September 11, 2022

1943. Soviet Summer Offensive Repels German Forces

"Guns, Tanks, and Chopin: A Look at the Russian Front"
Soviet anti-tank riflemen during the Battle of Kursk, July 20, 1943 (Photo by Natalia Bode – source)

From Newsweek, August 23, 1943, p. 28:

Guns, Tanks, and Chopin: A Look at the Russian Front

Bill Downs, Moscow correspondent for Newsweek and CBS, was among the group of reporters taken to the Orel front last week. Since the Russians seldom allow correspondents—or any other foreigners—near the front lines, the following eyewitness account by Downs is one of the first to be published on the present fighting in the Soviet.

Lt. Gen. Peotr Peotrovich Sabennikoff, 6 feet 4 inches tall and only 49 years old, stood in the tent of his field headquarters last Thursday and told us some amazing things about the Russian summer offensive. Suave of manner, with an almost wistful blond mustache, the general was often forced to interrupt his talk by the noise of groups of bombers and fighters speeding to the front, only a ten-minute flight away. Here are the main points he made:

Machines: The Soviet Command prepared the Orel breakthrough with the heaviest artillery and mortar barrage in history. "Compared with 90 guns per kilometer at Verdun," said Sabennikoff, "the Red Army had desyatki more barrels." The word desyatki means "tens." This is the closest Russian word to the English "dozens." It meant that the Russians had concentrated more than 1,900 barrels per kilometer around Orel. Note that the general specified "barrels," not guns—multibarreled weapons permit an exceedingly heavy mobile concentration.

Sabennikoff said the artillery opened up paths of attack 6 to 8 kilometers deep in the German lines, although in some instances the artillery and mortar preparation extended 30 to 40 kilometers from the front. The general declined permission for correspondents to see one of these battlefields. "There are mines all over the place," explained Sabennikoff. "I don't have sappers available yet to clean them up. I wouldn't risk a walk over such battlefields."

Sabennikoff said that American and British tanks were used in this offensive—British Churchills, American Grants. He praised the speed of both tanks but said the Grants were too high and were hit frequently. "Our tank men still like the Russian 34 best," he said. The foreign tanks were mixed in with the Russian tank groups, so there was no opportunity to weigh them as separate tactical units operating independently.

Concerning the defeated German forces, the general knocked down the flood of reports from the front that the Nazi "summer Fritz" or "total Fritz" (inferior type of soldier) was being used in large numbers on this front. He said the German command had concentrated crack troops on the central front for the summer offensive: "I have seen plenty of them. Very few are over 30. Most are well-trained, tough men in their 20s."

However, he said there were indications of cracks in Nazi morale shortly after the Russian offensive began: "We had been watching the Germans for a long time. When they finally struck against Kursk, it was just what we wanted. We began a concentric offensive on July 12. Our attack forced them to dissolve their reserves which were badly placed in relation to our attacks. Then I noticed that men began to surrender. At no time did this happen in great numbers—but the fact that it happened at all is indicative. The Germans I talked to said that the fall of Mussolini had a great effect on them. However, we captured an order telling the German soldier to stay in his trench and resist to the last bullet. Most Nazis are doing that."

Sabennikoff knows what he is talking about. He is a representative of the Supreme Command, and commanded the army group at Orel which first entered the city from the east. He was the first general in the town. Now he is chief of the Orel garrison from which this dispatch is written, only 25 miles from the front lines.

Scorched Earth: We reached the general's headquarters after fourteen hours of a backside-slapping ride from Moscow which gave all the correspondents a spanked-baby feeling and engendered a great personal hatred for the Lend-Lease ¾-ton Dodge trucks officially known as "bucket-seat ammunition carriers." They are sturdy and made the trip without a growl from the gear box, but it was like trying to break in a mustang with a wooden saddle. Sabennikoff's headquarters in the valley of the Oka River are camouflaged in a group of trees. The correspondents slept four to a super-comfortable tent with a Red Army girl as orderly. Ours was a youngster named Dora who had been in the army since 1941.

I have seen scorched earth in other sectors of the Russian battle front, but nowhere is the destruction so complete and so calculated as that now being carried out by the Germans as they are pushed back toward Bryansk. Every village is literally razed to the ground. All brick and stone buildings, whether important or not, are blown up. Wooden houses are burned.

Everywhere were trenches, foxholes, pillboxes, and gun emplacements. Along the main Mtsensk highway there were few signs of fighting. However, you could tell no man's land by the fact that for several kilometers there would be absolutely nothing but field on field of weeds. But up to the Russian lines the fields were cultivated—yellow with ripening wheat, rye, and oats.

Accordion: The most impressive moment of the trip came after midnight one night when I stood on a height above the Oka River. The moon was just rising. To the east in the distance, Orel lay quietly as if resting from its ordeal, but to the west on the horizon there was suggestion of light from the fires of burning Russian villages. A rocket slowly curved skyward in the distance—it seemed to climb barely half an inch into the horizon. Then from the darkness came the roar, the full-throated roar of hundreds of bombers from Soviet airfields somewhere in the rear. They made more noise in the next ten minutes than anything I had ever heard before. It was a steady throbbing that literally shook the ground. The Russians like to bomb from low heights where they can see the target. A sentry with a tommy gun standing nearby looked at me and grinned, stopped a minute, and then walked on.

Down in the men's barracks nearby the roar of the planes was followed by some tuning up on an accordion. Over Orel in the distance there came a big shuddering boom—another delayed-action mine going off. The accordion began playing a Chopin waltz. The sentry came back and grinned again.