed to attack the Hatz van Holland and put its guns out of action.

That, as warriors centuries ago found out, was extremely difficult because the Hatz van Holland was surrounded by a moat. This moat had a few feet of water in it—black dirty water, covered with a layer of bright green slime. Also, the attacking party would have to advance under point blank 88 mm. fire. But anyhow the party set out. They crawled towards the high ground and the 88s banged away at them. And then they came to a zone where there were no 88 shells. It was found out that the other 88 guns were so installed that the guns could not reach downward that far. The German gun-crews discovered this too late and rushed to put up a rifle and machine gun defence along the moat.

But the Americans by this time had faced so much that a few machine guns were nothing. They made a stand-up attack, shouting like Indians, and, with tommy-guns blazing, knocked out the historic Hatz van Holland. A few Americans with blood in their eyes left seventy-five Germans dead in that moat. The remaining troops fought their way up the river all right. They captured the northern end of the railroad bridge and worked their way to the junction of the railroad highway from the main bridge. The entire German position on the northern side of the river was cut off. There was bitter bayonet fighting and Americans died, but more Germans died. And finally, British tanks made their way across the bridge and it was ours.

British tanks and airborne American infantry had begun their frontal assault on the southern end of the bridge at the same time as the river crossing was started. They had to make their way down streets alive with Germans. And this is how it was done. The tanks went down the streets firing at targets of opportunity, which means any German or German tank or vehicles that appeared. And the Americans went through the houses on either side of the street. Yes, literally through the houses—for instead of going along the outside of the houses and risking cross-fire from the Germans within, the American troops blew holes through the sides of the houses with bazookas. That was how they made their way through the strong defence area built to protect the bridge—blowing a hole with a bazooka into a house, clearing it of Germans and going on.

Meanwhile, the tanks had discovered that sitting on one street corner was a German Tiger tank waiting for them to make their appearance. It was out of sight and protected by the houses, but one of the Sherman tanks mounting a big 17-pounder gun decided to have a shot anyway. It aimed its armour-piercing shell in the general direction of the tank. There was a great boom: the shell plunged through twelve houses and came out with a great crash, taking a large section of the last house with it. The Tiger, seeing this destruction, decided he did not like the neighbourhood so well and retreated.

At the southern end of the bridge were stationed four self-propelled German guns guarding the streets leading to the bridge area. There was nothing to do but rush them. So the tanks lined up four abreast around the corner of the wide main street leading to the bridge and, at a signal, all roared into the street firing their mortars, their heavy guns and even machine guns. The assault was so sudden and heavy that three of the self-propelled guns were knocked out before they could bring fire to bear. The fourth gun ran to safety. Between the two—the American airborne troops and the British tankmen—the south end of the bridge was seized. At first only tanks could get across the bridge because a half-dozen fanatical Germans remained high in the girders of the bridge sniping. These were soon cleaned up. Today the Nijmegen bridge is in our hands intact—a monument to the gallantry of the Americans who crossed the river and the British and airborne troops who stormed it from the south.

December 16, 2019

1944. War Correspondents on the Battle of Arnhem

Eyewitness Accounts of Operation Market Garden
Canadians of the British Second Army during the Battle of Arnhem in September 1944 (source)
From the BBC's The Listener magazine, September 28, 1944:
The Battle for the Rhine Bridges

Despatches broadcast by eye-witnesses

THE ARNHEM BATTLE FROM THE AIR: Through binoculars you could see the ferocity of what was going on down below. Smoke curled up all along both sides of the main avenue of advance, you could see flashes of gunfire everywhere. At one time you could see our guns spitting angrily like alley cats, firing at an incredible speed. Away in the distance in front of us huge clouds of smoke seep lazily up to the sky. Today I was looking at one hour of what our airborne troops have been going through for nearly six days. You felt as though you wanted to swoop down and push our ground troops along the fire-raked corridor but, believe me, the men of the Second Army are not the sort that need any pushing.

Back at our airfield my pilot and I were discussing the battle, and I think he hit the nail on the head when he said, 'When you think of what those airborne types are going through, and are still holding on, you and I are awfully lucky citizens'. Think of those men, encouraged even with a slight increase in the signal of a wireless set, surrounded and pounded on all sides and still they go on. How right he was! These airborne lads in the Arnhem area are in a class by themselves.

Stewart Macpherson, September 22

IN THE 'POCKET' WITH THE AIRBORNE: On this sixth day in this mortar and shell riven pocket the airborne troops are hourly becoming more amazing to me. This morning enemy loud speakers again blared out in clumsy English asking them to surrender. It was a silly thing to do. It made these chaps hopping mad. You should have heard their language. Then the whole area was intensively shelled and mortared for the rest of the morning. Our commander walked around among his men as coolly as though it were their regimental sports day, enquiring and and encouraging. The guts of these airborne chaps is wonderful. . . . The hate has started again. As I write it seems that there is no point of the compass from which we cannot get mortared or shelled or machine-gunned or sniped. One part of the perimeter is held by sergeants—the glider pilots, every one of whom is a sergeant or a staff sergeant. The medical corps are on the job right round the clock. Theirs is a particular sort of courage. Some 943 prisoners have come in today, just Germans who have had enough and are stunned by the cold ferocity of men who don't know what quit means. The artillery of the Second Army has come into range and engaged enemy targets today. It was sheet music. We hope the orchestra swells. We are pretty sure it will.

Stanley Maxted, September 23

GETTING IN SUPPLIES: We knew the boys down there would be hard up for news, so before we set out we collected all the newspapers we could from the mess and dropped 'em for the chaps below. I'd like to say one thing about the glider pilots. We were towing a glider and as we set off the pilot reported he had difficulty in keeping his left wing down. Both he and his second pilot had to hang on to the stick together to keep the craft steady. We asked him if he'd like to be cast off at base. He said no . . . they'd carry on. And they did. . . . Jerry had light flak close up and heavy flak from a good way off. It was not like bombing a large town where you can weave in and out of it. Jerry knew we had to go that place . . . they had it taped. Tuesday was the first night I saw any real anxiety in the mess. The boys who got back went straight to the mess for a drink. Then they were ringing up control tower . . . asking 'Is so-and-so back?' . . . It was the first day we'd any real losses. On Wednesday I saw five kites go down in two minutes. There were others burning on the ground that we hadn't seen go down. Visibility was zero that day. . . As kites were being shot down you'd hear your bomb-aimer say 'There goes "Q Queenie"', and so on. . . .

Pilot-Officer R. W. Passingham, September 23

ALONG THE ROAD TO ARNHEM—JOTTINGS FROM A DIARY:

3 p.m. More reinforcements and supplies coming in by a few hundred more gliders over us. I am going out to a landing zone to watch them arrive, although a pretty sticky fight is going on at one of their zones.

3.30 p.m. It was a highly successful supply mission in that the gliders reached the right zone, but flak took a pretty heavy toll of the tug planes, two of which crashed within 500 yards of us. There is no sense in trying to describe that spectacle—no one would believe you. Two parachutes blossomed out early on. Out of the second glider a body hurtled as the plane screamed earthward, but the parachute apparently was shot up by flak and failed to open.

4 p.m. I decided to move up towards the fighting a mile or so away, but suddenly Jerry brought our woods under heavy artillery fire and I spend the last half-hour in a not nearly deep enough drainage ditch. Shells are still popping in here, within a few dozen yards, but we are going to try to make a run for it in a jeep and get to hell out of here.

4.30 p.m. Our driver really put the jeep through its paces down a path through the woods as shells continued to crack. We couldn't tell exactly where they were hitting.

5 p.m. Decided to go back to Eindhoven and check communications facilities.

6 p.m. We took nearly an hour to make the six miles south to Eindhoven, over the canal ferry and past a solid convoy of British armour and supply trucks. In Eindhoven the tidy city streets were stacked from kerb to buildings with cheering throngs. Flags and pictures of the Queen hung in front of every house.

7 p.m. Found Press headquarters of the Second Army. Just as we are about to turn into the headquarters a lone twin-engined German bomber, flying high, drops flares immediately overhead.

8 p.m. The last hour has been the worst of my life. We tried to get away from the centre of the city, but only managed to get a short way off the main street when the bombers came. We were alongside the city park so we pulled our jeep under the trees when the first of a stick of bombs dropped and crunched right up on us. We stuck there and the rest of the stick walked towards us, until the last burst across the street just 50 feet away. Then a few ammunition trucks began going up in terrific explosions, and there was the high whine of screeching shells.

Walter Cronkite, September 23

MESSAGE FROM ARNHEM: The area in which we are dug in can be best called a garden city, pleasant straight streets with modern houses in their gardens. Now the trees are stripped, the houses smashed, the well-paved roads fitted and littered with equipment, jeeps and improvised German transport, smashed Bren carriers and torn tramlines. Our troops hold position in some of these gardens and houses and I wandered among them during a lull at dusk last night. In the uncanny silence I could hear two paratroops joking and laughing, while a garden wall away a German soldier was asking his companion to fetch some water for cooking. This formation has got its teeth into the German defence position on the northern Rhine and, like the proverbial British bulldog, it won't let go.

Guy Byam, September 24

December 7, 2019

1943. Stories from the Eastern Front

The Stories of Ordinary Soldiers
"Soviet soldiers advance through the streets of Jelgava; summer 1944" (source)
Below are some of the stories told by Bill Downs during his time reporting from Moscow in 1943. They include accounts from Stalingrad and Kharkov. Parentheses indicate text that did not pass Soviet censors for military security or propaganda reasons.

(For more, see the complete 1943 Moscow reports. The New York Times also published a story in 1945 entitled "First-Hand Report on the German Soldier").

Red Army and Nazi Soldiers Trade Insults
Bill Downs

CBS Moscow

February 9, 1943


The war that is being fought in Russia tonight (while being the most terrible and devastating conflict in military history) is in many ways like any other war. The viewpoint of the ordinary Russian private towards the fighting around Kursk and Kharkov and Rostov tonight is much the same as any American soldier.

The soldiers with whom I spoke in Stalingrad (last Sunday had the soldier's avid interest in food, in women, in getting leave, and seeing his side win, as any buck private in the rear ranks of the United States Army. The Russian private doesn't) don't like the idea of dying any more or less than any other soldier—and consequently they don't talk too much about it. (You talk to them about their battle experiences, and like all good soldiers they don't say a word about their own exploits.) To hear them talk, the tremendous Battle of Stalingrad is merely a collection of little incidents which finally ended up in a German defeat.

For example, one of the crack non-commissioned officers in a Red Army guard's regiment (a tough youngster whose friends said he had killed at least three Nazis in a hand-to-hand encounter,) would only talk about the way German soldiers admired the Red Army's fur caps. (This soldier was fighting in a factory building in the Red October plant that formed the Russian line in this part of Stalingrad. The German trenches were in front of another building only twelve yards away. I stood atop these German positions and you could throw a stone between two lines.)

At one point in the Stalingrad line, the German and Russian soldiers used to amuse themselves by shouting insults back and forth to each other. My Russian friend said that one German soldier shouted across the lines and offered to exchange his automatic rifle for a Red Army fur cap.

I asked the Russian soldier what his answer was.

"Oh, I answered all right," he said. "I told them to bring along a tank and I would bargain with them."

Then there was the time near the end of the Stalingrad fighting when the Germans were very, very hungry. Only a month before, the Germans had been razzing the Soviet forces, saying the end of the Red Army was in sight. Now the situation was reversed and the Russian soldiers devised their own fun. To show starving German troops how well Soviet kitchens were working, they put whole loaves of bread on the ends of their bayonets and stuck them above the trenches. The German answer was to riddle those loaves of bread with Tommy gun bullets.

These are the stories which will mark themselves in the minds of ordinary soldiers.

Cartoon Hitler
Bill Downs

CBS Moscow

April 10, 1943


Certain Red Army units have started their own spring offensives in a war of nerves that has had some pretty ridiculous results.

Here's what happened a few weeks ago on one sector of the front. The Red Army unit dug into this sector has been fighting the Germans for a long time. They were fairly familiar with a crack German regiment opposite them. It was a regiment of the Waffen-SS, Hitler's personal troops.

One night a group of soldiers went out on a strategic clearing that formed the no-man's-land between the two trenches and put up two poles. Between these two poles they stretched a canvas cartoon of Hitler—it was not complimentary to the Führer. Under the cartoon was written in German in large letters: "Shoot at me." Then the unit waited until morning to see what would happen.

When the sun rose, they could hear loud discussions in the German trenches. Staff officers came to the trenches and had a look at the insulting cartoon through binoculars. But the Germans refused to obey the instructions to shoot at their own leader.

Before noon they opened an offensive to capture the cartoon. A detail of German soldiers was ordered to take the canvas down. This detail almost reached the cartoon of Hitler before they were wiped out. Another detail was sent. It too failed to get the cartoon. And then in the evening, German artillery all along the sector opened up on the Führer. All the German guns were concentrated on the spot. It took a fifteen minute concentrated barrage before the cartoon was blasted out of existence—which is one way of killing a dictator.

Right now the grandstand military experts are having a field day. (You can get a military plan of attack from a score of armchair generals at the drop of a hat.)

(There are plans for a Red Army offensive—there are people who say Hitler is going to do this and that—there are others who say Hitler is going to start mass bombing again.)

And any time you want, you can find Russians who will argue that there is not going to be a second front this year and why. Other Russians will argue just as violently that there will be a second front. It's a favorite way of passing the time here.

But the feeling of the ordinary soldier is best expressed in a story from the front that I heard the other day. The Red Army men are getting a lot of American canned meat, and they like it. However, they don't call it canned meat. When they get hungry, they say: "Come on Ivan, let's open up a can of that Second Front."

Celebrating with Soviet Soldiers
Bill Downs

CBS Moscow

Early January 1943


...Most Soviet factories I have seen seem to have the same high walls. On a plane, I met a Russian-speaking man from a tourist agency and asked him, "How do you tell prison from factory in this country?"

He replied in broken English, "People inside factories are willing to fight for them. Ask the Germans in Stalingrad."...

We landed at Kuybyshev in a blizzard, where I was forced to get along on my own speaking Russian. I walked into the airport waiting room and saw Russian soldiers sitting around while a chess game progressed in one corner. Someone brought me a cup of tea—I had no Russian money and don't know who paid for it. The atmosphere about this place had the same sort of isolated comradeship you find in old-time village grocery stores. All it needed was a cracker-barrel and a potbellied stove.

Finally an army captain approached me without smiling and asked, "Sprechen sie Deutsch?" I didn't know whether to say yes or no, since I am able to speak a sort of pidgin German from my college days. I looked around the room, which had sort of frozen up when it heard German, and I was the only foreigner around. I decided to chance it and replied, "Ja, aber ich bin Amerikanischer korrespondent."

The room roared in laughter and I was immediately offered a flask. I was expecting vodka, which I already knew all about. I prepared to show what healthy drinking men Americans were and took a big mouthful. As a result I about blew the top of my head off; the captain had given me a flask full of raw 190 proof alcohol that tasted as if it had recently come from an automobile radiator. Again the room roared in laughter. Soldiers came up and we shook hands.

With the aid of my Russian dictionary, I discovered that most of the men just came from Stalingrad. They said that American and British tanks fought in that battle. I asked the Russians how they liked the American tanks, a question answered amid exclamations of "khorosho, khorosho" which, according to my dictionary, means damn good. Then the Russian captain took the dictionary from me and began looking up words after repeating a sentence which I couldn't understand. The first word he pointed out translated to "we." Turning pages, the captain pointed out another word: "want." Ruffling the pages some more, he pointed out another Russian word which meant "more." I grinned and told him I understood the rest. The Russians in the room smiled very seriously and said "da, da, da, khorosho."

For sleeping arrangements I volunteered to sleep on the floor like everyone else because the blizzard made it impossible to get into the city. However, the captain insisted I go to the airport hotel, which is kept mostly by Soviet airmen. Offering me the best bed in the house, I found it a bare room with six other beds jammed in.

The captain stuck around, much to my relief, and took me to a dance with young Red Army pilots. The pilots were dancing with girls ranging from young to old to a cracked recording of Tommy Dorsey's "Marie." It is evidently the favorite of this post, because it was played over and over. I picked out the best looking gal in the house and found out she danced better than most English girls in London as well as the average girl in the United States. I paid her a lot of compliments which she didn't understand, but I didn't have the chance to get anywhere because a large, tough boy, wearing the medal of the Hero of the Soviet Union which he got at Kalinin, took her back like the Red Army takes inhabited points.

I was kept awake in my crowded hotel room, partly by snores and partly by the same feeling I had been here before. These people were trotting out their best for me, exceedingly interested in news of the outside world.

I continued on to Gorky in an extremely cold Russian troop carrier—another Douglas—which was jammed with officers going to Moscow and various types of cargo, including huge bales of wool for uniforms. This Douglas had about twenty patches on her. The plane had seen action, but the pilot wouldn't tell me where.

In Gorky I added another word to my vocabulary. I billeted with the Douglas crew, all youngsters. We got into a dictionary conversation about American planes; the first mention of them drew exclamations of "ochen khorosho." It was funny to hear airmen talk in authoritative Russian tones about Lockheed Electras, Airacobras, and Bostons, and discuss the merits and faults of tricycle landing gear. They knew more about them than I did.

I got my first glimpse of what it means when people in Russia say "everything for the Red Army." These airmen had clean, neat rooms and soft beds, and they ate in a separate room where such rarities as butter were served. They looked healthy and tough, about the same as our own airmen. Their equipment was tremendous, with good heavy clothing and fancy gloves. They wore great oversized boots lined both inside and out with fur. One rear gunner was very proud of his because they were made from the hide of a dog he used to own.

The Capture of Field Marshal Paulus
Bill Downs

CBS Moscow

February 9, 1943


...(The common characteristic of these troops is the spirit of youth which runs from the highest general to the lowest private.)

Typical of the daring, devil-may-care spirit of these new Red Army forces was the almost comic capture of Field Marshal Von Paulus. Von Paulus, the only German field marshal ever to be made a prisoner of war, was taken after initial negotiations conducted by a 21-year-old Red Army first lieutenant. He is Fyodor Yelchenko, a Ukrainian kid with a grin a mile wide.

I talked with Senior Lieutenant Yelchenko in the narrow, bare room where Von Paulus had his headquarters in the basement of Stalingrad's biggest department store. Only the basement of this big five-story building was intact.

Yelchenko was leading a group of fifteen Tommy gunners (which were part of a force which surrounded) against the German Sixth Army headquarters. The lieutenant (who grinned all the time as he told the story) said that, after the initial artillery barrage on the headquarters, a delegation of German soldiers carrying a white flag approached his group.

"They said they wanted to talk with a Russian big chief who would talk with me," the lieutenant said. "I was the officer in command so I went along. Since Germans are still Germans, I took along two men. The guards led me (through the minefields protecting the building, and I went) into the basement. There, Major General Roske and Lieutenant General Schmidt stood at the table. Von Paulus was lying on a narrow iron bed in another room. They asked what were our terms, and told them they were complete surrender as outlined by our command several days earlier. Schmidt kept running back and forth to Von Paulus as we talked.

"Then they asked if I wanted to see Field Marshal Paulus and ask him any questions. We had settled all the questions, but I had a look at him anyway. He was lying on his bed looking very sad, and he needed a shave, but he wore all his decorations."

Fyodor Yelchenko, a farm boy from Ukraine, is typical of the "Soviet men of decision" who are pledged to clear Russia of fascists.
Sergeant M. Katasonov, a front-line scout in the 372nd Rifle Division, in 1944 (source)
Red Army Scouts
Bill Downs

CBS Moscow

April 28, 1943

The military spring training on the Russian front seems to be just about over. Nothing of importance happened along the 1,200 mile front last night. There was the usual artillery barrages—Soviet aircraft made their regular trips to railroad junctions and supply points behind the German lines; snipers on a half-dozen sectors put a few more notches in their guns; and scouts succeeded in slipping through the Axis lines on their hell-raising missions in the enemy rear.

During this spring lull we've heard a lot about the achievements of these Russian scouts. They are the modern Russian counterparts of "Buffalo Bill" Cody and Kit Carson and others who formed the vanguard in America's winning of the west. Except the work of a modern scout in the Soviet Union is a lot more complicated.

For example, take the Red Army scout Yakov Chekarkov, a 30-year-old bachelor who used to be a storekeeper at a tractor station in one of Russia's big collective farms.

Chekarkov knows his stuff. His job is to creep as close to the German lines as possible and find out just what the Nazis are up to. There are thousands of these men who creep out every day and night to gather information. Sometimes they go deep behind the German lines, and sometimes groups of them do commando raids.

Chekarkov has introduced his own methods. For example, he watched the Germans lay a minefield on the approaches to a forest. At night he took his own mines and mined the passages which the Germans left through the field. You can imagine what happened when the Germans attacked. This scout also has become an expert on German uniforms. He spotted tank reinforcements in one sector because he noticed the pink tabs on the collars of some of the men who were designated tank troops.

This winter he sat for days in the frozen carcass of a dead horse just in front of the German lines. Another time he found a hollow stump almost inside the German fortifications. He established his position by burrowing under the snow and cutting his way inside the stump from the bottom.

It takes a lot of courage to be a scout in Russia, and Yakov Chekarkov is a brave man. However, he has one great fear: catching cold. He was scared to death by a cold last fall. He was behind the German lines when he sneezed. He had to run for his life. Now he never does any scouting without a heavy wool shawl wrapped around him like an old woman.

Ukrainian Resistance Terrorizes Nazis
Bill Downs

CBS Moscow

June 17, 1943


Today we have the story of a Ukrainian Robin Hood who is now giving the occupation authorities more trouble than any guerrilla leader that has yet appeared in Russia.

He is called "Bogdan the Elusive"—and he heads one of the biggest partisan armies in Russia. His record of train wreckings, executions of German burgomeisters, and picking off of isolated Romanian and German garrisons is still being added up. But his reputation is known throughout the Ukraine—more by the Germans than by the Russians.

German punitive expeditions have tried time and again to capture him. But when Bogdan is reported in one town, the police troops will arrive only to find the German mayor of the town hanging from the nearest beach tree, and a note saying "I'll be back" signed "Bogdan."

Early this year his partisan band even made an attack on the outskirts of Kiev in western Ukraine. It was just a sortie, and nothing came of it except a lot of Germans were killed. But his spies infiltrated into the city and brought back reports of how the Germans were running gambling halls and vice establishments all over Russia's most beautiful city—and it made Bogdan mad. So he decided to conduct the sortie. Life in Kiev was a lot more sober for several weeks afterward.

(German occupation authorities who hear that "Bogdan the Elusive" is operating in their district have sent emissaries out looking for him to offer safe passage through their provinces—if only he won't make trouble in their district.)

Once, the Germans thought they had Bogdan. They carefully threw a cordon around his camp. When they finally closed in on the camp they found warm campfires, empty tin cans—and a goat. Around the neck of the goat was a note saying "A hurried good-bye—but I'll be back." Since that time several other goats have been found wandering the Ukrainian steppe-land—all with notes from Bogdan around their necks. Now the goat has become a sign of bad luck among the Germans—they hate the very sight of the animal.

Schoolchildren Ask About a Second Front
Bill Downs

CBS Moscow

February 20, 1943

One of the biggest surprises I've had here in Russia was my experience yesterday with a history class of 14-year-old boys at a Moscow public school.

I was having a look around the school and wandered into the classroom (in time to hear a lecture on Iran. It was the sort of class discussion that you could get in any school in America.)

The teacher asked me if I wanted to ask the boys any questions. Well, I knew that sooner or later these kids would want to know when America was going to start a second front. Russian people always do. (If I've been asked that question once over here, I've been asked it a million times.)

So I decided I would beat them to the draw. I asked the class just how and where they thought a second front should be started.

Those kids (put up their hands to express their own pet theories) had as many theories (—well you might have thought it) as the combined general staff (meeting) in Washington. The reaction was terrific.

One black-haired youngster (who seemed to be a spokesman for the majority opinion) walked to the map on the wall and outlined a campaign through Italy. (It involved taking Sicily and Sardinia followed by a combined assault on Italy itself from these islands and from the northern coast of Africa.)

However, there was opposition to this plan. A tow-headed kid named Tolya took over the discussion. His argument that there was nothing particularly wrong with the Italian invasion plan except the supply question. He advocated the classic move through France. (The second front supply question would be alleviated through England and direct supply communications with America.)

(There was considerable agreement to this reasoning).

And then up stepped the boy who obviously was a grade-A student. He wore thick glasses and his ears that morning seemed to have escaped his mother's inspection. But he was a leading figure in that history class. You could tell by the way the other boys shut up when he talked. His named was Felix.

Felix was all for an advance through the Balkans. He explained that (the position of Turkey had been stabilized and said that) the Balkans were definitely Hitler's back door. There would be, according to Felix, much help from the Balkan population. And after this landing, the invading troops could join up with the Red Army and clean up Europe from the East.

After that, I thought the discussion was ended and that I was going to escape without getting asked any questions. However it came anyway. "When is the second front going to start?"

I told the history class I didn't know—but I promised I would pass along their second front strategy to the United States. So there you are—the report on military tactics from the seventh grade history class of Public School Number 175 in Moscow.

Alyosha and His Pig
Bill Downs

CBS Moscow

April 1, 1943 (censored report)

It seems that at one of the liberated villages west of Rzhev there was a little boy named Alyosha...

Alyosha was raising a pet pig named Khrushka when the Germans came to the village. He loved his friend Khrushka and was very much afraid when the Germans started collecting all of the other pigs and cows and chickens in the village to send back to Germany.

When the Germans came to his house to get Khrushka, the boy hid the pig behind the big peasant's stove (that was heating the small house. He told the Germans that Khrushka had run away.)

The Germans finally went away. When Alyosha went to get Khrushka, he found that the pig was dead. You see, peasant stoves are very hot during the Russian winter and Khrushka had suffocated.

Alyosha was very sad and wanted to give his friend Khrushka a fitting burial. (However, he was afraid that the Germans might kill him if they found him with the body of Khrushka after he had lied to them.) So Alyosha got another boy in his village and dug a grave by the side of the road. At night, they carried Khrushka to the grave and carefully buried the pig.

However, both of the boys knew that Germans are very careful about freshly turned earth—they are always looking for hidden parachutes or arms or valuables when they see that something has been buried.

So Alyosha made a rough cross and got a German helmet. On the cross he carefully copied the first German name he could remember. It was Schmidt—or Schwartz—something like that. Alyosha put the cross at the head of his pet pig's grave and placed the German helmet on top of the cross. It looked just like a score of other German roadside graves that dotted the area.

Then the German headquarters moved to the village. The German general stopped to examine the grave and gasped when he read the name. It was the same name as the general's son, who was missing on the front.

The general immediately called his officers and demanded that his son be buried with more honor. He ordered the body be disinterred.

This story ends with the sweating officers digging out the grave, with the German general standing bravely aside, waiting to view the last remains of his son. No one stayed long enough to see what happened when the general discovered that his "son" was the prize pig Khrushka.

Nazi Booby Traps
Bill Downs

CBS Moscow

April 2, 1943


Right now, the big events in Russia are occurring behind, and not at, the front.

The Red Army the other day turned up something new in booby traps. They entered one recaptured village and found that every house had been mined. Sappers cleared all of the houses but one. (The local inhabitants told the Russian soldiers that, before they left, the Germans spent a lot of time in this particular house.)

(The area was cleared and) a Red Army lieutenant (started looking for the mine. He) sounded the walls, the floor, and even the ceiling of the house. Still he could not locate the hidden explosives.

He was just about to give up when he heard cats meowing in the stove. He opened up the door and one cat jumped out. The second cat just started to leave the stove when the lieutenant pushed it back inside.

On investigation, he found that the second cat had a string attached to one of its rear paws. The other end of the string was attached to the fuse in 25 pounds of high explosive.

It was another of those cute Nazi ideas that didn't work.
A German soldier rides a motorcycle in the snow on the Eastern Front, wearing a gas mask to protect from the extreme cold. February 18, 1942 (source)
Scorched Earth Retreat
Bill Downs

CBS Moscow

March 28, 1943


The Red Army railroad battalion has achieved something of an engineering miracle. In a little over two weeks they have succeeded in opening the vital Moscow-to-Velikiye Luki trunk railroad. The first military train moved over this railroad yesterday.

The repair of this stretch of 280 miles of railroad was one of the most difficult assignments any engineering corps has ever had. The railroad has been the center of a battlefield since the early days of the German invasion. It has been bombed by both German and Russian planes. Soviet partisans have blown it sky high at a hundred places during the period when the Germans held the line.

And when the Germans were chased from the area, they did one of their most complete jobs of earth scorching along the Velikiye Luki-Moscow railroad. Every bridge was blown up. Switches and sidings were destroyed. In some places the Germans even burned the forest around some vital bridges so that the Russian engineers would have no material with which to reconstruct them.

But even before Velikiye Luki was taken, the Red Army railroad corps went to work. They found that, in addition to widening the gauge of the railroad tracks, they would have to virtually reset every rail.

You see, the Germans not only destroyed all switches, they also sent men along the lines with heavy sledgehammers who every fifty feet or so just knocked a piece of rail out. I have seen this type of destruction in every place where the German Army passed.

Consequently, the railroad corps had to saw and chisel these broken rail ends so that they could be joined together. At first, the repair gangs could only repair fifty of these rails a day. Before the job was finished, they were repairing 250 a day. Each gang—and there were four big corps working on the railroad—succeeded in relaying something like four to six miles of railroad a day. When a job was particularly difficult, the civilians in the neighborhood were called in to give a hand.

You probably couldn't run an American streamliner at a speed of a hundred miles an hour over the reconstructed Velikiye Luki-Moscow railroad line today. But you can job along at twenty to thirty miles an hour with heavy freight and munitions and arms. And that's what's happening today as the Soviet command reinforces its Velikiye Luki garrison—the garrison which is closer to the borders of the Soviet Union than any other group pushed to the east by the Nazi invaders.

The Czechoslovak Last Stand
Bill Downs

CBS Moscow

April 8, 1943


The first independently led and organized units of the Czechoslovak army to fight the Germans in this war went into action the other day somewhere on the Russian front.

The men of this army, refugees from their homeland, lived up to every standard of courage and honor that has made Czechoslovakia one of the proudest of Europe's small nations. The story is worth reporting.

The Czech army in Russia is led by Colonel Ludvik Svoboda, a 48-year-old veteran who fought against the Germans in Russia during the last war. (He has been fretting for action since the Germans marched into his country. Meanwhile, as his refugee army was trained, they spent part of their time helping Russian peasant harvest their crops. When the Czech soldiers left the district for the front, the Russian villagers gave them a banner all their own.)

At the first of April, the Czechs were thrown into the front line—probably somewhere on the Donets front. Their sector was of big importance. The Germans launched a counterattack. It was a big show, and sixty tanks appeared on one narrow sector opposite the dug-in Czech troops.

A young lieutenant named Yarosh was in command on this sector. His field telephone rang, and Colonel Svoboda said the unit would have to hold out alone. There were no reinforcements to help the lieutenant stop the sixty tanks. The colonel's orders were "It is impossible to retreat."

The unit was equipped with the new Russian antitank rifles. They knocked out tank after tank, but they still came on. (Some of the tanks were equipped with flamethrowers, and many of the Czechs were burned to death. However, the fight continued all day and into the night. About twenty tanks broke through to a village, where they were engaged by artillery.)

Approaching the Czechs behind the tanks came the German infantry with Tommy guns. While the Czech machine gunners kept the German infantry on the ground, other Czech soldiers continued the battle against the tanks with incendiary bottles.

But during the battle Lieutenant Yarosh was killed. He was crushed under a German tank thinking he might be able to stop it at the last moment.

That's the first story of the Czech army in Russia. The official communiqué commemorating the event read: "The men of the Czech unit (during the whole day and night) self-sacrificingly waged fights against the enemy and repelled all attacks. As a result of this fighting, nineteen German tanks were disabled and burned, and four hundred German Tommy gunners annihilated."

The Wehrmacht's Lice Epidemic
Bill Downs

CBS Moscow

June 27, 1943


The German troops in Russia form the lousiest army in the world. I mean that literally. The one thing about them that really shocks the Russian fighting man is the number of lice on the average captured German soldier.

This condition was particularly bad during the Russian winter. One of the big differences between the Red Army and Hitler's Wehrmacht is that the Russian soldier knows how to keep clean and still protect himself from the cold. The ordinary German soldier is so busy keeping from (getting killed here in the Soviet Union) dying that he doesn't bother too much about personal hygiene. Consequently, he gets lousy.

(The Red Army man, on the other hand, gets up in the morning and washes with snow, even at forty below zero. Believe me, I've seen it at Stalingrad and Rzhev.)

The German command is trying to combat the louse that infests the invincible, Aryan Nazi soldier. They are using all kinds of propaganda. Soap is scarce in the German army, and propaganda has not been a very good substitute. (Bulletins that I have seen in captured German dugouts warn against the louse as a major enemy. It seems that the lice in Russia are definitely non-Aryan.)

One German headquarters tried to raise hygiene standards by ridiculing particularly lousy units. This headquarters issued a special cross to an unclean squadron. It was a big wooden affair in the shape of an iron cross, but instead of a swastika in the center there is a very life-like louse with legs akimbo. This cross was found over one German dugout on the Moscow front. (The Russian command had some trouble getting a Red Army man to inspect this dugout.)

But seriously, the (Russian) louse has turned out to be a very valuable ally to the United Nations. The German troops have run on to typhus in this country, and it has been a problem for the Nazi medical corps. And a soldier can't keep his mind on fighting if he's busy scratching.

Babi Yar
Bill Downs

Newsweek (full article)

December 6, 1943


...Thousands of men, women, and children marched out to Lukyanovka, thinking they probably would be evacuated. Instead, Nazi SS troops led them to Babii Yar.

At the wide shallow ravine, their valuables and part of their clothing were removed and heaped into a big pile. Then groups of these people were led into a neighboring deep ravine where they were machine-gunned. When bodies covered the ground in more or less of a layer, SS men scraped sand down from the ravine walls to cover them. Then the shooting would continue. The Nazis, we were told, worked three days doing the job. However, even more incredible were the actions taken by the Nazis between Aug. 19 and Sept. 28 last. Vilkis said that in the middle of August the SS mobilized a party of 100 Russian war prisoners, who were taken to the ravines.

On Aug. 19 these men were ordered to disinter all the bodies in the ravine. The Germans meanwhile took a party to a nearby Jewish cemetery whence marble headstones were brought to Babii Yar to form the foundation of a huge funeral pyre. Atop the stones were piled a layer of wood and then a layer of bodies, and so on until the pyre was as high as a two-story house.

Vilkis said that approximately 1,500 bodies were burned in each operation of the furnace and each funeral pyre took two nights and one day to burn completely.

The cremation went on for 40 days, and then the prisoners, who by this time included 341 men, were ordered to build another furnace. Since this was the last furnace and there were no more bodies, the prisoners decided it was for them. They made a break but only a dozen out of more than 200 survived the bullets of the Nazi Tommy guns.